News networks use retired military brass as war analysts without disclosing their defense-industry ties
By PAUL FARHI | The Washington Post | Published: January 13, 2020
During eight appearances on Fox News and Fox Business Network in early January, Jack Keane was introduced several ways: as “a retired four-star general,” as the former “vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army,” and as Fox News’ “senior strategic analyst.”
All of those are accurate descriptions. Keane is a distinguished veteran, having commanded American troops in such places as Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. Fox employs him to provide analysis of national security and military operations, such as the unfolding hostilities between the U.S. and Iran.
But another part of Keane’s résumé wasn’t mentioned: The former general is also executive chairman of AM General, a leading defense contractor, best known as the manufacturer of the Humvee and other tactical military vehicles. He is also a partner at a venture-capital firm that specializes in the defense industry.
In other words, viewers never learned that Keane has a direct financial interest in the war policies he was assessing on the air.
Fox News’ nondisclosure of Keane’s role in the military-industrial complex is standard operating procedure for network news programs. Many of the retired military leaders employed by the networks as paid contributors have secondary affiliations that are rarely, if ever, mentioned, leaving viewers in the dark about whose interest they’re promoting.
Like Fox News, none of leading networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and MSNBC — makes a regular practice of announcing its military analysts’ financial ties to the Pentagon, connections that could color their on-air comments.
NBC News and MSNBC, for example, often turn to retired Admiral James Stavridis, the networks’ “chief international security analyst,” for commentary. But neither NBC nor MSNBC has mentioned that Stavridis, NATO’s former supreme allied commander, currently works for the Carlyle Group and McLarty Associates. Stavridis advises Carlyle on its multibillion-dollar portfolio of defense companies; he is chairman of the board of counselors at McLarty, which advises military contractors, among others.
CBS’s own in-house military expert, retired Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr., is a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is also on the board of Raytheon, a major defense contractor, a fact that hasn’t come up during Winnefeld’s recent appearances on the network.
News organizations typically prohibit their employees and contributors from working for other entities that might profit, even indirectly, from the employees’ analysis or reporting. Others permit such affiliations but disclose them to readers or viewers.
The underlying principle is transparency. Disclosures help readers and viewers understand a commentator’s personal stake and possible motivations.
“While former officials employed by defense contractors are indeed experts and have useful insight, they also have financial interests that are reason for concern when those interests align with a certain course of action,” said Daniel Auble, a senior researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based organization that tracks lobbying and money in politics. “Failing to make that clear to the viewers just amplifies those concerns.”
Spokespeople for ABC News, Fox, NBC News and MSNBC declined to comment on their contributors, but as a general matter, the networks said they do background checks on their analysts and require them to list any possible financial conflicts. The network representatives declined to explain what they deemed to be a conflict or to detail their on-air disclosure policies.
A CBS News spokeswoman, Brooke Lorenz, said in a statement, “We always consider the background and affiliations of contributors when making booking decisions to avoid any potential conflict of interest. At times, there may be a need for an on-air disclosure either in writing or verbally or other opportunities within a discussion to provide more context if appropriate.”
She declined to offer examples of on-air disclosures.
Former military officials played a key role in promoting the Bush administration’s policies before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. As documented in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the New York Times in 2008, the Pentagon orchestrated the commentary of 75 former officers who served as radio and TV analysts, turning them into “message force-multipliers” for the administration’s point of view.
Many of the retired officers who appeared on TV worked for companies that counted on military contracts, creating a built-in quid pro quo that news organizations didn’t mention when introducing the analysts. Some of the analysts said they were dubious about the Pentagon’s war claims but didn’t express their reservations on the air because they were concerned doing so could jeopardize future contracts for their companies.
Among others, James “Spider” Marks, a retired Army general, served as an analyst for CNN between 2004 to 2007, at the same time he sought military and intelligence contracts for a company, McNeil Technologies (CNN said at the time that it didn’t know the nature of Marks’ work for the company).
Marks, who has resumed his role as a CNN military analyst, is no longer affiliated with McNeil. Instead, he is a venture partner and adviser to a company that invests in veteran-led companies, including military contractors. CNN didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Several other CNN analysts and frequent guests also have defense-industry connections that haven’t been mentioned on the air.
Among others, CNN political contributor David Urban is president of American Continental Group, a Washington lobbying firm whose clients include General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Textron, which are among the largest defense firms in the world. CNN typically introduces Urban as an adviser to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign without mentioning his lobbying activities.
Regular guests also include former administration officials with close ties to the defense industry, such as former Homeland Security secretaries Michael Chertoff and Jeh Johnson. Chertoff is chairman of the board of BAE Systems, the U.S. subsidiary of the British-based defense giant; Johnson is on the board of Lockheed Martin.
Another frequent guest is Stephen Hadley, the former national security adviser to President George W. Bush. In an appearance by Hadley last week to discuss Iran, CNN identified Hadley’s role in the Bush administration but didn’t mention that he’s been a board member of Raytheon, the maker of Tomahawk and Sidewinder missiles, for the past decade.
(Hadley’s Raytheon connection also wasn’t disclosed in a Washington Post op-ed last week, drawing some criticism. In response, Post editorial editor Fred Hiatt said, “More disclosure is usually better than less, and maybe we got this one wrong. But given that his column was so clearly antiwar and pro-diplomacy, I think much of the criticism is off-base.”)
The larger issue is whether viewers — or readers — are adequately informed about where pundits are coming from on matters of life and death, said Mandy Smithberger, director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
“When there is so much public concern about these wars, including among veterans, it becomes that much more important for people to know what the financial connections are,” she said. News organizations “should absolutely disclose this. It could change the conversation around war” if people were aware of who was profiting from it.