A pair of powerful legislators want to know whether news networks bear any culpability related to a Department of Defense program to recruit ex-military officers to talk up Iraq and other policies on TV, online and elsewhere.
Following a story in the New York Times about the program, House Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) have asked FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to investigate whether the program may have violated requirements of sponsorship identification.
“While we deem the DoD’s policy unethical and perhaps illegal, we also question whether the analysts and the networks are potentially equally culpable pursuant to the sponsorship identification requirements in the Communications Act of 1934 and the rules of the Federal Communications Commission,” the pair wrote Martin.
“When seemingly objective television commentators are in fact highly motivated to promote the agenda of a government agency, a gross violation of the public trust occurs," they said. "The American people should never be subject to a covert propaganda campaign but rather should be clearly notified of who is sponsoring what they are watching."
The analysts also have ties to lobbying groups that are not disclosed to viewers, the Times story said.
Dingell and DeLauro called for an immediate investigation.
At least one FCC commissioner, Democrat Michael Copps, supports the move.
"Forty-seven years ago, President Eisenhower warned against the excesses of a military-industrial complex," he said late Tuesday in a statement. "I’d like to think that hasn’t morphed into a military-industrial-media complex, but reports of spinning the news through a program of favored insiders don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Chairman Dingell and Chairwoman DeLauro are right to seek inquiries as to what went on and whether any violations may have occurred."
The Dingell/DeLauro letter is reprinted below:
The Honorable Kevin J. Martin
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street , SW
Washington , DC 20554
Dear Chairman Martin: We write to express our deep concern with regard to a troubling story recently reported in the New York Times detailing an extensive program within the Department of Defense (DoD) to recruit ex-military officers to support the administration’s position on the war in Iraq, conditions at Guantánamo Bay and other activities associated with efforts to combat terrorism under the guise of objective analysis on major television news programs and 24-hour cable news networks. Many of these military analysts were simultaneously representing more than 150 companies competing for billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts. While we deem the DoD’s policy unethical and perhaps illegal, we also question whether the analysts and the networks are potentially equally culpable pursuant to the sponsorship identification requirements in the Communications Act of 1934 (the Act) and the rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
As you may know, the program, which began in early 2002, ultimately included more than 75 retired military analysts who echoed administration talking points on television, radio, printed publications and websites. According to the Times, internal DoD documents describe these “military analysts as ‘message force multipliers’ or ‘surrogates’ who could be counted on to deliver administration ‘themes and messages’ to millions of Americans ‘in the form of their own opinions.’” As a result of the program, analysts, many of whom represented military contractors or ran their own military consulting or contracting firms, were granted special access to the senior civilian and military leaders directly involved in determining how war funding should be spent. According to the report, analysts that were critical of the administration’s policy could “lose all access,” creating an environment in which these analysts felt compelled, and at times eager, to convey specific Defense Department talking points to the American public, even when they did not necessarily agree with them. It could appear that some of these analysts were indirectly paid for fostering the Pentagon’s views on these critical issues.
Our chief concern is that as a result of the analysts’ participation in this DoD program, which included the DoD’s paying for their commercial airfare on DoD-sponsored trips to Iraq, the analysts and the networks that hired them could have run afoul of certain laws or regulations, among them the sponsorship identification requirements in the Act and the FCC’s rules. For example, we are concerned that the military analysts may have violated Section 507 of the Act, 47 U.S.C. § 507, which, among other things, prohibits those involved with preparing program matter intended for broadcast from accepting valuable consideration for including particular matter in a program without disclosure. Similarly, the Commission’s rules require a station to make an appropriate announcement when it receives a disclosure from someone involved with preparing program matter for the station, 47 C.F.R. § 73.1212.
When seemingly objective television commentators are in fact highly motivated to promote the agenda of a government agency, a gross violation of the public trust occurs. The American people should never be subject to a covert propaganda campaign but rather should be clearly notified of who is sponsoring what they are watching. We therefore respectfully request that you immediately commence a full investigation of this matter to determine whether any violations have occurred.
We thank you for your prompt attention.