Disclosing conflicts of interest essential

The latest example of the military analysts sheds light on a serious problem occurring in the United States.

Chelsey Perkins

On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the opinions of many of the military analysts who appear on mainstream television news are rarely their own, but rather derived from carefully prepared Pentagon talking points. Most, but not all, of the analysts also have personal or financial ties to military industry firms.

Now, I could spend my time with you discussing how wrong I find it to be that our government expends a serious amount of time and effort making sure the American public remains complacent and deceived by the rosy pictures of the war in Iraq and military policies these analysts paint.

But what I find to be even more troubling is not the fact that these attempts are made, but the fact that they are made successful by the media outlets that fail to question the motivation behind the proffered opinions.

One of the cornerstones of U.S. journalism is that journalists should not allow personal conflicts of interest to permeate their coverage. In the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University, we are told that it is unethical to accept even the payment of a meal, much less have a financial investment in an entity upon which we are reporting.

On the same token, it is also a cornerstone of U.S. journalism to question the possible conflicts of interest of the sources used, and to report those conflicts on interest to the readers or viewers so they may be better informed and prepared to put the source’s comments into perspective.

As many of my instructors in SJMC have said, everyone has an ax to grind, and it is our job as journalists to expose that ax for media consumers to draw their own conclusions.

This is the greatest failing of the mainstream media in this instance; not only were these potential conflicts of interest of the military analysts usually not revealed to the public, but oftentimes the media organization in question did not even bother to find out the conflicts themselves. Even CNN, whose more stringent policies require analysts to report all of their business ties, was unaware for almost three years that one of their military analysts, Gen. James Marks, was “deeply involved in the business of seeking government contracts, including contracts related to Iraq.”

So, rather than acting as a government watchdog, as U.S. journalism is meant to do, the television news stations who gave these analysts air time without properly placing their comments in context essentially acted as an extension of the government. These analysts have been represented as independent voices whose opinions added to the national dialogue on military issues, when in reality, they were recruited by the Pentagon to tell the administration’s story. Also, in the case of many of the analysts, positive reinforcement of the administration’s line benefited them financially; the longer the war continues, the more money there is to be made for military contractors.

This troubling revelation of the news media acting as public relations agents for the U.S. military only goes to show that serious problems exist in the state of media today. And let me tell you, it’s certainly not that the media is “too liberal.”

In an ideal world, journalism is supposed to inform people to the fullest extent possible, not detract from the public knowledge by allowing thinly veiled opinions to appear independent. Let’s hope we can someday achieve this ideal, and we will become a better society because of it.

Chelsey Perkins welcomes comments at [email protected]