Magazine article American Journalism Review

Pundits for Hire

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Pundits for Hire

Article excerpt

Retired generals-turned-paid military analysts were constant on-air presences during the war in Iraq, the latest example of the expert-on-retainer trend in TV news. Supporters say this is a good way to enrich viewers' understanding of major stories. But some critics argue that there's a serious downside.

As talk of war in Iraq heated up earlier this year, so did the battle of the television military analysts.

And when war broke out, the broadcast networks and cable channels had amassed enough high-ranking officers to stage their own invasion.

NBC claimed, among many others, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of operations during the first Persian Gulf War. ABC boasted four retired generals and a lieutenant general as part of its 19-member team of experts for the war.

Playing for CBS was retired Gen. William "Buck" Kernan, former commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, and Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who retired in March as supreme allied commander Europe. Former Gen. Wesley K Clark, who was the top NATO commander during the Kosovo war (and is often mentioned as a possible presidential candidate), was one of CNN's stars. Maj. Gen. Burton Moore, former director of Central Command during Desert Storm, was part of Fox News Channel's group of analysts.

These military experts--and the TV networks that hired them--see their jobs as providing specialized knowledge about strategy, weapons and tactics that most journalists don't have.

"The media has had little exposure to the military and military history," says Col. John Warden, who was the Air Force's deputy director for strategy, doctrine and warfighting during the 1991 gulf war and a paid expert with PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lebrer" and MSNBC. "To have someone make sense of what we're seeing is helpful."

Although the news programs are inundated with wartime military experts, paid analysts on every subject have become TV news staples.

Fox News Channel, which may have more paid analysts than any other news outlet, counts more than 50 experts on its payroll, including Linda Chavez, the former U.S. commissioner on civil rights; former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro; and ex-Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.

News producers say their audiences gain insightful viewpoints and a better understanding of various issues by hearing from regular experts--whether they are lawyers, retired military personnel, academics or former politicians.

Some journalists, however, don't believe the pros of such expertise outweigh the cons. Critics charge that the practice restricts debate, leads to overhyped stories and has opened the door to a type of "checkbook journalism" American news organizations traditionally have shunned.

Although the experts-for-hire phenomenon has mushroomed over the past decade, Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a former NBC senior vice president, says he believes that the practice first came to the fore when NBC paid Henry Kissinger to be interviewed for two one-hour shows immediately after he left public office in 1977.

"That was a controversy--whether NBC had sold out by buying Kissinger," says Angotti. "The deal was not done by the news division, but by the president of the network. Those of us in the news division felt it was crossing the line. How were we going to be critical of him?"

Joe Foote, director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, says that "historically, there was an ironclad rule that networks didn't pay [for interviews], unlike the British.... But this slipped under the radar screen. I assume because it was just one step removed from paying your own journalist."

The real bonanza for paid experts came with the launch of 24-hour cable news channels.

"The explosion of cable news created a seeming insatiable demand for experts who can make all kinds of pronouncements on all kinds of things," says Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz. …

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