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“The Media-Lobbying Complex”: Investigation Exposes Undisclosed Corporate Ties of Network Political Pundits

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A four-month investigation into the covert corporate influence on cable news found that since 2007 at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials have repeatedly appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure that they are paid by corporate interests. We speak to journalist Sebastian Jones, who carried out the investigation for The Nation magazine. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to an investigation into the powerful interests behind the talking heads pontificating on cable news channels all day and night. They are routinely called upon to comment on everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the recession, the environment and healthcare reform.

Too often these pundits are identified as political strategists or by their former positions in Congress, in government or the military. But what’s rarely disclosed is that many of them are closely tied to corporate interests and lobbying firms with powerful stakes in the very issues that these talking heads claim to be independent experts about.

A four-month investigation into the covert corporate influence on cable news by The Nation magazine found that since 2007 at least seventy-five registered lobbyists, public relations representatives and corporate officials have repeatedly appeared on MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, CNBC and Fox Business Network with no disclosure that they’re paid by corporate interests.

We’re joined right now by Sebastian Jones. His cover story in the latest issue of The Nation magazine is called “The Media-Lobbying Complex.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you begin to lay out what you found, Sebastian.

SEBASTIAN JONES: Right. Well, as you summarized it very well, Amy — and thanks for having me on — we set out to look at the issue of political analysts who may be sort of moonlighting on the side as corporate representatives, PR flacks, lobbyists. And what we found was that, where I started out thinking maybe we’ll find ten folks who are doing this, we found very quickly seventy-five. And this was basically just watching videos and reviewing transcripts, so it wasn’t as exhaustive as one could get. So there very well may be more than seventy-five.

And the interesting thing is that it sort of models this systematic use of military analysts who also have ties to defense contractors that was exposed several years ago by David Barstow at the New York Times. It was an investigation that won a Pulitzer Prize, so very, very upfront, very, very much public. And yet, several years later, all of this was going on in the political analyst world.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn right now, actually, to David Barstow. David Barstow chose Democracy Now! as the only broadcast that he went on. He didn’t have a lot of takers. He’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter who exposed how dozens of retired generals working as radio and television analysts had been co-opted by the Pentagon to make its case for the war in Iraq and how many of them also had undisclosed ties to military contractors that benefited from policies they defended. This is when David Barstow was on Democracy Now! last year explaining how Pentagon officials developed this program during the lead-up to the Iraq war.

    DAVID BARSTOW: The way to really influence the American public was to try and find people who were viewed as independent of both government and the media, people who were considered authoritative and expert, people who would have an ability to cut through the spin.

    And the group that they began zeroing in on were all the military analysts who were being hired in droves after 9/11 by all the major TV networks. In the view of Torie Clarke and her staff, these guys were sort of the ultimate key influencers. They were seen as, most of them, retired decorated war heroes. They were, many of them, retired generals, some three- and four-star generals. They came from an institution that traditionally is extremely trusted by the American public. And they were seen by the public not really as of the media, but not of the government either.

    And so, in the fall of 2002, Torie Clarke and her aides, with the strong support from the White House and from her bosses, set out to target this group and to make them, really, one of the main vehicles for reaching the American public and building support for the war on terror. So that’s how it sort of began, was with this idea that they could take this thing, this thing called the military analyst, which is a creature that’s been around for a long time — going back to the first Gulf War, we remember some of the retired generals first coming on air — and they could take this and the fact of 9/11 and the fact of how prevalent they were on air, sometimes appearing segment after segment after segment, getting more air time than many correspondents were getting, holding forth, not just on the issues of where the airplanes were flying and where the tanks were moving, but weighing more heavily on even the strategic issues of what should we do next and how should the war on terror unfold, what should be the next targets. And they looked at them as effectively what they were doing was writing the op-ed on air for the networks and for the cables.

AMY GOODMAN: That was New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Barstow on Democracy Now! Speaking of the military, I wanted to turn to one of the many talking heads on the networks. This is on MSNBC’s Hardball, and it’s General Barry McCaffrey.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Retired General Barry McCaffrey joins us right now. He’s an MSNBC military analyst.

    GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: Look, in the short run, we probably have no option. If we leave Afghanistan in a mess, if it collapses in the coming year or two or three, the short-term damage is abysmal. It’s going to be — result in hundreds of thousands of dead in Afghanistan, and the Pakistanis won’t trust us for the rest of time. NATO, who we lured in forty-two countries. So we had to move ahead. The key is, can we create an Afghan security force that in a couple or three years will replace us?


    GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY: That’s the real question on the table.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s General Barry McCaffrey on MSNBC. Sebastian, tell us about him.

SEBASTIAN JONES: Right. Well, that’s one of my favorite clips, the one you just played, because —- and going back to what David Barstow was talking about, Barstow wrote a very extensive front-page article just about Barry McCaffrey, not about the general topic, but about this man and his TV appearances and simultaneous work for defense contractors like DynCorp. And this clip is actually from this last December, which is almost a year after Barstow’s story on McCaffrey went to press. And yet, he was only identified as a military analyst. And here he is, talking about Afghanistan, where DynCorp is doing very expensive work on behalf of our government. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: And what is his role at DynCorp?

SEBASTIAN JONES: His role at DynCorp is he sits on the board, among any other sort of consulting work he may do. But the —-

AMY GOODMAN: And would you have a problem if they did identify him in that way?

SEBASTIAN JONES: No, absolutely not. I think they’re asserting -—

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re not saying they don’t have a right to have them on.

SEBASTIAN JONES: No, absolutely not. And I think that there are sort of two arguments. Some people would argue, as you’re suggesting, that, you know, McCaffrey’s editorializing on Afghanistan is just inherently tainted by the fact that he works for these defense contractors. But if he’s identified, it gives the viewer a chance to listen to what he says and then evaluate it and sort of make sense of it in a broader spectrum of views and analysis. But given without any disclosure, it just — it’s a false kind of presentation of what he’s actually doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And he’s identified as a general, as a former general.


AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go, on another issue, to Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania, former head of Homeland Security.

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: And let’s go right now to former governor of Pennsylvania — well, he’s also former secretary of Homeland Security — Tom Ridge.

    TOM RIDGE: I’d like to see the President — if we’re going to do something, you want spur in innovation, creativity, create jobs — take his green agenda and blow it out of the box. Let’s build nuclear facilities. Let’s do —

    CHRIS MATTHEWS: Investment tax credit?

    TOM RIDGE: Well, yeah, investment tax credit would do it. But why not set up an infrastructure bank? Let’s create nuclear power plants. Let’s do waste coal. Let’s go after natural gas.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, there you have it. He’s a former governor, he’s former head of Homeland Security, got a lot of credentials. Sebastian Jones, what’s your problem?

SEBASTIAN JONES: Right. Well, this is again — this is from the same show, actually, as the earlier clip from McCaffrey, this past December 4th, I believe. And the great thing about this clip, actually, is that right before the chunk that we just saw, Matthews asks Ridge to sort of break down for him what can the President do to create jobs. And so, Tom Ridge then says, you know, “You could do these modest” — and I believe he actually does use the words “modest things,” like freeing up credit for businesses, but the real — the real solution is you have to go and do these nuclear energy grants, which basically, as you reported earlier in the show, has actually come to fruition. Now, undisclosed is the fact that Ridge sits on the board of Exelon, which is this huge company that is heavily invested in nuclear energy and building nuclear power plants.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us who Bernard Whitman is.

SEBASTIAN JONES: Bernard Whitman is a PR strategist and a pollster who has a firm here in New York. But if you watch TV, you would know him as a former Clinton administration pollster, full stop.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s watch TV for a minute. Let’s go right now to Bernard Whitman.

    SHEPARD SMITH: Bernard Whitman is a former pollster for Bill Clinton and a Democrat, sitting over on that side.

    BERNARD WHITMAN: Honestly, Shep, I am so tired of talking about Sarah Palin. She is not running for president.

    SHEPARD SMITH: Well, I’m sure you are, because she’s the bane of the existence of the Obama campaign. Of course you are.

    BERNARD WHITMAN: No, well, you know why? You know why? Because she has given John McCain the ability to duck the key question in this election, and that’s the economy. And let me tell you why he wants to duck it. Because when he does have to answer that question, like he did yesterday, he said, “Let AIG fail.” This shows just how little he understands the global economy today. That would have been catastrophic. And he was forced today to backtrack on that. We cannot afford to have someone who has been a champion of deregulation, who claims that he doesn’t really know that much about the economy, to be in charge when our nation is facing the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bernard Whitman on Fox. Sebastian Jones?

SEBASTIAN JONES: Well, the interesting thing is that Bernard Whitman, in this clip, he may be absolutely right in what he’s saying, but what they don’t tell you is that Bernard Whitman’s firm, Whitman Inside Strategies, has actually done work for AIG, and in the description of the work they’ve done for AIG on their website, there’s actually a very amusing sentence that says they’re there also to respond to ongoing marketplace developments. Well, if the crash and the bailout is not an ongoing marketplace development, I don’t know what is. And the fact that, you know, here he is on TV talking about this specific company and the bailout of this company and political reactions to it, without just saying that he had done some work for it and without the network saying that he had done some work for it, is somewhat mind-boggling.


SEBASTIAN JONES: Mark Penn, again a big PR guy, like Whitman, a veteran of the Clinton administration, but unlike Whitman, a very big player in the Clinton administration and a big player in Hillary Clinton’s recent presidential campaign. Now, the other thing he does is he’s CEO of Burson-Marsteller, which is a humungous — a mega firm in the PR world.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Mark Penn, but before that, Richard Gephardt, of course, former Congress member, and they’re being questioned on television about healthcare.

    DYLAN RATIGAN: Joining us now, former Missouri congressman and former House majority leader Richard Gephardt.

    RICHARD GEPHARDT: It’s cost and affordability. It’s efficiency. That’s the dominant issue. Yeah, we’d like to get everybody covered tomorrow afternoon. If we make the system more affordable, we’ll be able to do that. Yes, we’d like to have a public option or a private option, but it’s not essential if we can get the costs down.

    NORAH O’DONNELL: Mark, I have a question for you. Given the polling out there —- even the NBCWall Street Journal poll that shows only 33 percent support this healthcare reform bill — what’s the lesson from the Clinton years about what Obama should do with healthcare? Should they now do it piecemeal?

    MARK PENN: Well, remember, the signature line of the transformation of the Clinton administration at a similar time was “The era of big government is over.”


    MARK PENN: And they specifically went to a balanced budget. Look, here in healthcare, they also specifically went to step by step. Look, whether it’s medical records, whether it’s dealing with the next group of people, you know, above children, you know, young adults, there are a lot of step-by-step ways here to keep healthcare moving, because healthcare, it’s obvious, it now has to be a capstone of a successful administration, not something that any administration tries to jam in their first year or two.

AMY GOODMAN: Final words, Sebastian Jones, on Richard Gephardt and Mark Penn?

SEBASTIAN JONES: Yeah, I think both of them are actually similar in some ways, because they’re presented as speaking from authority talking about the Clinton attempt at healthcare. But Richard Gephardt runs a lobbying firm that consults for insurance companies, that has pharmaceutical companies as clients. Burson-Marsteller, Penn’s firm, also has pharmaceutical clients. And again, it’s just not mentioned and, you know, just put out there as if this is their sage wisdom based on the previous effort. And it may well be, but there’s just this other element that’s left out.

AMY GOODMAN: You called the networks. Their response to why they don’t identify them, for whose payroll they’re on?

SEBASTIAN JONES: Yes, and I had a very interesting, rather long discussion with the NBC News ombudsman, who also oversees MSNBC.

AMY GOODMAN: And he is?

SEBASTIAN JONES: And they’re working on it, is their response, which, as we’ve discussed, with Barstow writing about this for the past year and a half, two years, it’s sort of — it’s tough to understand how putting up a single line under McCaffrey’s name saying “also works for defense contractors” or naming them specifically — how that takes two years to do, I don’t know. But I don’t work in TV, I guess.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sebastian Jones, thank you for your exposé. It’s called “The Media-Lobbying Complex: The Talking Heads of Cable News Are Leading Double Lives as Paid Lobbyists for Corporations.”

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