Today’s Defense News ran a story indicating that the Pentagon has suspended its “Media Analyst” program pending an internal review and no doubt based on the hullabaloo created by the story the New York Times ran on April 20.
For those of you unaware of what’s going in – in brief retired military officers have been given ‘special briefings’ by the Pentagon. During these briefings the Pentagon offered up some of their views (let’s call them messages). Interestingly enough these messages reappeared in the statements offered by the ‘analysts’ to the media.
Let’s take a moment to examine the issues:
1. Military analysts received special treatment.
2. The Military analysts were retired military who offered themselves up as experts.
3. The analysts were often defense contractors.
4. The analysts didn’t disclose whether they were speaking on behalf of themselves or the Pentagon.
5. Is it clear that the analysts were in agreement or believed the Pentagon messages or were they just parroting what they heard because of the briefings they received?
1. Special Treatment
The Public Affairs Office (PAO) provides routine and frequent briefings to the media. Since these analysts were regarded as ‘friendly’ they might have great access than media representatives whose past coverage has been less than positive.
However, there is no rule that all media people have to be treated alike. Having worked in the commercial sector, I can assure you that friendly media get more access than unfriendly media. Cause for concern? Maybe, but not as great as it is being played up to be.
2. Retired Military As Experts
Not every retired person is an expert. Rank and past achievements do not necessarily mean expertise – it’s up to the reader or viewer to assess the Expert’s worth just like the jury judges the facts.
3. Disclosure of Nature of Expert’s Business
The media running the ‘expert’ should have disclosed the expert’s affiliation. If the expert was a consultant, then it is up to the media to determine if the consultant has business ties that might impair their impartial judgment. It is not necessarily up to a consultant to disclose each and every client. After all, it was the media that desired to air or print the story – they need to assess the credibility of their sources, not blame the source for any misperceptions.
4. Disclosure of who is really speaking
Clearly the expert has to state that this is their own opinion or it’s the Pentagon’s view. They could also state their source was a Pentagon briefing and let the viewer/reader decide the level of credibility.
5. Belief or Parrot?
If one holds themselves out to be an expert, it is their ethical duty to express only those views and opinions that they feel are justified. It would be unethical to parrot a message that the expert knew or believed was false.
Bottom Line: The Media Analyst program may have a few warts, but it is not much different from the aggressive Press Relations and Analyst Relations programs carried out by many commercial enterprises. The real difference is that PR and AR actions in the commercial sector don’t translate to TV ratings or print readers.