Protesting the New York Times' Pulitzer

Protesting the New York Times' Pulitzer

By Ken Allard - June 5, 2009

It was an ironic way to begin the Memorial Day weekend, but on May 22nd I formally protested the 2009 Pulitzer Prize awarded to the New York Times.Its prize-winning story was published last April under the title, "Behind Analysts, Pentagon's Hidden Hand." The report's story-line: a secretive program organized by Donald Rumsfeld targeted the military analysts who often appeared as part of television's coverage of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

As with many things under his direction, the Rumsfeld initiative was extensive. On roughly seventeen occasions beginning in 2002, it provided network analysts with elaborate ‘insider' briefings, presented by the nation's top military officers or even the defense secretary himself. If closed-door sessions were not enough, selected analysts took heavily escorted trips to the war zones. The Times also discovered that the Pentagon closely monitored the analysts' subsequent TV appearances, referring to some as "message force multipliers" or "surrogates." Its conclusion: this sinister effort sought "to transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse...intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks."

So why protest such an important story? For starters, I was one of those military analysts, appearing for almost a decade on the networks of NBC News to bring you the latest grim tidings in sound-bites of three minutes or (hopefully) less. That extensive on-air experience framed my book WARHEADS - published in 2006 almost two years before the Times' "scoop" appeared. That book revealed how the military analysts were created after 911, not by Donald Rumsfeld but by TV networks forced to cover a war few reporters understood - military service never having been a prerequisite for journalistic advancement. WARHEADS extensively described the Pentagon program, inviting readers to accompany me inside those E-Ring briefings and even into the Iraqi war zone. Far from being anyone's surrogates, the military analysts were strong-willed, fiercely independent and utterly defiant of party lines - whether propounded by the Pentagon or our own networks.

WARHEADS was certainly well-known to the Times because its reporter called me early in 2008, beginning with words calculated to charm the socks off the most skeptical author: "I read your book. What a wonderful contribution!" During roughly five hours of subsequent phone conversations, it became clear that he had read every page. My naïve assumption was that the nation's "newspaper of record" shared my passion for telling an important but overlooked story - but one that demanded accuracy and fairness.

But when the Times' story ran - my face appearing on the front page with eight other military analysts - it was journalism at its shabbiest. Their scoop was hardly a scoop but their profoundly slanted story was defamatory - a classic example that badly told tales yield only incomplete truths. But after carefully re-reading its 7,800 words, I was even more appalled to discover that the story never once mentioned that a book called WARHEADS even existed! Such a deliberate omission would be shocking in any undergraduate college with an Honor Code worthy of the name. But the Times had an obvious responsibility to give readers an alternative to its one-sided editorial judgments that were often vicious.

Breathlessly pursuing Senator Larry Craig's notorious bathroom bust, the journalistic fraternity largely ignored the story, never asking if this was simple plagiarism or just another ethical lapse by the Times. Not so Congress, which uncritically embraced the story as their sole source for initiating three separate Federal investigations. "It is a military-industrial-media complex," harrumphed Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, who led 36 other Democrats in demanding action by the Pentagon Inspector General, the Federal Communications Commission and the Government Accounting Office.

I voluntarily testified to the Pentagon IG that the wrong-doing alleged by the Times was without any foundation. Although Ms. DeLauro probably intended otherwise, the FCC investigation may have helped me to survive my third stroke last November. For a reluctantly aging warrior, there is no stronger motivation than the sheer joy of leaving a hospital bed to defy a Federal agency untroubled either by the facts or the First Amendment rights of a soldier who defended them with a lifetime of military service.

As the least of my brethren, it is still inconceivable to me that anyone would demean patriots like the late General Wayne Downing, (NBC), father of America's Green Berets; or General Barry McCaffrey (NBC), a hero of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars; or Major General Don Shepperd, (CNN) whose unlikely survival over the Ho Chi Minh trail proves that God protects fighter pilots crazy enough to fly into triple-canopy jungles rather than over them.

If America truly honors its soldiers, young or old, then the New York Times, the Pulitzer Committee and their congressional allies owe all of us an apology.

Colonel (Ret.) Ken Allard is a former NBC News military analyst and the author of WARHEADS. Email comments:


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