NBC News' bad week: Russert, Williams, and Huffington

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Progressive author and Internet powerhouse Arianna Huffington has appeared on MSNBC more than 30 times over the last 12 months, offering up her combative opinions on current events. The tally probably would have been double that if the stretched-too-thin writer and editor had accepted all the channel's requests that flood her office.

Progressive author and Internet powerhouse Arianna Huffington has appeared on MSNBC more than 30 times over the last 12 months, offering up her combative opinions on current events. The tally probably would have been double that if the stretched-too-thin writer and editor had accepted all the channel's requests that flood her office.

So when Huffington set out late last month to promote her new book, MSNBC seemed like an obvious first stop. In fact, producers had already been in touch, asking about Huffington's availability during her book push. And I hear an informal memo circulated within MSNBC detailing the order in which Huffington would appear on the various MSNBC news programs in coming weeks.

But then suddenly, the doors were slammed shut and Huffington's camp was told thanks, but no thanks; it was an across-the-board shutout from both MSNBC and its big brother, NBC.

Huffington told me she was surprised by the snub, considering she's had such good working relationships with the MSNBC programs for years.

The channel's spokesman, Jeremy Gaines, emailed to inform me that Huffington "was never booked on MSNBC," and that "[a]t NBC News, we receive countless books from authors and publishers, in hopes that they get on our air. Some of them do, many of them do not. This one did not."

NBC and MSNBC fill hundreds of hours each month with political programming, and Huffington -- perhaps the most high-profile progressive writer in the country right now -- is releasing a political tome amidst a heated campaign season. But sorry, no room at the inn for her.

Those close to Huffington said the word inside NBC was that the unofficial boycott stemmed from the fact that her new book, Right is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe, takes long, page-after-page jabs at NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, portraying him as a hapless, "conventional wisdom zombie." And that it was because of Russert's bruised ego that the company's anti-Huffington edict was issued.

Truth is, Russert has been a target of Huffington's for years. She launched Russert Watch on her site to dissect the host's often-lacking Q&A approach on Meet the Press. (That weekly feature was recently picked up by the Columbia Journalism Review.) And Huffington was especially critical of the NBC newsman's less-than-forthcoming role in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.

In that context, it sure looked like payback: Huffington was critical of NBC News heavyweight Russert, and suddenly Huffington was banned from NBC and MSNBC at a time when she's looking for exposure to help promote her new book.

Such is the state of affairs at NBC News, where last week it was not only reportedly boycotting Huffington, but also steadfastly boycotting a blockbuster New York Times report from April 20 that detailed how the Pentagon, during the run-up to the war with Iraq and for years after that, had worked closely with retired military officers now working as talking heads. The Pentagon selected scores of officers, many of whom had defense industry clients, and worked to "transform the analysts into a kind of media Trojan horse -- an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks," according to the Times. The Pentagon did that by, among other things, treating the analysts to special briefings and taking them on guided tours of Iraq.

But this wasn't simply a fact-finding initiative. According to the Times, when at least one of the analysts eventually began to criticize the war, he was promptly suspended from the Pentagon program.

Among the participants -- witting or unwitting -- in the Pentagon program were NBC and MSNBC, which threw open their studio doors to the Pentagon pundits without ever disclosing their closed-door prep sessions with the pro-war administration.

Yet two weeks after the Times billboarded the news above-the-fold on Page 1, neither NBC nor MSNBC had seriously examined their roles in the Pentagon program. In fact, the news teams at both outlets appeared allergic to the controversy. Despite the fact that the Times story ignited congressional inquiries, raised doubts about the legality of the program, and prompted the Pentagon to suddenly halt the initiative altogether, NBC considered the issue to have zero news value.

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams did belatedly address the propaganda story, not on the air but on his daily blog, where last week he assured readers that neither the network nor the retired generals did anything wrong (i.e., trust us).

So to recap NBC News' revealing performance last week: It continued its on-air boycott of the story about the Pentagon's pro-war propaganda program -- a program NBC willingly participated in. And it reportedly banned one of the nation's top progressive writers from appearing on its news programs.

Behold your so-called liberal media at work.

Of the two sad tales last week, one seemed petty; the other rather profound. In both cases, NBC News appeared more interested in protecting egos and holding off honest critiques than it did being held accountable.

The reason NBC/MSNBC's heavy-handed blackout of Huffington is so important is that it highlights precisely why so few prominent voices from the left openly criticize the media. They fail to do so because it's personally awkward to disparage their colleagues. But more importantly, they resist doing it because it comes with a professional price attached: If you present sustained, damning critiques of the media (and name names in the process), you run the risk of being locked out by those same media outlets, and at inopportune moments. Like when you're out trying to promote a new book.

Bob Somerby at The Daily Howler has written about these phenomena for years -- why mainstream liberal columnists and pundits almost never tell you the truth about the media. And trust me, they don't. As Somerby has noted, there was almost universal, real-time silence from them back in 2000 when the press unleashed perhaps the most sustained, unfair attack on a U.S. presidential nominee in modern times. Virtually none of the A-list liberal commentators came to Al Gore's aid when it mattered most; when the press was at times depicting him as unstable and pathological. (Conservative pundits never would have stood by silently if their nominee were torn apart by the media like that.)

Huffington, thanks to the online empire she has amassed at The Huffington Post, is among the few who don't really need NBC or MSNBC to help her sell books. She already has access to an extraordinarily wide audience.

And it's true she was invited on scores of other TV news outlets in recent days, some of which she criticized in her book. So it's not as if the press automatically locks out every liberal critic. But NBC's Russert has for years been a key Huffington media target, and he came under the roughest treatment in her book, so it was NBC's allegedly petulant reaction that was the most telling.

Keep in mind that NBC News has a history of overreacting to Huffington. In 2006, when she was raising questions about Russert's ethics (specifically, when he used Meet the Press to hype the launch of a new XM Radio sports program co-hosted by his son, Luke Russert), an NBC News flack resurrected old allegations -- which Huffington has repeatedly denied -- that a decade ago she hired a private investigator to snoop on a writer who was profiling her for Vanity Fair. That writer was Russert's wife, Maureen Orth.

By suddenly refusing to book Huffington, NBC and MSNBC came across as petty and insecure. Executives claimed they were not retaliating against the writer for the Russert critiques she's posted. But it sure looked that way.

There is a simple way, however, for the news giant to prove it holds not grudge against Huffington, or against honest media criticism. And that's to have Russert invite her on Meet the Press. Then all will be forgiven.

By contrast, it's probably impossible to repair the damage done to NBC by its refusal -- like the rest of the broadcast network news teams -- to tackle the Pentagon propaganda story. What made NBC's sins even more egregious last week was Williams' attempt to explain the story away as no big deal, when he tried to play his readers, and NBC News viewers, as rubes.

The trouble began when Williams used his Daily Nightly blog to mock The New York Times for being out of touch with everyday Americans. Williams' hook was that announced Sunday circulation was down at the Times. Poring over the newspaper, Williams insinuated readers were fleeing the paper because of the goofy articles being published. He noted that Elizabeth Edwards had recently written an op-ed in the Times decrying the state of serious journalism in the presidential race. But Williams, after dissecting the Sunday paper section-by-section, scratched his head and wrote, "It's tough to figure out exactly what readers the paper is speaking to, or seeking." Meaning, the Times is out of touch with regular folk, like himself, the coiffed TV anchor.

And where did Williams turn to prove the Times was publishing too many wacky articles that alienate the common man? Williams singled out purposefully light pieces from the Times' Travel section, the Styles section, and the Food section. And, oh yeah, he snickered at a New York Times Magazine cover story about gay people.

After blogger Glenn Greenwald chided Williams for taking the time to poke fun at the Times lifestyle coverage while NBC itself remained silent about the Times' penetrating Pentagon propaganda story, Williams' blog was inundated with commenters demanding that he address the issue. So the next day Williams did.

Keep in mind, NBC had never broadcast a single story about the Pentagon article, but Williams did, y'know, blog about it. Reading his explanation, no wonder NBC hasn't wasted its time with the silly Pentagon controversy -- it's a non-story. At least at NBC. Because the news team did nothing wrong and its military analysts were above reproach. (Why did the Times waste 7,000 words on such nonsense?)

Here was the nub of Williams' defense of NBC and the Pentagon-friendly analysts they paid for years:

All I can say is this: these two guys never gave what I considered to be the party line. They were tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq. If you've had any exposure to retired officers of that rank (and we've not had any five-star Generals in the modern era) then you know: these men are passionate patriots. In my dealings with them, they were also honest brokers.

[...]

At no time did our analysts, on my watch or to my knowledge, attempt to push a rosy Pentagon agenda before our viewers. I think they are better men than that, and I believe our news division is better than that. [emphasis added]

What's the fuss, people? Millionaire anchor Brian Williams, who thinks Democratic-bashing columnist Peggy Noonan should win a Pulitzer, who frets that Rush Limbaugh might not get enough credit as a broadcaster, and who has been dubbed by GOP pollster Frank Luntz as the Republicans' "go-to network anchor," says NBC and the generals did nothing wrong. Period.

Nothing to see here, folks, keep moving ...

Note how Williams vouched for the generals' patriotism and insisted they were "better" than spinning Pentagon talking points. (In his blog post, Williams noted he had entered "close friendship[s]" with the generals.) That's all well and good. But the facts are clear: The generals did participate in the Pentagon program and they often did spout Pentagon spin. (The anchorman expressed little interest in the fact that some of the generals stood to profit from their defense industry connections while they promoted the costly Iraq war on NBC.)

That the pro-war Pentagon spin campaign existed and that NBC's military media analysts participated is not in dispute. Yet Williams wants us to believe that NBC News represented some sort of oasis from the pro-war spin between 2002 and now, that it was an honorable exception to the broadcast rule.

For the record, retired Gens. Wayne Downing (who has since passed away) and Barry McCaffrey appeared on, or were quoted by, MSNBC and NBC regarding the Iraq war at least 500 times since late 2002. But Williams suggested the men never engaged in Pentagon spin.

And to prove that the men didn't roll over, Williams reproduced a quote from 2006, three years after the war began, in which one of the NBC military media analysts expressed "harsh criticism" of the war.

For Williams, that's case closed. For any thinking observer, that's just plain dumb.

It was a very bad week for NBC News. By so obviously snubbing Huffington, NBC looked petty. By stubbornly refusing to acknowledge its role in the Pentagon propaganda program, NBC looked weak.

News organizations are supposed to shed light, not cower in the shadows. Last week, NBC News got it backward.

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