Voiceover: Camouflaged news experts leave us feeling ambushed

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Newsies have been going through a rough patch, and it's only gotten worse in the last week. Dan Rather is pressing ahead with a megabuck lawsuit, Katie Couric is treading water, Charlie Gibson is ducking howls of protest for his handling of the latest Dem debate. Not to mention ever dwindling ratings for network newscasts, and a growing preference among younger demos for newfangled news of the satirical, salacious or downright silly variety.

And now this: a devastating expose in The New York Times on Sunday described how the Pentagon shaped and stage-managed the performance of a phalanx of supposedly independent military mavens as well as how the news orgs that fielded them failed to vet their on-screen go-to guys for potential conflicts of interest.

As a result, the descriptions of the invasion, the occupation and the surge in Iraq were distorted to sync up with the Bush administration's own interests in prosecuting and promoting the war effort.

Per the paper, these analysts were essentially transformed by government spinmeisters into a kind of "media trojan horse -- an instrument intended to shape terrorism coverage from inside the major TV and radio networks." And we thought Hollywood was the home of the calculated blandishment and the well-orchestrated junket, and our government relatively inept at massaging its messages.

And we also thought then secretary of state Colin Powell was essentially the sole high-profile patsy who unwittingly mispoke when he went before the cameras at the United Nations in the winter of 2003 to make the case for a preemptive strike.

But no, senior military analysts ranging from retired general James Marks (on CNN), retired general Barry McCaffrey (on NBC), and retired general William Nash (on ABC) to a veritable platoon of decorated pundits on Fox News apparently drank the Donald Rumsfield kool aid. In a few cases, the report claimed, they even profited personally, honing their business contacts in junkets to the war zone paid for by the Defense Dept. or protecting their business interests by soft-pedaling any bad news about Iraq when interviewed onscreen.

All this, it must be said, while bonafide news reporters on the scene in Iraq were risking their lives, and sometimes losing them, by covering the conflict in all its complexity.

That it took the public as long as it did to begin questioning the rationale for or the direction of the war may in part be attributable to reassuring assessments delivered as informed yet independent analysis of what was transpiring. After all, these onscreen experts, with their gleaming medals and squared shoulders, inadvertently if not calculatedly, framed how viewers would interpret events. The attitude toward them by the news anchors, as I remember it, was almost always deferential, whatever the network. After all, they had earned their stripes, and now they came to the airwaves with info and analysis that neither viewers, nor normal anchors, were privy to, or capable of.

Arguably not since the Pentagon Papers has there been such a bombshell dropped into our midst about a controversial American war effort nor such a credibility gap opened between government and the public. But whatever their similarities, my memory is that those nightly body bags and battle scenes on network TV in the late '60s helped change American minds about presevering in Vietnam; in the current case, the government-supplied talking points parroted by these military experts may have kept a substantial swathe of the public committed to the war effort. Longer than they might otherwise have been. An unhealthily symbiotic relationship between journalists/analysts and the institutions they cover (including Hollywood) is ever a risk, but in this case (it's a war, not showbiz, we're taking about here) it's depressing that other journos -- the ones at the news networks -- didn't pick up on what was happening to their "independent" contributors.

As the saying goes, we (and they) was had.
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