Feeling ambushed by camouflaged experts

The network news business has been going through a rough patch, and it has only gotten worse the past week. Dan Rather is pressing ahead with a megabucks lawsuit, Katie Couric is treading water, Charles Gibson is ducking howls of protest for his handling of the latest Democratic debate. Not to mention ever-dwindling ratings for newscasts and a growing preference among younger demos for newfangled news of the satirical, salacious or downright silly.

And now this: a devastating exposé in the New York Times on Sunday describing how the Pentagon stage-managed the performance of a phalanx of supposedly independent military mavens as well as how the news organizations that fielded them failed to vet their onscreen go-to guys for potential conflicts of interest.

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

Per the newspaper, these analysts essentially were 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 that our government was relatively inept at massaging its messages.

We also thought then-Secretary of State Colin Powell essentially was the sole high-profile patsy who unwittingly misspoke when he went before the cameras at the United Nations in February 2003 to make the case for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq.

But no, senior military analysts ranging from retired Gen. James Marks (on CNN), retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey (on NBC) and retired Gen. William Nash (on ABC) to a veritable platoon of decorated pundits on Fox News apparently drank the Donald Rumsfeld 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 Department or protecting their business interests by soft-pedaling any bad news about Iraq when interviewed onscreen.

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

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 the 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 persevering in Vietnam; in the current case, the government-supplied talking points parroted by these military experts may have kept a substantial swath 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, and it's depressing that other journalists — the ones at the news networks — didn't pick up on what was happening with their "independent" contributors.

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