April 21, 2008— -- The New York Times spilled a lot of ink yesterday on the Pentagon's relationship with TV military analysts.
The article raised some good points -- particularly on the heavy-handed way former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon tried to control the message -- but it made no mention of a far more ambitious propaganda tool: the Pentagon Channel.
The Pentagon Channel is a 24-hour cable news channel launched in May 2004. The idea was to provide military news and information to people on military bases. But the channel now reaches millions of households through commercial satellite and cable systems. Most recently, they announced a video-on-demand deal with Time Warner.
Most of the fare on the Pentagon Channel is harmless, and occasionally it can be quite interesting: profiles of service members, stories about life on the base or in Iraq, etc. The shows are anchored by active duty military personnel.
But increasingly the Pentagon is using this platform the way other governments -- say, North Korea's or Russia's or Cuba's -- use state-controlled television: as a tool to disseminate official information without any interference from a free press. This is actually happening more now, under Secretary Robert Gates, than it did under Rumsfeld.
Gates, for example, gave his first interview as defense secretary to the Pentagon Channel, at a time when he was turning down all other interview requests. Not surprisingly, he got only softball questions. The tape was immediately made available to all other outlets. The official message gets out without any pesky questions from independent reporters.
Just today, Gates gave a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. The event was "closed press." In fact, it wasn't even put on Gates' public schedule. But the Pentagon Channel was there. Once again, the tape was made available. And, once again, the message was delivered without any interference from an independent press corps.
Later today Gates will be talking to cadets at West Point. It's closed press. We aren't allowed to cover it. But can you guess who will be there?