"Breaking Points": On Afghanistan, the Revolving Door, and Media Failure to Disclose Contracting Ties of Guests

Discussing the forever war and the prospects for a third party with old friends Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti

Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti’s Breaking Points is a lot like what TV news would look like if the top dozen or so noxious propaganda imperatives were removed from the broadcast equation. They do a great job of focusing on underlying issues ignored by the usual suspects.

In an interview yesterday about a piece I wrote on Afghanistan, Krystal and Saagar brought up questions I overlooked, including the revolving door in the contracting world, as well as the remarkable intransigence of the corporate press on the “forever war” front. Many long-ago disgraced or discredited hawks were mysteriously revived to play analyst as the gruesome footage from Kabul rolled in. “The same liars are elevated despite the fact that we knew they were lying,” noted Saagar.

TV rehabilitation of the idiots who got America into the Afghan mess was so conspicuous that it became a late-night punchline, with even Seth Myers making a bit about it. Myers only focused on the Republican ghouls revived, but he at least noticed, while Vox did a more comprehensive review that also puzzled over the on-air presence of people like Leon Panetta, who oversaw Barack Obama’s “surge.”

Krystal meanwhile brought up the problem of the revolving door. “After you finish your ‘public service,’ a lot of these people go and work in the defense industry, or they go and sit on a board,” she said.

This is not only true, it’s a significant related problem to the first issue of pro-war officials herded on air to argue for extended deployments. In a lot of the recent coverage of Afghanistan, we’ve seen Big Five contractor board members not identified as such. Here’s how the author bio originally read — hat tip Wayback Machine — for an April 16th Washington Post op-ed by Meghan O’Sullivan and Richard Haass called, “It’s wrong to pull troops out of Afghanistan. But we can minimize the damage”:

Here’s how that bio reads today, after the Post caught some flak for failing to disclose a key detail:

Here’s how the New York Times described O’Sullivan in an August 28th piece by Peter Baker, arguing for a “Middle Ground” strategy instead of a full pullout. Note Waldo is missing here, too:

You can find endless examples of this, as chronicled recently by the likes of David Sirota, Lee Fang, Rosa Adams, and Ryan Grim, as well as by Adam Johnson. All these reporters have done a great job of pointing out that we’re almost told about the affiliations of TV guest pundits like David Petraeus (on the board at KKR), former Defense Secretary Mark Esper (a Raytheon alum), General Jack Keane (Humvee maker AM General), Condoleezza Rice (Pentagon contractor C3.ai) and many, many others.

A typical “silent contractor” media tour looks like the recent one involving “former DHS Secretary” Jeh Johnson, who has been opining a lot on the grimness of the Afghan situation of late — “My concern is that it could get worse before it gets better” was a much-circulated observation. Not one of the cable outlets hosting him bothered to note that he sits on the board of Lockheed-Martin. CNN didn’t:

Nor did CBS’s Face the Nation:

Nor did CBS This Morning:

Nor did MSNBC:

And so on and so on.

A lot of people want to look at the bright side with this withdrawal, and they should, up to a point. However much he may have botched the planning, Joe Biden deserves credit for sticking to his timeline. It is good news that the United States can eventually recognize that a war has stopped serving any purpose, and actually decide to leave a country ten years after the last theoretical reason for staying has expired.

However, the fact that both the government and the national commentariat remain essentially captured by contractor money remains as big a problem as ever, as this episode shows. We haven’t even reached the stage of being able to identify the financial connections of the people occupying center stage on the national televised debate over military policy. It’s a terrible look that the people willing to point things like this out mostly all work for independent media outlets, while the New York Times and Washington Post have to be harassed to do the ethical minimum on that score.

If we properly identified the sponsors of the people with the biggest voices in media and politics, a lot more of what America does at home and around the world would make sense. We need more of that, and thanks to Krystal and Saagar for bringing the topic up.