Networks recruit military advisers

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Coverage: In times of crisis, TV networks seek opinions from experts - sometimes for free, sometimes for money. But the lines are beginning to blur between news `sources' and paid commentators.

TV/Radio Column

October 31, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

CBS has former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, while NBC boasts former Army general and anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey. CNN relies on retired Air Force Gen. Don Shepperd and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark.

The list of notables goes on, news division by news division. In calmer times, these people are known as sources, the kind of informed observers who can shed light on noteworthy developments. During a crisis, they are transformed into paid consultants.

But the distinction is not always readily apparent. And the practice, which has gained new momentum in recent weeks, appears to bump up against longstanding network policies barring payments to people who are interviewed.

"What's the difference? You can't pay a source. You can pay a consultant," says Reese Schonfeld, the former president of CNN. He was a pioneer in arranging some of the first consultantships but now says he's troubled by the hirings. "They're legitimate news sources. They should answer questions for everybody."

To understand why broadcasters have embraced this system of paid experts, it helps to talk to Judy Milestone, the senior vice president responsible for network booking across seven CNN channels. On any given day, her team has to arrange for 100 guests to be interviewed. On "fast days," when news keeps breaking, that figure jumps to 150. Since Sept. 11, every day has been a fast day.

She says that it's only fair for broadcasters to pay consultants for appearing exclusively on their shows, particularly when they are on call 24 hours a day. Consultants such as Clark, with their rich military pedigree, can help to explain the challenges facing bombers and ground troops in central Asia. Many prominent analysts are grateful to respond to a single media organization's needs as a way of winnowing through myriad requests for interviews.

"A source is someone who you talk to periodically, who gives you intellectual guidance and story guidance," Milestone says. In contrast, she says, a consultant "has the ability to explain to a mass audience what may, or may not, be happening." That in-house observer can also help to educate reporters and producers about tricky technical issues.

Marcy McGinnis, the senior vice president of news for CBS, says consultants are not journalists, but they're also not sources. "I see them as staff workers," she says. "That's different than Mike Wallace saying to someone, `Hey, come on 60 Minutes, and I'll pay you if you tell us how you killed your mother.' "

Yet it's not always clear why one commentator is a consultant and another isn't. For example, ABC interviewed bioterrorism authority Barnett Rubin and prominent Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yousefzai, both of whom are paid consultants, along with retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who is not.

There are concerns, too, among journalists that many recently retired government and military figures pressed into employment as analysts retain tight links to leaders in their former agencies. Even those who do not appear partisan in the strict sense may have loyalties to a branch of the armed forces or a camp within administration bureaucracies that may be advancing specific policies.

"It is a really close, potentially incestuous relationship, and yet there's no way around it," says Tom Bettag, executive producer of ABC News' Nightline. "You really are hiring people for their very specific expertise." But, he says, as long as networks disclose their arrangements, the viewer is better served by hearing such experts.

Schonfeld, who was involved in hiring a former military officer back in the early 1980s to comment on the Falkland Island conflict, isn't so sure. "It gets to the line where the Brits pay people to be interviewed," he says.

Taking `Sun' to task

Sinclair Broadcasting Group senior vice president Mark E. Hyman criticizesThe Sun in editorials airing on the company's two Baltimore stations. He says he was provoked by a graphic that accompanied an Oct. 18 article explaining the steps to refining anthrax, a naturally occuring bacterium, into a potent weapon.

"We are not so naive to think that these instructions are unavailable on the Internet or in a local library," Hyman says in the editorial, which has appeared on Sinclair-run WBFF (Channel 45) and WNUV (Channel 54). "However, any deranged individual or copycat killer now has the recipe to make a biological weapon, delivered to their front doorstep, courtesy of The Baltimore Sun."

Sun editors say they have taken pains to withhold the technical information necessary to convert anthrax into a threat.

"You can't make anthrax on the basis of this graphic," says Anthony F. Barbieri, The Sun's managing editor. Nonetheless, he says, "I think it's a perfectly legitimate point for this guy to raise in an editorial. If we dish out criticism, we have to be willing to take it, too."

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