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From AJR,   June 1999  issue

The Pundit Corps   

Once the bombing began in Yugoslavia, retired military officers became fixtures on TV talk shows.


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

Just as the O.J. Simpson trial launched the media careers of a million defense attorneys and the Clinton/Lewinsky saga made stars of political pundits galore, the war in Kosovo has been a major breeding ground for military analysts.

No fewer than 20 retired generals, lieutenant generals, major generals, admirals, colonels and lieutenant colonels could be found pontificating on network and cable television and on radio during the first few weeks after the bombing of Yugoslavia began March 24. A viewer needed a scorecard to keep track of the military parade: There were Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Gen. Tom Kelly, Lt. Gen. Tom McInerney and Gen. George Joulwan, Col. David Hackworth, Col. Harry Summers, Lt. Gen. William Odom, Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, Maj. Gen. Perry Smith--and more.

The franchise name, Persian Gulf War icon Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, had an exclusive contract with NBC, but other regulars drifted from network to network, show to show, analyzing military strategy and questioning NATO's maneuvers. For most, the reward wasn't money but media exposure and an ego boost.

From her vantage point in Atlanta, Gail Evans, the longtime head of CNN's guest booking department, saw the military pundit phenomenon take shape as the same faces traded places during March and April. "I have five monitors on my desk," Evans says. "I see [the newly minted pundits] go from one to the next."

During the first weeks of the war, if you had a military title before your name, television offered a seller's market. With few, if any, reporters in Kosovo and only scattered pictures of the actual bombing throughout Yugoslavia, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel all had to find other ways to fill 24 hours each day as their audiences nearly doubled with viewers looking for information on the conflict.

The round-the-clock cable channels were joined in their pursuit of talking generals by CNBC's evening chat shows and the usual suspects at the networks, including "Nightline," the evening news, the morning shows, TV newsmagazines and the Sunday morning talkfests. Producers were faced with trolling their Rolodexes to find experts to shed light on a complex conflict.

"All of us now, when something like this happens, seem to go out and get the services of a military analyst," says William Shine, a senior producer at Fox News Channel. But coming up with a good one requires more than settling for any retired guy with a title.

"Are they savvy? Have they been on camera before? Do they know the business?" Shine asks. "Just because they have a lieutenant or a colonel in front of their name doesn't mean they are the perfect guest."

Radio also turned to retired military men. "In the beginning of the war, it was frustrating because the military briefings were not that detailed. We went for a different kind of guest," says Barbara Rehm, assistant managing editor at National Public Radio. "We look for every way we can to get a way into the story, to give you a sense of what is going on on the ground."

It didn't take long for Col. Harry Summers' phone to start ringing at his suburban Maryland home. The retired Korean War and Vietnam War veteran had signed on as an on-air consultant with NBC during the Persian Gulf War. Since the war's end, he had been quietly writing and lecturing.

The sudden flurry of requests to discuss Kosovo came as a surprise. "I thought I had probably fallen out of the Rolodexes from the passage of time," he says. Summers accepted offers to appear on MSNBC and Fox News Channel, two networks that were not even around during his first television tour of duty. Once his face was out there again, other offers followed. "I'm not soliciting them," he insists.

So why do it? You're not likely to get rich. Unless you land an exclusive consulting job at one of the networks, your appearance will score you maybe a thank-you note from CNN or a coffee mug from MSNBC. "The exposure helps, and it's fun for egotistical reasons," says Summers, who also works the lecture circuit.

And there is no shortage of competition for face time. "During the gulf war I was one of the few military out there," he says. "Now you see a lot of generals."

Whether having an endless roster of military guests on TV during a war is a good thing is open to debate. They can provide firsthand familiarity with battle and military planning and translate sometimes baffling jargon. But in many cases the military guests end up criticizing President Clinton's military advisers, even though the talking warriors are veterans of conflicts from other eras. Most have never been to the Balkans and have little more intimate knowledge of the current conflict than the average viewer.

Many panels degenerate into debates about whether the president miscalculated the situation, says Robert Leavitt, associate director of New York University's Center for War, Peace, and the News Media.

"The broadcast media has gotten a lot of practice since the gulf war in rushing in all these so-called military experts and retired generals.... Technically it's impressive, [but] I don't think it adds a whole lot," Leavitt says. "The reality is we have very little real hard info about what's happening on the ground. All this is window dressing."

The military is one of the last professions the American public views with respect, Leavitt says, so a phalanx of men with military titles can buttress credibility. But Leavitt says such pundits are relied on too heavily. "It's really a question of proportion," he adds. "They get elevated into this position of pronouncing what the war means.... I think that's wrong."

In many cases, military gurus have slipped effortlessly into the spots vacated by self-made political pundits during the Clinton/Lewinsky era. And though the topic has changed, in many cases the level of discourse has not.

On CNBC's April 9 edition of "Rivera Live," two retired military officers, the Yugoslav ambassador to the United Nations, the Albanian ambassador to the United States and a House Judiciary Committee counsel debated whether U.S. forces should be in Kosovo. The discussion descended into a shouting match reminiscent of those seen during the height of the presidential sex scandal. It ended with Geraldo Rivera shouting, "Guys, hold it."

Burned by harsh criticism of the network's fare during Monicagate, CNBC's press office declined to allow anyone at the network to speak about its booking of military guests.

Dan Gouré of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says when the retired generals find themselves treated as sages, the rhetoric can quickly get out of hand. "They are a combination of talking heads and wise men," he says. "You still get a lot of breathless language; the adjectives get a little crazy."

Military pundits and their breathless predictions are not a recent phenomenon, says John Shy, a retired University of Michigan military historian. "It's not new. There have always been military experts, real or otherwise," Shy says. But today, "Television gives them a visibility and a means." George Fielding Eliot, a military expert, analyzed military operations for Life magazine. He made some notoriously off-base predictions about the German offensive in the spring of 1940, Shy says, but he was given plenty of space for his views. "I can remember just believing every word he said."

These days, the number of wannabe pundits of every persuasion is at an all-time high, and the media seem to be more receptive than ever, says Mitchell Davis, founder of the "Yearbook of Experts, Authorities and Spokespersons." If this month military analysts are hot, next month something else will be. "There are more media and more journalists looking for stories," he says.

Davis' directory of sources on everything from abstract art to zoo animals began in 1984 with the modest idea of faxing a monthly sheet of potential guests to talk shows. Fifteen years later, Davis' list had grown into a 912-page book containing 1,500 sources who pay to advertise in the free directory sent to newsrooms around the country. The yearbook also has a Web site ( www.yearbooknews.com), where bookers can get RealAudio snippets of potential guests.

Davis says he sees an increase in the number of individuals, as opposed to think tanks or agencies, paying to be listed as experts. Many have trained themselves to keep up on the latest in their field and speak in colorful sound bites on demand. Most know they will not get paid for appearing on television or in print unless they land a consultant spot, but they are looking to profit in other ways. "They get speaking engagements," Davis says. "They get other gigs out of it."

The media feed off themselves when it comes to finding experts. One appearance can provide instant credibility. Davis cites a university professor listed in his directory who did nearly 170 interviews during the 1997 UPS strike. "He attributes his tenure to all of the interviews he did," Davis says.

So, while finding a pundit willing to speak on television is not difficult, finding a good one can be, says Izzy Povich, senior producer of MSNBC's dayside booking department. As with any story, the wish list of top military guests during the Kosovo war contained many people who do little television. "We all want to talk to [former Defense Secretary] Dick Cheney, [former Defense Secretary] Casper Weinberger, [former Secretary of State] James Baker," she says. Schwarzkopf--whom Povich calls "the end-all and be-all when it comes to generals"--is locked up with NBC.

So bookers scramble. But they get plenty of help from universities, book publishers and think tanks, which line up their experts whenever news breaks. Booking departments are flooded with press releases, contact sheets and, in some cases, audition videotapes. "Publicists are out there pitching their clients," Povich says. "You just kind of muddle through it."

On the day the first U.S. fighter was downed in Kosovo, Povich had some of her staff of a dozen daytime bookers searching for people who had flown similar aircraft or had POW experience. "You do want somebody who has those credentials," she says, "but somebody who translates to television.... It's important for them to be able to explain the lingo."

At CNN, every guest who has ever appeared on the network is tracked in the booking department's computerized directory, says Gail Evans, executive vice president of CNN Newsgroup. The log of 125,000 names and numbers is cross-referenced for easy access when news breaks. CNN's 17 daytime bookers (evening shows like "Larry King Live" have their own staffs) usually have little trouble persuading people to make return engagements.

If it seems like the same faces return whenever there is a military conflict, it's because they do. "When you find a military person who is very good, you say, 'They did the last war, they can do this one,' " Evans says. Military topics are still "a little more of a vast wasteland" to the bookers, Evans says. The booking departments tend to fall back on tried-and-true names.

Once a guest is booked, a separate researcher does a telephone pre-interview to help gauge if a guest is camera-ready and knows his or her stuff. But worrying whether any guests, including those in the military, are television savvy is no longer the big concern it was when CNN was launched, Evans says.

Those watching military pundits give them mixed reviews. Richard Noyes of the Center for Media and Public Affairs says their analysis seems to help the coverage. "It is actually very similar to the process of lawyers helping us through the trials of the president," he says. The military pundits have given television coverage another voice to balance out the controlled information coming out of the Pentagon and NATO, Noyes adds.

Early in the war, anonymous Pentagon sources appeared in newspapers, notably the New York Times, criticizing the president's handling of the Balkan crisis. Unable to make use of anonymous sources on television, the networks turned to their retired military experts to express views echoing the dissenters in the active military.

But in their zeal to spice up the story, some of the television shows may have crossed a line by imploring their retired generals to take their doubts a step further and lay out how they would have carried out the war. "I think the second-guessing was too much the first week," Noyes says. "It's not really the fault of the pundits, it's the faults of the stations who have 24 hours to fill."

Lt. Gen. Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine who signed on as one of NBC's military analysts, has been appearing on television during nearly every military conflict since the gulf war. "I'm like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse," he deadpans. "I show up wherever there is death and destruction."

Many military men will bristle on screen if asked to question the actions of a former superior, something they have been trained not to do in a career of military service. Trainor says he for one has been sticking to his personal television rule. "Don't ask me to predict. Don't ask me to second-guess the current military," he says. "I deplore it when I see former military people" acting as Monday morning quarterbacks.

Lt. Gen. William Odom, former director of the National Security Agency, echoes Trainor. "Second-guessing is not something I like to do.... They want you to do that all the time, and that puts a lot of us in a bind."

With high marks for his television appearances during the gulf war, Odom was one of the most prolific talkers during the start of the Kosovo war, appearing on Fox News, ABC, CNN and PBS. But by day 20 of the conflict, Odom said he had tired of the "high level of ignorance" among television interviewers and vowed to cut back. "I'm sick of it," he says. "There seems to be a lot more military on now than before.... I find most of that excruciatingly boring."

Odom, director of national security studies for the Hudson Institute, says it's no mystery why he became a military pundit in the first place. "I'm on [Hudson's] payroll," he says. "Hudson wants to influence public policy, as all think tanks do." In his appearances, Odom repeatedly got his message across: First, it was stupid to enter a war without ground troops. Second, the military is concentrating too much on air and sea power and not devoting enough resources to the Army.

Asked to move too far beyond those points, Odom says he becomes agitated. He disrupted a live appearance on Fox News Channel when he began to unclip his microphone after becoming frustrated with the line of questioning.

"They tried to get me to talk about POWs one night, and I got up to walk out," he says. The topic was changed and Odom eventually sat down and stayed until the end of the segment.

Shine, senior producer of Fox News' prime-time shows, says guests like Odom may be frustrated at times, but the network's major mission is explaining the basics of the war. "Sometimes the guests may feel that the topic is a little slow, or we're not asking the right questions," Shine says. "We're starting from scratch."

Often the people writing the questions and booking the guests are starting from scratch as well. Shine admits Fox is a young network, with some staffers who weren't even in the business during the last war. Gouré of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who serves as one of MSNBC's military consultants, says there has not been much improvement in broadcast journalists' military knowledge in the past decade. "I was in the Pentagon during the gulf war, so I was watching all the same talking heads," Gouré says. "I haven't seen a real change in the kind of knowledge base."

In addition to his on-camera work, Gouré says he finds himself working with the network bookers and writers, cluing them in on the basics of military history. One of MSNBC's young writers came up to him and said, "OK, explain this Tonkin Gulf thing."

Gouré says the staffer's ignorance about the watershed Vietnam War episode made one thing clear to him: "I thought, 'I'm officially old now.' " But such lack of knowledge on the part of interviewers, producers and writers translates directly into how the military pundits appear on television. A viewer will occasionally find retired Army generals fielding questions about air operations and Air Force veterans queried about ground troops.

"They get asked questions that are inappropriate," Gouré says. "That adds to this problem of talking heads talking blather."

Gouré for one is pushing MSNBC for a permanent show devoted to military topics and guests. CNN did something similar after the Simpson trial, when it spun its legal analysts, Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack, off into their own daily legal issues program, "Burden of Proof."

Gouré says it may be time for TV to move beyond turning to military analysts on a superficial level and only in times of crisis. "None of the media has made a transition," he says. "They haven't yet figured out [there is] a market for this as a military journalism specialization."