Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Spies Who Came in to the TV Studio

Former intelligence officials are enjoying second acts as television pundits. Here’s why that should bother us.

Like the armchair TV generals who served as network co-anchors during the Iraq War, the spooks occupy a slippery taxonomical journalistic position. They’re news sources who go on TV, where they’re asked questions by official journalists. But because they draw pay from the networks, they can’t really be called sources—the standard U.S. journalistic code prohibits paying sources. Instead, they’re called contributors. But that’s not a perfect title, either. Standard journalistic contributors—reporters, anchors, editors, producers—pursue the news wherever it goes without fear or favor, as the famous motto puts it. But almost to a one, the TV spooks still identify with their former employers at the CIA, FBI, DEA, DHS, or other security agencies and remain protective of their institutions. This makes nearly every word that comes out of their mouths suspect. Are they telling God’s truth or are they shilling for their former bosses? Or worse yet, do they have other employers (some of the TV generals were also working for defense contractors), causing them to pull punches in yet another direction?

Generals and spooks aren’t the only expert talkers on TV news. Roving gangs of retired politicians drawing stipends crowd the green rooms at every network from Fox to MSNBC. Law professors and former prosecutors enjoy these gigs, too, as do campaign consultants and political activists. The reason TV front-loads so many of its broadcasts with “expert-talk” is because it’s cheaper to fill 24 hours of airtime with talk than with reporting, and it’s easier to book talking heads already on the team than dialing up new sources every day. (Also, there’s probably not enough news to fill a 24-hour schedule, but that’s another column.) TV spies have always been the soy-extender that cable producers can stir-fry talk into any national security news breaking during the day. The Trump scandals, touching as they do all of the national security bases—CIA, FBI, FISA applications, Russian affairs and counterinsurgency—make the hiring of TV spies cost effective.

No comments:

Post a Comment