On April 20, the New York Times featured a blockbuster story on "message force multipliers" - the Pentagon's use of "retired" military experts, kept on the government payroll to peddle good news and propaganda about the Iraq war effort. It was a splashy and significant story, the sort that has major impact on the national conversation and gets editors thinking about the possible accolades to come.
One has to wonder, however, if those most closely associated with the journalistic efforts that spawned the piece are still in a triumphant mood. Since its publication, there's been plenty of cause for unease and discontent over the way the Times has treated the story. For all intents and purposes, the matter has largely died on the front page. The aftermath of the story, for the Times, has been one of scant follow-up, lost scoops, and poor comparison when set alongside similar journalistic efforts.
The story was up against some impediments from the get-go, of course. Having implicated just about every single broadcast network in the dissemination of propaganda, the chance that television news would put their megaphone behind the issue was pretty slim. Come Sunday, there was scant attention paid to the matter. One of the few that did was CNN's Howard Kurtz, who discussed the matter with Ken Allard and Lawrence Di Rita on Reliable Sources, and, at times, pressed on critical points, following up on his own piece in the Washington Post. But on Sunday, even Kurtz hardly treated the story as a blockbuster. To get to the Pentagon story, viewers first had to wade through segments on what constituted a double-digit win, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama's waffle, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the concept of "elitism," Maureen Dowd's use of the word "whackadoodle," and William Safire's recently expanded Political Dictionary.
So, it was up to the Times to advance the story - for the sake of both the public interest and their own. How well did the Times do? Not very well, as it turns out.
The original piece in the Times was accompanied by a great multimedia feature that focused on how the White House tamped down criticism of Donald Rumsfeld through the use of these "message force multipliers." They also excerpted several documents and featured an online Q&A with readers the next day.
Since then, however, the effort to advance the story has been minimal. There has been a single editorial comment, inexplicably published on Saturday, six days after the story broke. On the same day, David Barstow followed up by reporting on the Pentagon's decision to suspend "its briefings for retired military officers who often appear as military analysts on television and radio programs."
Buried in Barstow's follow-up, however, was an admission: the Grey Lady had been scooped on the story by Stars and Stripes a day earlier. Additionally, the New York Times seems completely unaware that two days after they published their story, Fox News aired quotes from one of the individuals named in their original article, retired Major General Robert H. Scales. It is impossible to know every single possible avenue for follow-up, but surely we can agree that when one of the named networks brazenly deploys one of the named "message force multipliers" in its coverage, it's worth a mention.
As a means of comparison, one need only revisit the way the Washington Post pressed and pressed on their coverage of the conditions at the Walter Reed medical center. As of this writing, the Post still maintains a one-stop repository on the matter, filled with lengthy follow-up pieces, a plethora of multimedia, and an archive full of related documentation. There's very little indication that the Times has any plans to follow with that sort of completeness or rigor.
This all comes at a critical moment for the New York Times. In the aftermath of its decision to run a thinly sourced "expose" on Senator John McCain's dealings with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, critics wondered if anyone would take the paper's next big investigative scoop seriously. Now you have to wonder if even the Times does.