The TV Generals

The military men who are embedded in the anchor’s chair.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

If war is too important to be left to the generals, what about TV news coverage? Overlooked amid all the hoopla over whether embedding journalists with American troops is a good thing or a bad thing has been the fact that embedding is a two-way street: At times it seems as if there are as many former generals (and colonels and majors) chattering on the news channels as there are journalists hurtling toward Baghdad. Call it regime change on the anchor desk.

Part Al Roker and part John Madden, the generals stand importantly in front of maps, using pointers and telestrating the latest war movements. The networks have as many ways to present their house generals as they have ways to pronounce “Qatar.” On CNN, Gen. Wesley Clark sits next to Aaron Brown each night as a virtual co-anchor. On MSNBC, Col. Ken Allard stands on top of a map of Iraq and in front of yet another map. CNN’s Gen. Don Sheppard stands over something that looks a bit like the rebels’ maps of imperial plans in the Star Wars movies. Others hover in front of what appears to be a military foosball table—with refrigerator-magnet-type icons of tanks and soldiers and oil fires. You half expect the soldiers’ version of electric football to break out.

Like the color commentators who analyze football games, the generals are hired both to restate the obvious (Lt. Gen. Dan Petrosky on MSNBC: “Being inside a dust storm is very, very difficult”) and to get viewers inside the game (Allard, on why Iraqis aren’t using radar for their air defenses: “You simply invite a very swift death for yourself if you do this”). But their demeanor is closer in character to that of a local radio sports show than it is to Monday Night Football. They’re upbeat, they’re unashamed of their homerism, and most of them refuse to second-guess anyone. The TV generals may be analysts, but they’re not critics. “This is one armchair general that has not criticized the plan,” Sheppard declared. On MSNBC, Col. Danny McKnight affirmed that the Pentagon was doing things “perfectly,” and Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn was “absolutely in awe of the tremendous job” everyone was doing. If this war were a reality TV show (say, American General), most of the judges would be more Paula Abdul than Simon Cowell.

A TV general makes an estimated $5,000 a month, according to the Los Angeles Times, to be on call 24 hours a day. In addition to giving perspective and analysis, they do behind-the-scenes reporting, dialing up old buddies and sources to find out what’s happening on the ground. But their main job isn’t to report—if former generals were such whiz-bang reporters, you’d start seeing their bylines next to Bob Woodward’s at the Washington Post. They’re hired by the networks to lend an air of authority to the broadcasts, which is why the media general is almost exclusively a TV phenomenon. The generals are something less than journalists, but they’re something more than sources. They occupy a strange third place, the government’s not-quite-official representatives on the nightly news.

Which isn’t to say that they haven’t leveled any criticism. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, for example, has questioned Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s decision not to start the ground war with more troops. McCaffrey appears to have been well socialized by his paymasters and peers at NBC News: He’s hired a researcher to do some of his work for him; he’s declaimed about the importance of journalism to the American system of government (“It’s an extremely useful part of democracy and I’m glad to be a part of it,” he told the Los Angeles Times); and he’s crowed about his ability to “maintain influence on policy” by appearing on television.

But most of the TV generals appear to embrace the nationalistic role for journalists that retired Gen. Perry Smith described to the Washington Times at the end of the Gulf War: “I kind of like the Edward R. Murrow model, where the reporter knows the good guys and the bad guys and is willing to differentiate, as Murrow did, between a Winston Churchill and an Adolf Hitler.” Smith, who is now with CBS, served as CNN’s military analyst during the first Gulf War, and at one point he objected to the network’s use of “relentless” to describe the American bombing of Baghdad, because it could be a synonym for “pitiless.”

To be fair, you can’t really blame a general for being patriotic. You expect a little root-root-root for the home team from retired military men. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find any American who doesn’t want a swift and easy end to the war. The fault, instead, lies with our stars—the journalists who put together the news broadcasts. They’ve allowed the TV generals to run amok, cowed by their familiarity with the battlefield and military jargon. The press gives CENTCOM briefers tougher treatment than it gives the TV generals.

If the anchors insist on lobbing only softballs to their house military analysts, why not invite, say, a French general to come on the air to give his take on the war’s progress? Or even better, a former member of the military who’s critical of the war so far? Retired military officer Ralph Peters wrote in the Washington Post Tuesday that the secretary of defense’s office had made “serious strategic miscalculations.” Peters scoffed at the effort to “baby-talk Iraq’s elite military forces into surrender.” Now, Peters may not be correct in his assessment, but according to a Nexis transcript search, he hasn’t even been invited on the air to make it.

Generals have a job to do in wartime, but so do journalists. If TV news producers can’t be convinced to bring in a few respectable dissenting voices for high-minded reasons such as professional responsibility, here’s a low-minded one that might satisfy them: It would make for better television.