Military Interns Booted From CNN, NPR
How Did Army Officers Get Into The News Business?
TV Guide April 15-21, 2000
The Robins Report By J. Max Robins
Top executives at CNN and National Public Radio were more than a bit surprised when they learned that their organizations had used interns from a rather nontraditional source-the United States Army's Psychological Operations unit (PSYOP).
"We have interns from all over the world, but they are accredited journalists or studying [the field]," says Eason Jordan, CNN president of news gathering and international networks. "But those interns had no business being here."
Both internship programs were ended shortly after top management learned of their existence.
A highly specialized unit of the military, PSYOP personnel are often trained in the production of videos as well as television and radio programming used to advance American policy abroad. "In Somalia, we broadcast on radio and shortwave," says Lt. Col. Paul J. Mullin. "We've helped countries in South America produce antidrug public-service announcements."
According to CNN executives and military officials, the intern program began last June and ended in March. A total of five PSYOP sergeants were assigned to the network's Atlanta headquarters-two at the Southeast bureau, two at CNN Radio and one at the satellite department. At NPR's Washington, D.C., base, three PSYOP personnel worked for periods ranging from six weeks to four months from September 1998 through May 1999 on such programs as All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
"All the interns did a fine job," says an NPR spokeswoman. "They performed minor tasks and had no influence on our news coverage, but when our senior newspeople found out they were here, they decided it was inappropriate; and we terminated the program."
The CNN internships were scuttled shortly after reports of the military presence appeared in February in "Intelligence Newsletter," a French publication, and Trouw, a Dutch daily newspaper. "As soon as we discovered [the officers] were here, we put an end to it," Jordan says.
It's understandable why Jordan would be so decisive. A news organization that employs military personnel trained in psychological operations calls its independence into question. "You start taking in interns like that and you're in bed with the government," says a news executive at a rival network. "You open the door to your critics."
Throughout its history, Ted Turner's news machine has come under attack from the right and the left for appearing too cozy with the subjects of its reportage. "Too many people already assume we're pawns of our government or another government, even if there's no truth to it," says one CNN executive. "The last thing we need is the perception that something like this gives to the outside [world] that somehow our coverage had been manipulated by the military."
Media critic Alexander Cockburn, who wrote about the Trouw report in a March 27 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, speculated, "Maybe CNN was the target of a PSYOP penetration and is still too naive to figure out what was going on."
Jordan takes umbrage at the charge that the PSYOP interns undermined CNN. "This is much ado about nothing," he says. "They had no impact on how we covered the news in anyway."
One of the PSYOP interns, Staff Sgt. Jose A. Velazquez, who spent 10 weeks working in CNN's Southeast bureau last June, supports Jordan's contention, explaining that his tasks were primarily entry-level. "I made calls and researched stories on the Internet," says Velazquez. "I saw how crews were deployed. I learned how they put stories together. The people I worked with there really took me in."
But how did Velazquez and his fellow PSYOP interns get into CNN if senior management felt they had no business being there? The CNN company line has it that the program was established through its human-resources department. "The people in [human resources] aren't journalists," says Sue Binford, CNN's executive vice president of public relations for the CNN News Group. "They thought they were making an appropriate decision. Is the whole thing embarrassing? Yes. Did it compromise us journalistically? No."
However, it appears others inside CNN were out of sync with top management. According to CNN sources, human resources would have passed on the réésuméés of the PSYOP interns to various news managers. CNN and Army officials agree that the interns, although not in uniform, didn't conceal their identity. For example, Velazquez says that those he worked with in CNN's Southeast bureau, including its chief Graylian Young, knew where he was from (Young declined comment). In addition, according to several sources at the cable network, a CNN programming executive who left the organization months before the program became public signed off on the internships.
"Somewhere a bell should have gone off," says the news executive from the rival network. "Someone is working in your bureau. You ask him where he's from and he tells you PSYOP, Fort Bragg, and then you have to go ask somebody higher up, 'Is this right?'"
For his part, Lieutenant Colonel Mullin is profoundly disappointed that the internships with CNN and NPR are over. The military, he explains, is simply looking to get training from media professionals in return for some free labor. "The programs were an opportunity for some of our people to learn at the feet of the masters," Mullin says. "I understand why CNN put an end to it. Somebody puts the wrong spin on a program like this and it looks like their integrity is being compromised."
TV Guide April 15-21, 2000 The Robins Report By J. Max Robins