PENTAGON, PUNDITS, AND PROPAGANDA…. About eight months ago, the New York Times reported on a Pentagon program in which retired military officers, who’ve since become lobbyists or consultants for military contractors, were recruited to become propaganda agents of the Bush administration. Throughout the war in Iraq, these retired officers — or “message multipliers,” as they were described by internal Defense Department documents — took on roles as military analysts for all of the major news networks, without noting their puppet-like relationships with the Pentagon.

It was as sophisticated a media-manipulation scheme as anything the Bush gang hatched. A small group of Pentagon political appointees would “cater to” more than 75 retired officers, giving them the message that needed to be multiplied. As one Pentagon official marveled, “You could see they were taking verbatim what the secretary was saying or what the technical specialists were saying. And they were saying it over and over and over. We were able to click on every single station and every one of our folks were up there delivering our message. You’d look at them and say, ‘This is working.’”

The retired military officers — who were at times pressured to say things they knew to be false — had an incentive to stick to the Bush script, since their employers were contractors seeking to do business with the Defense Department.

The Pentagon’s inspector general looked into the controversy, and reported yesterday that the Defense Department hadn’t done anything wrong.

It found that the program — one of several Pentagon “outreach” activities — included more than 100 meetings, briefings, conference calls and trips with the military analysts between 2002 and 2006. “We determined that those activities were conducted in accordance with DOD policies and regulations,” it stated.

“We found the evidence insufficient to conclude that RMA outreach activities were improper,” the report said, basing that assessment on historic rulings regarding congressional prohibitions on the use of publicity funds for “self aggrandizement or puffery, partisanship and covert communications.”

Like Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), I think yesterday’s report reads like a “whitewash,” but let’s also not overlook the other angle here: the mainstream media’s culpability.

Every major network had these retired officers on the air, every major network let them repeat propaganda, and every major network failed completely to disclose their relationship with the Pentagon. Then, when news of the scheme broke, these same networks largely refused to even let the public know about the controversy. (Howard Kurtz, to his credit, said at the time that the media’s “coverage of this important issue has been pathetic.” He added, “The story makes the networks look bad, and their response, by and large, has been to ignore it.”)

The Pentagon’s inspector general cleared the Defense Department, but no one’s cleared the news networks.

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Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.