Is the media right on the Joint Strike Fighter?

Jean Card Writer and Communications Consultant
Font Size:

News about the intense debate over a second engine for the Joint Strike Fighter plane has been impossible to avoid in recent weeks. Having worked in four government agencies, I know that when a battle between contractors has such a high public profile, there is usually more to the story than what we see in the news. Might this be true in the case of the Joint Strike Fighter engine debate?

Here’s what we know from current coverage: One side (led by Pratt and Whitney, the manufacturer of the primary engine) appears to corner the market on common sense. They say development of a second engine for this new generation of military planes is wasteful, unnecessary spending to the tune of billions of dollars. The Obama administration is on that side. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he will recommend that the president veto an important Defense spending bill – a piece of legislation which includes repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” – if that’s what it takes to stop the second engine’s development.

On the other side are the manufacturers of the would-be secondary engine: General Electric in partnership with Rolls Royce. Observers of the debate might have been surprised to see that the U.S. House of Representatives has voted on this side, passing a defense bill last week that included funding for the second engine’s development. House members apparently believe what GE and Rolls Royce are saying: that concurrent development of two engines will save taxpayers some $20 billion over the lifetime of the fighter planes.

News stories have highlighted Congressmen who represent states or districts where the opposing manufacturers do business. That’s to be expected. But it still doesn’t answer the question: Are we saving or wasting billions? Who’s right? And with billions at stake, who can be trusted to tell the whole truth?

I called a friend on the Hill who works for a Member of the House who also happens to be a former fighter pilot. I figured he’d have a relevant perspective on this thing. My friend recommended that I read the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report on the engine issue. The GAO is independent, non-partisan and has no vested interest in who wins this fight.

And guess what? The GAO report totally backs up the GE-Rolls Royce claims of cost savings. GAO studies indicate that a procurement track that pits two contractors against each other as a product is developed actually does save a huge amount of money over the long term because the competition encourages innovation and efficiency.

I was, frankly, surprised at how conclusive the GAO report is – I suppose I’d guessed that the report must be mixed or somehow inconclusive since its findings haven’t been the lead in news stories about the Strike Fighter.

When the GAO report is mentioned in media coverage, reporters are tending to quote other people (on the GE/Rolls-Royce side) who are referencing the report. Why on earth aren’t reporters reading the report and quoting directly from it themselves? They have an unbiased, authoritative source at their fingertips! Is this lazy journalism? Or a sign that the PR and lobbying campaigns funded by Pratt and Whitney, GE and Rolls Royce are much more interesting to reporters than facts and studies?

As is far too common in public-policy journalism, the coverage in this case seems to focus less on the engine issue and more on the conflict between the warring parties. A piece on the ABC News website (“The Blotter”), for example, recently read: “ABC News chief investigative reporter Brian Ross will have more on the allegations of wasteful spending tonight in a report on World News with Diane Sawyer.”

Coverage of allegations, of a fight, of name-calling, is more salacious than coverage of a boring old GAO report, right? But is it responsible journalism?

Facts may not be as interesting as name-calling, but they are what the public deserves to know.

Ms. Card is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, Va. She is a former cabinet-level speechwriter and has served in the U.S. departments of Labor, Treasury and Justice.