by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
July 2, 2010
HOW ONE REPORTER BROKE THE SILENCE ON McCHRYSTAL
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I've been in journalism in one form or another for my entire adult life. When I broke into the field, in the afterglow of Watergate, journalism was more than a job. It was a public service where you could make a real difference in peoples' lives. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Go after the bad guys. Stand up for truth and justice and have fun doing it.
I believed that then, and in spite of the many ups and downs in my professional career, I still believe that now. However, at the elite levels of American journalism, it's all about going along to get along. That's why official censorship isn't needed in the United States: editors and reporters do a fine job of it all on their own.
William Allen White, the legendary editor of the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette during the first half of the 20th Century, said in the 1930s that "it is hard to get a modern American newspaper to go the distance necessary to print all the news about many topics. On the whole, sooner or later in the long run, the American people do get the truth. But they often get it when it is cold potatoes, and does them no good."
Or, as investigative reporter Greg Palast once put it, "Watergate was so unusual that they had to make a movie of it."
That's what comes to mind when I read the reaction to the recent story in Rolling Stone magazine by freelancer Michael Hastings about Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Hastings, who has covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for two years, took advantage of a remarkable stroke of luck. He was originally only supposed to interview McChrystal during a NATO conference in Paris. But when the general and his staff got caught up in the transportation chaos caused by the Icelandic volcanic eruption, Hastings' two-day trip turned into a month-long journey that followed McChrystal from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar to Washington, D.C.
Unlike beat reporters who routinely compromise themselves to maintain "access" to their high-level sources, Hastings had a month to hang out with the prime architect of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan. He captured not only the flavor of the man, but also limned a damning portrait of U.S. military strategy in a long and probably futile war.
Naturally, the national media focused on the ill-tempered remarks by McChrystal about various figures in the Obama Administration that were captured by Hastings rather than the frank appraisals by soldiers in Afghanistan and military analysts of what's really happening there.
The reaction of New York Times columnist David Brooks typified the reaction of the media elite as he whined about McChrystal being a victim.
"The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters," wrote Brooks. "So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little bursts of off-the-record trash talk ... Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching."
"General McChrystal was excellent at his job," Brooks continued. "He had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department and beyond. He set up a superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise. But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.
"By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him."
Wrong. Hastings did what a good reporter should do. He quoted McChrystal on the record, and let others worry about who was going to get upset by doing so. Three "tweets" he wrote in response to Brooks' column say it all.
First: "david brooks to young reporters: don't report what you see or hear, or you might upset the powerful."
Then this: "question for david brooks: does he really think WH and McC had good relationships? signs point to lack of listening to kvetching!"
And finally this: "question 2 to mr. brooks: how much time has he spent listening to the troops kvetch in a war zone? just askin'."
As Hastings wrote to Yahoo! News media writer Michael Calderone last week, "Hard not to respond to this without going back to an old saying. I'm paraphrasing: Reporting is what someone somewhere doesn't want known. Everything else is advertising. That's more or less how I feel. I find it very strange that the response from a few of the pundits has been: Journalists should do more to protect the powerful. Seems to me they're already pretty well protected for the most part."
That assessment was echoed by journalism educator and theorist Jay Rosen. Writing on his PressThink blog, Rosen pointed out that the media elite's reaction to Hastings' story "revealed one of political journalism's state secrets: beat reporters have a motive to preserve key relationships, so they often don't tell us everything they could, which makes them more reliable, more predictable in the eyes of the powerful people they cover."
In short, the story is not that McChrystal was so full of himself that he shot his mouth off and didn't figure his words would be in print. It is that one reporter - not worried about "burning bridges" or protecting a public figure from his own stupidity - didn't play the game that so many people in the elite media do.
In a interview last week with The Huffington Post, Hastings - who's currently embedded with U.S. forces in Afghanistan - said he never expected his story would get the reaction it did, or that so many soldiers in Afghanistan reacted positively to it.
"My views [on the war] are critical but that shouldn't be mistaken for hostile - I'm not just a stenographer," Hastings said. "There is a body of work that shows how I view these issues but that was hard-earned through experience, not something I learned going to a cocktail party on f---ing K Street. That's what reporters are supposed to do, report the story."
Perhaps if other reporters took that philosophy to heart, our nation would be in a lot better shape.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.