A Reporter, a General, and the Ethics of Covering the War

In the wake of a controversial article in Rolling Stone that led to the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a debate emerged within the journalistic community about the unofficial rules that bind beat reporters, and the potential chilling effect the scandal may have on media coverage of the military.

On June 22, 2010, Rolling Stone published a feature on McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, titled “The Runaway General,” in which McChrystal and his aides were quoted being openly critical of civilian officials, including the president, the vice president, White House aides and a U.S. ambassador. The story, written by freelance reporter Michael Hastings, broke when Rolling Stone provided an advance copy of the story to The Associated Press (AP) on June 21. The AP published a story online highlighting McChrystal’s criticism of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. Early the following day, June 22, Time and Politico.com posted the full Rolling Stone piece to their websites, shortly before Rolling Stone itself published the story online.

According to the Rolling Stone story, McChrystal said he felt “betrayed” by a leaked cable from Eikenberry in which Eikenberry was critical of McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan and dismissive of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books,” McChrystal said in the Rolling Stone profile. “Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’” In an opening anecdote, Hastings also reported on McChrystal and his aides’ disdain for a state dinner with a French minister. In an exchange with McChrystal, another aide was quoted as jokingly mishearing Vice President Joe Biden’s name as “Bite Me.”

On June 22, McChrystal offered a public apology for his statements in the piece, according to a June 22 post on Politico.com, saying they were “a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened.” On June 25, an ABC news broadcast quoted an unnamed senior military official as saying that Hastings broke “ground rules” established for the profile of McChrystal by publishing comments that took place during what McChrystal and his aides thought were off-the-record periods. On June 26, The Washington Post quoted “officials close to McChrystal” who said that Hastings quoted the general in situations that were understood to be off the record.

President Barack Obama fired McChrystal on June 23 after a brief meeting in the Oval Office, replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus, according to a June 23 story in The New York Times. In a statement to reporters shortly afterward, Obama said it was necessary to fire McChrystal to maintain unity in the war effort, emphasizing that the shift was a change in personnel, not policy.

In the aftermath of McChrystal’s dismissal and amid high-profile news coverage of the Rolling Stone feature, news media critics and commentators theorized that Hastings’ identity as a freelance journalist, rather than as a beat reporter, enabled him to publish such a blunt and damning piece about a high-ranking general. In a June 25 edition of the WNYC radio program “On the Media,” host Bob Garfield asked Jamie McIntyre, former senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, to describe the differences between a beat reporter who covers defense and a reporter who “just parachutes in for one story.”

“Well, the difference is the sort of one-off reporter doesn’t need to worry about whether he’s going to get future access or not,” McIntyre said. “Whereas the beat reporters, like I was at CNN, I needed access … . If you do what Michael Hastings does, they’re never going to talk to him again.” McIntyre explained the politics of cultivating ongoing relationships between reporters and military officials: “[T]he dirty little secret is yeah, we informally agree not to report a lot of things that we see and hear, some of it for legitimate security reasons, and some of it because it could just be embarrassing. And the tradeoff is we get a continued relationship with these people and we can get information.”

In a July 2 post on the Full Court Press blog of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which supports and honors investigative journalism, Charles Kaiser compared the Rolling Stone McChrystal profile to other mainstream news outlets’ coverage of McChrystal, calling the other profiles “worshipful,” or “puff pieces.” The problem, Kaiser wrote, is that permanent Pentagon beat reporters wrote nearly all of the previous pieces on the general. Beat reporters “know from experience that anything resembling a tough article can make it a great deal more difficult for them to do their job in the future, if their Pentagon sources stop talking to them,” Kaiser wrote.

Others criticized Hastings for what they saw as a breach of journalistic ethics. New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a June 24 column, chalked the scandal up to a culture of overexposure and widespread “kvetching,” criticizing Hastings for featuring the general’s criticisms so prominently. “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,” Brooks wrote. “He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.” On June 25, Hastings responded via Twitter that Brooks’ criticisms amounted to an exhortation to young reporters not to report on what they observe for fear that it “might upset the powerful.”

In a June 27 appearance on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program, CBS News Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan criticized Hastings, who had appeared earlier in the program, for what she said was his deceitfulness in coaxing sources into revealing their real views to him. “What I find … the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he’s laid out there what his game is,” Logan told host Howard Kurtz. “That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do … . I don’t go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life.”

In a June 28 post on his RollingStone.com blog, political writer Matt Taibbi defended Hastings, writing that Logan is “like pretty much every other ‘reputable’ journalist in this country, in that she suffers from a profound confusion about who she’s supposed to be working for” and is more interested in retaining relationships with high-profile sources than reporting the truth. “Meanwhile, the people who don’t have the resources to find out the truth … your readers/viewers, you’re supposed to be working for them--and they’re not getting your help,” Taibbi wrote.

Hastings responded to the military’s allegations that he broke unwritten journalistic “ground rules” in a July 29 story on AOL’s Daily Finance. “They were lying,” Hastings said of the unnamed sources who accused him of reporting during situations that were understood to be off the record. “What they said to The Washington Post, and, I think, to the Army Times, is fiction. And they know that.” Hastings also dismissed the idea that he took advantage of his subjects’ trust or naiveté as a “fake controversy.”

On July 2, Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued new orders clarifying the relationship between news media and the military. In a three-page memo, first reported by The New York Times, which obtained a leaked copy, Gates insisted that the military must be open and transparent, but said he was concerned that it had grown “lax” in its dealings with the media. The memo directed high-ranking Pentagon and military leaders to clear interviews with the Defense Department’s public affairs office “prior to interviews or any other means of media and public engagement with possible national or international implications,” according to the July 2 Times story.

Journalists expressed fear that military officials would become warier and less accessible to reporters, according to a July 6 story published by Yahoo News. ABC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Martha Raddatz said the order worried her. “When you add a layer like that, and when we’re in the field and they have to get clearance from someone else, I think it does make it more difficult,” Raddatz said. NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel described a “media blackout” that immediately followed the publication of the Rolling Stone piece, which Engel said forbade soldiers to discuss the McChrystal profile. Further, Engel said, the new rules are likely to produce a chilling effect that is widely felt among reporters. “General officers may be more reluctant to openly express their opinions if they know the Pentagon is tracking every interview,” Engel said.

The Pentagon responded to criticism from reporters over the new rules by acknowledging that the rules were confusing, but insisting that the rules were not intended to inhibit press access, according to a July 6 Reuters story. “It will not have a chilling effect. It will not be an iron curtain. It will not change substantially how people deal with the media,” said Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan.

On July 3, David Wood, a military correspondent and columnist for Politics Daily, wrote that the Gates memo would unnecessarily complicate military reporting. For example, Wood wrote, the new rules specify that “‘all interviews with service members be on the record.’ … The problem, of course, is the definition of ‘interview.’ If a guy on the next seat in the latrine complains about his weapon misfiring, is that an interview? If you go on shore leave with [a] boisterous gang of Marines and end up in a drunken brawl in which allies are loudly insulted, is that off the record?”

However, Wood also wrote that Hastings overstepped the bounds of propriety in his reporting for the Rolling Stone piece, writing that he would not have included the controversial McChrystal quotes that led to the general’s dismissal. “If McChrystal and his staff had deep and bitter disagreements with the White House, Hastings should have written that story,” Wood wrote. “But he chose to go with the trash-talk as the more sensational story.”

On August 4, the AP reported that Hastings was denied permission to embed with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Lapan said the denial was “fairly rare,” but added that the decision to allow a reporter to embed with troops is subjective.

“There is no right to embed,” Lapan said. “It is a choice made between units and individual reporters, and a key element of an embed is having trust that the individuals are going to abide by the ground rules. So in that instance the command in Afghanistan decided there wasn’t the trust requisite and denied this request.”

- Ruth DeFoster
Silha Research Assistant



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This page contains a single entry by cla published on September 13, 2010 9:52 AM.

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