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What the McChrystal affair reveals about the media

One initial reaction of the mainstream media to the Rolling Stone article that got Stanley McChrystal fired as commander of US forces in Afghanistan seemed to be “Rolling Stone? Rolling Stone?” They couldn’t understand why the person in charge of the war in Afghanistan gave so much access to what they saw as a hippy-dippy magazine that mainly covers rock music and popular culture. The issue with the McChrystal article had Lady Gaga on the cover and, as you can see, the article in question did not even get top billing, suggesting that the magazine itself did not realize what its impact would be.

lady gaga.jpgBut the journalist Michael Hastings is no hippie who had gone to Afghanistan mostly for the high-quality opium and talk to the US top brass in between puffs. He was correspondent for Newsweek in Afghanistan for two years before being transferred to cover the 2008 elections, is very familiar with the people there both among Afghans and the US, and even has a brother serving there now. Furthermore, Rolling Stone has had a long history of covering politics from unusual angles because they hire good reporters who seem to be given much more freedom and time to do their work in unorthodox ways. Hunter S. Thompson used to write for them and Matt Taibbi, one of the best current reporters around, works for them

A second reaction was much more revealing. The mainstream media couldn’t understand why Hastings had burned all his bridges by publishing his article containing the explosive quotes by McChrystal and his macho ‘Team America’ denigrating the civilian leadership. By doing so, Hastings had ensured that he would not be granted future access to other important people and, even worse, may have ruined it for other ‘respectable’ reporters as well. Why, they wondered, had he not cleaned up his article by sanitizing it and making sure that they all looked good, the way that that nice reporter Bob Woodward does? That way he could ensure, like Woodward, that important people would be eager to talk to reporters, knowing that they would be well portrayed.

David Brooks, someone who, like Woodward, epitomizes the corrosive schmoozing culture of Washington and has also benefited by it, bemoans the effect that the Hastings article, which he dismisses as ‘gotcha’ journalism, will have on the friendly conversations that currently occur between reporters and the people who cover them. “Government officials will erect even higher walls between themselves and the outside world. The honest and freewheeling will continue to flee public life, and the cautious and calculating will remain.”

Brooks gets duly taken to the woodshed by his Nemesis, Matt Taibbi, who points out that the explosive quotes were embedded in an important story about the confusion within the administration over the policy to be pursued in Afghanistan. (See Stephen Walt’s analysis of this angle.)

Of course Brooks himself almost certainly never even considered the newsworthiness of McChrystal’s perhaps-unilateral expansion of the Afghan war; I doubt his thinking about this issue even went that far. I’m almost certain that to him this is a matter of decorum, that what he doesn’t like about the Hastings article is that it violates what I’m sure are deeply-held ideas of how a reporter should behave toward a large strapping man with immense political power and a snappy uniform.
Hastings did the opposite of what Brooks would have done in the same situation — instead of wetting himself in the presence of all those stars and epaulettes and spending long Saleri-esque nights dreaming up new descriptive bon mots for the General… Hastings did his job and let the public decide what sort of news, and on-the-record comments, it is and is not ready to handle.

The media insider flap over the Hastings article illustrates the important difference between beat reporters (assigned by major news outlets to cover on a daily basis a specific area, the White House, Pentagon, business, etc.) and one-off reporters working for magazines. Matt Taibbi reveals why beat reporters and their publications have become so vapid.

For quite a long time political journalism, particularly in Washington, has been reduced to an access-trading game, where reporters are rewarded for favorable coverage of those in the know with more time and availability.

This symbiotic dynamic affects not just individual reporters but whole publications and news channels; it’s a huge reason why reporters have in general resisted challenging political authorities. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets not only himself but his whole paper shut out of the access game. Since many recent politicians have made good on this implied threat (George Bush’s shut-out of the Washington Post’s White House reporters is a classic example), what we get is coverage that across the board fails to ask hard questions and in general treats leaders with a reverence they don’t always deserve.

Or we get the other thing: partisan coverage in which the right-wing guys hammer the Democrats and the lefties hammer the Bushes and the Cheneys. That’s a sort of Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact approach to the access question. You agree to forswear attacks on your own team, then you can get all the access you want from the guys in your locker room. A lot of outlets make this choice and that’s why we get the impression that news coverage is negative, because there is in fact a lot of screaming and finger-pointing on the airwaves — but mostly that’s partisan entertainment, not a healthy free press challenging authority.

Taibbi points out that it doesn’t have to be that way as long as news organizations are willing to call the politicians’ bluff.

I do think we’d all be better off if news organizations stopped choosing teams and worrying about access and started doing what Hastings did, which is risk the shut-out. It’s hard to write something that you know is going to put you straight into Siberia with your sources five minutes after the piece comes out. I certainly don’t do it very often. Most reporters don’t. But if we all did this more often, what we’d find in the end is that politicians would come calling and offering access anyway. In the end, they really do need us as much as we need them.

Barrett Brown hopes that the Hastings article is a sign of the future.

[The article] was written by a perfect specimen of the new breed of journalist-commentator that will hopefully come to replace the old breed sooner rather than later, and which has already collectively surpassed the old guard by every measure that counts—for instance, not being forever wrong about matters of life and death.

McChrystal and Co. would have exhibited far better judgment had they looked into Hastings’s career and writings and come to the obvious conclusion that this sort of journalist has nothing to lose in reporting a series of demonstrable facts. Unlike many of this country’s most respected commentators, Hastings did not spend the better part of a decade repeating conventional wisdom about our allegedly unprecedented success in two wars that have already proven to be abject failures, and thus he has no reason to simply take the word of some or another confused presidential administration that everything is under control, or will be after some additional expenditure of blood and treasure.

You cannot be a good journalist if you are working as a beat reporter for any of the major news organizations. They are all, almost by definition, careerist hacks.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show‘s take on the flap

Of course, you knew that Jon Stewart would be all over the story.

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Comments

  1. Steve LaBonne says

    The advanced state of decadence of our political / media culture, well described in this post, is a major contributing factor to the overall decadence of the US that was so eloquently addressed in your post of June 23. I’m not sure there is any way to arrest, let alone reverse, latter without seriously addressing the former, which is why I’m totally unmoved by plaints about the slow economic strangulation of the traditional news media. They have been systematically misinforming the public for a long time now and they won’t be missed.

  2. Scott says

    As a former journalist, I cringe when I think how much the media kowtow to public officials, but I also realize it’s a Catch-22: Do they tell all, and risk getting nothing in the future, or do they sanitize it to ensure future access? It’s not an easily-answered question, but what I was always taught is not to necessarily report the facts, but report the truth. Also, I think public officials think they can get away with more now because the media have lost their backbones and are so reluctant to point out malfeasance. The issue of the video of the US helicopter killing the Reuters journalists in Iraq is proof of that.

  3. says

    Scott,

    The problem is that access to high level people is only one way to get news, and it is always tainted. The better way is to get actual documents, which are often public or obtainable, and seek out low-level people who will blow the whistle.

  4. anonymous says

    I read the RS article today and it was inspiring. Does the USA spend more per capita on military than most other countries? (I am assuming yes.) It would be nice if the US could get back to average on military spending (just like on health care spending.)

    Also, what if the military became volunteer? As in, soldiers and generals not get paid, and just volunteer their time and expertise?

    Also, isn’t there some kind of old phrase, like if you can’t win every battle, you should choose wisely? The US can’t have a perfect military presence everywhere in the world that it wants to. So, maybe it should quit a few (wars.)

    Also, failure is not the worst thing in the world, even if it were the US failing to win a war. I believe that Not learning from failures is a sorry situation. Why can’t a guy smart enough to get elected president of the US figure out a way to quit a nonproductive war or two that drains resources for no safety or moral benefit?

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