A “Very, Very Bad” Article

The Washington journalistic establishment’s reaction to Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone piece on Gen. McChrystal is nearly as impressive as the article itself, writes Eric Alterman.

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Michael Hastings's <i>Rolling Stone</i> piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, above, has set the Washington media establishment afire. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)
Michael Hastings's Rolling Stone piece on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, above, has set the Washington media establishment afire. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

"There’s a Rolling Stone article out," an aide told then-General Stanley McChrystal early last week. "It’s very, very bad."

The aide was half right. Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” was out, but it was not bad in any way, except for McChrystal’s now-ended military career. It was simply superlative in pretty much every other imaginable respect: an almost picture-perfect example of skillful interviewing, smooth narrative writing, extremely exhaustive research, and finally (and perhaps rarest) thoughtful contextualizing of extremely complicated material. I recommend it to all journalism professors as an example of the state of the journalistic art.

But almost as impressive as the article itself—and, of course, the commotion it caused in the administration’s Afghan policy resulting in McChrystal’s firing and his replacement by Gen. David Petraeus—has been the Washington journalistic establishment’s reaction to it. Reporter after reporter has complained that by accurately reporting what McChyrstal and his aides said in explicitly on-the-record conversations to a reporter with a tape recorder and/or notepad in his hand, Hastings has violated the tenets of professional journalism. (A few of the reporters did this, it should be added, after stealing his work for their own websites.)

First out of the gate, a Politico writer offered the theory that Hastings had gone ahead with his report because he did not mind “burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.” Oddly, not long after this paragraph began to attract some unflattering attention from disparate corners of the blogosphere, it somehow disappeared from Politico’s website in what its author later explained was “a routine updating” by subtraction.

Still, its sentiments were apparently widely shared. Celest Headlee of NPR complained to Hastings that, “You obviously were not worried about access in the future. I can’t imagine you’re going to get it.” And conflict-of-interest king Howard Kurtz submitted one inane question after another to Hastings on his CNN interview show, “Reliable Sources.”

First off, Kurtz wanted to know if Hastings had “any regrets” about costing Hastings his job. Second, he demanded to know if Hastings thought it “likely that McChrystal and his team assume that some of their joking, that some of their banter would be treated by you as off the record?” Next Kurtz wondered if, after Hastings “got some criticism for quoting one comment by one aide while he was getting drunk, or ‘hammered,’” Hastings had “second thoughts about that?” Finally, he relied not on his own apparently excellent journalistic judgment but on that of Bill O’Reilly. This apparently Kurtz-approved ethical expert “said on his Fox program this week that you’re a far-left guy” before demanding, “So, are you on the liberal side of things, and are you—do you have doubts about the Afghan War?”

Never mind the irony of the best-known media reporter in American appearing to complain about actual reporting. Hastings, after all, swatted away every one of these silly questions and many more by citing the most obvious tenets of basic journalism 101. When people are on the record, they are on the record. If they say things that might cost them their job, that’s their problem. Beyond fairness and accuracy, a journalist’s responsibility is to his reader, not to his source. Hastings didn’t fire McChrystal, after all.

Hastings’s answers only seemed to make his interlocutors even angrier. CBS’s Lara Logan—whom Kurtz invited on after cutting off Hastings’s responses—was positively livid when she appeared on the program. Her problem apparently stemmed from Hastings’s ability to get McChrystal and his men to trust him and then go ahead and accurately do the job he had told them he was going to do by reporting what they had to say:

And what I find is 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. That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don’t—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 … I mean, the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious, that they deserved to end a career like McChrystal’s? I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

Talk about Stockholm syndrome. The confusion inherent in the above complaint is truly awesome. In the first place, Logan (and Kurtz) do not seem to understand that it is the reporter’s job to get information from his subject by “establishing trust.” (If either one had ever read Janet Malcolm’s thoughtful study, The Journalist and the Murderer, which deals exactly with this topic, they give no evidence of it here.) Second, once again, Hastings didn’t fire McChrystal—Obama did. And he did so for reasons that very few people, even his political enemies, have bothered to dispute. Finally, the notion that journalists who reveal the truth about the misguided wars their country faces had better shut up and leave it to the generals to tell us what we need to know—well, really, the Pentagon can save a great deal of money by replacing its entire propaganda apparatus with Kurtz, Logan, and “journalists” who think the way they do. (And by the way, it might have been decent of Kurtz to give Hastings a chance to respond to Logan’s egregious accusations rather than cutting him off mid-sentence.)

Conservative New York Times pundit David Brooks took a more elegant route to a similar conclusion as that reached by Logan and implied by Kurtz. In Brooks’s view, because “General McChrystal was excellent at his job,” “had outstanding relations with the White House and entirely proper relationships with his various civilian partners in the State Department,” and “set up a superb decision-making apparatus that deftly used military and civilian expertise,” he ought not have been quoted “kvetching” even though he did so “on the record, in front of a reporter.” Meanwhile, 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. “

Once again, curious. In the first place, it’s Brooks’s view that Hastings should be concerning himself with whether McChrystal should be allowed to keep his job, when in fact McChrystal and company didn’t appear too concerned about that when they were shooting off their mouths about their civilian superiors to a reporter holding a notebook and a tape recorder. Second, while Brooks simply asserts the alleged excellence and outstanding qualities of McChystal’s generalship, he does not bother trying to support these claims with evidence.

No wonder. As Brooks’s colleague Frank Rich noted in the same space this Sunday, McChrystal’s record appears to be one of constant dishonesty, insubordination, and now, mission failure. Rich explained:

The general’s significant role in the Pentagon’s politically motivated cover-up of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death in 2004 should have been disqualifying from the start. The official investigation into that scandal—finding that McChrystal peddled “inaccurate and misleading assertions”—was unambiguous and damning.

Once made the top commander in Afghanistan, the general was kept on long past his expiration date. He should have been cashiered after he took his first public shot at Joe Biden during a London speaking appearance last October. That’s when McChrystal said he would not support the vice president’s more limited war strategy, should the president choose it over his own. According to Jonathan Alter in his book “The Promise,” McChrystal’s London remarks also disclosed information from a C.I.A. report that the general “had no authority to declassify.” These weren’t his only offenses. McChrystal had gone on a showboating personal publicity tour that culminated with “60 Minutes”—even as his own histrionic Afghanistan recommendation somehow leaked to Bob Woodward, disrupting Obama’s war deliberations. The president was livid, Alter writes, but McChrystal was spared because of a White House consensus that he was naïve, not “out of control.”

But because he played the media game so well, not only was McChrystal lionized by those who should have been exposing his (now) obvious shortcomings, he was also able to mask the fact that his strategy was failing to turn the tide in Afghanistan as well—something that becomes evident in a close read of Hastings’s piece.

This is not the way things are supposed to work. As 16-year veteran Pentagon reporter Jamie McIntyre told NPR’s “On the Media,” “the dirty little secret is, yeah, we sort of 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.” Good thing nobody told Michael Hastings that.

The other decidedly comical aspect of the journalistic establishment’s reaction to the piece they so disdain was the eagerness a few of them showed in trying to steal it. Not only did website after website post the highlights of the general’s shocking quotes before Rolling Stone did, but two of them—Politico and Time—stole it outright, posting the results of months of research and tens of thousands of dollars of investment on their own sites without even bothering to ask permission from the people responsible for them.

Asked by an NPR reporter whether this behavior “cros[ed] a line,” Bill Grueskin, who is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University School of Journalism, replied, “I think they crossed the line in the same way that a bank robber who goes into a bank and takes money out of the cashier’s drawer crosses a line.” New York Times media reporter David Carr titled his column on the controversy “Heedlessly Hijacking Content,” and termed it “a clear violation of copyright and professional practice, and it amounted to taking money out of a competitor’s pocket.”

Politico’s Jim VandeHei justified the move by explaining, “It was being circulated and widely discussed among insiders, and our team felt readers should see what insiders were reading and reacting to.” Time swore that they only posted the piece “at the moment this story of immense national interest” and “always had the intention of taking it down as soon as Rolling Stone made any element of the story publicly available,” adding that they had made a mistake. Meanwhile, The Washington Post offered McChrystal’s men the cover of anonymity to blast Hastings, but provided no evidence that any of their accusations were accurate.

OK, that’s not the funniest part. That appropriately took place on “The Daily Show,” which ran one clip of Gretchen Carlson on “Fox and Friends” explaining Obama’s decision to fire McChrystal:

This is what being president of the United States is all about. It’s these tough, huge, monumental decisions. It’s not a campaign. It’s not about whether you’re popular…. It’s in a time of crisis, making these executive decisions. It’s just like our job. From a daily basis, sometimes we just roll along but during a breaking crisis you know what, it’s just like growing up you turn to the TV during that one moment during the year, they would have to carry a story all alone. It’s the same thing as being the president of the United States.

That was great, but so too was CNN’s Rick Sanchez, who explained the general’s insubordination as follows: “I got kids, you got kids, you know when my teenage sons have a party and invite their friends down to the basement, sometimes they’ll make me say and do things like, come on guys, enough is enough.”

Which is better? You decide.

True, Michael Hastings makes a fine and necessary point when, responding by Twitter to David Brooks, he writes, "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."

But I still can’t resist giving Jon Stewart the final word: “At approximately 11:04 EST the American news media finally realized they kind of suck.”

If only….

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His “Altercation” blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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