On Burning Bridges

Every once in a while, Howard Kurtz actually reveals the media Village mindset:

One journalistic question to emerge from Rolling Stone’s takedown of Stanley McChrystal is whether a military beat reporter could have — or would have — done it. Michael Hastings was on a one-time assignment; he didn’t need to deal with the general and his people again. This, by the way, is no different than the tension faced by every city hall and statehouse reporter versus someone coming in for a one-shot piece.

Hastings himself addressed the question in a 2008 GQ piece, talking about being embedded as a presidential campaign reporter:

“The dance with staffers is a perilous one. You’re probably not going to get much, if any, one-on-one time with the candidate, which means your sources of information are the people who work for him. So you pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you ‘build trust,’ which everybody involved knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to [expletive] them over.”

Pretend? Not a pretty picture.

NYU journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen pivots toward Politico’s coverage of the McChrystal affair:

“In one of the many articles The Politico ran about the episode, the following observation was made by reporters Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee:

McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.

“Now this seemed to several observers — and I was one — a reveal. Think about what the Politico is saying: an experienced beat reporter is less of a risk for a powerful figure like McChrystal because an experienced beat reporter would probably not want to ‘burn bridges’ with key sources by telling the world what happens when those sources let their guard down. . .

“And then, the next day. . . . the reveal disappears. The Politico erased it, as if the thing had never happened. Down the memory hole, like in Orwell’s 1984.”

This is frustratingly true; I saw it all the time when I was a reporter, and yes, the temptation to soften stories is there all the time. After all, most public figures are interesting, charismatic people and they’re fun to be around.

But your loyalty has to be to your readers. I’m sorry to say, I was in a distinct minority. That’s why politicians were always shocked when I had the audacity to actually report what they said.

“I thought we were friends!” one local official said to me.

I looked at him. “I stood there and asked you a question. You responded, and you watched me write down your answer. What did you think was going to happen?” I said.

That’s why I’m a big believer in rotating beats. You just don’t want reporters getting too familiar with their sources.

4 thoughts on “On Burning Bridges

  1. The operative word is: Symbiotic.
    I was a functionary at Army Times for nearly half a decade. The gentle butt kissing is a high art among the silk stocking-powdered wig crowd of The Village. If Stan Mac didn’t unconciously know what he was (deliberately) doing by exposing himself to this reporter, he got punked but badly. On the other hand, the truths of any subject are almost never spoken openly among Villagers. It’s too risky, career-wise. Those who go off the reservation get marginalized and/or tossed under the ice cream cart. See also: Shinseki. I believe Stan Mac just wants to go fishing and spend more time with his wife and get out of this open-ended clusterfuck that is A-stan. Further, anybody who believes the jaded staff as “exposed” in this RS piece is unique to Stan Mac’s command structure is a naive fool. This wonder boy reporter will be blacklisted, of course, even though no blacklists exist, if you catch my drift. He would have been better off going doing a behind-the-scenes expose of Jay-Z or Lady Gaga. But if he did that, he and RS would probably get sued into oblivion. It’s easy to f*ck over sources when you’re a one-way suicide journalmalist. Hope it was worth it for them. Access just became an interesting problem for RS and their little Capote wannabe. Having said all that, the RS article was a conflation of profile and editorial that should not have been published. That kind of expose stuff is fun when the subject is some rock band, but it’s a dangerous game when the subject is a general fighting a war. Any person can be made to look bad like Stan Mac and his people were, once they give enough time and trust to someone who is out to get them. Familiarity breeds contempt.

  2. I suppose that explains my meteoric career in journalism.

    But I have to say, I don’t think the reporter had to work very hard to make McChrystal look bad. The facts are bad enough. That coverup of Pat Tillman’s death showed just how ambitious the guy was — and it paid off.

  3. We need bigger pools of reporters with balls like that … just keep rotating them through the mechanisms of society doing their jobs properly. For what it’s worth, I’m glad this happened.
    But I also have to wonder about the psychological operators that pushed Stan Mac to allow himself to be blown up like that — he must know he didn’t really want the job of overseeing and remediating an unwinnable endless intractable quagmire. It’s just not his bag. Better to fall on his sword and go fishing. Now, the Obamites who operate the Petraeus Hand Puppet can keep it going for evah and evah…keep the money flowing.

  4. The same thing happens in the so-called progressive blogosphere.

    If you dare to challenge the biggies, you must be avoided at all cost.

    Carolyn Kay

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