POLITICS

Michael Hastings Still Attacked By Military Correspondents, For Not Following 'Formula'

07/07/2010 04:28 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the dust settles, weeks after Michael Hastings's Rolling Stone article, "The Runaway General," resulted in the abrupt dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal, questions are being asked about whether or not there will be new rules of engagement -- between the military and the press.

I'm going back to Afghanistan to report on the war. But after the McChrystal fiasco, what the heck are the rules?

That's David Wood, the chief military correspondent for Politics Daily, who says that he wouldn't have penned the story that Hastings wrote. Then he goes on to attempt to stake out distinctions, describing how he wrote a story that caught him a fair share of heat:

Embedded with the 1st Battalion, 6th Marines in southern Afghanistan two years ago, I spent hours and days sitting in a conference room while the Marines planned a huge upcoming operation. It wasn't long before I realized the operation was being delayed because of bickering and confusion in the allied command. The Brits disliked the intent of the operation; generals in Kabul disagreed with generals in Kandahar about what ought to be done; there was squabbling among the Canadians and others about who was to do what.

Military operation delayed by command confusion? That, I thought, was a story worth telling.

And so, he told it! And then there was a period of time when the story was a "sensation" and the Marine command was "livid." But ultimately, he was allowed to re-embed because the story was accurate. So, what's the difference here with the Hastings story, which was also accurate?

A story on flaws in the command structure mattered; lives would depend on how smoothly the commanders worked. Off-hand comments, made in private, about Joe Biden? Not important enough to break a confidence. Surely, Hastings overheard more significant and compelling stuff from his month with the general. If McChrystal and his staff had deep and bitter disagreements with the White House, Hastings should have written that story. But he chose to go with the trash-talk as the more sensational story.

And yet, the consensus among military professionals is that those "off-hand comments" about Joe Biden (and, lest we forget, Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry), were tantamount to a firing offense, because it belied a festering disrespect for the chain of command.

But more to the point, when Wood says things like, "Surely, Hastings overheard more significant and compelling stuff from his month with the general," my response is, "Indeed, yes! And maybe you should go and read the story he wrote!" Because what seems to be getting lost is that Hastings wrote a story that broadly reported out McChrystal's inability to get his charges to buy into the counterinsurgency mission, even as he was ridiculing the failings of others. Context: still matters!

Suffice it to say, what Hastings has basically exposed is a wide variance in the notion of "journalistic independence" among journalists who consider themselves to be "independent." Elsewhere, Instaputz flags the following quote from New York Times London bureau chief John Burns, who says that journalists need to hew to a "formula":

I think it's very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations. I think, you know, well, this will be debated down the years, the whole issue as to how it came about that Rolling Stone had that kind of access. My unease, if I can be completely frank about this, is that from my experience of traveling and talking to generals, McChrystal, Petraeus and many, many others over the past few years, is that the old on-the-record/off-the-record standard doesn't really meet the case, which is to say that by the very nature of the time you spend with the generals, the same could be said to be true of the time that a reporter spends with anybody in the public eye. There are moments which just don't fit that formula. There are long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side by side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete. You build up a kind of trust. It's not explicit, it's just there. And my feeling is that it's the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.

Following Instaputz's example, smash-cut to Charles Kaiser:

As [Full Court Press] first pointed out last October, virtually every profile of McChrystal had either sharply downplayed the defects in his CV or ignored them altogether, including the general's central role in the cover up of the killing of former football star Pat Tillman by friendly fire.

So, said "formula" is by its very nature limiting. And that matters also.

For what it's worth, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is neither asking the press to adhere to a new formula, nor is he of the mind that this episode has "adversely impacted" the military's relationship with the press. Rather, he's asking his men to take more responsibility. As NPR's David Gura notes, when Bloomberg Pentagon correspondent Tony Capaccio asked Gates at a briefing whether or not the McChrystal episode was going to lead to a "deterioration" in the relationship between the military and the media, Gates responded, "Not at all, in my view... General McChrystal has the responsibility for this. And I think that to let it impact the relationship I have with the press would be a mistake."

Gates continued:

I have communicated the message ever since I got to this job, to both civilian and military leaders, that the press is not the enemy. And when there is a story that is critical, the first thing to do is to go out and find out if it's true, and if it is, then do something about it, and if it's not, gather the data to show that it's not true, but don't get into a defensive crouch. And I hope that people won't do that.

I think that people clearly need to make smart decisions about how they engage, the circumstances in which they engage, what they talk about. And there is, in my view, a need for greater discipline in this process on our part and a greater understanding that somebody who is giving an interview in Europe may not understand that something they're saying has an impact in Asia. And so we need to -- we need to be a little smarter about how we approach this. But I would say those are improvements that are needed on our part.

And in an ensuing memo, Gates reiterated the need to be "as open, accessible, and transparent as possible," while adding the admonishment: "We have far too many people talking to the media outside of channels, sometimes providing information which is simply incorrect, out of proper context, unauthorized or uninformed by the perspective of those who are most knowledgeable about and accountable for inter- and intra-agency policy processes, operations, and activities."

So, everyone can basically keep on doing what they've been doing, up to and including allowing people like Michael Hastings to beat them to stories I am supposed to believe should have been sat on!

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