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Seduction and Betrayal: McChrystal and the Misapprehension of Journalism

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Journalism is an act of seduction. Many times I've done the seducing, in writing big stories and small; I've also been the seduced, slammed with the gut-wrenching morning-after upon reading stories written about me. So I know just how both Michael Hastings and Stanley McChrystal (& staff) are doing right about now. They are feeling betrayed. They are stunned by the blast wave from Hastings's article "The Runaway General" for Rolling Stone. Hastings: why so much push-back from my peers on this story? McChrystal: we trusted him, a guy who knew all the darkness of war--his girlfriend was blown to bits in Baghdad, for Christ's sake. But if journalism is an act of seduction, inherent to that seduction is betrayal. And journalism, in the end, is always an act of betrayal.

Betrayer and Betrayed. These are experiences that I understand viscerally because in the maelstrom following hard upon my reporting that Barack Obama had described small-town Pennsylvanians "clinging to guns and religion," I was both the actor and the acted-upon. Just as I betrayed the trust of the Obama supporters who had granted me access in the assumption that I would never write anything that might harm their candidate, so I experienced betrayal myself upon reading what other reporters hastened to opine after interviewing me. And so the unfolding of the Hastings-McChrystal relationship, in which a freelance reporter captured the general and his staff disrespecting the president and his--has for me a particular resonance. More to the point here, this big story of the last three days raises all sorts of questions to which I've given much thought since that night in San Francisco when our current president went on a little too long about some of our fellow Americans.

The implosion of the career of General Stanley McChrystal over as riveting a forty hours as we've seen lately in the public sphere, culminating Wednesday morning in President Obama's acceptance of his general's resignation as commander of the NATO forces in Afghanistan, has lit up the commentariat on the question, among others, of the proper stance for journalists in reporting news and the people who create news.

Much of the talk has centered on the difference--one that, as speculation goes, perhaps McChrystal's staff did not appreciate--between a beat reporter and a freelancer like Hastings. Jamie McIntyre, for many years the Pentagon correspondent for CNN, and therefore writing early Wednesday from experience, has had the best take on what in the world could McChrystal have been thinking when he allowed Michael Hastings, who was personally unknown to the general and his staff, to follow them around in order to write an article for Rolling Stone.

"The dirty little secret among beat reporters who routinely travel with top military officials is that there's a unwritten code, a general understanding, that off-color jokes, irreverent banter, and casual conversations are generally off-the-record, or on the deepest of background, unless otherwise agreed upon.

"Usually this is an informal understanding, especially when a group of reporters is traveling with an official, but sometimes it's part of official ground rules, like for instance on the Defense Secretary's official plane. All conversations are off-the-record, and if you want something on the record, you have to ask, and get permission. This is to allow the Secretary and his top lieutenants to let their hair down and relax. It also gives the reporters a chance to get to know the officials and have unguarded conversations with them, information that can be very useful in providing context down the road. It makes the plane a welcome sanctuary at the end of what is often a grueling day. The plane policy began as an informal understanding, until one reporter blogged a first-person account of what it's like traveling on the plane, and mentioned that the flight surgeon handed out sleeping pills to anyone who felt they needed them. This angered then-Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and the result was a formal policy."

As Jamie observes, there is a code, as often implicit as explicit--what I have long called "the code of the road." One part of the code that Jamie does not get into: not only do reporters not detail the tick-tock of the back story and the back chat between politicians and generals and their staffs, reporters also turn a blind eye to each other. No matter that some reporters are now more famous and of more interest to an influential niche of readers (like the Gawker crowd) than the people they cover. Discovering the code of the road was a fascinating revelation of the 2008 campaign trail.

Months before I recorded and wrote about Obama's comments at the San Francisco fundraiser, I had observed, figured out and begun to subscribe to the code, which had at first struck me as damned odd. Why did I fall in line? I was the newbie, I was insecure, I wanted to fit in. I wanted to do the right thing. Therefore, I never wrote about the coziness I witnessed on the campaign trail among a few well-known journalists and campaign staffers, conversations I overheard that belied the nonpartisan stance the journalists adopted in public--behavior that I found inappropriate, no matter the trade-off in access (although at the time I could not have said why my instincts warned me against this). Of course, as a neophyte I had little access; therefore, it was easy for me to judge, perhaps. The salient fact is that I was so unsure what (in the hell) I was doing that I would never have called these luminaries out. On the other hand, I don't know that I would do differently today. I do believe, as Jamie McIntyre vividly sets the scene, that no one of us, even reporters and pols and generals, should have to be "on camera" 24/7.

The reality is that reporters and politicians, reporters and soldiers, together inhabit a small space--in physical proximity, in the brevity of an historic moment. Everybody has the sense, no matter how excruciatingly mind numbingly repetitive or stressful any one day, that they are participating in something greater than themselves. There is an appreciation of a common humanity. This sense of a shared, larger purpose, grounded in the fact that they all--reporters, politicians, generals, soldiers, staffers alike--are creating history, may flicker and dim in the course of a particularly sordid stretch of investigative journalism, but it is always there, and it lies at the heart of the code of the road.

But the code has its darker purposes, for the relationship between power and the press, at least in the political sphere that I know, is a profoundly dysfunctional relationship. Seduction and betrayal tune a pavanne that both sides dance. My first exposure to this stormy marriage at the national level was on a bright, snowy Sunday Iowa afternoon when David Axelrod, who became for me that day the Barry White of spin, strode cheerily into the press compound and began to utter the most patently untrue remarks I had heard in my admittedly few months on the trail. I stood, agape, in a crush of lower level reporters furiously scribbling the Ax blather, a few (this was only 2007, after all) aiming recorders at his mustache. It's not that the other reporters didn't know Axelrod was feeding them a line--an impotent and therefore all-the-more poisonous fury emanated from them like heat--but they were trapped. They had jobs to do; they had to report what was said and done that day, no matter what.

Many if not most of these beat reporters did not have the luxury I had, as an unpaid blogger, of turning around and walking away. Some, probably the majority, resented the campaign (and the other campaigns I covered were exactly the same) for the pablum, even as the staffers did not respect the journalists for eating it. Meanwhile, as I've indicated, this was not an equal opportunity environment. The reporters who favored the candidate naturally got more access; they were fed special tidbits now and then. In such an environment, the code is necessary on some level just to keep reporters and staffers from each other's throats.

Although this reminiscence may seem to detour from the saga of the runaway general, really it goes to the crux. The spectacle I witnessed that afternoon in Iowa helped to settle into the back of my brain something that had begun merely as a niggle: an inner warning that I should be wary about getting too close to a politician or staffers, that I should not socialize with them, because no matter how much we might share a common patriotism and a common humanity, in the middle ground we have very different goals. This was the beginning of a slow understanding of what "committing an act of journalism" can sometimes entail.

Sometimes, often abruptly, an assignment becomes more than doing the job. It's suddenly a really big story, more important than the reporter and the sources put together. Did Michael Hastings know that by publishing the McChrystal & staff comments he was going to get them in a shit load of trouble? Surely, he did. And he knew this, and did it anyway, probably liking a lot of the guys very much. But the back chat was and is such a warning sign of a war out-of-control, even if disrespect is how good and talented men handle that impossible situation, that Michael Hastings had to publish. (Interestingly, the Obama administration seems not to have read on to the larger point of the article.) I'm sure Hastings thought about what he was doing, thought long and hard.

Likely only a tenth of the salaciousness Hastings saw and heard made it into his piece. I estimate based on how much of what I see and hear makes it into mine. Journalists every single day make decisions on what to put in, what to leave out, for a panoply of reasons practical, stylistic and rhetorical. And always, always the mental wheels of moral calibration are turning. This is a novel situation--what should I do here? Am I making the right choice? Here is where sources--like the Obama California grassroots organizers with whom I finally learned the lesson about getting too close--like the McChrystal staffers in Paris--get themselves in trouble. They don't understand that for reporters stories are always evolving; they don't grasp the implications for themselves. Even as they are stepping forward in the dance of seduction--the better to be presented to readers as they see themselves--they trust. I have been that partner in the dance, I have trusted; I know just how easy it is to fall into the delusion--why? because people think they will enjoy being observed and written up. Sometimes all it takes is the establishment of bona fides to get past initial caution. The bona fides I trusted, again and again, was the name of the news organization a reporter interviewing me was writing for. If I admired the outlet, how could the reporter not write something I would admire about me? I'm still not sure I've learned that lesson.

For the Obama grassroots organizers whose trust I betrayed, my bona fides was money. I had donated to the Obama Campaign; therefore, it was inconceivable that I would ever write anything that might damage that campaign. For the McChrystal staffers, Hastings's bona fides likely was the death of his sweetheart in the Iraq War. Surely, every staffer (if not McChrystal himself) knew Hastings's history. Somebody had googled him, if nothing else. This was a tragedy none of them, battle-hardened as they were, had experienced in war. Hastings had. Therefore, it was inconceivable that he would betray them. In some of Hastings's anecdotes, I get the sense, ever so slightly, that these staffers, ironically, sadly, in their talk are trying to prove to the reporter that they are as tough as he is. The best war reporting is always shot through with reticence (think Dexter Filkins at the New York Times). And here, paradoxically, is Hastings at his best, in not giving us everything that he could have.

In the end, it's not a matter of beat reporters versus freelancers, of breaking the code and losing access. Any reporter worth his or her salt would have reported exactly as Hastings and I did. Sometimes the story trumps every other consideration. Over time, I've come to see that every little bit of reportage, no matter how quotidian, is a small act of betrayal. The mere chronicling of an event, in the act of choosing words, in the fixing of the camera lens, affects it. Anybody who has ever been part of something and later seen it in the press has experienced that moment of disassociation, the knowledge that the reportage, no matter how good and accurate, has not captured quite what was seen and felt, and now that the event has been chronicled, has changed it. In this way, journalism is rather like quantum physics.

But I try not to get too philosophical and epistemological about what I do. Every single day that I head out to cover a story now I always recognize that small knot in the pit of my stomach that signifies the possibility for betrayal even as my spirits lift for I so enjoy the seductive dance itself. And maybe because I'm a journalist, both the knot of unease and the juxtaposed anticipation seem to me to be very good things.

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