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Independence Day and Independent Journalism

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This Independence Day we need independent journalism more than ever -- as the events leading up to and immediately following the recent resignation of General Stanley McChrystal demonstrate anew. Why was it left to an independent journalist, Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone, to tell us important facts about our military's people, practices and policies in Afghanistan -- facts that the mainstream media's deeply dependent, and addicted to access, Pentagon and Afghanistan "beat" reporters never would and never will, facts crucial to any citizen wanting to make an informed democratic decision about our country's ongoing presence in Afghanistan? The MSM reporters, it turns out, are more than happy to explain. They have, you must understand, an "unspoken agreement" with the people they cover on our behalf, an agreement NOT TO TELL the rest of us certain things.

Appearing on CNN's Reliable Sources program, Hastings explained to host Howard Kurtz how truly independent journalists function:

KURTZ: You don't think it's 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?

HASTINGS: I think you'd have to ask General McChrystal and his team what they assumed. But for me, when I go in to write a profile, and no ground rules are laid down, and I'm there to write an on-the-record profile and cover readings while in the room, then that means it's on the record. I mean, it's not much of a mystery. If someone tells you something is off the record, I don't print it. If they don't tell me something is off the record, then it's fair game.

Hastings also did a good job of explaining how dependent journalists play the access game:

HASTINGS: There's a reason why when General McChrystal took the job, everyone writes a glowing profile of him, because then that assures access later on. And that assures better -- if you ever write a favorable story, they'll get better access later. And that was a game General McChrystal's team played very well, that if you get -- that if you write us a good story, we'll give you good access.

They gave unprecedented access to everybody. You know, they let -- you know, debriefings. They let you hang out with them. And they try to make you feel like you're part of the team. But that's an illusion. You're really part of the team. You know? And they know that and you know that. You're a journalist. You're there to tell -- you're there to tell it like it is. I'm sort of shocked -- or a bit surprised that --

KURTZ: You're saying that in your view, journalists who are going to be covering these guys regularly, covering the war, wrote puff pieces for the express purpose of being able to get more inside stuff, more access from the general and his top officials?

HASTINGS: Absolutely. And I don't think that's exclusive just to General McChrystal and the reporters covering him.

Later in that same program, CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan was asked by Kurtz if there is some sort of "unspoken agreement that you're not going to embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter."

"Absolutely," Logan replied. "Yes... there is an element of trust."

Jamie McIntyre, CNN's Senior Pentagon and Military Affairs Correspondent from 1992 to 2008, backed Logan's contention on his blog, and spoke of beat reporters "dirty little secret."

I have another theory based on my 16 years of traveling with senior defense officials and military officers," McIntyre said in his post. "Gen. McChrystal might have been under the misimpression Hastings would protect him, in return for the great access and candor... The dirty little secret among beat reporters who routinely travel with top military officials is that there's an 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.

So why, Mcintyre asked, "would reporters protect senior military officers from what could be career-ending self-inflicted wounds? One word, 'access.' Access now, and even more importantly access later."

Appearing on NPR's On The Media, McIntyre had the good grace at least to say Hastings was correct:

Well, I have to say I think Michael Hastings did exactly the right thing. Part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice bars contemptuous remarks by military officers about their Commander-in-Chief. So if I witnessed a military officer violating the military law on this subject, I think I would be bound to report that.

Lara Logan, on the other hand, saw fit to attack Hastings, his reputation, and his professionalism. First she cast doubt on his claim that all the interviews were on-the-record:

"Michael Hastings, if you believe him, says that there were no ground rules laid out. And, I mean, that just doesn't really make a lot of sense to me," she said. "I mean, I know these people. They never let their guard down like that. To me, something doesn't add up here. I just -- I don't believe it. "

Then Logan accused Hastings of having a "damaging type of attitude:"

"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," Logan said. "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."

And then finally, Logan's administered her coup de grace:

"Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has."

In response to her shameful ad hominem attacks, Logan herself was promptly assaulted in turn by the no-holds-barred streetfighter/attackdog Matt Taibbi. The driveby shooting occurred in Taibbi's blog under the straightforward if sophomoric headline "Lara Logan You Suck." Here's a sample:

Anyone who wants to know why network television news hasn't mattered since the seventies just needs to check out this appearance by Logan. Here's CBS's chief foreign correspondent saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that's killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his own dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.

When it comes to journalism's "unspoken agreements," Taibbi is right on the mark:

The reason Lara Logan thinks this is because she's like pretty much every other 'reputable' journalist in this country, in that she suffers from a profound confusion about who she's supposed to be working for.

Taibbi shot himself in the foot by typically getting some basic facts wrong -- no, Matt, the Pentagon did NOT spend anywhere near $4.7 billion on P.R. in 2009 alone -- for which he was in turn later fact checked, corrected and slapped around by Jeff Bercovici in a post entitled "The McChrystal Affair: Lara Logan Is Wrong -- but Matt Taibbi Is Full of It."

Although the factual errors made Taibbi look sloppy at best, they still don't undercut his basic premise -- and at least he ended his post by asking the right questions--questions which, like the facts and answers their Faustian unspoken agreements keep hidden, we'll never hear from the dependent corporate mainstream media:

What the hell are we doing in Afghanistan? Is it worth all the bloodshed and the hatred? Who are the people running this thing, what is their agenda, and is that agenda the same thing we voted for?

So this Independence Day, I hold these truths to be self-evident: that governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that independent journalism is crucial to informed consent of the governed -- and thus a functioning democracy; and that that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.