Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rolling Stone and the true nature of the U.S. Press

Every once in a while, something happens that gives "ordinary people" insight into the thinking and decision-making of the powerful. That happened last week, when Rolling Stone magazine published a profile of General Stanley McChrystal and his senior staff in Afghanistan and France. The article, written by Michael Hastings, was a first-rate piece of journalism that showed that McChrystal and his staff didn't have much respect for the President or any member of his foreign relations team except for Hillary Clinton. It also delved into McChrystal's implementation of strategy and the resentment that many enlisted soldiers felt against him. In short, it was a devastating but well-reported article that served (at least in part) to bring McChrystal's career in the military to an end.

As illuminating as Hastings's article was, the reaction of the press was at least as illuminating. In short, it could be summarized as "How dare they?" How dare Rolling Stone scoop The New York Times, Washington Post, Time and all the other bastions of American media? There were two lines of thought. The first was that Rolling Stone isn't a "legitimate" news source, so they had no "right" to own the story. When the story first started to leak out, Time Magazine and Politico got advance copies of the article in PDF form. Without Rolling Stone's knowledge or approval, they posted the entire article on their websites before Rolling Stone posted it.

Time and Politico would have been within Fair Use limits if they had quoted from the article, but they instead reprinted the entire article. Both publications took the article down when Rolling Stone sent them complaints, but one wonders if they would have been as callous about copyrights and ownership had the source of the article been The New York Times or Washington Post. Thus, the first line of thought was "You're not a legitimate news source, so you're not entitled to the same treatment as legitimate news sources."

The second line of thought came from CBS's chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan. On Sunday, June 27th, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post interviewed Michael Hastings and Logan on his CNN program, "Reliable Sources". CNN has put a complete transcript of the interviews online. First, Kurtz interviewed Hastings, and then he turned to Logan for her reaction.

Let's look at some of the things that Logan said to Kurtz, and then deconstuct them:
KURTZ: If you had been traveling with General McChrystal and heard these comments about Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jim Jones, Richard Holbrooke, would you have reported them?

LARA LOGAN, CBS CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it really depends on the circumstances. It's hard to know -- 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, because if you look at the people around General McChrystal, if you look at his history, he was the Joint Special Operations commander. He has a history of not interacting with the media at all.

And his chief of intelligence, Mike Flynn, is the same. 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.

KURTZ: When you are out with the troops and you're living together and sleeping together, is there an unspoken agreement --

LOGAN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: -- that you're not going to embarrass them by reporting insults and banter?

LOGAN: Yes.

KURTZ: Tell me about that.

LOGAN: Yes, absolutely. There is an element of trust. 
Logan suggests that Hastings somehow lied to or misled General McChrystal and his staff to talk off the record and then printed their comments, but other than a vague feeling, she provides no evidence whatsoever that he did that. Then, she goes further and implies that it's a reporter's obligation to protect their subject's reputation, as if Hastings should have warned everyone to be extra careful when they spoke because he's a reporter. The last time I checked, General McChrystal and his staff are all adults and should know that when you say something around a reporter, it's likely to end up in print. That's what reporters do, or are supposed to do. Report the truth.

KURTZ: He (Hastings) says that all of the things that have been written about Stanley McChrystal have been these glowing profiles. He's suggesting that he did a job that the regular beat journalists have not done.

LOGAN: I think that's insulting and arrogant, myself. I really do, because there are very good beat reporters who have been covering these wars for years, year after year.

Michael Hastings appeared in Baghdad fairly late on the scene, and he was there for a significant period of time. He has his credentials, but he's not the only one.

There are a lot of very good reporters out there. And to be fair to the military, if they believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back. They may not have loved it. They didn't love the piece I did about hand grenades being thrown in Iraq that were killing troops. They didn't love that piece, it made a lot of people very angry. They didn't block me from coming back.

The operative phrase here is "...if they (the military) believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back." In Logan's view, a reporter has an obligation to report stories that the military will judge to be "balanced," so that they can continue to get access.

KURTZ: "The Washington Post" quoted an unnamed senior military official as saying that Michael Hastings broke the off-the-record ground rules. But the person who said this was on background and wouldn't allow his name to be used.

Is that fair?

LOGAN: Well, it's Kryptonite right now. I mean, do you blame him?

The commanding general in Afghanistan just lost his job. Who else is going to lose his job?

Believe me, all the senior leadership in Afghanistan are waiting for the ax to fall. I've been speaking to some of them. They don't know who is going to stay and who is going to go.

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. 

I'd argue that, in fact, Hastings served his country extremely well, because he reported the truth. Logan has warped the journalist's role from reporting actual events to becoming a censor and arbiter of what the public has a right to know.

Lara Logan has fallen into exactly the trap that the Pentagon hoped to create when it began embedding press with military units and controlling access. She's more loyal to the people who are giving her access to the field of battle than to the audience that's depending on her to learn the truth. Who knows what stories she's suppressed or ignored over the years in order to maintain her standing with the military?

Even if Logan were to eventually apologize for or "clarify" her comments, she can't undo the view into her thinking that she's given to the American public. She will never again be seen as an effective reporter. She's damaged the reputations of CBS News and her colleagues. The question now is whether CBS will keep Logan on, and in what capacity. Those decisions rest with Sean McManus and Les Moonves. In Logan, CBS News has its very own Judith Miller. What they do with her will in large part determine the future credibility of the network's news operation.
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