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McChrystal, Hastings, and the culture of dependence

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Plenty of noise erupted after Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal hit the Web last week. Lara Logan slammed him for betraying what she views as the sacred trust between those in power and the journalists who cover them. “The question is really, is what General McChrystal and his aides were doing so egregious that they deserved—I mean to end a career like McChrystal’s?” she said during an interview with Howard Kurtz on his CNN program. Then came the zinger: “I mean Michael Hastings has never served his country like McChrystal has.” A potshot at his integrity and his patriotism. In the same sound bite. Brutal.

Hastings, to his abundant credit, declined to play she-said, he-said with Logan in a Democracy Now! interview a few days later: “She’s done fine work. I think it’s unfortunate she decided to go down this road. I know she’s been the victim of a lot of journalistic backbiting in her career, and I thought it was unfortunate she would decide to go down this path with me…. Everything I used was on the record, and that is clear.” I consider this an extremely mature, professional, even gracious response.

New York Times columnist David Brooks launched an attack on the Rolling Stone story and the journalist who penned it. He nailed Hastings for airing the “off-the-record trash talk” and “private kvetching” that high-ranking government and military officials sometimes indulge in. “Military people are especially prone to these sorts of outbursts,” he wrote in his June 24 column. “In public, they pay lavish deference to civilian masters who issue orders from the comfort of home. Among themselves, they blow off steam, sometimes in the crudest possible terms.”

I have spent some time in the company of a few generals and colonels. I can’t attest to what they say in private (and I wonder how Brooks can), but not a one ever trash-talked in my presence, from 1994, when I covered my first Marine Corps colonel, until now. These men knew their words represented more than just themselves: Every utterance reflected on the U.S. military—and the government of the United States. They knew what they were doing, and they knew who they were talking to, a journalist.

“Another scalp is on the wall,” Brooks continued, without naming Hastings. “The culture of exposure has triumphed, with results for all to see.”

In an interview on Democracy Now!, old-school investigative journalist John Pilger offered a critique of these critiquers:

Brooks writes about a “culture of exposure.” Excuse me, isn’t that journalism? Are we so distant from what journalism ought to be, not simply an echo chamber for authority, that somebody in the New York Times can attack a journalist who’s done his job? Hastings did a wonderful job. He caught out McChrystal, as he should have done. That’s his job. In a country where the media is constitutionally freer, nominally, than any other country on earth, the disgrace of the recent carnage in the Middle East and in Afghanistan is largely down to the fact that the media didn’t alert us. It didn’t report it. It didn’t question. It simply amplified and echoed authority. Hastings has proved—God bless him—that journalists still exist.

Statements made by McChrystal and his staffers that appear in the Rolling Stone article impugn the general’s colleagues. They are more than intemperate; they betray an arrogance and disrespect for his civilian superiors—and they are newsworthy.

Moreover, Hastings wrote about concrete and dubious actions taken by McChrystal. One staff member allegedly leaked news that the general was impatient with Obama’s indecision on Afghanistan to force the President to accede to his request for more troops. And McChrystal, not his staffers, played a starring role in the cover-up of the friendly-fire killing of Cpl. Pat Tillman. Tillman’s mom hammers McChrystal. “McChrystal was lying,” Mary Tillman said in a 2009 interview. “He said he didn’t know for certain Pat was killed by fratricide. That isn’t true in and of itself, but the fact is, it doesn’t matter whether he knew it for certain.” Where is this in the Brooks and Logan accounts?

Rather than a culture of exposure in journalism, there is a culture of dependence. There are the obvious forms of dependence, the reporter who relies on well-placed, and usually self-interested, sources for “scoops.” Then there’s the structural, physical dependence of, say, members of the White House press corps and embedded media. (I have been both.) The White House feeds them snacks and quote and trucks the press pool around in vans and planes; media embedded with the U.S. military are fed, transported, and protected by the very troops they cover. It’s the rare reporter who avoids contracting the variant Stockholm syndrome that breeds in these conditions.

But dependence goes much deeper. An actual narrative dependence has developed among major news outlets and officials. The pressure for news operations to accept the government or military line is tremendous. Telling the truth is bad for the bottom line; it upsets advertisers. Moreover, the public itself has grown so accustomed to this sort of “stenography to power” and rhetorical fondling of generals and other VIPs that controversial stories—about war, race, national security, immigration—can be a shock and an affront. So if a general says an operation was a success, news outlets quote him rather than investigating for themselves and reporting what they find.

A personal example:

During a press conference at Bagram airbase in 2002, I asked Major General F.L. “Buster” Hagenbeck whether reports were true that an Afghan army unit working with U.S. troops didn’t show up for a key movement during Operation Anaconda, an assault on Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot valley.

“Well, actually, it did show up,” he told us. “What happened was General Zia’s forces, with some members of our 5th Special Forces Group, were moving to the battlefield. They were to arrive just prior to our air assault. Along the way, as you know, we have had a lot of rain here over those days. A number of their trucks got stuck in quagmires, because they were going off road to get here.”

The general left out key bits of the story. It turns out General Zia’s troops, our allies, fell back not simply because they got stuck in the mud, but because they were mortared by enemy forces and then shot up by an American AC-130, killing several Afghan troops and a U.S. special operations soldier.

I didn’t witness the fighting. I was miles away at Bagram, with a bunch of other reporters. We got our news from U.S. Army officers. But we also had sources in the Afghan military and intelligence ministries, which in this case told us the real story. I included this information in my reports, but the folks in Atlanta preferred the general’s version.

“Major General Hagenbeck there wrapping up—giving an update on Operation Anaconda, talking about the success of coalition operations after a dawn air assault on enemy forces in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan,” CNN anchor Kyra Phillips said in a live broadcast. According to the general, Phillips reported, U.S. troops had killed “‘lots and lots of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters.’”

At home months later, I read damning accounts of the operation by other journalists that contradicted Hagenbeck and our other briefers. “There was a complete breakdown at the tactical level,” a CIA counterterrorism official told Seymour Hersh. “It was a complete disaster.”

And to Hagenbeck’s claims that U.S. forces had killed dozens of enemy fighters, Newsweek’s Rod Norland wrote in a deeply reported story that “despite estimates that as many as 700 enemy fighters had been killed, fewer than 10 corpses have been found on the battlefield. (U.S. commanders insist they intercepted radio requests for hundreds of wooden coffins, even though Afghans normally bury their dead in cloth shrouds.)”

I was ashamed that I’d given such prominence to the general’s spin in my live reports and downplayed information from the Afghan ministries. I felt like one of those hotel-bound reporters in Saigon four decades ago who were beguiled by tales of body counts spun by heavily starred American officers. At these press conferences, dubbed the “Five O’clock Follies,” most reporters would dutifully scribble down inflated or invented figures and file them as is. Just like them, I followed the path of least resistance and told the story we thought Americans wanted to hear.

The myth of objectivity notwithstanding, the news media has always reflected to a greater or lesser degree the opinions and biases of those who gather it and those who publish or broadcast it. But there was a time when good editors and programmers believed there should be a wall between editorial and advertising, that the truth—at least some truths—should be ferreted out for the public good. Some of these gatekeepers encouraged their journalists to report the ground truth of the Vietnam War, the machinations of Watergate and Iran-Contra. There was a sense that journalism was a public service, even when it came with a noblesse oblige attitude.

Robert McChesney and John Nichols remind us in their book The Death and Life of Journalism that there has never been a golden age of journalism, so it’s absurd to get misty-eyed about any halcyon yesteryears. Groupthink, editorial wimpiness, market pressure, and propagandizing have been newsroom demons for ages.

William Randolph Hearst’s nefarious role in sparking the Spanish-American War comes to mind. More recently, there’s the New York Times’ coverage of Africa in the 1960s. “In some instances, the foreign editor colluded with the reporter to manufacture scenes that they believed would conform to the racist, stereotypical biases that U.S. readers had come to expect in reports from Africa,” journalist and author Milton Allimadi wrote in the September/October 2003 issue of Extra!, the publication of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

There is a difference between professionalism and deference. Professional journalists treat all subjects with fairness. We might not like them—or we may love them—but all sources get the same rigorous questioning, always with the same goal: to elicit the truth, however elusive it may be, toward the public good. Perhaps in the frantic re-tooling and re-inventing happening among corporate news media, they’ll experiment with this strategy. The public might like it once it gets used to it.

For now, look to media outfits like Alternet and Truthout.org, which ran a piece on July 1 by journalist Ann Jones titled “Counterinsurgency Down for the Count in Afghanistan” that brilliantly pierces the media noise, smoke, and mirrors and redirects the focus to what matters: the country of Afghanistan and the American execution of this war. She is worth quoting at length.

I just spent some time embedded with the U.S. Army at a forward operating base near the Pakistan border where, despite daily “sig acts”—significant activity of a hostile nature—virtually every “lethal” American soldier is matched by a “nonlethal” counterpart whose job it is, in one way or another, to soften up those civilians for “protection.”

General McChrystal himself played both roles. As the U.S. commander, he was responsible for killing what he termed, at one point, “an amazing number of people” who were not threats, but he also regularly showed up at Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace to say, “Sorry.” Karzai praised him publicly for his frequent apologies (each, of course, reflecting an American act or acts that killed civilians), though angry Afghans were less impressed.

Follow the link for more real journalism.

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Written by bxpnyc

2010/07/03 at 13:41

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  1. […] July 9, 2010 · Leave a Comment CLS Fellow Brian Palmer addresses the debate over whether or not Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal was appropriate, and the role of journalists in Afghanistan more generally. Palmer finds a journalistic “culture of dependence” on the military, and that the “pressure for news operations to accept the government or military line is tremendous.” Read the piece in full here. […]


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