June 25, 2010

Beers on the Table: Journalists and the Public Figures They Cover (Updated)

Now that Gen. McChrystal is gone and consensus has formed that Preisdent Obama was well within his rights to have fired him, it's worth going back and looking anew at the Rolling Stone piece that got him fired. On the one hand, David Brooks in today's New York Times and Schumpter in the Economist lament the fact that public figures are now all the less likely to actually open up in front of journalists and speak freely. I don't think this excuses the mistake of thinking you could speak freely to a reporter from Rolling freaking Stone whose opposition to your strategy had already been established, but I take their points. On the other hand, Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Greenwald and others seized on a comment in the Politico that this would likely not have happened had Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter, not been a free-lance. The logic is that a reporter from the New York Times or the Washington Post would have been more servile to the people they cover because they do not want to burn their sources. After enduring some members of the White House press corps who do, frankly, seem to exchange favorable coverage of the administration for access, I can understand their complaint.

But -- and I have not worked in the newspaper industry since I was, oh, 19, so I am simply an amateur observer here and do not approach this subject with any claim of expertise on media-government relations -- I think there surely must be some kind of balance to be struck between honestly reporting a story and allowing public officials to speak their minds freely from time to time. A friend of mine, a brave journalist who has reported from such warzones as Afghanistan, Iraq and the District of Columbia (and is not afraid to drop the hammer on military officers or politicians who screw up), wrote in to the blog with his thoughts on the Rolling Stone article. Worth reading, even if you disagree:

Forget background and off the record stuff: that piece reeks of a violation of the 'beers on the table' rule. When sources are socializing with reporters, if you're smart and want to keep sources or even get future ones, you don't print drunk riffs that could be heard in any office in Washington -- or actually in any city where stressed-out powerful people battle rivals.


I'm not saying he did anything wrong because I wasn't there, but I sense that Hastings had heard a bunch of shit-talking, reported his story about soldiers hating COIN and then used the quotes as a way to sex up an otherwise understandable debate among military guys over tactics. Most guys join the military precisely in order to drop giant bombs on shit, not to play pretend mayor of Spin Assrape. That they don't like it might be a story -- but it's a better one if the French get to be 'fucking gay' at the beginning.


A few of the scoops in Hastings' article:


1) That Joe Biden is a blow-hard? I know him a little and respect him a lot. Look me in the eye and tell me POTUS doesn't wince when the man talks in public. Or private.


2) Colleagues aren't always excited to receive emails from Ambassador Holbrooke? Ever talk to the guy? Goodness, Milosevic found him so irritating that he actually stopped a war. There could be a reason the Taliban don't want to talk to us.


3) The thing about M4's reaction to meeting Obama is thin. From an off the record source who works for, to be fair, in a house full of ego maniacs. JSOC guys, for better or for worse, often do think the president should be pretty stoked to meet them. But even in this case, it's a harmless claim.


Anyway, what I'm getting at is that all of these things could probably be said in front of a reporter who knows the difference between important rifts and office bitching AND recognizes that 'beers are on the table' and guys might not be saying them in an effort to make them public but rather because they like and trust you to know what's important. It's ambiguous. But it can suddenly become unambiguous (for some lesser men) when you need some hot-ass quotes to please an editor.


M4 absolutely had to go because these things were published and the team in place wasn't going to be able to function well in a new era of 'emotional honesty made public.' And maybe it showed an attitude or cockiness that POTUS decided were wrong for the job. And maybe it should be OK to regularly can generals who fail or even annoy. But I'm not sure Hastings didn't just buddy-fuck some guys who'd never seen Capote or Almost Famous. And in doing so, he just made my job a lot harder.

UPDATE: There are already some great comments from readers. Keep it up, gang.

UPDATE II: Well, this makes things more interesting for the debate raging in the comments section of this post.

UPDATE III: I have just been reading the comments, and David Quigg's comment at 5:45 strikes a chord. I really think the quotes sadly distract from the bigger issue that should have been discussed.