Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be on a flight home from Kabul today, under orders from President Obama to attend the Wednesday strategy meeting on Afghanistan in person instead of by teleconference. McChrystal is in a spot of hot water over some wildly incautious remarks he and his entourage made to a freelance reporter for Rolling Stone. He probably won’t lose his job over this, but there’s no guarantee of that.
Now here’s the thing. The reporter who got all these excellent quotes (“Biden? Did you say ‘Bite me?’”) is Michael Hastings, a name I wasn’t familiar with. So I googled him and the first thing that caught my eye was a piece called “Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter,” which he wrote for GQ after pitching in on the Newsweek special election issue. (Ah, the life of a freelancer.) Given the day’s events, it’s pretty much a must-read.
Hastings is blunt about the fun a reporter on short-term assignment can have when he doesn’t have to worry about the repercussions of what he writes. “My job was basically: Ride the buses and planes with the candidates, have big lunches and dinners on the expense account, get sources drunk and singing, then report back the behind-the-scenes story.”
Then there is this paragraph. The sentence with the bad word is the most interesting to me as it will be to you, but the whole paragraph, with its tensions and contradictions, is worth considering:
The dance with staffers is a perilous one. You’re probably not going to get much, if any, one-on-one time with the candidate, which means your sources of information are the people who work for him. So you pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you “build trust,” which everybody involved knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to fuck them over; and they’ll throw you under a bus without much thought, too. (I should say that personal friendships can actually develop, despite the odds.) For the top campaign officials and operatives, seduction and punishment of reporters is an art. Write this fluff piece now; we’ll give you something good later. No, don’t write it this way, write it that way. We’ll give you something good later.
This deserves to stand as one of the great bits of journalistic self-flagellation and revelation, only a notch below Janet Malcolm’s famous confession that “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
But what’s interesting about the Hastings/McChrystal case is that it’s not clear what would have been less defensible: hearing all these things and reporting them, or hearing them and choosing, for decorum’s sake, not to report them. In one case you’re f—ing sources over. In another, you’re entering into a protection racket with them.
Readers who, having considered Hastings’ description of his work methods, decide they don’t like the guy are gonna love me: on a recent trip to Afghanistan, I heard military officers on long-term assignment there occasionally say things about their superiors’ judgment, and that of civilian authorities, that wasn’t entirely complimentary. None of it was as gold as what Hastings got, but it’d certainly have spiced up my story. I chalked it up to office politics and human frailty. Who doesn’t grumble about the boss? When I went back to some of those soldiers for on-the-record versions of what they said, of course they toned their language and their analysis way down. The resulting story can rightly be critiqued as pollyannish. (Decide for yourself.)
And then, of course, there is yet a third school of reporting, which prefers to use no identifiable sources at all. Here, it’s not the source who’s getting f—ed over. Here it’s the sources who are using a reporter to f— one another, or the reader, over (“A senior Conservative source said the Liberals are desperate. Liberal insiders called this more of the same Conservative manipulation”). Yes, some of what I’ve written reads that way too.
Anyway, discuss among yourselves. The message I hope I can send is that these journalistic choices are not self-evident. If you get a reputation for playing the short con with your sources, you’re going to run out of sources awfully quickly, as Michael Hastings is about to find out. But if you pick and choose what you’ll report out of what you hear, that process is inherently compromising. My own response to this dilemma is to be glad there are different kinds of reporters who practice different styles of reporting. You get an assortment of differently-flawed portrayals. I’ve always thought readers were pretty good at assaying the right worth of what they read. But of course a lot of readers think they’re the only sophisticated reader, and everyone else is getting snowed by the media jackals.