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Did Rolling Stone Con McChrystal?

COM lecturer says savvy general was fair game

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Sheldon Toplitt, a College of Communication journalism department lecturer in media law and ethics, says that General McChrystal is “a straight shooter, he says what’s on his mind, he doesn’t hold back” and is sharp enough to have known what he was doing.

President Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal, his top commander in Afghanistan, last Wednesday, citing a need for unity among his team, and claiming unconvincingly that the dismissal was not precipitated by disparaging comments about the administration made by McChrystal and his staff in an article in Rolling Stone magazine.

McChrystal’s ousting is the most recent evidence of the perennially tenuous relationship between the military, civilian commanders, and journalists. It is also a reminder that the press, while beleaguered financially, still has the power to influence change at the very highest levels of government, particularly when officials who operate at those levels drop their guard and speak indiscreetly in the presence of reporters. Michael Hastings, the freelancer who wrote the article, reportedly spent a considerable amount of time drinking with McChrystal and his aides, one of whom referred to national security advisor James L. Jones as a “clown.”

BU Today spoke with Sheldon Toplitt, a College of Communication journalism department lecturer in media law and ethics, about whether Hastings or Rolling Stone crossed any ethical lines.

BU Today: How does a freelance journalist like Michael Hastings persuade the top general of NATO forces in Afghanistan to be the subject of a profile?
Toplitt: I don’t know why General McChrystal agreed to it. Hastings has been around for a while. He’s a weathered correspondent. Maybe McChrystal figured this guy is a serious guy; maybe he liked just hanging out with him and drinking with him.

McChrystal and his aides may have felt somewhat bulletproof. They’d exacted what they wanted from the Obama administration in terms of their policy, and they were just chafing at some of the conflicts they were having with Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke or some of his State Department folks. Maybe they figured if they spoke up, what’s going to happen? Or maybe they just weren’t thinking.

It’s unusual for McChrystal, who’s not just a general, but who’s involved in covert operations and traditionally plays it pretty close to the vest.

Some of Hastings’ key quotes came from barroom conversations. Did he violate any ethical boundaries or take advantage of people under the influence of alcohol?
I don’t think there was a breach of any ethical rules. Nothing that’s come forward, nothing I’ve read, suggests that McChrystal said, ‘This is off-the-record,’ and Hastings used it. There were certainly no hidden microphones. I think it was pretty evident that this was going to turn up in something. If McChrystal and his aides had no intention of it turning up, then shame on them for being that loose-lipped. If they were using Hastings the way the media and sources use each other, then those are the repercussions.

Hastings spent weeks with McChrystal and his aides. It’s natural to build trust, possibly even friendship, with people in the reporting process. Did Hastings betray his sources’ trust, or is betrayal part of being a government watchdog?
McChrystal graduated from the Kennedy School of Government, he’s in a high-profile position, he moved up to the rank of four-star general, and he’s a brilliant strategist. He’s also really sharp. He knew exactly what was going on, even if he was a little in his cups. If he didn’t, he has enough aides around him that one of them ought to have been sharp enough to say that this is going to come back and bite him. I don’t think that there’s anybody victimized here, anybody taken advantage of. I think this was mutually beneficial.

If anything, Hastings was more of a watchdog, as somebody who was not part of this beat but just coming in and doing this story and coming out again. The regular Pentagon, Afghanistan, and Defense Department reporters were more lapdogs than watchdogs.

How do you think someone as smart as McChrystal could make such a gaffe or allow his staff to?
I would just attribute it to hubris. The same thing people like about McChrystal is now what he’s getting dragged down for. He’s a straight shooter, he says what’s on his mind, he doesn’t hold back.

Do rules for what’s on the record change if the subject of a profile is not media-savvy?
Journalism jargon has gotten a little wacky: on the record, off the record, not for attribution, background, deep background. These are things that don’t even mean the same thing to journalists. You certainly can’t expect it to mean something to laypeople. I think generally there has to be a presumption that stuff’s on the record.

You’ve got to keep your eyes open. Who is it that you’re talking to and do they understand that when they’re talking to you, they’re talking to the newspaper and readers? You don’t want to take advantage of someone. There’s always a level of coercion and persuasion involved as a journalist.

Having said that, when looking at somebody like McChrystal, you have to apply a different standard. He’s a big boy. I wouldn’t think twice if I were Hastings. If there’s been no previous discussion, no ground rules set, I’d have no problem with using the stuff.

Will this story change anything about the relationship between the media and the U.S. military?
The relationship is always bad. And it’s deteriorated over the years. General Eisenhower basically called in the press corps and told them about D-Day. It was really Vietnam that signaled the first big change. With each military venture, media were that much more restricted, each war becoming less accessible to the press.

The current state of the relationship between the military and the media is not very good. Yet it’s a symbiotic relationship. Every so often they’ll throw the media a bone, but most of the time the media is still a willing lapdog. I think the public at the moment is being ill-served by the coverage of the military by the media.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

8 Comments

8 Comments on Did Rolling Stone Con McChrystal?

  • patrick on 06.28.2010 at 7:06 am

    On or Off?

    “I think generally there has to be a presumption that stuff’s on the record.” Ha. Spoken like a true journalist. Why shouldn’t the default be “off the record” and have it be clearly stated what is on or fair game?

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 9:34 am

    Media and War

    Kudos to Toplitt here for noting that the media is a “willing lapdog” when dealing with the military. I don’t feel bad at all for McChrystal, who is a killer, a murderer. Thousands of innocent people have died in Afghanistan, and many soldiers from the US and other countries, in a war that has been unnecessary from the start. The Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden after 9/11, to a third country. The US refused. Bin Laden could have been tried in an international tribunal. The US refusal looks quite stupid now, doesn’t it?

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 9:38 am

    @ "On or Off?"

    Someone wrote:
    “”I think generally there has to be a presumption that stuff’s on the record.” Ha. Spoken like a true journalist. Why shouldn’t the default be “off the record” and have it be clearly stated what is on or fair game? ”
    ANSWER: Because Hastings was a journalist who set up times to talk with McChrystal. Rolling Stone was footing the bill, I’m sure. And anyway, I don’t know why someone such as the person who wrote the above comment wants to be so protective of those in power. Those who are supposedly serving us should be subjected to MORE scrutiny and transparency, not less.

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 10:12 am

    Because Hastings is a JOURNALIST. What was his entire, single reason for being there? To interview, get quotes, get a story. No matter how long a man may hang out with a lion, he should always remember that it eats meat.

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 10:35 am

    The previous comment is a joke, right? Reminder: “Journalism” entails the reportage of facts and events through the mass media. McChrystal was speaking to a reporter, and he knew that he was speaking to one who, as a freelancer for Rolling Stone would reach a fairly broad audience. He’s no idiot. So, is he supposed to be exempt from conventional practice because he’s military? Incredible.

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 11:55 am

    @ "Media and War"

    Unlike the war in Iraq, there are not many people I know who would argue in their right mind that the war in Afghanistan was unnecessary. The Taliban was hosting Al-Qaeda, and thus was responsible for 9/11. Nor did it offer Bin Laden in 2001, it was in 1998, and it is doubtful the offer was serious. Here is a link: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/nov/05/afghanistan.terrorism3. If you analyze the context, you can see that the reason for the statement was mostly propaganda, anyways.

    I really dislike the stance of the person who made this comment. How can you call someone a murderer just because he is in the army? War is ugly, and that’s why it’s so easy to portray soldiers in a bad way. Toplitt is a journalist by education, so he clearly sided with the journalist perspective. And as you can see from what he said, journalists hate soldiers. He complains about restrictions, as all journalists do. I recall an interview on CNN where a journalist in Iraq openly said that she portrayed US soldiers in a negative light (i.e. by condemning their actions, focusing on their failings, etc.) only because they didn’t allow her to enter restricted military zones. This is ridiculous. Restrictions don’t come from no where. In a military zone there is always risk of being killed, and civilians are not allowed into them for their own sake. I don’t know how stupid one must be not to understand as basic a fact. Or those zones might be bases with top secret materials which can be revealed by the media. There was a case when info on Bin Laden’s location was leaked in a news paper. The reporter must have thought that he is just doing his job, but guess what, Bin Laden fled and he is still not captured. Journalists, at least some of them, seem to be unable to understand that information in war is a weapon. It’s like giving a loaded gun to a five year old.

    If journalists want to be allowed to more information, they will have to act more responsibly, and Toplitt should understand this. What happens is that because journalists hate soldiers, they portray any military act in a negative way. This is biased and bad reporting. The incident with McChrystal will only make the military distrust journalists even more, and unfortunately the cycle of hate will continue. As the article rightly pointed out, the media can, and does, affect war. They are responsible for lives of soldiers and civilians too. So far they are only hindering these efforts, as they make the population block the government from taking steps towards the goals of the intervention. More troops are needed in Afghanistan, but thanks to the public hatred of the war, fueled by the media, the administration is unable to provide any. This is contrary to the intentions of the public, since this will only prolong the war.

    We all hate war, and we want it to end. The media should help the military win the war, but so far it is helping the enemy by focusing on their own desire for more info. This is not true for all journalists, but the trend is towards that. If this goes on, there will be blood on the hands of the journalists.

  • Anonymous on 06.28.2010 at 3:29 pm

    With great power comes great responsibility–for both McChrystal AND Hastings. McChrystal blew it… no doubt. Talking to the press while drinking? That has got to be in the Media Training 101′s top 10 of “what NOT to do.” But dear BU students, please take this opportunity to RECOGNIZE the power that Hastings weilded as a journalist. By writing this article he brought down a top officer in the military! Pursuing and becoming a journalist is a noble endeavor. Please always remember that you will possess great power and please always use it wisely.

  • Palestine on 06.29.2010 at 2:10 am

    Media and War: a) hardly any of that is relevant to the article.
    b) next time keep it a comment, not an article, and your views will be taken more seriously. Either that or get your article published.

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