Did Rolling Stone Con McChrystal?
COM lecturer says savvy general was fair game
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.8 Comments