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Rolling Stone McChrystal Profile: The End of Fly-on-the-Wall Reporting?

5 years ago
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This week the entire journalistic pundit pack embraced the control-the-message dictates of political spin and corporate public relations as they excoriated Gen. Stanley McChrystal for allowing a Rolling Stone reporter to spend a month with him and his entourage. The derogatory towel-snapping mockery that cost McChrystal his Afghan command was often depicted as less of a mistake than his naiveté in cooperating with a magazine profile-writer.

Michael Hastings, who etched the Rolling Stone portrait of McChrystal, deserves far more credit that he has received for pulling off the most difficult feat in 21st-century journalism -- convincing a Great Man to grant him nearly unfettered access. In a post-publication interview, Hastings told Newsweek, the magazine for which he was a former Baghdad correspondent, that he was originally only supposed to interview McChrystal during a NATO conference in Paris. But then McChrystal was stranded in Europe by the Icelandic volcano and, as Hastings put it, "My two-day trip turned into this monthlong journey following General McChrystal and his staff around from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C."

It may be years before another top U.S. official or major political candidate allows a reporter to practice fly-on-the-wall journalism. (Rolling Stone also deserves plaudits for paying for this increasingly rare full-immersion reporting.) You can just hear the scorn dripping from some junior press secretary's voice as he says: "You want to spend a day with the senator? Get real. That kind of thing cost McChrystal his job. All we're offering you is 10 minutes in the car."

Something important is being lost -- for both reporters and, yes, readers -- as government officials and candidates only expose themselves to scrutiny in the most controlled and time-limited settings. Sixty years ago, mired in the depths of the Korean War, Harry Truman permitted New Yorker writer and novelist John Hersey to hang out in the White House for several days watching him govern. Jerry Ford, another president comfortable with himself, allowed Hersey to return in the same guise for the New York Times Magazine in 1975. Theodore White's "Making of the President" series, which began by chronicling John Kennedy's 1960 triumph, is another monument to the virtues of in-the-room reporting.

Public officials are more than the sum of their sound bites. But if access is restricted (as it almost invariably is these days), it becomes almost impossible for a writer to get beyond regurgitated talking points in the quest for something resembling human reality. The journalistic choice often comes down to depending on self-serving anecdotes supplied by aides or over-hyping minor gaffes and gotcha moments. Reading the full Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal, rather than hearing it summarized on cable TV, offers a surprisingly nuanced view of the general's virtues and vainglorious moments.

The desire to actually be in the room taking notes -- instead of hearing distant off-stage echoes -- is a driving passion of reporting. There are few greater professional thrills than the electric feeling that "this is really happening -- and they know it's on the record." In 2003, I wrote a book called "One-Car Caravan" about the early skirmishing for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination that was built around campaign days when I was the only reporter accompanying John Kerry, Howard Dean and (sad to admit) John Edwards. While hang-out journalism may not tell you everything (back to John Edwards again), I passionately believe that spending time with a would-be president creates a far more rounded portrait than merely sticking a tape recorder in his face.

Long before the Rolling Stone profile shattered all the McChrystal, this kind of long-form journalism was in peril. Hastings himself said on the "Today" show Thursday, "What we actually got was almost a throwback to the old days of fly-on-the-wall reporting, where nowadays access is almost so controlled." We live in an instant-react media environment where the Teddy Whites of today are expected to communicate their in-depth reporting via Twitter. Time is money -- and most of today's journalists have neither as deadline pressures and financial constraints create a demand for the one-interview profile. Shrinking newspaper and magazine article lengths also deprive reporters of a home for their well-honed anecdotes as storytelling gives way to quick-hit bullet points.

Mourning for the storied past of journalism is as futile as wishing to rewrite the history of the Afghan war. But just this week, a reporter named Michael Hastings demonstrated the enduring power of profile-writing. What is sad is that rather than saluting Hastings' accomplishment (even if the writer had no intention of decapitating McChrystal's career), the conventional wisdom is hailing the gatekeepers and media minders who normally keep pesky reporters at bay. It is hard to be a fly-on-the-wall reporter when everyone in government and politics now comes equipped with fly-swatters and cans of Raid.

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Just another example of a liberal reporter assignating a public figure. Every reporter dreams of being the next Woodward or Berstein

True, the military is subserviant to civilian control, no mater how poorly the civilian performs or how little he knows of military operations, but is concerned about political considerations instead

June 27 2010 at 8:34 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm with you aerialbattlebat when I was in uniform we put it this way "shut up and Soldier"

June 27 2010 at 7:50 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

These comments were made in an informal atmosphere and were not "official" so to speak...the reporter really invaded the privacy of these men and printed an article which was just basically a cheap gossip piece. I can't imagine Cronkite being in an informal setting with Churchill and FDR and reporting what might be said after Churchill had a few scotches and was revealing his feelings about Stalin. What is said informally is private. Can you imagine the problems during WWII if reporters like Cronkite and Murrow did not have respect for the privacy of those on whom they reported. Comments made at private anniversary party where the participants are relaxed, imbibing, and enjoying each other's company should not be treated as a journalistic interview...reporting overheard comments in a setting such as this is merely gossip obtained by eavesdropping. Some journalist! What amazes me is that no one seems to know the difference between this article and real reporting/journalism....Cronkite and Murrow must be turning in their graves. Frankly, it is so TMZ....put it right up there with the furor over reporting on some star in "fat jeans" because she gained a few pounds. Just plain Tacky...but we seem to live in a very "tacky" society these days.

June 27 2010 at 4:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I finally read the Rolling Stones article and, while some of the remarks of his aides were intemperate, it didn't rise to hype created prior to its' release. I can understand Obama replacing him; afterall McChrystal did box him into accepting a strategy he didn't want and now McC's aides are whining about there being no "win" available. And it was monumentally stupid to allow a Rolling Stone writer that kind of access. Exactly what other kind of slant did they think Hastings was going to put on it? But I'm not sure this will end "fly on the wall" reporting. Bush/Cheney were pretty controlling, but Woodward seemed to have enough access to get a couple of books out of it. I doubt Obama will allow it - they control it more than even Bush/Cheney. But we'll only have to wait 2 more years to see if it changes as there will be a new resident in the White House.

June 27 2010 at 3:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I served in the military during wartime, and am amazed that the General allowed himself to ignore one of the most basic military commandments; regardless of personal feelings, one must respect one's superiors. Inwardly we truly respected those that earned it the most, but outwardly-especially "in the heat of battle" -we understood our lives depended on discipline. With the exception of unlawful orders, all soldiers from E-1 through 4-star respect, adhere to, and obey superiors' commands. Much of this military discipline derives from the outward appearance of respect! I remember standing on a hot parade ground, celebrating some General's retirement whom I had never heard of before, and thinking what a jerk he must be for making all us poor sods bake our brains out just so he could have a nice sendoff. But if you or anyone had asked me in public, I would have 100% supported the man and left you with only the highest opinion of him. That's the way its done. I don't care how high up or how long-served, General McChrystal should have done what every good soldier does; think what you will about your C.O. but keep your mouth SHUT.

June 27 2010 at 3:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

When I was raising my children, one of the first things they were taught, was that when socializing with their friends, they should NEVER say anything mean, or ugly about anyone in the group they were currently with, and most certainly NOT EVER say anything about some acquaintance who was NOT PRESENT. If you had something unpleasant or bad to say about a person, it should only be said directly to THAT PERSON. That would allow the other person an opportunity to defend themselves about any comments being made. I guess the good General didn't have that training in his classes before becoming General.

June 26 2010 at 4:21 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

What troubles me most is how this administration took the lime light off of the context of "what" was said and spun it into "bad general" without regard for the troops who are currently in harms way and "what" should be done to improve their chances of survival and ultimate victory.

Obama and his Vanity Administration are a disgrace to all of US who've served.

June 26 2010 at 2:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Rolling Stone has screwed up chances for journalists to get embeded with troops now.

June 26 2010 at 1:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, what the hell, just blame it all on Obama.

June 26 2010 at 1:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Before his interview with Hastings, McChrystal's motor-mouth got him in trouble twice. In London, he made personal assessments that were not cleared by either the DOD or Pentagon. He was forced to take back those words and eat a few crumbs of humble pie. He seems not to have learned how to hold his tongue since he spoke out of turn again, this time in Paris. His superiors made him eat those words, too. The general was also the architect of the Jessica Lynch PR stunt turned PR fiasco. And later when one of Lynch's Special Forces rescuers, Pat Tillman, died in Afghanistan, McChrystal used the former football star's death for PR purposes which ultimately backfired. As for COIN, a pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick for a stratagem is a logistical nightmare; its tepid implementation eight years too late. If the Stone hadn't rolled out McChrystal's red carpet ego, the imminent failure of COIN would have rolled up his career.

June 26 2010 at 12:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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