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

4 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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