The Redefining of Modern Journalism

Last week’s Rolling Stone article, “The Runaway General,” written by freelance journalist Michael Hastings, has set off a number of firestorms in this country.  (If you haven’t read the article yet, you really should!) In the piece, Hastings raises all kinds of questions about the United States’ Afghan policy, both militarily and diplomatically.  But perhaps more importantly in terms of how we operate as a society in this country, the reactions to his article have raised new questions about the role of the media in general, and journalists in particular.

The reaction to the story, which ultimately led to the removal of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan by President Obama, has ranged from a standing ovation and a hero’s welcome, to accusations of treachery and underhandedness, having stabbed honorable men whose trust Hastings had gained in the back.  It’s actually a critical debate that we need to have, because ultimately it will determine the kinds of information the general public is to receive from its media.

First, some background:  Hastings appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday with host Howard Kurtz to discuss the article and address the controversy surrounding his methodology:

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Some key points to keep in mind:  The interview with McChrystal was only supposed to last a day, two tops, in Paris.  But because of the Icelandic volcano that brought all air travel in Europe to a complete halt, he ended up spending 10 days with the General and his entourage before he returned with them to Afghanistan.  In all, Hastings spent about a month with the General and his staff, all pretty much by accident.

Also, according to Hastings in his appearance on “Reliable Sources,” all of the controversial comments, the statements and events that created the uproar and cost the general his job, all took place within the first 24 hours of the time he spent with the crew.  He also said there were no ground rules set, that the visit beyond the first few hours was very much impromptu, and there were no agreements about what he could and could not report on beyond the typical “threat to national security” stuff.  In other words, everything was pretty much fair game.

Next up on the show was CBS News’ Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Lara Logan:

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And let the fireworks begin!

Logan seems to think that Hastings violated some sacrosanct tenet of modern journalism that you never criticize the subjects you’re covering.  That if he were a beat reporter, he would never do such a thing, and that he’s damaged the ability of all reporters from this point on to have a good working relationship with the military in Iraq and Afghanistan.  She essentially called him a liar when he claimed there were no ground rules, and she regards his reporting as sneaky, underhanded, and unethical; in her opinion, he pretended to be their friend, gained their trust, was let into the inner circle, and he then stabbed them in the back for no other reason than to further his own career.

And Logan is hardly alone in her opinion.  Right wing media pundits have been excoriating the story since word of its contents first leaked prior to last Wednesday.  While some consider the story one of the most important and influential works of the year, others ridicule it as anti-war, anti-military, and the writer for shamelessly and opportunistically writing a hit piece to advance his own fortunes.

As if this were the first time General McChrystal had to be reprimanded:  Recall he was summoned to meet with Obama aboard Air Force One in Copenhagen last October after McChrystal had made controversial statements regarding the formulation of the Afghanistan strategy and his request to Obama for more troops.

Today, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi swipes back at Logan and her assertions that the “establishment media” should just play nice with the authority figures they cover and merely report what they tell them to report.  Or, as Taibbi more succinctly put it, for “saying out loud on TV that when the man running a war that’s killing thousands of young men and women every year steps on his dick in front of a journalist, that journalist is supposed to eat the story so as not to embarrass the flag.”  Journalists apparently aren’t supposed to do anything that might insult or humiliate their subjects, no matter how serious the offense.

It all begs the question, what is the role of journalism today?  It seems to be a fight between good, old-fashioned investigative reporting, and beat reporters who cover the same principals day in and day out.  And it’s a question of who the real reporters are, whose work is more valuable? Who is the real journalist?

From the beat reporter’s perspective, they often will sit on juicy information they’ve become privy to in order to protect the relationships they’ve built up with the people they write about.  They have almost an obsessive need to maintain a level of access, to keep the trust of their subjects.  But then the question becomes one of who the reporter is then beholden to:  The organization they write for and the readers who depend on their writings to stay informed, or the power brokers they’re covering?  Are they reporters or are they an extension of their subject’s PR machine?

From the journalism purist’s point of view, you report the truth regardless of who it hurts.  The real interest of any journalist should be to disseminate accurate, honest information regardless of one’s personal views or the possibility of “burning bridges” to their sources.

It also raises the question of how the media covers the news and how they’ve changed their M.O.  As Taibbi points out, today’s media outlets–broadcast and cable TV outlets in particular–are often in the bag for big business and/or the Pentagon at unprecedented levels.  For example, NBC/MSNBC is owned by GE, one of the largest defense contractors in the country.  And Lara Logan’s CBS until several years ago was under the flag of Westinghouse, another major defense contractor.  News agencies no longer have the independence they once had, and are increasingly obligated to their corporate masters in an effort to protect the company’s corporate business interests.  After all, you don’t want to print or air a story that might piss off the very politicians or public officials who have the authority to award multi-billion dollar contracts, do you?

There is no greater illustration of the decline of actual reporting, the extent to which today’s media outlets kowtow to to Power, and fail to do the very investigative reporting that our country vitally depends on in order to know what is actually happening within our government than the lead-up to the war in Iraq.  Where once our vaunted media outlets would have spared no expense, exhausted every effort to verify the claims of the Bush administration regarding Iraq’s possession of WMD’s and Saddam Hussein’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda, and the claims that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks, they simply recorded what they were told and scurried off to read it back to their audience.

Had the media actually questioned the officials they were quoting, or bothered to research their claims, then maybe we wouldn’t be in this quagmire we’re still stuck in.  Maybe John Kerry actually wins the 2004 election because of the lies and misinformation propagated by the Executive Branch.

Instead, the media behaved like good little knaves and merely reported the propaganda handed to them.  In their rush to join the 24 hour news cycle that demands instant gratification regardless of accuracy, the media overlooked severe discrepancies and took the administration’s and Pentagon’s word at face value.  Instead of reporting and investigating the news, they reported what they were told to report.

What if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had taken that approach in 1972?  Would the Watergate scandal have been exposed?  Would Nixon have been forced to resign?  What further damage would have been done to our government and political system?

It seems to me that Michael Hastings should be hailed as a hero, for his story could very well end up changing the course of the war in Afghanistan; maybe even the course of history.  By all accounts Stanley McChrystal was an exceptional soldier and a revered leader.  But a disregard and disrespect of civilian leadership cannot be tolerated.  The military’s mission, unfortunately, is not merely military action; a major part of the counterinsurgency strategy pushed by General McChrystal is heavily dependent on diplomacy.  And if the military leaders don’t respect the diplomatic leaders they’re supposed to be working with, then an incredibly difficult mission becomes undoubtedly impossible (if it were ever possible at all).

Now I’m not a journalist, per se.  I’m just a blogger with an opinion.  But I do consider it my mission to present an analysis based on facts, not supposition.  If my own personal beliefs turn out to be wrong, then so be it.  But truth and honesty must be of primary concern.

Maybe if the media had actually done it’s job in the first place, we wouldn’t be in this mess.  We wouldn’t be spending trillions of dollars and sacrificing thousands of American lives to fight a war that many believe cannot be won.  Better late than never, I guess.


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