New York Times London bureau chief John Burns has joined other high-profile reporters (e.g., CBS chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan) in denouncing fellow journalist Michael Hastings. Hastings' Rolling Stone expose prompted the dismissal of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was relieved of his Afghanistan command following Hastings' revelations that he and some of his aides had used insubordinate language in discussing Obama administration superiors.
Appearing on Hugh Hewitt's conservative national radio program on July 6, the Times' former Baghdad bureau chief responded to Hewitt's question about how the Rolling Stone story had affected relations between journalists and military officials:
I think it's very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations. I think, you know, well, this will be debated down the years, the whole issue as to how it came about that Rolling Stone had that kind of access.
My unease, if I can be completely frank about this, is that from my experience of traveling and talking to generals–McChrystal, Petraeus and many, many others over the past few years–is that the old on-the-record/off-the-record standard doesn't really meet the case, which is to say that by the very nature of the time you spend with the generals–the same could be said to be true of the time that a reporter spends with anybody in the public eye–there are moments which just don't fit that formula.
There are long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side-by-side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete. You build up a kind of trust. It's not explicit, it's just there.
And my feeling is that it's the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.
Appearing two days later on PBS's NewsHour (7/8/10), Burns reiterated his criticism, and suggested that journalists ought to see to it that the Rolling Stone debacle wasn't repeated: "I think we in the press have to really look at cases like this and say, to what extent can we change the way we behave in such a way that this sort of thing doesn't happen again?"
By embarrassing the brass, Hastings harmed "military/media relations"–and presumably, in Burns' view, harmed journalism. But if the ideal of journalism is to serve the public by providing information to help them more fully understand events of the day, and not just to cultivate cozy relations with the powerful, it's hard to understand exactly what Burns is defending. Indeed, a review of U.S. journalism produced before the Rolling Stone writer mucked things up, when the warmer media/military relations championed by Burns prevailed, does not strike one as a model of public service.
There were the adoring profiles of McChrystal by journalists who wisely refrained from going "beyond what is necessary to report." As media critic and Hastings supporter Charles Kaiser documents on his website Full Court Press (7/2/10), "virtually every profile of McChrystal had either sharply downplayed the defects in his CV or ignored them altogether, including the general's central role in the cover-up of the killing of former football star Pat Tillman by friendly fire." Indeed, a little-noticed aspect of Hastings' expose was his reporting on unflattering aspects of McChrystal's career, including the Tillman cover-up and an Abu Ghraib-like torture scandal at another detention facility in Iraq that McChrystal supervised (FAIR Media Advisory, 6/25/10.)
Burns and other Hastings critics talk up the need to build trust between journalists and military officials–a questionable goal in itself, but all the more so when the resulting "trust" really just means journalists will continue to believe military officials who have repeatedly misled them. Take reporting on U.S. strikes that were ultimately determined to have killed and injured Afghan civilians. The rule for reporting such casualties is to take official U.S. denials at face value, to attempt to discredit Afghan sources who disagree, and to portray admissions of wrong-doing as "PR setbacks." The pattern was described last year in a FAIR Media Advisory (5/11/09):
Early reports of a massive U.S. attack on civilians in western Afghanistan last week (5/5/09) hewed to a familiar corporate media formula, stressing official U.S. denials and framing the scores of dead civilians as a PR setback for the White House's war effort.
It's a pattern that has frequently "fit the formula" at Burns' own New York Times (FAIR Action Alert, 1/9/02).
The habit of believing Pentagon sources even when they have proven to be unreliable not only stretches the notion of trust beyond the breaking point, it tramples on the infinitely more important relationship between the reporter and the public.
Good relations between journalists and Pentagon officials have also paid off nicely in the way corporate journalism has truncated "debates" about what should be done in Afghanistan, almost entirely excluding from discussion the majority American view in favor of withdrawal. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria (9/14/09) unwittingly summed up the findings of FAIR's 2009 study of the Afghanistan debate presented on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, stating in his lead: "It is time to get real about Afghanistan. Withdrawal is not a serious option."
The corporate media whose deference to the military has failed the public so often in the course of the Afghan War did so again in reporting on the Rolling Stone article. Media discussions (including Burns' and Hewitt's) missed Hastings' most significant findings. As a FAIR Media Advisory, "Media Missing the McChrystal Point" (6/25/10), pointed out:
The real significance of the piece is in the criticism–voiced by soldiers in Afghanistan and military experts–of the war itself. "Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm," wrote Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings.
It's no mystery why Hastings dire reporting on the status of the war failed to make it into the media discussion. But in accurately reporting truths likely to anger the powerful, Hastings' Rolling Stone expose upheld the best traditions of journalism. By the same token, his detractors, including Burns, have shown themselves as opponents of those traditions and perhaps more than a little confused about who they work for.