Journalists: Neither Friend nor Enemy
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, was ordered back to Washington on Tuesday after a magazine article portrayed him and his staff as openly contemptuous of some senior members of the Obama administration, the United States ambassador to Afghanistan and senior European officials.
I’m now waiting for the backlash against the journalist, Michael Hastings — you know, the guy who actually did his job and shared what he was told by the people he interviewed. Sadly, the seeds of backlash may have already been planted.
What I don’t know is which of McChrystal’s aides thought it would be a good idea to let his senior staff speak on background to Rolling Stone …
Oh, so the sources were speaking to Hastings on background. That means Hastings violated their trust, right? Not necessarily. Anyone who works regularly with news media organizations understands that “background” — much like “off the record” — can mean different things to different reporters. For one, it might mean nothing gets quoted. For another, it might mean all comments are fair game, but they’ll be attributed to un-named sources. And for some, yes, it might mean: “To hell with you. If you’re stupid enough to say it, you’ll live with the consequences.”
That’s why press agents and public information officers and their ilk — if they’re worth what their paid — will strongly (and repeatedly) remind those they represent of the following cardinal rule: “If you don’t want to see it in print or on the air, don’t say it. Period. End of discussion. Ignore this rule at your own peril. If you choose to ignore it and the story is not to your liking, then you will only have you to blame. Journalists are not your friend. They’re not your enemy, either. They’re professional storytellers who know that the best stories contain unexepected twists and turns. Give them a twist or turn and it will become a part of their story, sooner or later, one way or another.”
Consumers of news can complain all they want about ambiguous answers and non-answers. I’ve certainly complained about them before. But I’ve also stood on the other side of the fence. And I know that, if you’re dealing with journalists and want to survive to fight another day, you don’t blink, you don’t relax, you don’t say everything that’s on your mind — no matter what the circumstances might be.
Most of the comments appear to have been uttered during unguarded moments, in places like bars and restaurants where the general and his aides gathered to unwind.
Some people will call me “dishonest” for suggesting that public figures check what they say before they say it. And with all due respect to those people, they’re hypocrites. They’re hypocrites because every one of us, virtually every day of our lives, checks what we say before we say it. If we don’t, we either end up offending someone, or living very isolated, very lonely lives.
Which is precisely why we should not begrudge public figures the right to censor themselves. Nor should we allow them to blame anyone but themselves when they fail to exercise that right.
ADDENDUM: To be fair, McChrystal is not looking for sympathy or trying to blame someone else. To the contrary, his apology seems, on first read, to acknowledge that he is the one to blame for the hot water in which he now stands.
I extend my sincerest apology for this profile. It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.
Of course, the jury’s still out what McChrystal’s defenders will do. Will they follow his lead, or start pointing fingers at Rolling Stone and Hastings?
UPDATE: And so it begins.
… the experts quoted by Hastings are all critical of the war. All of which underlines the poor judgment in giving this guy such access.