Behind Rolling Stone’s Profile on Gen McChrystal and the Dangers of the Freelance Reporter 7

Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter Discussing the McChrystal Mess on MSNBC

Somewhat lost in the full blown media storm around Rolling Stone’s “Runaway General” profile of General McChrystal that ended up costing him his job yesterday, and could be a turning point in President Obama’s attempt to fix the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, was how this all played out behind the scenes. How could someone as bright as McChrystal open the door to this controversy with seemingly no regard for what he was saying to an embedded,  freelance reporter with a tape recorder in hand? What was his staff thinking? Was he trying to get fired?

Michael Hastings, the freelance reporter for Rolling Stone who compiled the profile (who is still in Afghanistan BTW), discussed some of those details in an interview with his former news weekly yesterday. And, surprisingly, it only took one email to get access to Gen McChrystal:

“I was Baghdad correspondent for NEWSWEEK for two years, and I left the magazine after covering the elections. I wrote a piece for GQ before Obama took office that raised some serious questions about the direction we were taking in Afghanistan. So it was something I wanted to be writing about. I saw General McChrystal and his new strategy as a way to look at our Afghan policy to see if it’s working or if it’s a totally insane enterprise. I met with editors at Rolling Stone, they seemed into the idea, so I e-mailed McChrystal’s people. I didn’t think I was going to get any access at all. It’s one of those strange journalistic twists. They said yes, come on over to Paris to spend a couple days with us.”

Why McChrystal’s aides and most likely Duncan Boothby, a senior media aide (who has since resigned as well), gave access so easily is puzzling. Surely, McChrystal also weighed-in on the final decision, but why wasn’t there more consideration of the potential risks in opening the door to an outsider who had previously questioned the strategy in Afghanistan? Perhaps, McChrystal, who has never shied away from the spotlight, saw an opportunity to illustrate once and for all that the President’s strategy / lack of support wasn’t working in Afghanistan? McChrystal stunned the White House back in September of 2009 by making his 66-page recommendation for more troops public – noting that the United States could loose the war there if they didn’t get more troops. At the time, he went on 60 Minutes to get his point across.

His willingness to open-up this time around led Politico to publish this stanza yesterday in covering his resignation , which questions his media savvy and the decision to open the door to a risky, freelance reporter:

“McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.”

The stanza or graph, truly gives you an inside look at what goes on behind the lines and the balance a beat reporter must take in building relationships and balancing what they put out in print with the effect it will have on their future access, and how it doesn’t really apply when working with a freelance writer (or columnist for that matter). In fact, it was such an inside-baseball look that Politico pulled the graph later in the day, likely because they were scared of the scorn they’d take from fellow reporters on the White House beat.

Whether Hastings was far riskier than a typical beat reporter or not, the biggest mistake made by McChrystal and his staff was not having a cohesive objective going in. Or at least not appearing to. What was their objective for the profile? Why did they let Hastings tag around for a bar crawl in Paris and spend even more down-time with them as Volcanic ash grounded in them in Paris? If you’re going to agree to any interview, and especially to a profile of this magnitude, you better have a cohesive game plan going in that sets clear ground rules for you, your staff and the reporter. Perhaps a commander of General McChrystal’s ilk couldn’t bring himself to fear something as harmless as an embedded, freelance reporter. Unfortunately, in this case, the reporter was more dangerous than the enemy he was battling on the ground in Afghanistan on a daily basis.

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