Friday, June 25, 2010

Hey Scions of Great American Newspaper Tradition, stop sucking so bad and embarrassing yourselves

Just last week we had James Risen carrying the Defense Department's jock with a silly war-justifying story about Afghan mineral wealth in the NYT. Then today Karen DeYoung drops a thinly-sourced and badly-headlined expose on how "Rolling Stone broke interview ground-rules with McChrystal, military officials say."

Of course, "military officials" will only "say" that anonymously. You know, "on background." To a reporter. Who won't print their names because of, well, you know, "ethics." (And to preserve access. [Speaking of, click that link. Did you know that Politico editors removed a line from an online story published yesterday that suggested Hastings, as a freelancer, might have been willing to print things that a beat reporter would have held back in order to preserve access? The editors say they did it to keep the story "tight and readable."])

"Many of the sessions were off-the-record and intended to give [reporter Michael Hastings] a sense" of how McChrystal's team operated, according to a senior military official. The command's own review of events, the official said, gleaned "no evidence to suggest" that any of the "salacious political quotes" in the article were made during a series of on-the-record and background interviews Hastings conducted with McChrystal and others.

The official, one of many subject to a Pentagon advisory not to discuss the situation without authorization, spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he was motivated by what he described as untrue claims made by Rolling Stone.

Two others with direct knowledge of the command's dealings with Hastings offered similar accounts.

You see, if "military officials" really wanted to denounce this story, they'd issue a press release through official channels. If anyone had really broken any kind of binding rules, you'd be sure the Department would tell everyone about it. But instead, you have the Washington fuckin' Post -- theoretically one of the two media organs best positioned to challenge the government's baseless assertions -- reporting exactly what the Department wants them to.

That makes Old Media 2/2 in the last two weeks.

I'm sure this has nothing to do with the Post feeling burned that someone else is #1 in the media-on-media meta-commentary this week.



  1. All of our institutions are feeling the pressure of increased transparency. I think this is a good thing, but "they" won't like it, in general.

    Medicine has this problem too, and it is one of the reasons that I think the profession is no longer as respected as it once was. Well, it's multifactorial, but our inability to fundamentally change things is hurting our profession, and our patients. Of course, all of this is now being challenged by....well, I'll stay away from that topic and what I think of the "bill that shall not be name."


    (Basically, I am saying I agree with the diagnosis of critics, but prefer a different treatment.)

  2. I hope this doesn't sound like a defense of any media outlet because I loathe all of them.

    The problem here isn't an ethical breach or complicating access. The problem is that journalists need to understand context. Reporters need to understand what is important (newsworthy) and what is not. To best understand that, the people whom they are covering need to be candid and there needs to be some degree of trust between them. If the people covered believe that reporters are looking for dirt or innuendos or controversy then those folks are going to clam up and only make cautious statements. Without some degree of candor, the reporter is going to struggle to understand what is going on.

    It seems very similar to the concept of attorney-client privilege. That privilege is extended to ensure that a client is open and forthcoming with the attorney, so that the attorney can provide the best possible representation. Likewise, with a journalist, there needs to be some degree of privilege in order for the folks covered to be as open and forthcoming as is reasonable, so that the journalist can understand the full context of what is being observed and make an assessment of what is newsworthy and what is not.

    Hastings' breach of these norms of conduct is hardly a "new media" victory. It is lazy, immature, and counterproductive. This was not news reporting. This was news making. And yes, Hastings is a douche bag. After observing these private grumblings of McChrystal's staff, he should have understood philosophical conflicts between the administration and the ISAF staff and that would have provided the context for a good assessment of how those conflicting views are slowly being reconciled. Instead, he gives us drunken banter and unguarded statements in a hotel in Paris. What a fucking assclown.

  3. Yes. Reporters who understand context and newsworthiness as key parts of their professions need to understand what is newsworthy and contextual.

    That makes sense.

  4. Hey, guys. In his many many post-story interviews, Hastings himself has lambasted "access journalism" and distanced himself from it. Seems to me - just an observation - that the assumption being made is that the compromise that allegedly goes hand in hand with beat access can only skew the reliability of the news it reports; it assumes that that same privileged access won't result in, well, privileged access - which could yield better insight and better reporting.

    But what do I know...

  5. Mike -- Seems to me - just an observation - that the assumption being made is that the compromise that allegedly goes hand in hand with beat access can only skew the reliability of the news it reports; it assumes that that same privileged access won't result in, well, privileged access - which could yield better insight and better reporting.

    Of course this is the trade-off, and beat reporters generally tend to understand their subject and its context a little bit better than someone doing a drop-in (though there are, of course, exceptions, especially in well-researched long-form writing). And yeah, beat reporters have a familiarity and relationship with their subjects that allows for the comfort level that's often essential to getting truly "inside" information, or even just experiencing the way things work in a non-stilted, there's-a-reporter-watching kind of way.

    Having said that, there's a downside to all of that. Hell, there's a downside for beat reporters covering a football team, never mind the GOVERNMENT. And that downside is mostly related to the fact that there's a certain mellowing of the sort of adversarial attitude that can be vitally important to real investigative reporting.

    A casual friend of mine is a senior press official in the administration. I've been to parties and cookouts at his house several times and hobnobbed with some of the big names and faces in national political media. Am I surprised that these guys are friends when they have so much in common and spend so much time together? No, of course not. But I do think that there's something lost when the journalists start to feel so much in common with those they cover that they're willing to overlook their deficiencies and make excuses for them.

  6. Gulliver

    Sure, I can see that. The relationship is symbiotic, obviously, and there's a fine line that separates knowing your subject and knowing your subject. Still, in this case, the extreme is held up as standard, and used as a justification for another extreme. I can imagine the line between adversarial reporting and good investigative journalism is just as fine. That the discussion on this has gone in the direction it has - ground rules - is interesting; more interesting is that Hastings claims there were none, while his editor claims they followed them to a tee. Hmmmm....