McChrystal - And The Press's Failure


David Brooks writes the following sentence today:

The most interesting part of my job is that I get to observe powerful people at close quarters.

Like David, I am privileged in many ways to be able to meet and talk to a lot of powerful figures. David and I have been at many functions of this sort together, but I have to say I disagree. These interactions are the least interesting part of my job, and often the most misleading. Every now and then, you discover a nugget that adds something. But in general, you get the schtick and spin, larded with a few anecdotes to make you feel flattered to be included in the salons of power. And what still amazes me is how deferent most of even the A-list journos are (with a few glorious exceptions). In fact, the definition of an A-list journalist in Washington is the person who is chummiest and closest to the people they cover. They have risen to the top in part because they know what questions the powerful really don't want to answer - and decide not to ask them.

This is the most extreme when it comes to senior members of the military, where cults of personality by consummate operators, like the crashing bore, David Petraeus, create media narratives where reality is far less salient than spin. And so a great deal of the coverage is really about how plugged in the journalist is, and a lot of it is directed at his peers, whose approval he craves far more than he does his readers' or viewers'. The notion that we hacks should be instinctually hostile to the powerful, blunt in our questions, unsparing in our challenges, rude in our inquiries, and uninterested in getting to know anyone in power - that we should be much more skeptical precisely because we are so close - this seems almost archaic in late-imperial DC. In my view, that's why the public has come to despise the press in a populist age. Because the public rightly sees us as part of the establishment problem, not a means to its accountability. (One reason the United States so easily became a nation of torture, for example, is because Washington journalists, again with certain glorious exceptions, could not bring themselves to think of their friends and sources as war criminals.)

Now, of course, in the real world, some messiness is essential. Beat reporters cannot afford to freeze off all access with constant embarrassing truth-telling. But their aim should always be truth-telling as much as possible - not quick-hit Politico-style scooplets masking a deeper deference. My view is that these days too often it isn't, especially if it requires a reporter bucking the conventional wisdom - the Iraq surge worked! Petraeus is God! McChrystal is a genius!

David parses what Rolling Stone told us as "kvetching" by a brilliant, fat-free general (who happens to be losing a war). I think that greatly minimizes what has been revealed. What's been revealed is not just kvetching but an entirely dysfunctional military-political operation in Afghanistan - where the Obama operation is as much at war with itself as with al Qaeda and where McChrystal's supreme Special Forces arrogance has long been a big problem. Until now, it was not clear to me how Eikenberry and Holbrooke made matters worse. It strikes me that this is big news, and news that mainstream journalists failed to deliver.

Here's a very interesting little essay that captures a lot of what this story tells us. Money quote:

I think McChrystal and his buddies didn’t expect that Hastings would actually write down everything they said and put it into print. It’s an unfortunate staple of Beltway journalism that has bled over into war reporting that most reporters are loathe to burn their sources by writing derogatory things about them. To be blunt, most reporters are as career-obsessed as the officers they’re interviewing and they don’t want to poison the well. This is doubly true if the officer being interviewed is a four-star general. There is a simple reciprocity involved: if you want to be invited back to ride on The Boss’s helicopter, if you want continued access, you’d better not write about his soft spot for strippers and gin.

That sums up so much of Washington journalism. Which is why every expert defense reporter and every established journalist treated Stanley McChrystal as if he were God until they were scooped by a free-lancer who didn't give a shit about his Washington "reputation":

In the end it was a freelancer who didn’t give a damn about how many bridges got burned who brought the general down, a reporter who’d lost his fiancé in Baghdad in 2006 (she was a reporter, too) and who wrote an unloved memoir about it (the Times panned it) and who when I met him last year exuded the sort of undiluted hypervigilence that I have always associated with people who have untreated PTSD. (Full Disclosure: I ran into Hastings at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony last July and did two rounds with him at a local Provincetown bar, the name of which I predictably cannot recall.)

There was a time when all reporters aspired to this kind of attitude. I miss those days.