War Reporting Is About to Change for the Worse

Just over 36 hours after General Stanley McChrystal's controversial comments to Rolling Stone were first made public, and about five hours before President Obama would announce he had accepted McChrystal's resignation, NBC News' Richard Engel reported that the U.S. military in Afghanistan had already issued a "media blackout" on at least one base. Military officials, witnessing McChrystal's four-star career crumble over a few stray comments deriding his civilian overseers, were already calculating that speaking to the press was simply too risky. Since then, several people who work with the Pentagon in Washington, DC, tell The Atlantic that military officials seem anecdotally more tight-lipped about Department of Defence affairs. The DoD has not officially changed agency rules with regards to the media. But it seems clear that informal military culture, which had long kept reporters at arm's reach but had opened up considerably under Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, is quickly closing itself off in the wake of McChrystal's downfall. That closing off, and the unusual circumstances that led to it, could be bad for the military, the media, and the Americans that both institutions are meant to serve.

Journalists who work closely with government officials in sensitive positions tend to operate under spoken and unspoken understandings of what gets reported. In a formal interview, it's always made clear what's on the record, what's off the record, and what's on background. But what if the reporter and source head off to a bar and chat over drinks? Sometimes a reporter can get a much fuller understanding of a complicated issue, such as McChrystal's thinking on the Afghan war, by having informal conversations with sources as well as formal interviews. The notepad gets put away but so do the officially approved talking points, allowing the source to speak more frankly than he or she ever could on record. However, in the course of these often relaxed conversations, sometimes a source will make a comment that's he or she obviously wouldn't want on the record. Griping about co-workers, that old pastime of government employees, is one of the most common. As is swearing. So when an aide to McChrystal told Rolling Stone freelance writer Michael Hastings that an upcoming meeting with a French official was "fucking gay," the aide probably assumed that Hastings would treat the comment as a stray remark obviously not designed for public consumption. McChrystal's off-hand joke at the expense of Vice President Biden was likely also made with the expectation that Rolling Stone would not publish the joke for reasons that were surely apparent to Hastings and his editors.

It's unclear why Rolling Stone decided to reproduce these and other remarks, but the damage is done. The safe conversation spaces where officers could crawl out from under the chain of command and speak their minds are not going to look so safe anymore. Officers will be tempted to treat every passing conversation with a journalist as if it were being streamed on CNN in real time.

In an institution as regimented and preoccupied with the chain of command as the U.S. military, it's difficult to overstate how important it is for officers to be able to speak freely, informally, and frankly with journalists. In Iraq from 2004 to 2006, the official position of the Pentagon, as dictated by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was that the U.S. was winning. But officers on the ground who knew different could tell reporters, often in informal conversations that probably included griping about the civilian oversight, exactly how and why Rumsfeld's strategy was failing. The officers knew they could trust reporters like the Washington Post's Tom Ricks to eschew gossipy items about how an Army officer derided a White House official and focus on the real story that the U.S. had lost control in Iraq. That reporting helped generate public outrage, which Democrats and others used to pressure the White House to make much-needed changes of leadership and strategy. Those changes contributed to the drastic drop in ethno-sectarian deaths in Iraq from over 2,000 in December 2006 to about 200 in December 2007.

Whether you support or oppose the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, both countries are so remote that most Americans will never visit them and rely almost entirely on the media to understand and evaluate what's happening. Because the U.S. is a democracy, public perception of these conflicts plays an essential role in how policy is made. The resignation of the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan could pale in comparison to the Rolling Stone article's real damage. If officers shy away from reporters, both reporters and the public will have less understanding of our two ongoing wars. As the U.S. discourse about Afghanistan and Iraq suffer, so will the policy and our prospects for salvaging some good from these difficult years of fighting.

Image: General Stanley McChrystal at an April press conference in Berlin. Andreas Rentz, Getty Images.