Ethics and the End of McChrystal

Should journalists celebrate their prejudices or check them at the door?

Chan Lowe‘s portrayal of the dangerous situation which could come as a result of what some have called Obama‘s unreflected appointment of General David Petraeus as commander of U.S. operations in Afghanistan | Courtesy of Chan Lowe

Questions of ethics in journalism often teeter at the top of a slippery slope. In the post-New Journalism world, the parameters for what qualifies as “journalistic” treatment are wide; take Gay Talese’s 1966 profile in Esquire, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which was written without a personal interview. Add in the issues of free speech, and a lot a mischief – like Fox News – slips under the wire.

In this melee, codifying what is ethical is difficult and biased journalism has become so common, that many are numbed to the distinction. As long as it’s reasonably factual and not blatantly slanderous, it slides by unnoticed. However Michael Hastings’ recent article in Rolling Stone, “The Runaway General,” has pushed the boundaries of journalistic ethics, ultimately prompting the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan by U.S. President Barack Obama, and sparking a public debate among journalists.

To be fair, Hastings’ questionable approach does not absolve McChrystal or his aides; their failure to toe the line in front of a reporter (from Rolling Stone no less) was sloppy, to say the least, and gave Obama little choice. It’s quite likely that the general’s staff was attempting to use Hastings to express their frustration about a perceived lack of civilian support; but it backfired, big time. Any reporter would have reported the controversial jibes.

But many respected journalists, like Lara Logan (CBS) and Jamie McIntyre (CNN), as well as high-visibility voices like Geraldo Rivera (NBC, Fox), have come out in protest to Hastings’ methods and depiction. Logan in particular has attacked Hastings’ “dishonesty” and “spin”, which she said is “damaging to reporters who are genuine about what they do.”

“The Runaway General” relentlessly depicts McChrystal as a pompous, no-nonsense cowboy, and his staff a pack of obnoxious frat boys, all of whom (the general included) have a problem with authority. Is this representation accurate? Maybe.

Hastings’ article is incredibly stylized, which in itself is not a fault; but when an accurate and shrewd story is compromised in order to preserve the ethos of the narrative, it raises an ethical dilemma. Invoking age-old questions of philosophical “truth” – and Hunter S. Thompson – it must be said that there is no objective, unbiased piece of journalism; we are all biased, not least of all yours truly. Bias is the sum total of all your previous experiences, and the attitudes you have developed as a result. But, what can be defined as “ethical” is to endeavor, in some way, to approach objectivity, if reaching it is likely impossible. In societies with free press, the responsibility of the journalist is to the public – to attempt to rise above his/her own biases and relay the story as objectively as possible.

To be sure, there are irrefutable facts in his article: McChrystal’s aides criticized senior members of the civilian leadership. This of course must be reported – they screwed up, they said these things. Moreover, “The Runaway General” is a delight to read – Hastings is an excellent storyteller, and the piece is very well written. But good writing doesn’t necessarily make good journalism. Literary-nonfiction, as it has been called, has no definable parameters; it is often impressionistic, but can fail to be self-scrutinizing in order to retain the consistency of a good story. The end result can sometimes resemble those films that are “based on a true story.”

Hastings completely fails to contextualize the kind of culture he’s exposing the reader to: a group of combat-hardened officers from the special operations community. McChrystal spent most of his career behind the scenes in special ops, which did not prepare him for exposure to the press like most regular army officers, ultimately a fatal flaw. Hastings entered the foreign culture of special ops warriors, and, though he was with them for several weeks, the only newsworthy experience he had, apparently, was overhearing their banter. What they said was crass and asinine, and they come off to the reader as rather insufferable.

What Hastings fails to stress (at least not without a tone seething with contempt) is that these brute heathens are also some of the most daring, talented combat leaders in the U.S. military. It’s apparent that these blunt fighters offend Hastings’ sensibilities – so he makes sure that they offend the readers’ sensibilities as well.

Even McChrystal’s most voracious critics have acknowledged that he is a brilliant and inspired operational commander. The few times Hastings refers to McChrystal’s accomplishments, his tone is acerbically patronizing, saturated with pejoratives. He repeatedly refers to McChrystal as a “killer”, a diminutive moniker most people interpret negatively and which many professional soldiers find insulting. The general’s staff is condescendingly referred to as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs.” What becomes clear is that Hastings just doesn’t like his subjects – maybe the jocks picked on him in high school – and so he gladly abandons the approach to observe, contextualize and enlighten, choosing to simply pass judgment and use them to craft an engrossing and sensationalized narrative about McChrystal’s counter-insurgency frat house.

In the end, it was McChrystal’s inability to adapt which ended his command. The political savvy and civil-military finesse required in a conventional command were lost on a man bred in the unconventional, no-frills world of special operations, where pleasantries are disdained and decision-making is informal and egalitarian. His replacement, the celebrated Gen. David Petraeus (who the ever-respectful Hastings refers to as “a dweeb, a teacher’s pet with a Ranger tab”), is legendary for his ability to manage civil-military relations, and is sure not to have McChrystal’s problems.

But Hastings’ inability to approach his subject without prejudice produced a severely flawed work. Hastings himself has admitted that he did not tell the whole story: on Larry King Live he stated that there was more than “just what ended up making in the final version of the story”, regarding the civilian leadership’s aloofness towards the whole Afghan effort – i.e. facts that would have softened the readers view of Team McChrystal.

So what is the job of a journalist? Hastings offered his view in GQ in 2008: “pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you ‘build trust’…if the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to fuck them over.” Sounds ethical enough, right? However, as Hastings celebrates his new book deal and the now-retired Stan McChrystal settles into his fellowship at Yale, some may still hope that journalists commit themselves to notions of public duty and the pursuit of truth (or something close to it), not sensationalism and dirty laundry.

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