McChrystal was victim of opportunistic journalism
One of the most talked-about stories of the summer was the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, formerly head of the NATO-led mission to Afghanistan. An article published in Rolling Stone magazine, written by Michael Hastings, uncovered that McChrystal and his staff did not think too highly of Vice President Joe Biden and other higher-ups in the Obama administration.
The article and its revelations kicked up a political maelstrom, and after a much-hyped meeting with the president, McChrystal resigned from his post. But this also resulted in a nationwide debate about the ethics of journalism and whether Hastings took undue advantage of McChrystal by publishing potentially off-the-record comments. Journalists supported their colleague, arguing that the rule regarding such statements is ambiguous and should not stop someone from breaking a story. But I am not completely convinced.
The army is fighting a war in one of the world’s harshest environments. Resources are limited and public opinion is unfavorable. In short, it’s not going so well. In this mess, journalists and reporters are scavenging for stories and trying to make a career for themselves. The amount of negativity that spews out of Afghanistan is disheartening, and despite all its efforts the army has had a lot of difficulty in putting a positive spin on the information.
To counter this, the army tries to reach out to journalists like Hastings, who was given an opportunity to work closely with McChrystal and his staff. This led to inevitable informal interaction between the parties, and this is where the problem began. The army (naively, some might say) assumed that anything said after a few beers would be secret, while the opportunistic journalists were busy writing everything down. While journalists have a right to go after the truth, this was just a standard war report spiced up with internal office politics. I am sure Hastings has problems with his boss as well.
It’s not like McChrystal admitted to weapons trafficking or war profiteering. He and his staff expressed their private opinions about individuals that they interact with, in a forum where they felt safe. Instead of using the information to formulate a better picture of the attitude of the army, Hastings published a dramatic article titled “The Runaway General.” The fact that he used these scraps of information to ruin McChrystal’s career speaks more of his desperation than his journalistic skill. None of this excuses the fact that McChrystal should have been more careful, but to expect our leaders to be perfect is a ridiculous demand.
I hope that the army gives a cold shoulder to journalists who are concerned solely with their own growth. After he broke the story, Hastings was mentioned in places from Fox News to Al-Jazeera, securing his 15 minutes of fame. Maybe he will be better off writing for People magazine.