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Should Reporters Burn Bridges (Hastings And McChrystal) Or Stay Mum To Retain Access?

In Media, the military on June 28, 2010 at 8:15 am
Jamie McIntyre

Jamie McIntyre.Image via Wikipedia

This was the question debated yesterday on “On The Media”, a weekly show on NPR — should Michael Hastings (a True/Slant writer) have told McChrystal’s story in all its gory, insubordinate detail?

The show interviewed Jamie McIntyre, a former Pentagon correspondent, who lauded Hastings for his work, but raised the larger question every reporter knows — trading off not reporting everything you see and hear (racist or stupid or off-color or sexist remarks) while covering a beat (a specialty area) in order for your sources to remain comfortable with you and confident you won’t make them look bad publicly. Then, the deal goes, they will tell you important things, maybe first, maybe even exclusively.

McIntyre called it, which it is, reporters’ “dirty little secret.”

The trade-off is short-term pain (keeping your mouth shut) for long-term gain (scoops.)

Is this a good idea? Bad idea?

For any reporter who needs access to sources, as any beat reporter does, it’s like asking if they should take notes or return calls. You can’t torch every bridge the minute you’ve crossed it. Not only will you never be able to access that source again, but you’ve scared off all your others: if s/he did it to them, why wouldn’t they do it to me as well?

Part of the drama, for journalists, is feeling annoyed that Hastings broke the rules…David Brooks slapped his wrist in The New York Times for participating in a “culture of exposure.” (So much better than the how they play inside the Beltway?):

During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Then, in 1961, Theodore H. White began his “The Making of the President” book series. This series treated the people who worked inside the boiler rooms of government as the star players. It put the inner dramas at center stage.

Then, after Vietnam, an ethos of exposure swept the culture. The assumption among many journalists was that the establishment may seem upstanding, but there is a secret corruption deep down. It became the task of journalism to expose the underbelly of public life, to hunt for impurity, assuming that the dark hidden lives of public officials were more important than the official performances.

Then came cable, the Internet, and the profusion of media sources. Now you have outlets, shows and Web sites whose only real interest is the kvetching and inside baseball.

In other words, over the course of 50 years, what had once been considered the least important part of government became the most important. These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life.

Brooks candidly admits he couldn’t do his job without keeping mum. Most writers with any serious access know these unwritten, unspoken rules. They play by them.

Perhaps most importantly, they savage those too stupid, bold or naive to break them.

Pack journalism, which denotes the safety of traveling in numbers, also reflects another reality: like a posse of wolves, they can, and will, turn on the maverick among them and tear them to shreds for their temerity for breaking from the pack and its group behaviors.

(I lived through this, at Michael’s age, when I wrote two front-page stories about Queen Elizabeth, who I had followed on tour for two weeks, for The Globe and Mail. An enormous international press pack had followed her, as I had. But in both of these stories, I said and reported things that breached standard protocol — and was pilloried for it. I knew some of my competitors were getting their butts kicked hard for not reporting as I had, so it was an easy out to accuse me of lying and making some of it up. I have never felt so much professional stress, then or since.)

Here’s another take on it:

But in the wake of the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghan commander over intemperate remarks to Rolling Stone magazine, Pentagon officials are concerned the military may recoil in fear and anger from the press.

The chill couldn’t come at a more inopportune time for the Pentagon’s leadership, with skepticism about the war’s progress growing among U.S. politicians and officials in Afghanistan ahead of what is likely to be the war’s most important operation, the imminent move by thousands of U.S. forces into Kandahar, the spiritual heartland of the Taliban.

“If we recoil, if we go underground, if we get defensive, it’s self-defeating,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “We need to remain as engaged as ever, if not more so because we are at a crucial point in this war.”

Freelancers, who often jump from story to story, subject to subject, freelance to job back to freelance to fellowship to book, owe allegiance only to their conscience, bank balance and career ambitions. Untethered to a beat, a set of specific editors and a publication or broadcast outlet who also wants to consistently, accurately beat the competition, freelancers are — free — to behave as they, and their editors, see fit.

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