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Why McChrystal Sang Like A Bird To 'Rolling Stone'

In Media, the military on June 23, 2010 at 10:23 am
President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen...

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Right now, there is much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth over Gen. McChrystal’s overshare with Rolling Stone — written by (yay!) fellow True/Slant writer Michael Hastings. Among fellow journalists…

How on earth, did he — of all the journalists in the world — manage to get this extraordinary career-making (his), possibly career-ending (McChrystal’s) scoop?

A few reasons, all of them classics of the genre:

1) Frustration By all accounts, Gen. McChrystal was totally fed up of being ignored and over-ruled by politicians and policymakers who he felt barely knew who he was and whose reputations were riding on the backs of his men.

2) Use the media It’s a time-honored way to speak truth to power — using the conduit of a popular publication as your loudspeaker and a willing journalist, editor and publisher as your microphones. If the people in charge aren’t listening to you, take them out of the loop.

2) Access Michael Hastings has been reporting on war, on the ground, for years. As a result of that commitment and the widsom it helped him accumulate, he knew the right people and they allowed him into their circle. From today’s New York Times:

As a result, Mr. Hastings waited in Paris with the general and his staff as they tried to get to Berlin by bus. Mr. Hastings traveled to Berlin separately. He later rejoined the general’s inner circle at the Ritz-Carlton hotel there, where they all spent the week waiting for the ash cloud to clear so they could fly to Afghanistan.

“I was so amazed by it myself,” Mr. Hastings said in a telephone interview from Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he is now reporting on another story for Men’s Journal. “At times I asked myself that question: Why are they giving me all this access?”

Though Mr. Hastings said that most of the eyebrow-raising comments in the article came from the general during the first two days in Paris, he found him and his staff to be more welcoming as time went by.

Initially, Mr. Hastings was not scheduled to travel with General McChrystal to Afghanistan. Only after he arrived in Europe did Mr. Hastings learn that the general’s staff was eager to take him with them. “They suggested the idea,” Mr. Hastings said.

Mr. Hastings ended up spending about a month on and off with the general and his staff while they were in Afghanistan — most of the time in settings and interviews that the general allowed to be on the record. “The amazing thing to me was that no ground rules were set,” Mr. Hastings said.

3) Time One of the most crucial elements of getting a story of this magnitude, in its full-on candor, is having a lot of time to spend with your subject(s.) For once, being a freelancer — with no editor demanding he shift his attention to a blog or TV report or the next story in order to look productive or beat the competition – paid off.  Michael was able to spend a month with his subjects., almost unheard-of for anyone with a staff job.

No subject, even the most private and protective, can spend a month around a journalist and not, eventually, let their hair down — even a high and tight. You get tired, you (as his subjects did) get drunk, your tongue loosens, you repeat the same ideas in a dozen ways. Whatever’s really bugging you will show up on  regular basis and all a reporter has to do is have the time, energy and attention to get every scrap of it down. Thanks to the volcano eruption in Iceland, McChrystal had a lot more time to spend with Michael than is typical for either of them. Both men, in the normal course of events, would have been on tighter leashes with much more constrained schedules. No one can report a story like this after one 20-minute interview.

4) Trust Closely linked to time. It takes a lot of time, certainly between military or police and journalists, to build any sort of trust. I recently heard journalist Sebastian Junger, who has just made a war documentary, Restrepo, describe the months he spent in-country, including sustaining several severe injuries, over which the soldiers of the platoon in Afghanistan that was his focus began to include him in their circle.

5) Street cred Michael is young, but he’s written a well-reviewed book about the Iraq war and losing his fiance there. He’s smart, well-published, knows the players and the issues.

6) Luck. A volcano eruption? No J-school diploma can get you that lucky…

This is a story many talented and ambitious journos would have killed for.

Few had the magic combination.

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