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

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.

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

  1. citifieddoug

    It’s a dilemma. As a consumer of journalism, I don’t really care what kind of jokes an official makes, but if (s)he reveals herself to be, say, a passionate racist or something, I’d want that reported.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    It’s an interesting dilemma…reporters are conduits of information and we may collect and bring it from people we may find personally abhorrent. I’ve heard some skeevy things over the years and, if it’s not relevant to the story at hand, then what? Does a person’s character or personal beliefs matter more than the information they are sharing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

  3. Bob Cook

    In the case of Hastings, when you have a general ripping the president — his boss — you HAVE to report it.

    Anyway, on the question of access, I think it’s overrated. For my college newspaper, I had to cover Indiana University basketball without the cooperation of Coach Bob Knight, who would not grant one-on-one time to the college paper or let us into practice (those privileges were reserved for a few local bootlickers and national press who might help Indiana’s profile). In many ways, I get BETTER stories for not having that access, but other people outside the Knight circle were more than happy to talk to me. For example, I had a great interview with the mother of a prominent player whose scholarship got pulled, and she talked to me because she knew our paper wasn’t in Knight’s pocket.

    I learned a very early lesson that having “access” to the apparent top source is overrated. If you’re a good reporter, you can do your job without it. And sometimes, you can do a better job without worrying about whether you’re upsetting the people you cover.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks. I agree. I was hired many years ago, while still freelance, to profile Harold Ballard (then owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs) because he had refused all access to the Globe and Mail…I got a great story anyway.

    I hate the lapdog model of “reporting.”

  5. Bob Cook

    I have no doubt that finding people to say bad things about Harold Ballard was not the most difficult job you ever had.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Funny. True!

    A sports story that *was* hard — when the Globe sent me to the Winnipeg Jets training camp whose PR person also hated the Globe and refused to ever give me any written materials — which he gave to every other reporter there.

  7. Viv Bernstein

    Should reporters burn bridges or stay mum? It depends. Each case is different, and every case should be examined individually. I can’t imagine Hastings covering for the general in this story. The general’s disdain is a large part of the story.

    Going back to sports, I believe the first reporter to take note of unusual “supplements” in Mark McGwire’s locker was criticized by some of his peers for reporting it. As if that was out of bounds and an invasion of privacy. I have no doubt that the reporter suffered a loss of some access or candor within baseball for disclosing the presence of those supplements. But it marked a turning point and a beginning of real reporting on steroids in baseball.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    “I believe the first reporter to take note of unusual “supplements” in Mark McGwire’s locker was criticized by some of his peers for reporting it. As if that was out of bounds and an invasion of privacy. I have no doubt that the reporter suffered a loss of some access or candor within baseball for disclosing the presence of those supplements. But it marked a turning point and a beginning of real reporting on steroids in baseball.”

    Exactly. The biggest problem — as any veteran knows — is the absurd pressure of the pack to conform to their expectations, whatever they are. When you report something interesting they have not, you not only make them look bad (and their bosses come after them) but you challenge the quality of their own reporting as fellow professionals.

  9. Ms. Kelly,

    It seems to me that there are two entirely different ways of looking at this question.

    1) The news business is just that, a profit making operation. Instead of making toasters or canned peaches as other businesses do, the various news media write stories. However just like fruit canners or appliance manufacturers, the news media take their products to market and sell them to consumers. If a news producing company wants to keep collecting and marketing news stories, it has to keep a long view and make nice with the sources of their product.

    2) The journalists are supposed to make a living by publishing the truth for the benefit of their customers and society as a whole. News is more just a box of pencils but a crucial part of the democratic process.

    The run-up to the War in Iraq show just how these two principles work. Few reporters or news media outlets questioned too aggressively the story being provided by their sources in the government, either formally or informally (except for a hand few like Helen Thomas). No one wanted to risk their long term relationships to their suppliers. Of course, as result, the US went war with disastrous consequences to the US and the world. However those same news stenographers who did nothing to challenge conventional wisdom or their “inside” connection not only made a good living selling news stories during the war, but are doing so now (except for a hand few like Helen Thomas).

    It all depends on whether you want to sell the news or tell the truth.

    1. Ms. Kelly,

      You wrote:”I don’t see it as this binary. The “news” and the “truth” are slippery concepts.”

      It does not *have* to be binary, but when making a profit (or even a living) depends on the news not being the truth, it is really hard for the news and the truth to be an either / or proposition.

  10. Caitlin Kelly

    The “truth” is a very slippery concept….there’s no way past that. Your “truth” may not be mine…

    And it’s a very cynical position that only lies are “news”, no?

    1. Ms. Kelly,

      You have misread my post. I did not say that news has to be a lie, or even is always a lie. Rather what I said is that there the business end of the news can indeed conflict with and indeed be in contradiction to the truth telling part of the news. The run-up to the Iraq War is the perfect example. Why did so many journalists stick their heads in the sand fail to publicly question the Bush Administration? To protect their long term business interests in news sources and avoid the deleterious effects having one’s patriotism on the bottom line. They went along to get along and they sacrificed searching for the truth to keep selling stories.

      I would be cynical if I said that it is a good thing or attempt to justify it. However I would be foolish to say it was not true.

  11. I think alot of reporters need to admit they watched All The President’s Men at an impressionable age and they are, consequently, obsessed with the possibility that their reporting might have the awesome power of bringing down a public figure. But unlike Nixon, who represented the death of 60’s idealism, and whose demise signaled a satisfying evening of the score, the “dirt” today’s reporters manage to dig up is inevitably of the sex and/or personal scandal variety. Irrelevant, salacious, distracting, and damaging. As long as a story hits those buttons, and satisfies the prurient interests of a dumbed down readership, we need not ask what is in the true, public interest.

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