Tim Hetherington, war photographer in HBO doc April 18, 8:00 p.m. ET

By Caitlin Kelly

English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union So...
English: Tim Hetherington at a Hudson Union Society event with Sebastian Junger, co-director of the Oscar-nominated, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary, Restrepo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you not working in news journalism, or photojournalism, award-winning British photographer Tim Hetherington was only 40 when he was killed in Misrata, Libya with photographer Chris Hondros in April 2011.

It’s easy to forget — or not even really understand — that while soldiers are killed, or maimed and traumatized by fighting in war, so are journalists, photographers, videographers and their fixers and interpreters. You can’t phone in war photos, so those shooting with a camera are often as much in the line of fire, as much in harm’s way as the soldiers they are with.

It is a small and tightly-knit community of men and women war journalists who move from one conflict zone to the next, their helmets and Kevlar flak jackets ever at the ready.

Author, writer and film-maker Sebastian Junger, who lives in New York, gave this long and intimate radio interview yesterday on the Leonard Lopate show on WNYC. He made an award-winning war documentary, Restrepo, with Hetherington.

Here are some images of American soldiers by Hetherington at the International Center of Photography, on display until May 13.

Every journalist, journalism teacher and student of journalism needs to watch this film and know what news reporting can cost.

A life.

English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session i...
English: Tim Hetherington at a photo session in Huambo, Angola in 2002. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you’ll make time to watch this documentary and remember the sacrifice and bravery of those who witness war on our behalf.

We owe them our attention and respect.

Petraeus and Broadwell — and the moral is?

Portrait photo
Portrait photo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here we go again.

A high-ranking alpha male, CIA director David Petraeus — considered “the most respected and decorated soldier of his generation”, according to the front page of the Financial Times — has resigned after having an affair. Not just any affair, but one with a jock/soldier/Harvard grad/author/hottie with whom he was doing six-minute runs in Afghanistan.

His wife of 37 years? Toast.

Take it from someone whose arguably semi-alpha husband was poached: a clarinet-playing, tall, handsome, funny MD who now earns in a month what I make in a (lousy) year.

Like Petraeus, he was gone a lot, working long days and many “on call” overnight shifts at the hospital, long before cellphones, emails or texts could have given me a way to reach out easily. And medical culture, like military, can be damn hard to penetrate, highly protective of its members. When they say people “close ranks”, they mean it.

Petraeus was hotly pursued by Paula Broadwell, a fine-looking high-achieving woman with plenty of determinationdespite her own marriage and two children.

Let’s be clear. I’m not defending infidelity. Petraeus was a fool to throw away a stellar career.

His marriage? Who knows?

That’s the dirty secret of the adulterer.

For every shocked, stunned wife (or husband), there is one more honest with herself, who knew things were crappy in their marriage — or knows they chose to marry and have kids with and stay with someone with a weak ego, a man/woman who needs to cat around to feel strong and sexy and desirable.

And a husband physically distant from his wife for long periods of time, a man spending a lot of private time with  a woman whose behaviors push all the right buttons, let alone a wife who’s given up on her skills and/or appearance?

Sound the sirens!

The woman my ex-husband is now married to was clearly going to become his second wife. I met her twice, spoke to her once, and felt it. Many of the issues — a la Petraeus/Broadwell — were similar:

 — They worked together

 — She saw him every single day, well-dressed and well-spoken and high-earning and authoritative, all catnip

— She flattered him deeply

— She was intensely competitive

 –They spent a lot of time together away from work; she was a single mother

And, in my case

 — She makes three times my income

— She’s highly educated and flatters his intellectual ego

I was financially dependent on him, which left me essentially powerless to act decisively

My ex made clear to me from the start of our seven-year relationship he wanted to marry a high earner. Not only was I a journalist — a field in which $100K is a lot, (peanuts in medicine) — but I also had to re-boot my career when I left Canada and moved to the U.S., just in time for the 1990 recession, severely curtailing my earning power.

His second wife, with whom he had two more children, is fat, not pretty and dresses, apparently, in the dark. I saw her in my retail job three years ago and she still looked like hell. So it’s not all about looks.

Every marriage has its frayed, weakened bits. Every marriage hits rough spots, some of which last months, or longer.

Which is why, in my second marriage, (13 years together now), Jose and I are very aware that marriage is not forever, that people can and will lose interest, carry toxic secrets or private resentments and stray. Addressing the issues, whatever they are, can be messy and painful — and may well lead to divorce court if both people admit these are utterly un-resolvable.

I spent a lot of years examining which of my own behaviors had allowed my marriage to end so quickly. One of them was simply having married the wrong man, which I knew at the time. I also painfully examined what I might do if I re-married, and I do treat my second husband very differently. An affair, or divorce, is a miserable, frightening wake-up call.

A woman who loses her man to a poacher — and they are poached, as surely as a hunter sights his prey — needs to do a little self-examination as well. Who did she marry? What’s not working between them? Or in the rest of his life?

It’s too easy to call him names and cut his clothes into shreds and call a divorce lawyer.

No matter what happens after an affair comes to light, the cuckold has ask what their role in it was as well.

What say you?

Honoring brave journalists with the annual Dart Center Awards

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journalists_guide_to_firearms_ak47_glock1 (Photo credit: gnotalex)

It’s a fact easily overlooked — the news we read and hear and watch is brought to us by human beings with hearts.

Some of the stories they gather, and some of the very best in my view, are the ones we skip over because they’re dark, disturbing and deeply painful.

Journalists who gather this material often end up suffering from a condition known as “secondary trauma” which can cause insomnia, nightmares, anxiety and depression. It’s a form of PTSD, which soldiers experience after the violence and brutality of war. I experienced it myself after writing my first book about American women and guns, after steeping myself in reports and interviews of violence, suicide and homicide for months.

A female friend who returned from Haiti after reporting there for weeks began telling her Facebook friends she couldn’t sleep, night after night. I suggested her insomnia was quite likely the result of secondary trauma. Another female friend wrote a searing book about MRSA, the flesh-eating infection, and she too experienced the aftereffects of recounting terrible stories, receiving a Dart Center fellowship to deal with it.

Most journalists aren’t trained in any way to know that this even exists. They work in, or return to, newsrooms filled with colleagues who have no experience or understanding of the horrors they may have seen, smelled, heard or survived, and few bosses with training to recognize or handle it either.

The very compassion and empathy that leads journalists into this tough work can also leave them shattered by it.

The Dart Center is an American non-profit organization whose focus is helping journalists prepare for, and recover from, reporting stories of this nature. I admire them and the men and women who do this work.

A panel discussion is being held tonight from 6 to 8pm at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York City honoring this year’s winners.

From the Dart Center website:

The New York Times received the Dart Award for “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer.” (John Branch, reporter; Marcus Yam, photographer; Shayla Harris, videojournalist; Josh Williams, multimedia producer.) This searing three-part investigative series tells the story of Derek Boogaard, one of the N.H.L.’s most feared “enforcers,” who died with massive brain injuries at age 28. The series reveals the consequences – physical, psychological and social – of the adulation of violence surrounding the sport.

Judges called “Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer” a “groundbreaking” and “exemplary piece of accountability journalism.” They praised Branch for his “masterful storytelling” and “tender objectivity,” and for focusing on “human beings, science and anguish instead of thrill, agony and defeat.” They commended the series for “taking on the sports page” and “drawing attention to sanctioned violence of fans.” Judges also recognized the far-reaching, and wide-ranging impact of the series that has made it nearly impossible for those most vested in hockey to turn a blind eye to its cruel reality and disastrous impact.

WNYC received the Dart Award for “Living 9/11,” which was presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange (Marianne McCune, reporter and producer; Emily Botein, producer; Karen Frillman, editor; Fred Mogul and Beth Fertig, reporters; Eric Leinung, Jillian Suarez, Erin Reeg, Norhan Basuni, Radio Rookies; Courtney Stein, Sanda Htyte, Radio Rookies producers; Kaari Pitkin, Radio Rookies senior producer; Chris Bannon, executive producer; Andy Lanset, original 9/11 recordings; John Ellis, composer; Paul Schneider and Jim Briggs III, mix engineers.) This hour-long documentary guides listeners through the stories of people who were deeply affected by the September 11, 2001 attacks and who are still struggling to make sense of the events.  The documentary is built around a diverse range of viewpoints, capturing visceral and immediate emotional reactions to the attacks while also illuminating universal truths about 9/11’s lasting impact.

Judges called “Living 9/11” “insightful,” “hard-hitting” and “deeply sensitive,” going far beyond more conventional anniversary programs in its integration of history, science and narrative.

The Case For Courage

I gave this pin to Jose on our wedding day. (Copyright Marie de Jesus.)

I think courage is, these days, an under-rated quality.

People who encourage us aren’t merely hissing “Great job!” for every breath we take.

When we truly need to find our inner strength, we need someone to encourage us — to breathe some of that holy fire into our shaky lungs.

We think of the courageous as those fighting in war (they are) or those facing very bad diagnoses or anyone stepping off the cliff of the known and familiar and secure.

A courageous woman is someone who, however reluctantly, her vows shattered by years of abuse or neglect, leaves a terrible marriage, maybe with nothing ahead but weeks or months on a relative’s sofa or a homeless shelter or a women’s shelter. A courageous man decides to marry after years of bachelor freedom, aware of his new responsibility to his bride, her family and to himself.

A courageous teenager steps up when s/he sees someone being bullied and, whenever possible, puts an end to it.

A courageous teacher sees the pilot light of potential in a struggling, sullen or silent child.  A courageous politician is willing to take a stand, take a hit, take a fall for making the right choices, not simply the easiest or those guaranteed to win media attention or large donations.

I am hungry to learn more about men and women of courage. I am weary of a culture that far too often celebrates, rewards and deifies cowardice and greed.

Here’s a lovely post by Canadian blogger Josh Bowman about a fellow Canadian who inspired him as a teenager, and who still does. In it, he talks about Craig Kielburger, who at the age of 12 decided to create an international campaign to end the use of child labor.

He didn’t do it to burnish his resume or to get into the right college; (Canadian universities don’t use essays anyway, just good grades, to decide whom to admit.) He did it out of a blazing sense of compassion. He makes me proud to be a Canadian.

So does this little girl, who I’ve also blogged about, Alaina Podmorow, who did the same for girls when she, too was very young. She still is!

In 1957, the late President John F. Kennedy won the Pulitzer prize for his book, Profiles in Courage, about political leaders he admired. I was thrilled when three women recently won the Nobel Peace Prize:

The 10 million kronor ($1.5 million) award was split three ways between Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, peace activist Leyma Gbowee from the same African country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.

Role models!

I hate the overused word “hero”. I dislike its bombastic pomposity. I doubt many of us want to be, or feel we are, heroes.

But we can all, every single day, be courageous.

Who do you look to as examples of courage?

Here’s a video of a wonderful song by Greg Greenway that sums it up, “Do What Must Be Done.”

You Call That Hard Work?

”]Cover of "Gorky Park [Region 2]"

We watched the terrific 1983 movie “Gorky Park” on the weekend.

In it, a young and handsome William Hurt, playing a Moscow cop, decides to reconstruct the facial features of two murder victims. In order to do so, he has the coroner (of course!) saw off their heads, which he then transports in two plain cardboard boxes tied with string.

Hm.

Carting about severed heads strikes me as a fairly tough day at the office….

Journalists’ jobs often throw them into bizarre and dangerous situations. You never really know what to expect when you work at a newspaper or wire service: might be a plane crash, the aftermath of a hurricane or another lying politician weeping to the cameras about his mistakes.

You learn to keep a fresh shirt and tie in your desk drawer and women, depending what sort of stories they’re covering, learn to wear flats and clothing you can run, squat and even climb in comfortably. (Yes, that would rule out pencil skirts and stilettos.) You discover that ink freezes taking notes in sub-zero temperatures.

The sweetie faced a much tougher gig than I — six weeks in Bosnia at Christmas, alone, shooting photos for The New York Times. He slept in an unheated cargo container, almost died in a snowdrift at dusk and ate a cup of dried chicken soup as his holiday meal. Like a soldier, he slept in his long underwear for weeks. Showers were rare.

My toughest? I’ve had a few, more emotionally draining than physically demanding or frightening. Sent on a midtown stake-out, I had to stalk a Quebecoise tourist who’d been stabbed in the ass (welcome to New York) — because I was the only Daily News reporter who spoke French. I hated chasing her around a local deli asking questions as much as she resented the intrusion on her privacy.

In Montreal, the night before I took my driving test, I had to cover a horrific car-bus head-on collision, the car’s windows sheeted with blood.

In Winnipeg, interviewing a woman whose life had been turned upside down by a terrible drug side effect meant watching her shake and cry, her Parkinsons’ disease aggravated by the very stress of talking to me about her nightmare. I felt like a demon. It was the only way to get the story.

Here’s the classic whine, “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits:

Now look at them yo-yo’s that’s the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Money for nothin’ and chicks for free
Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

What’s the hardest thing you ever did and got paid for?

The Ex-Pat’s Dilemma: Where’s Home?

A New And Accvrat Map Of The World.
Where in the world are you? Where is home? For now or for good? Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve ever left your home country behind to live abroad — as many of us do for work, study, a partner’s job or your parents’ profession — you’ve felt the visceral punch of cultural dislocation.

You’ve become an ex-patriate.

(Not, as some think, an ex-patriot!)

The money/food/temperature/humidity/foliage/animals/language/flag/national anthem/what they eat for breakfast is all different, new, disorienting, unfamiliar.

What do you mean X is considered normal behavior? Are you kidding?

You might not be able to read road signs or communicate clearly with your physician, grocer, hairdresser, dentist or your kids’ friends.

If you stay long enough, and remain open to the culture of your new country (and there may be several along the way), you change, likely forever. Then, when you go “home” to the country you initially left behind, it now feels weird and alien.

I’ve worked as a cross-cultural counselor for Berlitz and loved it. I counseled senior American executives moving to (my native) Canada and Canadians moving to (my adopted land of 22 years) the United States. I love being the middleman, explaining the minutiae of daily life and social cues and faux pas.

Language skills are barely half the battle if you fail to understand the most fundamental attitudes underlying local choices, whether what to bring to a dinner when you’re an invited guest to knowing which local colleges are truly worth the time and money for you or your loved ones.

The learning curve is vertical.

I’ve just spent three weeks back in Canada, a mix of caring for my mother and vacation time, and it’s the longest I’ve been back since 1998, when I also spent three weeks here. But the culture shock this time, for a variety of reasons, has proven by far the hardest ever, partly because — surprise! — I have now truly adopted many of the behaviors and attitudes and expectations of my home just outside New York City.

In Canada, let alone Western Canada, many of these are deemed downright rude. Like:

Directness. In New York, where people rush about at warp speed all the time, few people waste time. It’s too valuable. So we often say exactly what we think, for better or worse, and get on with things. But being direct can lead to openly expressed differences of opinion which, in some cultures is a toxic choice…

Confrontation. In Canadian culture, about as popular as belching. Just. Not. Done. Those who do it or seek it are seen as boors and best ignored, no matter how urgent or pressing the underlying issue.

Expecting answers to my questions, promptly — if at all. Hah! I am appalled and frustrated beyond measure at the number of unreturned phone calls and emails, from banks, physicians, health care workers, academia. Everyone. I have an assistant, a woman my age who is very polite, tactful, calm, hired to help me promote my new book, a necessity for every author.

She is burned out, fed up and deeply shocked at the profound indifference she encounters from everyone she contacts. I had forgotten — and it’s one powerful reason I chose to leave Canada in the first place — that Canadians hate fame, fortune, celebrating success and those who achieve it. They sneer at it and deride it and make fun of it. Americans live, eat and breathe it. Talk about a cultural divide!

Expecting excellent customer service from the medical system. As if. In the U.S., where MRIs are as common and easily gettable (if you have insurance) as M & Ms (a popular candy, for the non-Americans among you), doctors are usually pretty responsive and respectful. Because Americans, who expect great service everywhere, can and will sue at the drop of a scalpel. Canadian physicians play a totally different role and they retain tremendous power as a result. There are so few of them and they are so busy. They expect deference. They don’t seem to use email. They may take a while to return a phone call. They are essentially paid government employees, and seem to have less accountability to patients or their families. A friend, with a chronic health problem, told me; “Doctors don’t return phone calls.”

But, after that plane takes off from YVR today, I will miss:

Civility. Essential to the Canadian character. It’s assumed and expected. I have retained the habit, which I heard a lot here, of saying “Take care” at the end of even the briefest conversations with bus drivers or bank clerks.

Compassion. In a nation where everyone has access to cradle-to-grave healthcare and $10,000 university educations (or less, per year), caring for strangers is how Canadian public policy enacts larger cultural values. In the mememememememe culture of America, where there is almost no social safety net and growing income ineqality, I miss this a great deal.

I’m aware that it’s perhaps a lot easier and simpler in a nation of 30 million (Canada) than in one with 300 million people, and one with a history of racial brutality.

Shared cultural references. I really enjoy being able to talk about almost anything with people who know exactly what I’m referring to, whether its Air Canada, Big Turks (a fab candy bar) or the NDP (the leftist political party.) Fewer Americans seem to know or care much about life beyond their borders.

Here’s a terrific post by a former expat wife and mother, who lists 10 ways to be (come) an ugly expat.

And for those seeking practical advice and face-to-face help, there’s a conference March 17-19 in Washington, DC, held by Families in Global Transition.

Have you been an ex-pat? How did you like it?

And how was it when you re-patriated?

Christmas In A War Zone

As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.

He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.

Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.

Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.

He also brought home a beige piece of paper from IFOR, the UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 sent to Bosnia after the Dayton Accords, negotiated by the late Richard Holbrooke.

The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).

And:

Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)

Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)

Mine  (Mine)

Sniper (Snaiper)

Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)

He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.

Why would he need a carabiner?

It ended up saving his life.

His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”

For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.

His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”

By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.

That was his Christmas meal.

This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.

Grateful.

A War Photographer Loses His Legs: Joao Silva’s Sacrifice

The New York Times building in New York, NY ac...
Image via Wikipedia

Here is a new slide show on The New York Times‘ photo blog, Lens, of the images up to the moment that Joao Silva, one of the world’s top war photographers kept shooting — and stepped on a land mine.

He lost both his legs. He is now recovering at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His wife and two children live in South Africa.

It is almost unbearable to me as a fellow career journalist who relies heavily on the bravery of men like Joao and his many colleagues to bring us the unvarnished news — that, in simply doing his job, he has been so grievously and permanently injured while I work safely at home at a suburban computer.

He even squeezed off three more frames after the explosion.

I write freelance for the Times and my partner has been a photographer there and now a photo editor, so Joao, and his work, feels like family.

Those who put themselves in harm’s way every workday do not always wear a military uniform. We have a camoflauge Kevlar vest — it’s so heavy! — in our storage locker that my sweetie wore every day he worked for the Times shooting the Bosnian war.

Every journalist, videographer, cameraman, fixer and translator telling these dangerous, possibly lethal and important stories is risking his or her life for us, for the truth, for the facts. For us. For our ability to know what’s happening before it it’s spun, twisted, hidden or omitted.

We  need to know what is going on in the world and we will always need, and rely heavily on, people like Joao to show us.

We owe them.

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.

Why McChrystal Sang Like A Bird To 'Rolling Stone'

President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen...
Image via Wikipedia

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.