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Michael Hastings, pictured in this screenshot from an ABC interview posted on YouTube, wrote the Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal which led to McChrystal's resignation. (Credit, ABC News, YouTube)

Like everyone else, I was mesmerized by the mounting furor over the Rolling Stone article  that led to the sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal—mesmerized, that is, until I actually read it. Now I’m just plain baffled over what the fuss was all about.Because I am a retired Army Reserve officer who recently spent a year in Iraq, as well as a lifelong journalist, many of my colleagues have asked me for my take on this admittedly bizarre episode. Some have suggested this was a hatchet job by reporter Michael Hastings, or that McChrystal was “set up,” or that Hastings violated confidentiality by using unguarded, off-the-record quotes.

I heard NPR’s Michelle Norris interview Hastings by phone from Kandahar, Afghanistan, on June 22, the same day the article became available online and the feces hit the fan. He insisted that when the infamous “bite me” comment was made about Vice President Biden, “I had a tape recorder running in one hand and a notebook in the other.”

Amid all the media hype, I heard Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say the day McChrystal was sacked that “I was nearly sick…Literally, physically, I couldn’t believe it … I was stunned.”

Once I finally grabbed some time to read the 8,000-word article, I kept waiting for some bombshell quote from McChrystal about his commander in chief, something that would make a hard-bitten admiral retch. I came away concluding that Mullen must have a peptic ulcer if he became sick that easily.

The thing that struck me was how few direct quotes from McChrystal Hastings has in an 8,000-word supposed “profile.” Virtually all the quotes that got so much news play came from McChrystal’s aides, not from himself. The only direct quote that could have upset the Beltway crowd was when McChrystal received an e-mail via BlackBerry from Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke, with Hastings present. According to Hastings’ account: “’Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,’ he groans. ‘I don’t even want to open it.’ He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.”

Journalistically speaking, Hastings’ article is a mix of the right, the wrong and the ugly.

 

McChrystal
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is pictured with President Obama in this screenshot from an ABC News report about McChrystal. (Credit: ABC News, YouTube, )

The right: I see no hatchet job here at all. Hastings praises McChrystal on several fronts, exposes his foibles and eccentricities at others. He neither pillories him nor fawns over him. His description of the hostility of McChrystal’s own troops to his policy of minimizing civilian casualties was remarkably forthright.  In other words, he’s balanced and objective, as a good reporter is supposed to be. His research was exhaustive and impressive, such as McChrystal’s reputation as a rebel while a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point from 1972-76.

Also, I see no betrayal of confidentiality, as some have suggested. Hastings conceded in his NPR interview that such banter like the “bite me” remark is common among military personnel under stress who haven’t seen their families in months. I can attest to that. Still, no one ever told Hastings their remarks were off the record, nor has anyone denied them. Surely a warrior like McChrystal would not meekly consent to being cashiered if he felt he was misquoted.

(Hours after I wrote this column, I learned The Washington Post reported that officials in Kabul now say that Hastings violated the ground rules of his embed and that he “quoted the general and his staff in conversations that he was allowed to witness but not report.” Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates, the Post reports, denies any ground rules were violated. So it is now a he said-he said situation. If it turns out that Hastings in fact agreed to ground rules and then ignored them, I’ll retract my defense of him, because he will have made life very difficult for future embedded reporters and set the cause of press coverage of combat operations back to the time of Grenada.)

I’m also astonished that McChrystal would confide to a reporter he voted for Obama. Generals usually keep their political feelings classified. No one was even sure Eisenhower was a Republican until he resigned as NATO commander in 1952 and announced his presidential candidacy. Colin Powell did not reveal his party affiliation until after his military retirement.

A  more appropriate question besides, “Why would they say such things in front of a reporter?” would be, “Why Rolling Stone?” It doesn’t exactly have a reputation as being pro-military, not that Hastings’ article could be considered anti-military. McChrystal’s civilian press aide, Duncan Boothby, who apparently arranged Hastings’ embed, resigned the day before McChrystal was sacked. If he were a Roman soldier, Boothby probably would have fallen on his own sword.

Ironically, it was Rolling Stone that reported an unguarded quote by then-Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in 1976 that led to Butz’s resignation. John Dean, of Watergate fame, was covering the 1976 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone when Butz told an incredibly tasteless racial joke aboard a campaign plane—in front of Dean. Butz never said it was off the record, so into Dean’s story it went.  (If you haven’t already heard the joke, don’t even ask.)

 

McChrystal apology
            McChrystal is pictured here in this screenshot from an MSNBC report.  (Credit: MSNBC, YouTube)

The wrong: Hastings has far too many hearsay quotes, and in some cases mere paraphrases, from unnamed aides saying what McChrystal said. That would earn a D in any intro to newswriting course.

There are surprisingly few quotes from McChrystal himself in this 8,000-word piece. Hastings quotes other sources by name, including McChrystal’s wife, Annie. Why not name the aides? He obviously knew their names; they’re over the right breast pocket, and he was there for a month.

For example, it was an unnamed aide, not McChrystal, who made the “bite me” comment about Biden. It was an unnamed aide, not McChrystal, who commented on the Holbrooke e-mail, “Make sure you don’t get any of that on your leg.”

Another example: “’The Boss says he’s (Holbrooke) like a wounded animal,’ says a member of the general’s team. ‘Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is COIN (counter-insurgency), and you can’t just have someone yanking on s***.’”

Oddly enough, Holbrooke is State Department and was not even in McChrystal’s chain of command. And the only high official McChrystal and his team held in high esteem was Holbrooke’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Yet another example: “One aide calls (presidential security adviser) Jim Jones, a retired four-star general and veteran of the Cold War, a ‘clown’ who remains ‘stuck in 1985.’ Politicians like McCain and Kerry, says another aide, ‘turn up, have a meeting with Karzai, criticize him at the airport press conference, then get back for the Sunday talk shows. Frankly, it’s not very helpful.’”

The ugly:  The provocative subhead under the headline “The Runaway General,” says, “Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House.”

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Hastings, of course, probably had nothing to do with that subhead. That’s an editor’s job. No one in the article is ever quoted using the buzz word “wimps” in reference to the president or vice president, and there is absolutely nothing in the article to suggest that either McChrystal or his staff really believed Obama, Biden, Holbrooke, Jones and the others they disparaged were more of an enemy than the Taliban or al-Qaida. Nothing. Inexcusably misleading. Bad subhead, bad journalism.

So, we get back to the bad judgment of these military guys making such radioactive comments in front of a reporter. They’re supposed to know better. Maybe they were just so super pissed off with the situation that the stress of it overrode their collective judgment. Special operations guys do tend to be mavericks. However, Obama had to sack McChrystal if he was going to “maintain good order and discipline,” the military’s euphemism for not making waves. I know enough about accountability in the military to know that those aides’ careers are also at an end. Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal’s successor, is going to clean house when he gets to Kabul. I don’t envy them.

Meanwhile, don’t feel too sorry for McChrystal. The retirement pay of a four-star general with more than 34 years’ service is $12,000-plus per month. (One can calculate his retirement pay by computing his salary with a retirement pay calculator.)  Also, he’s going to make a killing on his memoirs and the lecture circuit. Wanna bet? He’ll probably have his own show soon on Fox!

If, in the way of contrast, you want to read a real hatchet job on a general, I cite Stan Bauer’s article exactly a year ago in The Nation on the Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF), whose U.S. adviser was Brig. Gen. Simeon Trombitas.

I, and you, wouldn’t know it was a hatchet job if I hadn’t spent a year on Trombitas’ staff in Baghdad’s Green Zone. In a way, I was indirectly responsible for encouraging him to be more open with the media. Eventually, Trombitas granted interviews to Reuters, FoxNews and The Nation, that I know of. Bauer’s article came out even as I was outprocessing at Fort Benning, Ga., to return to my civilian incarnation as a journalism professor. I was aghast at what I read: slanted reporting, innuendo, half-truths and some out-and-out inaccuracies. He even described the color of Trombitas’ mustache incorrectly! It’s black, not gray. (See for yourself here.)

The provocative headline on his article: “Iraq’s new death squad.” Bauer obviously went to Iraq with a preconceived idea of what he wanted to write, highlighted isolated cases that corroborated that idea and ignored anything that didn’t.

ISOF is an Iraqi commando unit that was organized and trained by U.S. Special Forces to go after the terrorists who were then responsible for 10,000 civilian deaths a year. Bauer got a lot of his background information correct, but he cited isolated incidents in which ISOF raided the wrong houses and roughed up or shot the wrong people to compare it with the death squads in El Salvador and in Colombia of 20 and 30 years ago. That’s too much of a stretch.

Wrote Bauer:

“Trombitas says he is ‘very proud of what was done in El Salvador’ but avoids the fact that special forces trained there by the United States in the early 1980s were responsible for the formation of death squads that killed more than 50,000 civilians thought to be sympathetic with leftist guerrillas. . . . In the early 1990s, U.S. Special Forces trained and worked closely with an elite Colombian police unit strongly suspected of carrying out some of the murders attributed to Los Pepes, a death squad that became the backbone of the country’s current paramilitary organization.”

He adds later parenthetically:  “(Trombitas served in El Salvador from 1989-90 and in Colombia from 2003-2005, after these incidents took place.)”

Well, not quite. U.S. advisers to El Salvador were actually responsible for reining in the human rights abuses committed by military units there, and Col. Mark Hamilton was responsible for the breakthrough negotiations that led to the signing of the peace accord in 1991.

I saw the same reining in when I was in Iraq, an effort to change the mindset of an officer corps that had served under Saddam Hussein.

Of ISOF, Bauer wrote: “U.S. Special Forces advisers have done little to respond to allegations of abuse. Civilian pleas, public protests, complaints by Iraqi Army commanders about the ISOF’s actions and calls for disbanding it by members of Parliament have not pushed the US government to take a hard look at the force they are creating. Instead, US advisers dismiss such claims as politically motivated.”

That’s half-true. There were complaints, but the U.S. side, bent on winning hearts and minds, did respond and would lean on the Iraqis to clean up their act. We were instrumental in having an inspector general’s office added to ISOF’s parent organization, the Counter-Terrorism Bureau.  The IG was given free rein to investigate human rights abuses and regularly took punitive action.  Bauer ignores the thousands of bona fide terrorists the ISOF was responsible for killing or capturing, or the fact that ISOF was precluded from conducting raids without warrants signed by civilian judges.

Bauer wrote: “Accounts of older ISOF operations I heard around Baghdad suggest that the Americans may have knowingly allowed violence against civilians.”

“Suggest?” “May?” Not very convincing reporting, and from what I saw it was not true at all.

And there was this: “In December (2008) the ISOF arrested as many as thirty-five officials in the Interior Ministry who were thought to be in opposition to (Prime Minister) Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party.”

I was there and remember that incident well. It was an elite unit of the National Police, not ISOF, that staged that raid.  I remember it well because everyone on our staff went “Whew!” when the incident hit the media.

Trombitas has since been promoted to major general and until a few weeks ago commanded the joint task force in charge of the relief effort in Haiti.  He is now commander of U.S. Army South at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Final word: There are plenty of mistakes made in any military unit, some worthy of press scrutiny more than others. But it’s a good idea to keep them in perspective, not to embellish them, and to cite sources on the record.

 

ROBERT BUCKMAN, Ph.D., is an associate professor of  communication and head of the print journalism sequence at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is a member of both the Ethics Committee and the International Journalism Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the author of a reference book on Latin America and a regular freelance contributor to newspapers on Latin American politics.

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Rolling Stone’s McChrystal profile: The Right, the Wrong, and the Ugly

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11 Responses

  1. AllenX says:

    Everyone deserves the right to express opinions, however we should be responsible enough with words we release especially if we are in a position. We often say "we have the right" but we also need to say "we have the responsibility". If you take the action of telling your personal opinions in public,then expect the consequences. Recently we’ve heard news about this general stating how unhappy he was with the Obama administration. He basically stated that they’re not competent in many more words. I respect him for taking it to the public , but the Administrations serves the right to make him clarify what he is saying. He may have filed his resignation but still, McChrystal will face some punishments.

  2. FredTom says:

    Talk about hatchet jobs. How can you write an article of this length — what is this, 2,000 words or so– attacking reporters and not even bother to try calling one of them to get your facts straight? Media criticism at its finest. And dude needs an editor, too.

  3. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    @FredTom, If you think we have made any factual errors, please be specific. Otherwise, to suggest that we have made mistakes and not provide evidence of your blanket claim is truly unfair. We are always willing to correct factual errors at StinkyJournalism.org as our readers know. Thankfully, errors of fact occur rarely.

  4. FredTom says:

    The point is that the author of this piece is, in essence, saying that the Rolling Stone and The Nation pieces did not meet some journalistic standards. Yet, he has committed zero journalism in producing the piece. He could have provided readers with some real insight into the articles by calling the reporters/editors and asking them what went into their pieces. But he did not do that. Do you not think it’s particularly ironic that the author criticizes the Rolling Stone piece thus "Hastings has far too many hearsay quotes." Yet, he based his entire lengthy article on hearsay quotes? I truly appreciate the work that Stinky Journalism does. Your work in setting the record straight in the Diamond/New Yorker story should be a model. I know you can’t put such resources into every piece you publish. But dude could have at least made a few phone calls, done some, you know, reporting.

  5. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    @FredTom, There are several kinds of StinkyJournalism articles. There are original investigative reports like the Jared Diamond/New Yorker case (glad you appreciated it); three semi-regular opinion columnists who have expertise (Robert Buckman in the Faux Pas Files features his expertise in media ethics and in the military in the column you critiqued; and David Moore & George Bishop, professional pollsters write the Poll Skeptics Report ); another type is "media picks." These are shorter length round-ups of current reporting of issues or events in the media that relate to ethics (we try to include some original reporting).

    I re-looked at Buckman’s column after your comment. Buckman, as a former member of the military who served in Iraq, offers his expert opinion that is prominent in this particular column.

    Back when we were fact checking the Buckman’s column and our reports surrounding the Rolling Stone piece, we did, in fact, seek responses from multiple parties (including the author of the Rolling Stone piece and the magazine itself).

    For example, we wrote July 1, 2010: "StinkyJournalism has written to Rolling Stone about the contradictory claims and will post any response."

    We simply could not get anyone to respond despite our efforts! See here and here.

    Beyond this, you will really have to be more specific for me to comment any further as I think it’s a very good opinion column.

    And as an opinion columnist’s column, it can’t be fairly compared to what we did on the Jared Diamond/New Yorker case as investigative journalists. It’s apples and oranges.

  6. FredTom says:

    Typical and lame response. I expect more from an outlet striving to push the media for higher ethical standards. You know how it goes, treat every article like it’s the first day someone has picked up the paper. For this article, did Buckman try to call these outlets? Because if he did, there’s no mention of it in the story. In fact, he seems to make it clear that calling Rolling Stone and The Nation was not an issue. He had his mind made up. Please, do us all the favor of admitting to a breakdown in judgment. It helps with your credibility. And as much as Buckman would like to believe that he’s an expert in military affairs, his reliance on a "retirement pay calculator" shows otherwise. I’m not going to argue any further, but any rational person — which I thought you were — would realize that this column stinks to high heaven.

  7. FredTom says:

    Alas, I just received a message from the reporter Michael Hastings. Here’s what it says "Stinky Journalism? No. Robert Buckman? No. I’ve never heard of either of them. I’ve been pretty open about giving interviews. I have traveled some since the article was published, but I don’t think I ever received a request from either of them. Hope that helps." Seeing as you are so thorough in your reporting and so sure that you’ve checked every avenue, I wonder how you’ll respond.

  8. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    I have asked Sydney Smith, our reporter who fact checked Buckman’s Rolling Stone opinion column as well as write a couple of her own stories on the topic –all at the same time as the story was developing–to also respond here in comments.

    But here is my additional response…When we write the NY Times publicity dept, for example, they and/or editors or the reporters involved respond to us as a result. Rolling Stone publicity dept did not respond to us. Here is one email…

    From: Sydney Smith <sydneysmithwriter@gmail.com>

    Date: Mon, Jun 28, 2010 at 6:27 PM

    Subject: Media Inquiry – Contradiction in Statements

    To: publicity@rollingstone.com

    (This is a clarification to my previous e-mail. Please disregard my previous e-mail.)

    Dear editors or media representatives,

    I am a reporter for media ethics news web site StinkyJournalism.org (please find background information below my signature) .

    We are writing a brief report about the contradiction between Michael Hastings and editor Eric Bates in their statements about whether or not an off-the-record or any other agreement was made.

    Eric Bates in a Washington Post interview June 26 said: "A lot of things were said off the record that we didn’t use," Bates said in an interview. "We abided by all the ground rules in every instance."

    Yet Hastings said in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow June 22 “There were no conditions set before I began the profile. And it was my understanding that it was all on the record. And that‘s why I continued to report on them for the following number of weeks.”

    Can you explain the contradiction?

    I am on deadline. Thank you very much for your response.

    ——

  9. Rhonda Roland Shearer says:

    First of all, it is unnecessary for you to be rude. You are anonymous; I am on the record here and maintaining politeness to you. (I am not saying how "lame" your comments are etc; but treating you with respect. I expect the same treatment).

    I can respond to specific questions or charges of wrong doing that you have–such as your view that a certain statement (cite it!) should have been fact checked (as it is factually wrong) or that a certain specific claim (please quote it) is unfair or required a response from Hasting or Rolling Stone before we published it. Otherwise, I really don’t know what you are talking about.

  10. Brian says:

    With all respect due to Stinky Journalism, I have to say that the commenter is correct in this case. The author is criticizing the Rolling Stone piece writer for his reliance on hearsay, yet he bases his entire article on third-hand information. That’s not journalism. Rhonda: if you want a specific example to respond to, answer the reader’s question. Do you not find it odd that Buckman writes "Hastings has far too many hearsay quotes" and yet bases his entire article on third-hand information. By your own admission, he did not try to contact Hastings. If that reader can find his information — his email address comes up for anyone who knows how to do a web search — why couldn’t the author?

  11. Rhonda Roland Shearer, StinkyJournalism.org editor says:

    I have no problem with admitting errors or the need for improvement. We just don’t agree in this case. Buckman criticizes Hastings for relying on too many hearsay quotations. This in itself is not hearsay as you and the other commenter seem to think. Buckman is commenting on direct evidence.

    —————————————————————————————————————

    From Dictionary.com: definition of HEARSAY:

    1. unverified, unofficial information gained or acquired from another and not part of one’s direct knowledge: I pay no attention to hearsay.

    2. an item of idle or unverified information or gossip; rumor: a malicious hearsay.

    ————————————————————————————————————————-

    Buckman’s negative comment about Hastings’ hearsay quotations is not, in itself, hearsay. It is fair comment on his direct knowledge from within an independently verifiable source–a published article by Hastings in Rolling Stone. This is not "unverified unofficial information gained or aquired from another and not part of one’s direct knowledge."

    Opinion columns about media coverage can fairly comment without original reporting if they stay narrowly focused on the written words and are fact checked in my view. (Most newspapers don’t even fact check! We do.) Within our fact checking, we contacted Rolling Stone–this is a fact. If they thought we were wrong or out of bounds they had and still have an opportunity to respond.

    I stand by the story. It was fair comment in an opinion column that was independently fact checked, not a news or investigative piece.

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