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“it’s all based on, on trust and relationships” ….And an agreement not to tell the truth

The McChrystal Bombshell

June 25, 2010 NPR On the Media

How did Michael Hastings get such candor from McChrystal and his advisers? CNN’s former senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre was on the military beat for 16 years. His theory comes down to the beat reporter versus freelancer divide. Beat reporters may be less likely to use such candid moments in their stories for fear of losing future access. For a freelancer like Hastings that’s not much of a concern.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today I accepted General Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as Commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

BOB GARFIELD: In case you, by some miracle, missed this development, the head of military operations in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal resigned this week over insubordinate remarks made by himself and his staff about the President, the Vice-President and others, recounted by freelance reporter Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone Magazine.

In an interview with WNYC’s and PRI’s The Takeaway, he explained why he reported what others did not.

MICHAEL HASTINGS: In the past the general has given pretty good access to a number of journalists, and I believe those journalists were interested in giving sort of a flattering profile of the general, which assures you more access in the future. I understand that, but it’s not something I’m interested in doing.

BOB GARFIELD: As a freelancer, Hastings isn’t bound by the same unofficial rules that beat reporters often live by. Jamie McIntyre was a beat reporter, the senior Pentagon correspondent for CNN, for 16 years. This is his theory of why such lofty military officials would speak so candidly in front of a reporter.

JAMIE McINTYRE: They got very comfortable with Michael Hastings and believe that he would probably follow the convention of many beat reporters and not report some of the hijinks that go on behind the scenes.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you now to describe the difference in the dynamics between a beat reporter on the defense beat or any other and someone who parachutes in for one story.

JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, the difference is the sort of one-off reporter doesn’t need to worry about whether he’s going to get future access or not, whereas the beat reporters, like when I was at CNN, I needed access; I needed to be able to get to the key people to find out what was going on when bombs were dropping or things were happening.

And the way you do that is you forego reporting all of the sort of off-color jokes or informal banter that goes on when you follow these guys around, focus on the big picture, and they begin to trust you. As a result, when you need to know what’s going on, you get access.

If you do what Michael Hastings does, they’re never going to talk to him again. Of course, he — he doesn’t care. The fallout from that though is that they may also not talk to a lot of other reporters, as well.

BOB GARFIELD: Not reporting the off-color jokes, the intemperate comments and so forth, you call that the dirty little secret of beat reporting.

JAMIE McINTYRE: You know, it implies this sort of overly cozy relationship. These military officials that we’re following around, they’re not our friends. We’re frenemies, we’re not friends. You know, one thing we’ve learned from this whole episode is that military officers cannot tell you what they’re really thinking without being in peril of losing their jobs.

So the dirty little secret is yeah, we sort of informally agree not to report a lot of things that we see and hear, some of it for legitimate security reasons, and some of it because it could just be embarrassing. And the tradeoff is we get a continued relationship with these people and we can get information.

And by the way, it is information that we can still hold them accountable for, it’s just that we sort of cover them.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me any kind of concrete example about a story that you may have let go for the sake of ongoing good relations with your uh, subjects?

JAMIE McINTYRE: There’s been a lot of things that have happened on Rumsfeld’s plane when I was traveling with him that would be great stories. I actually think a lot of them provide some real insight into Rumsfeld, the man, and how he operated during the time he was defense secretary. But the agreement is that stuff on the plane is — is off the record.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Jamie, now I can tell you that there will be comments beneath this interview on our website that say Jamie McIntyre has rationalized the ongoing of a sleazy dynamic between defense reporters and the people they’re covering. He’s drunk the KoolAid, he’s breathing his own fumes. I want you to tell me a concrete example of how suppressing some colorful little background can yield some very serious reporting later.

JAMIE McINTYRE: The last time I was in Afghanistan I traveled with then-NATO Commander Jim Jones, who’s now the national security advisor. I followed him all around. In fact, he even took me into some extremely high level meetings, under the condition that I could observe but it was off the record. And that kind of access, where I got to see, you know what really goes on behind these doors where the reporters are usually left outside, was extremely valuable to me in calibrating my reporting.

You know none of these generals, the smart ones, they don’t want a free ride. They just want to know that they’re going to get a fair shake. And I think the ultimate measure is you have to go back and look at the reporting and see how it holds up over time. And if you look at the reporting and you decide, you know what, Jamie McIntyre missed it, he didn’t get it right, and it may have been because he was too close to his sources, then you can make that judgment.

BOB GARFIELD: I have to ask you if the fair shake that you’re talking about for you would have extended to not reporting this pretty clear-cut case of insubordination that General McChrystal and his aides displayed?

JAMIE McINTYRE: Well, I have to say I think Michael Hastings did exactly the right thing. Part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice bars contemptuous remarks by military officers about their commander-in-chief. So if I witnessed a military officer violating the military law on this subject, I think I would be bound to report that.

But if I asked the general, what do you think about the President’s policy, and he said, can we go off the record, I would know that if I don’t go off the record I’m not going to hear what he really thinks, and I might be willing to do that to find out whether the generals really believe in what they’re doing.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to come back to the ultimate consequences of the Hastings story on McChrystal. Is this going to make it very tough on beat reporters and freelancers from this point forward?

JAMIE McINTYRE: I think you’re going to see sort of a freeze-out for at least a short period of time. Don’t forget, it was just in 2008 that Admiral Fallon was forced out because of remarks that he made in Esquire Magazine. You would have thought after that people would have been very gun shy.

But the fact of the matter is it’ll go back to the way it worked before, which is it’s all based on, on trust and relationships; it’s a two-way street.

BOB GARFIELD: Jamie, thanks again for joining us.

JAMIE McINTYRE: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Jamie McIntyre, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland blogs about the military and the media at lineofdeparture.com.

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