Pentagon Policy Threatens Fragile Agreement with Journalists

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Former Commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, speaks during a news briefing at the Pentagon on May 13, 2010.

John Burns of The New York Times set up a very disturbing notion of media dynamics in the wake of the Rolling Stone demise of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Clearly Burns believes that McChrystal was a real asset in the Afghan military campaign and is being sacrificed because of the Michael Hastings story in Rolling Stone. Burns seems to think that Hastings took nuanced moments to create a portrait of military commanders contemptuous of their civilian colleagues. The piece challenged the principle of civilian control of the U.S. Military. Burns believes the piece may have ended a longstanding relationship between journalists and military leaders as a channel for much needed information over time. By taking what Burns seemed to suggest were “off-the-record” moments and using them to support the Rolling Stone “Runaway General” premise, Hastings has made it difficult for reporters to get the real story of what is going on in Afghanistan and Iraq or at the Pentagon generally, from here on out.

Are these relationships between Pentagon beat reporters and military leaders incompatible with outsider journalists who drop in and deliver a perspective that can potentially become bigger news than the orderly procession of stories from the beat reporters? It’s a really important question and I don’t have an easy answer. One thing we didn’t really get to in the discussion this morning was how the McChrystal case really shows how much HAS changed since the Vietnam era. When CBS reporter George Crile and Mike Wallace went after Gen. Westmoerland on inflated casualty counts, not only did Westmoreland not go anywhere, but it resulted in one of biggest libel cases against CBS in history. That was then ... McChrystal is now.