Country Club Journalism
June 25th, 2010

I doubt anyone would suggest that their coverage of the Watergate scandal ruined the careers of Woodward and Bernstein.  Quite the contrary, it launched them into the upper echelons of journalism history.

Apparently the flurry of journalistic ambition inspired by Woodward and Bernstein has almost completely died out, though, because when Michael Hastings’ surprising Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal was released this week it left much of the country slack-jawed.  While the article itself provides plenty of fodder for follow-up discussion it’s not the original content that most interests me.  Rather, I’m most intrigued by the fact that the general public was as surprised at a journalist’s willingness to draft an article that cast such a long shadow on an important figure as they were about the shadow itself. 

In the hubbub that has followed the publication of his article there has been much ballyhoo about Hastings, his level of access, and his decision to write the article he wrote.  News anchors and pundits have commented that Hastings must not care too much about future access to pivotal figures given this particular performance, because he’s likely to be seen as political kryptonite for quite some time. 

Hastings gave an interview to Matt Lauer of Today in which he commented:

“One of the things that happens in journalism, especially with powerful figures, is that they give journalists access in exchange for favorable coverage and future access. …That dynamic didn’t apply to me and the story I was writing, or just my general style of journalism.”

And that right there snows me.  Protecting a source is one thing.  Engaging in mutual back-scratching with high-profile people to ensure the long term viability of each party’s career is little more than PR draped in journalism’s window dressings. 

I’m sure there are hard-nosed reporters out there, doggedly chasing leads and crafting meaningful exposés.  But this level of reaction to the Rolling Stone article’s authorship leaves me wondering if the majority of journalists working to up their number of bylines are doing so by soliciting what amounts to celebrity sponsorship into a country club of benign journalism. 

Bully for you, Michael Hastings, for writing the piece you wanted to write.  Would that your counterparts had the same nerve and integrity.

2 Responses to “Country Club Journalism”

  1. Anne Says:

    That’s a fascinating quote. Journalism is questioned so much these days…is it biased this way or that way…and I wish it weren’t. Most of us are biased, even when we try not to be. But sort of “mutual agreements”? That’s another animal. I wonder how truthful that statement is, or whether he was just defending his story? Interesting food for thought.

  2. John Says:

    Dear Nieces,

    The statement is true.

    Simply modify the phrase “photo op” to read “interview op” and you get the idea.

    For example, I personally believe that Michell Obama is probably a pretty good person, so skewering her in print might not be justified in a magazine like Rolling Stone. However, you can be certain that if a journalist were to write an article that was highly critical of her, the journalist is not likely to receive an invitation to the White House again.

    What I find sad about the current McChrystal situation is that the general probably is right: The government bureaucrat in question was trying to protect his own skin. The hubris of many in Washington is hard for us to comprehend.

    Further, and I may be wrong about the details, the comparisons to MacArthur and Truman are not quite accurate. As I recall, MacArthur disobeyed Truman and took military action that violated civilian policy in Korea. In the current situation, I know of know evidence that McChrystal disobeyed the President. The general merely made the mistake of making public comments critical of a very thin-skinned administration. That–not disobedience of instructions from the Commander-in-Chief–was McChrystal’s sin.