Lara Logan’s Friendly Misfire
CBS Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan certainly did herself and her fellow war correspondent no favors with her inept defense of war zone ground rules, even as she may have been right about a few things.
Logan’s appearance on CNN’s media criticism program “Reliable Sources,” followed Michael Hastings’, author of the now infamous Rolling Stone article “The Runaway General,” which summarily ended the Army career of Afghanistan Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
In defending herself and her compatriots in the press corps, against charges they are too chummy with the military, Logan wounded them grievously with misaimed friendly fire. She unfortunately reinforced the worst stereotype of reporters who “embed” with senior military officers but are actually “in bed” with them.
Perhaps the most clueless and unhelpful comment Lara Logan made in the interview with Howard Kurtz was this: “I mean, the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious, that they deserved to end a career like McChrystal’s? I mean, Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.“
Lara Logan, CBS News, on CNN’s Reliable Sources, June 24, 2010
Oh Lara, don’t you wish you could take that back? “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has??? Whisky Tango Foxtrot??? In that one sentence Logan implies that somehow military service trumps the journalistic tradition of truth-seeking. If critics, who are already predisposed to believe the worst about the media, are looking for evidence combat reporters are too dazzled by the shiny stars on the commander’s epaulets, this is their smoking gun.
And the other part of Logan’s ill-conceived attack was musing about whether what Gen. McChrystal and his aides did really was “so egregious”. Here again Logan reveals despite her undeniably courageous front-line battlefield coverage, she just doesn’t get it. Yes, Laura, it WAS “so egregious.” But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at how America’s top military officer put it:
“I cannot excuse his lack of judgment with respect to the Rolling Stone article or a command climate he evidently permitted that was at best disrespectful of civilian authority. We do not have that luxury, those of us in uniform. We do not have the right, nor should we ever assume the prerogative, to cast doubt upon the ability or mock the motives of our civilian leaders, elected or appointed. We are and must remain a neutral instrument of the state, accountable to, and respectful of, those leaders no matter which party holds sway or which person holds a given office.“
Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs Chairman, June 24, 2010
I have generally defended Michael Hasting in this imbroglio, but some of the comments of support I made were before I was a aware there was a dispute over whether ground rules were in effect, that Hastings may have violated. Also Hastings has since hurled facile and fatuous barbs that unfairly smear a lot of good journalists.
And many people in the blogosphere have picked up on my comments, because of my long experience grappling with these issues firsthand, as a network correspondent covering the Pentagon for CNN and traveling around the world with top military commanders and civilian officials for 16 years. This has been a polarizing issue, and may people have staked out extreme positions and glossed over the nuances.
So, just to be clear, here’s where I come down on the main issues and allegations raised by the McChrystal/Rolling Stone affair:
1. Journalists write puff pieces to ensure access later.
I’m sure some do. But not the good ones. I side with Lara Logan on this on. She said, “To be fair to the military, if they believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back.”
Hastings delivers a cheap shot when he smears reporters with a broad brush, “There’s a reason why … everyone writes a glowing profile of him, because then that assures access later on… if you ever write a favorable story, they’ll get better access later,” he told Kurtz.
No Michael. It’s not writing a favorable story that ensures access, it’s writing and accurate, balanced, nuanced story that helps maintain access. As I like to say, “a fair shake, not a free ride.” As Lara Logan points out, she’s done plenty of tough stories that were not favorable, but that never blocked her access. That’s because good commanders and good reporters know that truth isn’t all good or all bad.
2. Any off-the-record, should stay off the record.
I find it interesting that neither Logan nor Hastings make the argument I make, namely that some things you see or hear off-the-record, you can’t agree to keep off-the-record. Hastings tells Kurtz, “If someone tells you something is off the record, I don’t print it.”
The extreme hypothetical example I have imagined is if I were talking to a general off-the-record, and he were to called the President the “n” word. There’s no way I could say, “Too bad I can’t report that.” I would inform the general and his staff that I could no longer honor my promise. There might be a price to pay for that, but I would pay it. And I would tell them to their face. Hastings blindsided McChrystal and his staff, possibly because he didn’t fully know what he was doing.
3. There were no ground rules, so Michael Hastings did nothing wrong.
I wasn’t there, so I don’t know. But I tend to agree with Lara Logan on this one. It is highly unusual for the kind of after-hours social events described by Hastings to be on the record. He says they happened at the front end, in the first day or two he was there, so no one was lulled into a false sense of security. He says there were no ground rules. Lara Logan doesn’t believe him. All I can say is Lara’s view is consistent with my 16 years of experience, and Michael’s is not. But who knows? Maybe somebody dropped the ball, figuring experienced reporters know the drill, and didn’t bother to nail down the rules. As I said, I wasn’t there.
4. What Gen. McChrystal did wasn’t so bad, really.
Here I disagree with both Hastings and Logan. I’ve already explained why Logan was wrong on this point. The climate of mocking civilian leaders McChrystal tolerated, and in which he tacitly participated, was in direct violation of article 88 of the UCMJ. Here Hasting reveals HIS cluelessness. He told CNN “I did not expect the fallout that occurred. In fact, I didn’t even think that it was possible for General McChrystal to even get fired.”
Okay, here’s a difference between an experienced military reporter, and a freelancer who has some firsthand experience, but lacks a depth of understanding of the complexities of the story he’s covering. As soon as I read Hastings’s piece, I knew McChrystal was toast. As did probably all of the veteran reporters who cover the military. That Hastings was blithely unaware he was about to bring down a general, reveals a shocking ignorance about the bedrock American principle of civilian control of the military. If he doesn’t get that, one has to wonder what else he doesn’t get.
5. It’s okay to pretend to be friends and then “f*** them over,” because everybody knows, or should know, that’s how journalists work.
I’m with Lara on this one. NO, that’s not how the good journalists work. Yes, we are polite. Yes, we can be charming, and even funny, and yes, we can listen with a sympathetic ear. But we don’t pretend to be something we’re not. If we are writing a bad news story, we tell you. We let you respond. We take into consideration your arguments. And then we write as close to the truth as we can get. And the next day we can look you in the eye, and stand by our reporting because we haven’t lied to you, or misrepresented ourselves, or “f***ed you over.
6. It’s an illusion you’re on their team.
Hastings says, “They let you hang out with them. And they try to make you feel like you’re part of the team… But that’s an illusion.…And they know that, and you know that. You’re a journalist… You’re there to tell it like it is.”
Hasting has that exactly right. The journalists traveling with you can seem like the nicest people in the world, but don’t ever think we are on your team. We are not. And experienced commanders know that. And there really should be no confusion about this. It is a bedrock principle of journalism.
7. By starting the profile with anecdote in which McChrystal makes a obscene gesture ( in a light-hearted manner), and by writing a sub-headline about “wimps in the White House,” Rolling Stone crossed the line into sensationalist, tabloid journalism.
I think Lara’s slightly off the mark on this one. She said on CNN, “When you start an article with General McChrystal making obscene gestures, you’re not even using something that he said. And “Rolling Stone” magazine put their own spin on this. They said that the greatest enemy for McChrystal is the wimps in Washington. Nowhere in the article does McChrystal refer to ‘the wimps in Washington.’ That’s “Rolling Stone” magazine, how they chose to cast this, to make it as sensational as possible.”
Here I think Logan is being oversensitive. I get that the profile is written with attitude, in the style of Rolling Stone. But let’s not forget the primary criticism of this piece is that it’s TOO ACCURATE. I think most journalists charged with “excessive accuracy” would be ready to plead guilty.
It’s a time-honored (perhaps even hackneyed) writing device to start with a small anecdote that helps illuminate the big picture. And as for the headline about “wimps in the White House,” Well, that IS an editorial characterization but it’s supported by the rest of the article. Is the piece slanted? Yes, it’s slanted toward the point of view of the author. But the facts are there for people to draw their own conclusions.
8. Hastings only wanted to highlight the problems in Afghanistan.
Hastings says, “I had really no control over, you know, the after effects. And that really wasn’t what I was focusing on. What I was focusing on was trying to write the best story that I could to bring attention to the war in Afghanistan.”
This is probably the most frustrating thing for Hastings. He’s produced a very illuminating piece of long-form journalism that highlights the real shortcomings of the strategy in Afghanistan. He raises essential questions in a compelling way, questions all Americans should be asking, about the how the war is going and the prospects for success. What’s clear in Hastings incisive and evocative account is that even the generals who are prosecuting the war have deep misgivings. And by the way, that’s something we can only find out if commanders can trust reporters enough to go off-the-record, and allow them to be a fly on the wall. If Hasting did commit any journalistic sins, he is paying for it by blunting the impact of his own reporting, in return for the short-term notoriety of being a general-killer.
If you’re keeping score, on these eight points, Lara Logan wins 3, Michael Hastings 2, and I go my own way on 3.
Jamie McIntyre was CNN’s Senior Pentagon Correspondent for 16 years. He’s now an Adjunct Professor of Journalism at the University of Maryland, and blogs regularly about military and media issues at http://www.lineofdeparture.com