Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Formula.

To state the obvious: John Burns is a great reporter. Michael Barone, who isn't right about many things, is indisputably correct that Burns is "one of the great foreign correspondents of our time."

That said... Burns' reaction to Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone article is not one the Timesman's finer moments. Asked by Hugh Hewitt -- who is already on record preemptively blaming a loss in Afghanistan on the magazine -- how "The Runaway General" will affect the relationship between the media and the military, he replied: 

I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations. I think, you know, well, this will be debated down the years, the whole issue as to how it came about that Rolling Stone had that kind of access. My unease, if I can be completely frank about this, is that from my experience of traveling and talking to generals, McChrystal, Petraeus and many, many others over the past few years, is that the old on-the-record/off-the-record standard doesn’t really meet the case, which is to say that by the very nature of the time you spend with the generals, the same could be said to be true of the time that a reporter spends with anybody in the public eye. There are moments which just don’t fit that formula. There are long, informal periods traveling on helicopters over hostile territory with the generals chatting over their headset, bunking down for the night side by side on a piece of rough-hewn concrete. You build up a kind of trust. It’s not explicit, it’s just there. And my feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.

Has anything of late so well explained the institutionalized awfulness of the media's Pentagon coverage? Burns, who has won and deserved two Pulitzers, states the obvious: that there is a "formula" to the beat. This, as Charles Kaiser notes, is a big reason that "virtually every profile of McChrystal had either sharply downplayed the defects in his CV or ignored them altogether, including the general’s central role in the cover up of the killing of former football star Pat Tillman by friendly fire."

Trouble is, Burns doesn't decry this brand of rubber stamp journalism. Instead, he blames Michael Hastings for doing his job, and doing it well.


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