Rod Dreher

David Brooks has an almost wistful column today gently bemoaning the kind of media culture we’ve built in which a man like Gen. McChrystal can be destroyed by a reporter for being foolishly human. Excerpt:

But McChrystal, like everyone else, kvetched. And having apparently missed the last 50 years of cultural history, he did so on the record, in front of a reporter. And this reporter, being a product of the culture of exposure, made the kvetching the center of his magazine profile.
By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him.
The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

Note that Brooks is not saying Obama was wrong to fire McChrystal; in fact, he’s conceding that Obama had no choice, and he’s blaming McChrystal for being incredibly stupid for mouthing off as he did in front of a reporter. But notice what else Brooks is doing here: calling out the reporter for irresponsibly handling the information he was given. I’m not sure, but I think Brooks is probably right. I think what I would have done had I been around McChrystal as a journalist, and been privy to those unguarded, cocksure quotes from him and his staff. My first impulse would have been to go to print with them; after all, the sessions weren’t off the record, and technically, I wouldn’t have betrayed a confidence. Hey, it was a scoop! By the rules and standards of my profession, it would arguably have been unprofessional to keep Team McChrystal’s stated views to myself.
But I hope, on reflection, I would have considered this point, mentioned by Brooks:

Those of us in the press corps have to figure out how to treat this torrent of private kvetching. During World War II and the years just after, a culture of reticence prevailed. The basic view was that human beings are sinful, flawed and fallen. What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

Had I been the reporter, I hope I would have given long, serious consideration to whether or not the McChrystal posse’s statements were merely blowing off steam, or in some serious way compromised the general’s command and loyalty. Is it important that the public knows the private contempt with which these military people hold particular civilian officials? It might be, in which case, the reporter who exposes them does us all a service. But did the question even occur to the reporter, or did all he see was a scoop?
Don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not saying the Rolling Stone reporter should have sat on the McChrystal information. Nor am I saying he was right to have reported it. But my gut is telling me that he was probably wrong to have reported it, for the reasons David Brooks points out: the reporter took an essentially meaningless bitching session, and by exposing it, elevated it to an event that changed the conduct of the war. This was primarily Stanley McChrystal’s fault, to be sure, and the reporter is not under an obligation to protect McChrystal and his aides from themselves. In the end, the reporter told the truth, if by “the truth” we mean a statement of facts. And I wouldn’t say that those facts the reporter revealed were irrelevant to the man McChrystal is: as has been noted in many places, McChrystal is an arrogant man surrounded by sycophants, and he likely thought he could get away with this sort of indiscipline. The penny-ante hubris of his and his team’s mouthing off revealed something important about his, and their, character.
But was revealing that truth worth the trouble it caused? I don’t know.
I had a conversation recently with a friend deeply involved in politics. He mentioned the case of a senior politician, a family-values guy who’d been caught in an ugly sex scandal, which he somehow survived. My friend said, “We all knew what he’d been up to, a long time before any of it came out.” My friend isn’t a journalist, and it never would have occurred to him to out this politician as a fraud. Nor was it his place to. Given the details of this particular scandal, journalists were absolutely right to out this pol, and not just because of his “family values” image. Had this pol gone down, it would have been a fairly big deal, but it wouldn’t have been remotely as significant as the commanding general of the Afghanistan war being ousted over the public revelation of private conduct. Still, in the wake of what happened with McChrystal, I can’t help wondering about that particular politician, and the fact that people who worked in politics with this guy knew how personally corrupt and hypocritical he was. Did that matter? Did his personal failings make him a bad legislator? What if he was a good legislator, but privately an adulterer and a jerk — is that important for the people to know? It’s fun to know — “Ah, I always figured ol’ N. was no damn good.” — but is it important to know? I’ve written before about in early 1995, taunting a Democratic friend of mine on Capitol Hill over the fact that Newt Gingrich was the new Speaker of the House. My friend, a political professional, told me that the Dems weren’t worried, because they knew Newt was cheating on his wife, and if he pushed too far, they would use that against him. He was right: Newt really was cheating on his wife. I have wondered since then if Gingrich ever pulled his punches, knowing that his political enemies knew what he was all about. I have also wondered if the Dems didn’t drop the bomb on Newt to protect their favored programs because they knew that the Republicans had compromising personal information on them.
Truman Capote, in explaining the art of writing, said the trick is not to relate every detail you see, but only the important ones — the ones that reveal the truth of the subject. Not everything a reporter hears and sees is important to reveal. The more complicated reality is that not every fact that reveals the truth of the subject is important to reveal, when weighed against other considerations. This is a hard thing to keep in mind today, in our culture of disclosure, especially when we see the intense damage done (e.g., the clerical sex abuse scandal) by people who decided to keep secrets, supposedly for the greater good. Still, there is a such thing as the greater good, and it is at times important to conceal ugly truths for its sake.
But when? And how do we decide? Brooks says politicians and others call him up all the time to bitch about each other. He keeps that quiet; they know they can trust him. He is equipped to tell his readers deeper truths about the way politics works because they trust him to keep those secrets. On the other hand, he runs the risk of coming to identify with his sources, and not his readers’ interests. It’s a professional hazard. In the end, I would rather have journalists who operate with a strong conscience and sense of discretion about these matters, even if they err on the side of holding too much information back, than journalists who believe their moral duty is to publish almost everything they learn, and let the chips fall where they may. But I’ve got kind of a bad conscience about this, because I know how easily it would have been, in 1998 (say), for me, as a pious Catholic who (crucially!) did not have children, to have been persuaded to have kept information about molesting priests out of the newspaper because my bishop asked me to, for the supposed greater good. As Cathleen Kaveny reminds us, affirming the importance of protecting a public image can lead to the greatest corruption and damage. But there is a difference, isn’t there, between covering up the fact that the head of a global religious order is a pedophile and a bigamist, and hiding the fact that a top U.S. general and his staff think the vice president is a poopy-pants?
UPDATE: Sullivan writes a tart dissent. Excerpt:

[E]very expert defense reporter and every established journalist treated Stanley McChrystal as if he were God until they were scooped by a free-lancer who didn’t give a shit about his Washington “reputation.”

Sullivan cites this essay on the mess by a former Marine, and this quote:

I think McChrystal and his buddies didn’t expect that Hastings would actually write down everything they said and put it into print. It’s an unfortunate staple of Beltway journalism that has bled over into war reporting that most reporters are loathe to burn their sources by writing derogatory things about them. To be blunt, most reporters are as career-obsessed as the officers they’re interviewing and they don’t want to poison the well. This is doubly true if the officer being interviewed is a four-star general. There is a simple reciprocity involved: if you want to be invited back to ride on The Boss’s helicopter, if you want continued access, you’d better not write about his soft spot for strippers and gin.

True enough. But he leaves out this other key quote from the piece, lines critical of Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter:

Totally absent [from the Hastings piece] is any cold-blooded assessment of the challenges facing our troops. And there is something distasteful about a well-educated reporter who would never, ever join the military himself, dropping into a war zone for a month and doing a drive-by on a guy who’s dedicated his every waking hour for the last thirty years to the study of war.

…which kind of speaks to Brooks’s point.

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