Rod Dreher

I have no idea whether any criticisms Gen. McChrystal and his team made of the administration, the U.S. ambassador or anybody else have any substance (and I would strongly urge you not to make the criticism itself the subject of the comments thread). What gobsmacks me is that they were foolish enough to make those remarks — and to make them multiple times — around a journalist. That’s what I’d like the comments thread to be about: the morality of indiscretion. I suppose it’s possible that the journalist promised them confidentiality, and broke his word, but I wouldn’t assume that to be the case. I suspect it’s more likely they really liked this journalist, and allowed themselves to forget that he was there to report a story.
Honestly, how is it that people that senior, and in such an important mission, were so indiscreet with a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine? Mind-boggling. One of the hardest things for people to learn is when to keep their mouths shut. Credite experto! Here’s a PDF of the RS article that earned Gen. McChrystal an unexpected trip to the Washington woodshed today.
Indiscretion with one’s words is in many ways the mother’s milk of journalism. But it can be fatal to careers. What is it about our natures that so many of us can’t help being indiscreet in this fashion? You don’t get to be a senior U.S. general without acquiring great self-discipline, and learning how to control yourself — and surrounding yourself with equally discreet people. And now look.
UPDATE: The flip side of this is the temptation of reporters to identify too closely with their sources, and not to report things the sources say, even on the record, because the reporter is trying to protect the source, or sources, from their own unguarded mistakes. I I did that once, back in the 1990s, when reporting a story in which a villainous landlord was trying to drive a poor black church out of existence. A white person who had come to the public defense of the black church made a racially insensitive remark in an interview with me. Because I understood the context in which the remark was made, I didn’t report it — though to have done so would not only have been truthful, it would have added a layer of meaning to a story that was fraught with racial tension and history. But had I reported this remark, it would likely have destroyed the campaign to save the church, and handed the landlord a victory he didn’t deserve. I thought about what my ethical duty as a journalist was, and I couldn’t get around four things: 1) that I wanted the underdogs to win; 2) that the remark my source made was not substantive, but rather indicative of a certain attitude that had nothing to do with the advocacy work the source had undertaken; and 3) the source was of a generation of white people that wouldn’t have seen that particular remark as racist; and 4) because that source knew me personally, and my family, the source had every reason to trust me, and was probably unguarded because of that reason.
So I didn’t use the quote, and to this day, I think I did the right thing. But it’s not a clean-cut case. I have heard indiscreet things said around me many times by people who knew I was a journalist, and I’ve not reported them because I didn’t feel I had the moral right. This is a very murky area, though, and a reporter has to struggle between doing his job responsibly and ethically, and the risk of identifying too strongly with his sources, and serving not as an objective reporter, but as a kind of court stenographer. This, I think, is a constant problem in Washington journalism.
Anyway, I wonder how many times Team McChrystal has spoken like that in front of other journalists, and not seen their words reported. Maybe never … but maybe they had reason to think they’d be protected.

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