The Press Failed McChrystal – The Absence of Feet on the Ground and its Consequence to Truth, Knowledge and Discourse

June 30, 2010

Now that former 4-star U.S. Army General Stanley A. McChrystal has been retired in a maelstrom of debate over disobedience to his President and breach of military protocol, the question remains: why did his happen?  Why did this happen this way?  He was an experienced officer, well-groomed in military-media etiquette; he was arguably a man who would have entertained access to reporters on whatever terms or conditions he deemed.  So why this article – at this time – to Rolling Stone?

It prompts questions – perhaps a riddle – what was it about the traditional role of the press, of open reporting and discussion free from pundits and partisanship that has made this war different from others?  It should prompt tough discourse over what has happened to foreign correspondence, unfettered news gathering in country by trained eyes and ears from journalists trained and experienced in covering both policy and military matters.  It offers a chance to realize the consequences of cost-counting that closes news bureaus at the expense of editorial depth.  When news outlets close and reporters are absent, how does that change both what we know as well as limit the ability of news makers to tell what their sides of the story?

In Vietnam there were literally thousands of reporters – producers – camera people – bureau staff who daily covered both the war and the political scene.  They represented a global audience drawn from papers and networks from Europe, Asia, Australia and both Americas.  There were ex pats and indigenous personnel.  Together they competed and celebrated their scoops and watched each other like hawks lest one be beaten on a story.  Whether an embassy reception or the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) briefing there were plenty of reporters working on a range of stories.  Today that has changed.  Most – the vast majority – of American reporters in the Iraq-Afghan theatre are embedded on combat operations and out of Kabul.  News is too often defined in terms of “bang-bang.”  Combat with our troops in action gets a reporter on the air while a contextual, political report veiled in nuance and citing sources is deemed as being dull and is less newsworthy, less likely to either make it in the newspaper or on air.

So what happened with McChrystal?  Did the absence of news outlets in Kabul create an environment where there was no opportunity to share the story as he saw the facts?   Why couldn’t his story be told without such a Draconian consequence to his reputation and career?  Did he have to replicate a Truman-MacArthur show down?  What avenues were closed to him because of the absolute absence of reporters he could trust, on-the-ground with enough in-country experience to appreciate what he had to say?

I submit there were too few reporters on the scene and knowledgeable enough to appreciate the changing political nuance.  I suspect that much of the basic crux of McChrystal’s argument was the tone and nature of the war was changing in a way that was far more profound that could be captured by airport news conferences, Sunday network talk shows, and punditry on cable stations of both the left and right.  That noise was far from the real nature of the war.  In that noise over substance and an inability to articulate the issues as he felt they needed to be heard, for McChrystal it had reached a tipping point.

This isn’t a matter of censorship or war-reporting censorship; that debate isn’t new.  Michael S. Sweeney’ s terrific book, The Military and The Press, An Uneasy Truce is a seminal work documenting government censorship and military coverage.  McChrystal’s self implosion does not seem to be about censorship per se except for the fact that news organizations in this war have exercised self-censorship by their absence from the scene, by their decision to rely on others to cover the date lines, capitols, institutions and individuals who would otherwise be at the center of the story itself.

Former CBS News and long time overseas correspondent Tom Fenton’s Bad News; The Decline of Reporting, The Business of News, and the Danger to Us All is yet further proof documenting the consequences of homogenized news packaged in at a central point at the expense of true understanding of the individuals, policies, politics and knowledge that can only be acquired, managed and challenged by a news office committed to its craft.

The riddle of McChrystal is how he was screwed by the business of news – the absence of reporters – the lack of those who understood the war and had the ears of the editors – who could challenge the assumed beliefs with consequential reporting that might have made a difference.

Yes there is a debate over McChrystal and obedience to protocol.  There is a debate over the persecution of this war.  And there are questions about the business of news gathering and the consequences of a muted press.  I wonder if McChrystal may have thrown himself on a grenade merely to draw temporal attention to a 9-year old war that seems to receive less and less attention in the public eye — except for the bang bang, fear of boogie men known and unseen and an election cycle.  It seems  a very superficial way to cover an epochal event that threatens to bankrupt the nation and bleed her sons and daughters dry.

Disclosures – Michael Sweeney is on the faculty of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University where I am an adjunct instructor.  My father Robert Shaplen was Vietnam correspondent for The New Yorker Magazine from 1945 until 1988.

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One Response to “The Press Failed McChrystal – The Absence of Feet on the Ground and its Consequence to Truth, Knowledge and Discourse”

  1. joe benton Says:

    i did like the piece and i think you have underscored the danger of a declining and docile news media for a democracy during a time of war.

    i had looked as the story more in the more simple and human terms of the tale of icarus along with the scorpion and the frog. the general flew too close to the sun and the wax holding his wings melted. the reporter reverted to the baser ethics of the business and stung the frog taking him through the flood whiist the two were in mid-stream.

    you are, as always, more thoughtful and analytic.


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