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

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.

Use a Camera, Go to Jail… new laws make it illegal to photograph police

3 states now have laws prohibiting news photography of police… actually, any photography of on-duty police.  If this is the new trend, what does it say for society that it is more afraid of protecting illegal or unprofessional acts by law enforcement than protecting civil rights?
Gizmodo.com is reporting Are Cameras the New Guns that law makers across the country are writing laws that limit if not outright prohibit photography of on-duty police in order to limit or halt photographs or video appearing on social media.
Laws that restrict citizen’s rights also restrict the news media and drape a veil on the truth.  How far does this extend? Will news crews be allowed to shoot benign pictures of video of traffic accidents but not when police misbehave or there are questions of abuse and misconduct? What about civilian journalists who have captured police beatings, for instance the Rodney King video in Los Angeles, the Oscar Grant shooting allegedly by BART police officer Johannes Meserhle – are they now liable for prosecution for capturing evidence of potential misconduct?
Would this ban on photography extend to riots? Would this extend to coverage of police protecting the President of the United States making a visit, campaign trip or speech?
Where does one draw the line — is it permissable to make pictures of police when they are doing good things but not when their conduct might be called into question?
What, pray tell some one explain this to me, are we afraid of?  This was, still is I would hope, a country where we expect our civil rights are protected… where we expect the best and most professional conduct from law enforcement, and where we acknowledge that bad things do happen… and that there are laws to protect everyone involved.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.  Would some one help me to understand by starting a rigorous debate?

CNN to go it alone? Network may rely on no sources other than itself?

Not so many years ago… major newspapers sent their unilateral reporters around the world, wire services competed to file first from world capitals; radio and television networks scrambled to be first with multimedia and the global news audience was the prime beneficiary of news and information, in-country sourcing due to a robust sense of competition.  Economic realities and changing market forces have picked off those reporters as if by a sniper whose aim was unfailing.  UPI is gone, AP and AFP remain though reduced in size, scope and prominence.  Now comes news that CNN is considering dropping all its outside sources CNN Close to Dropping AP… in favor of complete reliance on its own staff, I-reporters and citizen journalists, Tweats and other independent, unprofessional and inherently unreliable, untrained sources. It is not that all are unreliable they are untrained, unprofessional, unregulated and the audience is unprotected from uncorroborated reporting.
That’s the risk… the risk of spin, government or corporate news masquerading as real, and simply stories which cannot be checked and verified in what will be a competitive rush to publish and broadcast. It is already unfortunate that independent reporting has been a casualty of the economic juggernaut. The risk – and it is a significant risk – is that the network is choosing economics over prudence, responsibility and history.

Death – unedited, raw and disturbing captured on camera

Death – captured on video – in June 6th’s Los Angeles Times Death of fugitive porn actor captured in disturbing video is a short metro (L.A. Now) item on the death of a porn actor named Stephen Clancy Hill, who was wanted in connection with a rampage that left two others dead.  In all, not a terribly monumental story when compared with carnage that dots the worldscape daily, except that this story features video of the actual moment of Hill’s death captured and shown as a link from KTLA Channel 5.

Is this news worthy?  And why have the editors determined that watching a raw tape of his body tumbling off a cliff, ricocheting and bouncing from is something that adds to our understanding or appreciation of the death?

In the final act of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Guildenstern wonders aloud if the concept of death can be portrayed on a stage. It is not a large leap to extend this question to citizen journalism and modern media.  Somewhat at an emotional loss he asks, “No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…Death is not…It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.”

For the editors of the Los Angeles Times the death of this man makes a great deal of disturbing visual noise.

Watching the Gulf Oil Disaster in Real Time – Live from the Ocean Floor

Technology never fails to amaze me and the BP disaster offers a unique glimpse from their underwater cameras.

Shoot the messengers. Just shoot them and put us all out of their misery.

Over 37 years of producing and conducting TV and radio and multimedia interviews with executives, politicians, warlords and men and women on the street I rarely believe anything I hear these days, and certainly I believe less than I once did.

Why?  Because politicians and executives have been so over-coached and practiced to be sure they say nothing that will be used against them later… it is the equivalent of a hijacked Miranda warning.  Say nothing and nothing bad will happen to you.  For people on the street they are so ready to tell you whatever you want to hear in exchange that you’ll choose their mutterings for the story prompting them to call their friends to watch or listen.

I have been critical of corporate messaging for a long time.  Let me tell you why… when conducting corporate interviews it has become standard practice for their handlers to ask what the interview will be about?  If you’re working for a corporate client, you’ll be asked to participate in a “grounding call” that will last about an hour several weeks before the scheduled interview.  About 2 weeks before the interview you’ll be invited to another hour plus “briefing call” which becomes the framework for a briefing document for the executive.  It will be a pulp intensive document of multiple pages with probably 4 or 5 bullet points for each of the anticipated questions, often with a paragraph of more of embellishments for each bullet point.  For an interview of perhaps 20 questions this means that the sycophants who perform the role of communication managers will spend hours drafting up to 120 specific bullet points with hundreds of additional words to manage key suggestions for the executive’s conversation.

The funny thing is that by the time these briefing documents are prepared and delivered to the executive, often on the night before the scheduled interview, it’s frequently too late.  Countless times executives have come to the interview and asked me, “What are we talking about today?”  I always enjoy the question, as I perversely enjoy watching the blood drain from the face of the handlers simultaneously.

It’s a strange thing.  These executives are at the top of the corporate food pyramid.  They know their stuff – they have spoken the words before.  In many cases, they wrote the words.  By preparing the bullets, by over manipulating the executive, his or her handlers have frequently squeezed out any remaining drop of authenticity… the conversation sounds as canned and corny, as insincere and ineffective as imaginable.

Years ago the average length of a sound bite (quote) on the network evening news was :22.  Today I hear that’s dropped to just :08 seconds.  Is that because reporters are so enamored of their own voices that they insist on shorter sound bites?  Perhaps in part.  Is it because news makers have less to say than ever before?  I don’t think so.  Is it then a matter that people don’t say their stories or share their expertise as well as they used to… or we’re burned out hearing the same old stuff again and again… perhaps that has some bearing too.

Here’s the bottom line… why don’t you believe politicians?  Why don’t you respond to executives and others representing their issues?

Comment, email me.  I am at a loss.  What I do know is that you, me, we – the audience generally – is not hearing messages that we believe, that we trust, that we are willing to value… so why not?  What’s failing and why?

I’d like to understand this better.

Hype only serves to disappoint audiences

News producers, managers and all those create news – the content which is the stuff that keeps the soap commercials from bumping in to one another – seem to me to be more frantic, ever-so-driven to capture and hold their audiences.  More than ever before it seems  that they too have drunk the Kool-Aide and now piously justify their hype as necessary to lure and secure audiences. Sadly though this is getting sillier and sillier as boasts are proclaimed that cannot be defended, promises are assured that cannot be delivered, and audiences – like you and me – feel more cheated.

It just feels like an era of news abuse – instead of trust – is in vogue and in turn, professionals are defending what is indefensible, hype.

For instance on a weekend report about the death of a University of Virginia co-ed the network anchors assuredly promise “we’ll have the latest on the investigation when we return.”  Really?  On a Saturday?  On a Saturday when investigators are not visible to the media and when there has been no news release from the police.  So the latest is… actually, when?  Yesterday!  And so it has already been… reported? And when?  Yesterday!  And so the boast of having the latest news coming up is really just a… hype?  A tease?  And that’s somehow OK… or if as professionals you knew there was truly nothing new, was the hype a lie? A white lie?  Or just a plain old-fashioned whopper since it was uttered with the prior knowledge that it was untrue.

Or for instance the Today show used the word “Exclusive” six (6) times about a single guest.  Exclusive appeared twice in anchor copy and four times as a graphic.  Are producers so desperate to convey the appearance of superior coverage that they cannot let that content speak for itself but must instead wrap it with banners and bravado to drive the point home?  Or maybe there is such churn in the viewership that the constant reminders of exclusivity are the only hooks remaining to lure viewers?  But if that’s the case then all the exclusives that appear day in and day out are not attracting audiences but may instead be repelling viewers who are tired of being abused with adjectives masquerading as important content.

It seems the corruption of the profession runs deep… as deep as our own self-identity.  A national radio show on journalism featured a guest who said, “reporters are now packagers” of news and claimed that he didn’t need to report because he had sufficient “listening posts” to tell him what was going on.  It feels a little absurd to ask, but I am mystified because  if reporters are not going to report, then who is?  And listening posts, who are they… and how do we trust his definition of who is responsible, and ultimately, who is vouching for them?  It is the proverbial slippery slope and, whoops!  We’ve started sliding.

Another panelist on this NPR program spoke of reporters whose job it was to now contextualize the news.  And a third said it was now completely correct for reporters to have an opinion and allow that to be reflected in their work.  I always thought that was opinion… not reporting.  Isn’t that what Op-Ed pages and Editorials  are for?  Is the new era of reporting relegating those columns to the dust bin of old journalism too?
We’re mired in the new words of the language – we have “commoditized” news to the point that it is most important to monetize it… even at risk of becoming homogenized content so as not to offend or challenge any one.  We are all now “content producers” which I suppose means we are all – as I am here – able to write and self publish, somewhat regardless of our authority or authenticity.  We speak passionately of being in touch or tune with our communities, although that seeks somewhat murky and ill-defined.  Is my community that of those who are overweight white 50-somethings of general affluence living in well-to-do communities featuring overpriced homes that represent much of our life-worth and that we fear could be depreciating in the current economic downturn?  Is that my community?  And if it is, pray tell, how is any one going to monetize me?

Look – the point is this – let’s watch our words.  Our boasts.  Our claims when we really know better.  Words matter.  That’s my clarion call.  Let’s think about the new clichés that serve little purpose but to make us sound au courant and quote-worthy.  Adjectives are colorful but when we use them intentionally to be misleading aren’t we all guilty of cheapening our profession?  Of course.  What’s wrong with reporting being the benchmark of what’s important, significant – the adage: news is the first draft of history?
What do you think?  Leave a comment… let me know.