What Gen. McChrystal should have known about Rolling Stone's reporter going in.

Media criticism.
June 23 2010 6:24 PM

Unsolicited Advice for Future Subjects of Magazine Profiles

What Gen. McChrystal should have known about Rolling Stone's reporter going in.

(Continued from Page 1)

If you're a boss, you should be much more wary about submitting to a profile. Every boss breeds sycophants, and as he breeds more over time he comes to believe that his lips mint nothing but wisdom. A smart reporter understands this about bosses and knows better than to quarrel with or interrupt the boss when he starts spouting. McChrystal is nothing if not a supreme and fearless boss. Between 2003 and 2008, his job as commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command was to track down enemies in Iraq and kill or capture them. Why should he fear an "embedded" reporter from Rolling Stone? Of what danger is he? McChrystal found out.

Always run a few sprints before running a marathon. I would wager that if McChrystal had more experience working with reporters, he wouldn't have let Hastings hear what he heard. As Hastings reports, the press has largely "given McChrystal a pass" on two controversies—the alleged coverup of Pat Tillman's friendly-fire death and the alleged abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Still, McChrystal can't claim that he was fresh to the profile game, having sat for a 9,500-word New York Times Magazinepiece in October 2009.

Video Parody: Watch outrageous McChrystal outtakes. Click to launch video player.

Another lesson to draw from McChrystal's fall is that an entourage can always be trusted to ape their leader's behavior. Where do you suppose an unnamed adviser to the general learned that it was OK to tell Hastings how "disappointed" McChrystal was in Obama? Or who do you suppose endowed another aide with the moxie to call a top Obama aide (and a retired four-star general) a "clown"? If McChrystal did himself with his own loose lips, his staff must be charged as accessories.

A popular theory endorsed yesterday by Politico—before the site tossed it down the memory hole today—is that Hastings was inherently dangerous because he's a freelance reporter. According to this theory, freelancers happily burn their subjects because they're not likely to return to them, whereas beat reporters must rely on maintaining good day-to-day relations with them. I don't buy this. Feature writers and beat reporters are equally capable of taking a dive for their subjects. I don't know of any beat reporter who wouldn't have gotten a promotion for catching McChrystal and his staff shooting off their mouths, and I don't know any newspaper that would have hesitated to publish the story.

Moral of the story: If you're going to talk crazy, no reporter will protect you from your foolishness.

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Tom Ricks disagrees with me, thinking that beat reporters (he was one) would protect the brass. What do you think?  I take orders at slate.pressbox@gmail.com and give them via Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate's readers' forums, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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