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.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Click image to expand.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal

I have two answers for people who ask whether they should cooperate with a reporter assigned to write a feature story about them.

The short answer is "no."

If that advice proves unsatisfactory, I give this longer answer:

The first thing a subject must ask himself is what's in it for him. A director who is releasing a new movie or an author who has written a book can reap measurable PR value by allowing a reporter to shadow him and write a penetrating piece. Likewise, a politician running for office might profit from a feature if it raises his Q quotient.

But for most players, there is no real reason to submit to an in-depth profile such as the one that Gen. Stanley McChrystal did for Rolling Stone, a profile that has cost him his command in Afghanistan. Was there any upside to agreeing to the profile? Had it contained none of the disparaging comments about the president, the vice president, their aides, and U.S. allies, McChrystal still wouldn't have gained from the article's publication. Magazine profiles don't turn public opinion or influence Congress. They just don't. So why bother?

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If the lure of the profile remains irresistible, the prospective subject should approach it with the same iron fist he does any meeting he convenes: He should know beforehand what its outcome will be. Having agreed to a profile, McChrystal should have prepared a well-grooved story for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. Had Hastings refused that story, McChrystal should have excused him from the session, explaining that he had a war to prosecute.

McChrystal and his camp appear to have understood another profile maxim: Always limit the exposure of the subject to the journalist. They obviously had this in mind when they invited Hastings to Paris for just two days. So far, so good. But instead of speaking softly and giving Hasting the ingredients for transformation into a feature, they immediately start with the trash talk. Hastings listens in as McChrystal, who hates fancy restaurants, expresses his anguish at the compulsory dinner date he has with a French cabinet minister. "I'd rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner," the general says. An aide to the general calls the dinner date "fucking gay." A top McChrystal aide deliberately mishears the last name of the vice president as "Bite Me."

Still, if Hastings had witnessed only McChrystal and co.'s Paris indiscretions, maybe he'd still have his command. As Hastings explains to Newsweek, the two-day visit "turned into this month-long journey following General McChrystal and his staff around from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C.," because the Icelandic volcano disrupted travel in Europe. The month-long exposure turned Hastings into a fly on the wall, and, as everybody knows, flies spread disease. Almost anybody can moderate his behavior for a day or two, especially if he's being watched. But nobody can do it for a month with visits to three continents. Familiarity breeds candor, and candor, once released, can't be recalled.

A subject who insists on sitting for a profile must know who he is and be comfortable with having himself sketched. (Do such people exist?) One of the triumphs of the Hastings feature is that it reveals that McChrystal lacks that self-awareness.

Another tip: One should never ever, ever, ever imbibe in the presence of a reporter during the course of a profile! How obvious is this one? Yet we learn from Hastings' interview in Newsweek that McChrystal and his staff "were getting hammered" in Paris when the trash-talking went down. "By midnight at Kitty O'Shea's [Paris pub], much of Team America [McChrystal's staff] is completely shitfaced," Hastings writes. Booze is a crude kind of truth serum. Even accomplished alcoholics lose their verbal discipline after spiritual lubrication. This is why reporters absolutely love to meet sources for drinks. [Addendum, June 25: Hastings dropped me an e-mail to clarify. "The 'trash-talking' occurred fairly regularly throughout a number of settings," he writes, not just over drinks.]

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