Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Did It Take a Rock Magazine to Report the Military's Total Disaster in Afghanistan?

Anyone in the Pentagon press corps could have written the story that took down McChrystal. So why did it appear in Rolling Stone?
The controversial Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal didn't just expose poor judgment on the part of the U.S. military's key leader in Afghanistan. It also illustrates one of the most persistent shortcomings of American corporate journalism.

It's no surprise that a protracted and fruitless military conflict has produced backbiting at the highest levels. That's the expected result of a flawed policy. But it is -- or should be -- curious that Michael Hastings's piece appeared in a rock magazine whose cover photograph features a G-strung Lady Gaga with automatic rifles jutting out of her brassiere.

Anyone in the Pentagon press corps could have written Hastings' story. So why did it appear in Rolling Stone?

First, let's give Rolling Stone its due; it's not an ordinary music magazine. Before launching it in 1967, Jann Wenner and Ralph Gleason worked at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker that ran high-impact investigative stories on Vietnam and the CIA. Despite its healthy circulation, Ramparts lost money and closed its doors for good in 1975. Then as now, no "business model" (i.e., reliable advertising base) existed for political magazines, left or right.

Wenner focused instead on music and the counterculture, but he also hired Hunter S. Thompson as his national affairs correspondent. One result was Thompson's Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72, praised as the least factual and most accurate account of that year's presidential race.

In 2009, Rolling Stone revived the Gonzo tradition by running Matt Taibbi's critical profile of Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street firm with close ties to the Treasury Department. This was another example of an RS irregular scooping beat writers on a huge story. Taibbi's piece drew heat, but most of his critics begrudgingly conceded that his main point was correct.

Hastings has likewise taken criticism from the Pentagon press corps. Lara Logan, CBS's chief foreign affairs correspondent, appeared on CNN's Reliable Sources this weekend to cast aspersions on his methods, to defend the Pentagon beat writers, and to lament the article's effect on General McChrystal's career. "Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has," she claimed (as if critical reporting isn't exactly the service journalists are supposed to provide). Responding to Hastings' point that beat writers wrote glowingly about McChrystal to ensure future access to him, Logan labeled that view "insulting and arrogant."

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