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GUEST BLOG #100: TVWW Welcomes Its Newest Contributor, Eric Mink, Who Assesses the Media Flap Over the McChrystal Story
June 30, 2010  | By Eric Mink
 
GUEST BLOG #100: TVWW Welcomes Its Newest Contributor, Eric Mink, Who Assesses the Media Flap Over the McChrystal Story

[Bianculli here: Just in time for the relaunch, we're proudly adding yet another co-conspirator to TV WORTH WATCHING: Eric Mink, whom long-time New York Daily News readers will remember was my co-conspirator, and fellow TV critic, there as well. And for his first story for us, Eric offers his take on the reporting of, and reaction to, the Gen. Stanley McChrystal remarks...]


mcchrystal.jpg

Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi -- never one to mince words, thank god -- unloaded on CBS News' Lara Logan in a Monday blog post headlined, a tad indelicately, "Lara Logan, You Suck."

Actually, Logan already had established that fact pretty conclusively herself in an embarrassing interview televised Sunday on CNN's Reliable Sources, but I guess Taibbi wanted to make sure no one missed the point.

What infuriated Taibbi most, he wrote, was Logan's thinly disguised accusation that freelance writer Michael Hastings has been lying about the tactics he used in reporting his stunning piece for Rolling Stone on Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal had been the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until last week when President Obama relieved him of duty for insubordination plainly revealed in comments by McChrystal and senior members of his staff in Hastings' story.

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Logan told Reliable Sources host Howard Kurtz, "Michael Hastings, if you believe him, says that there were no ground rules laid out. And, I mean, that just doesn't really make a lot of sense to me... I mean, I know these people. They never let their guard down like that... I just -- I don't believe it." (See the video HERE.)

Tabbi laid into the we're-all-friends, beat-reporting approach that Logan seemed to endorse, and then lumped her in with the prototypical "would-be 'reputable' journalist who's just been severely ass-whipped by a relative no-name freelancer on an enormous story [and who] fights back by going on television and, without any evidence at all, accusing the guy who beat him of cheating."

Vitriol aside, Taibbi's best point, I think, is the sad truth that far too many journalists -- mainstream AND non-mainstream, by the way -- forget who we're supposed to be reporting and writing for. It's not for our editors. It's not for our publishers or advertisers. It's not for other journalists. And it's certainly not for the -- choose as many as you want -- politicians, administrative staffers, athletes, team managers, funders, business executives, club owners, civilian officials, campaign strategists or the military commanders and their suck-up staffs we're covering.

It really doesn't matter whether we're on the international terrorism beat or the television beat. We report, research, analyze, assess and write for our readers, listeners and viewers -- people who, for an infinite number of reasons, can't do it for themselves. They DO, however, want to know about things, and they are willing to grant us the most valuable thing they have -- a slice of their extremely limited time -- in exchange for honest, skilled, professional work that gives them information of value.

Logan is hardly alone in not having a clue about this (and not realizing that she doesn't), nor is Taibbi alone among reporters in getting it, whether in print, broadcast, cable or Internet. But Hastings' story on McChrystal has cast the whole matter in high relief.

I've never been all that wild about the explanation that this is about access, that beat reporters play nice so that when real news develops, they'll be assured of hot information, good quotes and great guest bookings. Yeah, there's some of that, but Taibbi's blog post, again, gets at something deeper and more
primal and, therefore, more disturbing.

matt-taibbi.jpg

Reporters try to please the people they're covering, Taibbi wrote, "because you just want to be part of the club so so badly... Most of these reporters just want to be inside the ropeline so badly -- they want to be able to say they had that beer with Hillary Clinton in a bowling alley in Scranton or whatever -- that it colors their whole worldview."

It is a dangerous delusion. Jerry Berger, a long-time newspaper gossip columnist in St. Louis, advised me about this very early in my career. He said that a lot of reporters -- particularly those who deal with prominent people -- can be seduced by their proximity to wealth, power and fame, and come to believe that it's their world, too. They think that they're "part of the club," as Taibbi put it.

"We will never be part of their world," Berger warned me. "They will let us think we are, but only as long as they see us as useful to them somehow. Don't ever forget that."

Michael Hastings could have omitted the damning things he included in his piece on McChrystal & Co. in Afghanistan. I'd bet money, in fact, that he did leave out a lot of what some of his critics have dismissed as workplace banter and the universal practice of employees kvetching about their bosses.

But Hastings, like all reporters, had to make judgments about his material, about what he could leave out because it wasn't really important and what he had to include because it was. In making those judgments, context mattered.

Stanley_McChrystal_MG_2003.jpg

Hastings knew, for example, that a confidential report on Afghanistan that McChrystal had written for Defense Secretary Robert Gates last August 30 had been leaked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and published on Sept. 21. The source of the leak remains unknown, but the report itself bolstered arguments in favor of the strategy McChrystal favored in Afghanistan, and it leaked at the precise time that the Obama administration was considering which policy options to adopt.

Hastings also knew that last October 1, with the administration still mulling its options, McChrystal made a public speech and answered questions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London in which he endorsed certain policies and criticized others. A day later, McChrystal was ordered to fly to Copenhagen, where he received a private rebuke from the president aboard Air Force One on an airport
runway.

With that as background, what Hastings encountered in Afghanistan was top aides to McChrystal who were willing to ridicule senior administration officials and do so in McChrystal's presence. He saw McChrystal let them do so with impunity and, in a couple of instances, saw the general make his own disparaging comments.

At that point, Hastings had only two choices: Cover up yet another instance of a wartime general and his staff demeaning their civilian superiors, or provide readers with an honest report of a story of major significance.

We know what Hastings did. And, I guess, we know what Lara Logan's choice would have been.

--

Eric-Mink-Headshot.jpg

Eric Mink most recently was the Op-Ed editor and columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He previously wrote about television and media for the Post-Dispatch and the New York Daily News. He now teaches film as an adjunct assistant professor at Webster University in St. Louis.

 

 

 

 

14 Comments

 

Danny said:

Eric,

Welcome back. Is it possible to post your daily television recommendations just as David does? I would be curious to see where you guys disagree on some shows,

Comment posted on June 30, 2010 12:34 PM


Tausif Khan said:

This blog post is the best serious criticism journalism I have heard in a long time. It is akin to more serious critiques made by David Simon and a serious more richly layered companion to the comedic barbs of The Daily Show.

case in point The Daily Show ran this piece recently entitled "Press You're Stuck": http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/wed-june-9-2010/press-you-re-stuck

This depicts New York Times reporters partying with the Vice President and other politicians.

One of the more interesting points to come out of the McChrystal troubles is a point made by Michael Hastings himself, on the Colbert Report: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/313676/june-28-2010/rolling-stone-article-on-mcchrystal---michael-hastings

Here Hastings said that the Obama administration actually used this article as the straw that broke the camels back with McChrystal (in the decision to fire him) because they were already unhappy with his performance on the ground.

The discussion about the actual substance of the piece has been scant in the mainstream media (as Colbert pointed out). It has mainly stuck to talking about the article as if it were written by a gossip columnist.

Thanks, Eric, for this piece I hope to here more.

David,

A note on Hot in Cleveland. I have been watching commercials for the program. In the commercials they set up the premise that they are all going on blind dates. Then they focus on the fact that one of them has been set up with a killer. The most egregious part of the commercial is that they show Betty White and Carl Reiner together but only to show Reiner laughing at a joke that White has just made. They didn't even mention he was guest starring! Given that in previous commercials they pushed Jane Leeves to the background (when I am assuming that people who would be interested in the show would be interested in where has Daphne gone, given Frasier's long run) I have concluded they have no idea how to market this show. It seems as if they are only trying to target the audiences that like standalone pure entertainment shows as opposed to people who appreciate the genre and want to see it done well.

Tausif

Comment posted on June 30, 2010 5:34 PM


Mike Reilly said:

The first mistake the media made was getting embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That immediately blurred the objectivity - at least in my mind. If the Rolling Stone article ends the cozy relationship the media has with the troops, wonderful.

Comment posted on June 30, 2010 9:00 PM


carol said:

It's so nice to hear Eric's voice again!
I was listening to NPR one day - not paying much attention to who was talking - when I heard another reporter comment that Taibbi had ruined the chances of all reporters now. Nobody was ever going to get this kind of access again. I was shocked and now Eric has said it better than I ever could have. Thanks Eric.

Comment posted on June 30, 2010 10:01 PM


Keith Malvern said:

Eric, great to hear from you again...and to reference Jerry Berger, even more amazing!

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 12:58 AM


Sally W. said:

Welcome, Eric!

I really appreciated reading your reviews in the Daily News, and think your insights will be great on this website too (as your post has demonstrated; to me, the whole coverage and reaction to the McChrystal matter has been fascinating and disconcerting on so many levels).

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 1:47 AM


Karl Hettiger said:

Good read. One would think a general of the 4 star persuasion would have run across the thought that "loose lips sink ships" somewhere along the line, before the locker room jargon torpedoed his own. News is news to newsies, and we citizens of readershipville are entitled to as much as we can ogle.

Now, how about an opine on the David Weigel caper at the Washington Post?


Warm regards, and keep up the good work, Eric.

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 1:43 PM


Eric Mink said:

Thanks, everybody, for the kind words and compliments (which sounds like the title of an old Alec Guinness movie).

I'm grateful to Dave for making a spot for me in his lineup, and I'm looking forward to contributing pieces when something makes me so crazy that I just have to write.

Tausif: Stewart's party bit was hilarious, of course, but it also was shooting fish in a barrel. The problem is not, in my judgment, simple socializing, which is mostly harmless and can even be productive. The problem's closer to a kind of psychological contamination or something, in which the boundaries and priorities we all understand start to get warped by a sense of shared purpose that proximity, familiarity and stress can breed. And, although I imagine that Taibbi would disagree, I think it operates much more on a subconscious level than a conscious one -- Lara Logan being a flagrant exception to that notion.

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 2:14 PM


David El said:

Wonderful piece! You took my own annoyed reaction to this overall story and sorted it out quite nicely. Thank you.

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 6:32 PM


Mary Ann Ford said:

Thanks for the update, it was good to read a column from you again.

NPR's On the Media had a segment in which Brooke Gladstone talked to CNN's Ed Henry about attending the beach party for the D.C. press corp thrown by Vice President Biden. It is a classic. Henry is giggling about the whole thing, and just doesn't seem to understand the concerns Gladstone expresses.
http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/06/11/06

Comment posted on July 1, 2010 10:40 PM


magpie said:

well said. of course.
and as carol said, good to
have your voice back.

Comment posted on July 2, 2010 7:47 AM


Dave said:

Happy to see you again.

Im not sure this is all that relevant. Frankly, if Hastings stumbled on the fact that (oh, say) McCrystal had a foot fetish, I could care less; please dont waste my time. On the other hand, if that foot belonged to an enemy intelligence operative, that would be legitimate news. By doing this Hastings, knew, or should have known that he was ruining a qualified, patriotic military mans career. Why? Hold the presses, employee criticizes boss! Not exactly front page news.

Comment posted on July 2, 2010 4:49 PM


jjk said:

Journalists writing for Mom and Pop America instead of prize committees and politicians are as rare today as politicians running to serve their constituents. I hope to see more from Eric.

Comment posted on July 6, 2010 1:42 PM


Ron Alridge said:

Reading coverage of this whole brouhaha about the "impolite" coverage of a general who was dangerously far off the reservation I am reminded of the television beat I encountered 35 years ago when I became a TV critic. Back then, many if not most of the reporters who flocked to Los Angeles once or twice a year to view new series and rub elbows with stars were very much into "the club." Anyone who dared rock the boat would face a very nasty form of peer pressure applied by "journalists" who dearly loved the high-level hospitality provided by ABC, CBS and NBC. Not every writer was a freeloader, but many were and they tended to be the most aggressively protective of the status quo.
I vividly remember Ben Brown, one of several boat rockers who arrived on the beat at roughly the same time, using the word "club" during a sharp exchange with a fellow writer who was warning against pissing off the network brass. "So what if we piss off the networks," Ben said, "this isn't a fucking club." Ben was right, of course, but in those days the atmosphere surrounding those gatherings in L.A. sure waddled and quacked like a club, complete with nice, well-stocked hospitality suite bars for after-hours chitchat. It was all oh so chummy.
The network club was not easy to fight, much less bring down. It was carefully maintained, complete with glamorous dinners with famous people, free air travel, comped hotel rooms and occasional outings to baseball and basketball games, all of which were seductive treats for writers making way below the level needed to live in glamour and luxury. The club also provided access to sources that few of the writers would be able to get on their own, especially those writers who weren't very good reporters. The network P.R. honchos took pains to get to know the writers covering them as well and personally as they possibly could and were masters at feeding their frequently large egos. Some actual friendships formed through those exchanges, but not as many as the naive writers thought.
In short, the network media handlers were very good at what they did. Lara Logan, is this starting to sound familiar to you, oh queen of Pentagon access and denouncer of those who rock boats?
After a long, tough and occasionally bitter battle, we scribes of the TV beat managed to break the club mentality and its accompanying atmosphere, at least for a while and maybe forever. Things became far more professional and coverage, I believe, grew well beyond its once-puffy roots. But though the club may have died on the TV beat, it now seems to have spread like kudzu to the highest levels of journalism where its potential for damage is even greater. It's as if journalism is destined to play an unending game of Whac-A-Club if it is to properly cover its beats.
Reporters on those other beats will have to remember what we television critics had to remind ourselves and our colleagues of before we could escape our own imprisoning club. They will have to remember, trite as it may sound, that reporters work for their readers, viewers and listeners, not their sources and handlers. A reporter's job is not to protect the powerful but to discover and report the truth. To do their jobs, they have got to quit willingly exposing themselves to "spin doctors," who are highly skilled, well paid liars out to manipulate and distort and control. They need to quit partnering with those paid to control them and begin learning how to work around such people. If the price they pay is to lose some access, so be it. After all, access is useless if those given it don't use it to report the truth.
The reason so many reporters get in bed with the beats they cover is not that they are fundamentally bad at what they do, it's that those paid to control them are very good at what they do. The antidote for this toxic arrangement is distance.
The situtation is not hopeless. Our handlers on the TV beat of old were also good at what they did, but we still managed to storm their club and take control of it. Eric Mink was one of the renegades who helped wage that uprising. So was Dave Bianculli, now king of this blog, and several others whose articles occasionally appear here. What we need now is for that kind of dedicated, passionate, well-prioritized reporter to emerge on the Pentagon beat and others like it. It can be done and it has been done. But I don't look for the beautiful, way-too-comfortable Lara Logan to be leading the charge.

Comment posted on July 6, 2010 10:16 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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