Partying with the reporter

Newsweek interviews Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter who broke the story quoting our top military brass in Afghanistan dissing the president and his staff, asking how in the world he got them to open up like they did.

You reported a lot of sentiments that are usually only expressed in private—why were the general and his team so candid?

Part of it was the circumstances. They were in a different environment. They were in Paris. But you would really have to ask them why they gave me the access that they did.

Can you explain how the article came about—what was the pitching and reporting process?

I was Baghdad correspondent for NEWSWEEK for two years, and I left the magazine after covering the elections. I wrote a piece for GQ before Obama took office that raised some serious questions about the direction we were taking in Afghanistan. So it was something I wanted to be writing about. I saw General McChrystal and his new strategy as a way to look at our Afghan policy to see if it’s working or if it’s a totally insane enterprise. I met with editors at Rolling Stone, they seemed into the idea, so I e-mailed McChrystal’s people. I didn’t think I was going to get any access at all. It’s one of those strange journalistic twists. They said yes, come on over to Paris to spend a couple days with us.

How much time did you spend with McChrystal over the month?

Another strange journalistic twist. The Icelandic volcano happens, and so my two-day trip 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. I wasn’t with him at every moment, obviously, but fairly regularly over that period of time.

One of the most vivid scenes in the stories comes when you are out with the general, his wife, and his team for a night on the town in Paris. His team is entirely forthright with you, did that surprise you?

Well, they were getting hammered, I don’t know at that moment if they were being the most forthright. Of course it was surprising. A lot of the reporting that is getting most of the attention happened right away in the first few days in Paris. So I was surprised—because they didn’t know me.

via How ‘Rolling Stone’ Got Into McChrystal’s Inner Circle – Newsweek.

OK, let’s turn this into a learning experience.  Here is a PR tip:  When you hold an important office and you have some sensitive knowledge and opinions that could prove embarrassing if outsiders knew about them, don’t go out drinking with reporters to the point of getting hammered.   What other lessons can we learn?

Military brass & the Rolling Stone

America’s top commander and his staff in Afghanistan are in big trouble for their disrespectful remarks about their civilian bosses that they made to a reporter from Rolling Stone:

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan is headed to Washington to apologize for a magazine profile that includes highly critical remarks by him and his staff about top Obama administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy.

The article in this week’s Rolling Stone magazine is certain to increase tension between the White House and Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. The profile of McChrystal, titled the “Runaway General,” also raises fresh questions about the judgment and leadership style of the commander appointed by President Obama last year in an effort to turn around a worsening conflict.

McChrystal and some of his senior advisers are quoted speaking derisively of top administration officials, often in sharply flippant and dismissive terms. An anonymous McChrystal aide is quoted as calling national security adviser James L. Jones a “clown,” who remains “stuck in 1985.”

Referring to Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama’s senior envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, one McChrystal aide is quoted as saying: “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal. Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous.”

On one occasion, McChrystal appears to react with exasperation when he receives an e-mail from Holbrooke. “Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke,” McChrystal says, according to the article. “I don’t even want to read it.”

The story also features an exchange in which McChrystal and some of his aides appear to mock Vice President Biden, who opposed McChrystal’s troop surge recommendation last year and instead urged a more focused emphasis on counterterrorism operations. Preparing for a speech he is about to give at a French military academy, McChrystal “wonders aloud” whether he will questioned about the well-publicized differences in opinion between himself and Biden.

“Are you asking me about Vice President Biden? Who’s that?” McChrystal says with a laugh, trying out the line as a hypothetical response to the anticipated query.

“Biden?” chimes in an aide who is seated nearby, and who is not named in the article. “Did you say Bite me?”

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired three-star general who has sharp policy differences with McChrystal, isn’t spared either. Referring to a leaked cable from Eikenberry that expressed concerns about the trustworthiness of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, McChrystal is quoted as having said: “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

The magazine hits newsstands Friday and could be posted online earlier as early as Tuesday. The Washington Post received an advance copy of the article from its author, Michael Hastings, a freelance journalist who has written for The Post in the past.

via Gen. McChrystal to apologize in Washington for anti-administration comments.

The general has apologized for his “poor judgment.”  This raises all kinds of issues (the administration’s handling of the war, the necessity of civilian control of the military, military discipline).  But what I continue to marvel at is how people are so free about opening up their inmost thoughts to reporters.   Why would anyone on a military staff talk so openly to the Rolling Stone, of all magazines?  I suspect the comments sounded humorous at the time, part of a stimulating conversation with a cool writer.  Now these guys’ careers are over.

I have seen this same eagerness to talk to reporters to one’s ultimate hurt elsewhere.  It must have to do with a strong ego’s susceptibility to flattery.