Journalists are human . . . fallen creatures . . . craven . . . eager to go along with the "cool kids."
And they'd just as soon not have all their shortcomings paraded around for the world to see and their credibility to rue.
I'll alert the media.
THING IS, says Jay Rosen of New York University, they'd just spike the story. This, from his PressThink blog, on how Politico let the cat out of the bag, then stuffed it back in there and threw the sack in the river of denial:
As everyone who pays attention to the news knows by now, an article appeared in Rolling Stone this week by freelance reporter Mark Hastings that would up forcing the resignation of General Stanley A. McChrystal as commander of American troops in Afghanistan. Hastings had been invited to hang out with McChrystal and his staff and was witness to their contempt for the civilian side of the war effort, which he reported on. It was a shock to everyone in Washington that McChrystal would make such a blunder, and the press began immediately to dissect it.THIS is only "news" because too many in the journalism profession have convinced themselves they're special, an opinion not shared (to the chagrin of The Daily Blab) by much of their audience.
The Politico was so hopped up about the story that it took the extraordinary step of posting on its site a PDF of Rolling Stone’s article because Rolling Stone had not put it online fast enough. In one of the many articles The Politico ran about the episode the following observation was made by reporters Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee:
McChrystal, an expert on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, has long been thought to be uniquely qualified to lead in Afghanistan. But he is not known for being media savvy. Hastings, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for two years, according to the magazine, is not well-known within the Defense Department. And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.
Now this seemed to several observers—and I was one—a reveal. Think about what the Politico is saying: an experienced beat reporter is less of a risk for a powerful figure like McChrystal because an experienced beat reporter would probably not want to “burn bridges” with key sources by telling the world what happens when those sources let their guard down.
Right. And that’s exactly what Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee did. They revealed one of political journalism’s state secrets: beat reporters have a motive to preserve key relationships, so they often don’t tell us everything they could, which makes them more reliable, more predictable, in the eyes of the powerful people they cover. They were being good Politico people by asking: how could McChrystal and his staff be so unsavvy?
And Andew Sullivan picked up on it. “Why, one wonders, have we not heard a peep of this from all the official MSM Pentagon reporters and analysts with their deep sources and long experience? Politico explains…” Then he cut to the passage from reporters Lubold and Lee that I began with.
Meanwhile, Thomas Ricks, formerly a beat reporter covering the military for the Washington Post, made a similar observation at his blog for Foreign Policy magazine:
Reporters doing one-off profiles for magazines such as Rolling Stone and Esquire have less invested in a continuing relationship than do beat reporters covering the war for newspapers and newsmagazines. That doesn’t mean you should avoid one-off reporters, but it does mean that they have no incentive to establish and maintain a relationship of trust over weeks and months of articles.
Our reveal is looking pretty good, isn’t it? Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee let us in on a little trade secret. They have no motive to make it up. Lee is a beat reporter herself, qualified to speak on the subject. Lubold has covered the military for years. Politico trades in this kind of observation; it was founded to reveal some of journalism’s “state secrets.” Tom Ricks, a former beat reporter for the Washington Post who also covered the military, says pretty much the same thing: beat reporters have an investment in continuing the relationship so they are less risky for a powerful figure like McChrystal.
And then, the next day… the reveal disappears. The Politico erased it, as if the thing had never happened. Down the memory hole, like in Orwell’s 1984. The story as you encounter it online today doesn’t have that part (“would not risk burning bridges…”) in it.
And, by Jove, you don't tug on Superman's cape. Or put Clark Kent's little secret under a banner headline on the front page.
Unfortunately for convenient little fictions, it's already all over Facebook. It was all over Facebook decades before there was a Facebook.
Episode 1, Season 1 of Lou Grant was all about it (above). That was 1977. And it wasn't the only time this phenomenon has wormed its way into the popular imagination.
We all know journalists -- or, at least, of journalists -- who are "in the tank" for someone or something. The same goes for reporters who hold back to preserve their "access."
No one likes to be the kid who's always left out. We all crave approval, even from all the wrong people, and we, as a rule, enthusiastically play "the Game."
It takes courage to go against the grain, to be the lone wolf. It takes even more courage to be a truth-teller when doing so is going to cost you big time.
Sure, your editor will praise you for your big "get," but will he or she be so pleased with you when you start getting scooped week after week on all the "everyday" stories, and a few big ones, too? "Access" isn't nothing in a competitive environment.
In the military, they give out medals for heroism because humans, by their nature, aren't. Valor is extraordinary; we recognize that.
Ditto with major journalism awards, like the Pulitzer. True truth-telling, even in journalism, is exceptional.
It's the reason we have heroes. It's the reason journalism students of my generation were filled with visions of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bringing down a president. Of the New York Times and the Washington Post risking all to publish the Pentagon Papers.
And then Woodward became an editor at the Post . . . and started writing books where he got unprecedented "access" in return for putting the stories born of that access . . . in his books. Later. And not in the Post. Tomorrow.
Journalists? Playing "the Game"?
MOST ALL of us, that's who. At least those of us vaguely familiar with the concept of "original sin" and fully in touch with what true gutless wonders we're fully capable of being -- and how utterly ordinary that is.
In my opinion -- which, to the surprise only of journalists, matches that of scads of folks -- the story here isn't that Politico quickly ran outside to fetch their dirty underwear off the clothesline. The story here, instead, is more like "Whom do they think they're fooling?"
Only themselves. And that's my final answer.