A few years ago, I was at a party at a conference and found myself chatting with a reporter for another liberal magazine. We talked for a while about politics and the media and then went on to other conversations. About a week later, something I said during that conversation ended up in a story she wrote. She quoted me accurately, and it wasn't anything particularly shocking, but I was still surprised and a little insulted that what I had assumed was just a friendly conversation was actually a secret interview, with her taking feverish mental notes. But she was playing well within the rules everyone who deals with the press understands: When there's a reporter in earshot, you should just assume that whatever you're saying is on the record and may be quoted.
And that's particularly true if you invite the reporter to follow you around for a month while he prepares a profile of you for a major magazine, which is what Stanley McChrystal is relearning (I say relearning, because he certainly knew it before). If you and your aides disparage the political leadership, it's going to end up in the story. If you reveal your preference for Bud Lime, that's just the kind of "color" and "texture" that will end up in the story.
As Janet Malcolm famously wrote, the journalist "is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson." That's a particularly harsh way of looking at the relationship between a journalist and his/her sources. But it's probably just what McChrystal is thinking right now as he wonders whether he's going to keep his job.
Of course, he has no one to blame but himself. What comes through in some of the article's most notable sections is a portrait of McChrystal's aides as a bunch of guys who make sure to chime in with another version of whatever joke the boss just made:
"Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?"
"Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite Me?"
At one point on his trip to Paris, McChrystal checks his BlackBerry. "Oh, not another e-mail from Holbrooke," he groans. "I don't even want to open it." He clicks on the message and reads the salutation out loud, then stuffs the BlackBerry back in his pocket, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.
"Make sure you don't get any of that on your leg," an aide jokes, referring to the e-mail.
Who knows, maybe this doesn't accurately portray the atmosphere around McChrystal. But he hasn't disputed the quotes or the general portrait it paints of him and his team.
-- Paul Waldman
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