U.S. military officials talk about fighting wars on two fronts, but there’s also a third front: the war for public opinion. To win those hearts and minds, the Pentagon initiated a program just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to “embed” journalists within military units, giving the media close-up access but also strict supervision. It’s not enough to be making progress Over There, if no one back home knows about it. General Stanley McChrystal felt that not enough Americans knew about the gains being made under his command in Afghanistan, so he agreed to be profiled by a freelance journalist working for Rolling Stone magazine and ended up a high-profile casualty of the battle between the military and the media.
How was McChrystal, who had led black ops and helped catch Saddam Hussein, caught off-guard by a reporter? Perhaps the straight-shooting general forgot one of the ten commandments of the workplace: Thou shalt not disrespect thy boss. Or thy boss’s aides.
The article, “The Runaway General,” was leaked online before the issue came out. It recounted that one of McChrystal’s advisers used an unflattering nickname for Vice President Joe Biden, and described a general lack of respect for other administration officials involved in Afghanistan policy, with the exception of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Not long after publication, McChrystal was called back to Washington, where he resigned after a brief meeting with the president. When the Rolling Stone issue finally hit the newsstands, the magazine sold at least five times as many copies as usual.
The cover story proved a journalistic and a PR coup for Rolling Stone, mostly known for its music coverage, although it has a long history of investigative reporting. Still, reporter Michael Hastings found himself at the center of a debate on journalistic ethics. At least some of the quotes in the profile came from inside a bar, where Hastings was hanging out with McChrystal’s staff. And thanks to an Icelandic volcano, Hastings also lucked into a long bus ride with the group. Hastings, however, denied using remarks that were intended to be off the record.
A later inquiry by the Army cleared McChrystal and his senior officers of making the disparaging remarks about administration staffers quoted in the article, but the hunt continues for who said it. Meanwhile, McChrystal is teaching leadership at Yale. Hastings, the journalist who brought down the general, attempted to get embedded in a unit in Afghanistan. He was denied.