McChrystal’s “Rolling Stone” Debacle Shows the Power of the Press

Lost in the self-righteous scrum of negative opinion concerning Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s mouthing off to “Rolling Stone” was the fact that this was a very good day for freedom of the press. Yes, it’s true that the military code limits an officer’s free speech in a way it does not for the rest of us, who are covered by the First Amendment. That McChrystal chose to break that code speaks to his own agenda, perhaps a character flaw or self-sabotage. But, putting aside the personal and political issues of the general, we can still see this incident for what it really is: a victory for one of the most important freedoms this country has.

Long ago, with much less at stake, another “Rolling Stone” reporter set out to chronicle an exotic world from an inside perspective. He ingratiated himself so well that his musician subjects came to trust him, and they showed him sides of themselves they normally wouldn’t make public. This was the early 1970s, and some of their once-shocking feats were becoming commonplace—sex and drugs go well with rock-n-roll. But they also revealed insecurity, petty fights, doubt, in other words, the quirks of a life spent on tour, in their own insular world, suddenly but gently invaded by a smiling guy with a notebook.

That reporter was Cameron Crowe, who made his adventures into the movie “Almost Famous.” Now, 40 years later, we have another intrepid Rolling Stoner, stuck via the Iceland volcano in the tour bus, aka the McChrystal caravan. Is it any surprise that a bunch of guys under intense pressure in their professional situation make jokes about their bosses, distrust the big guy and scorn some of his hires? Yes, the stakes are incomparably different. The war in Afghanistan is not a rock-n-roll summer tour. And thus, what the magazine reveals in 2010 is immeasurably more important. The general leading our longest-running war is losing faith in the civilian command? And we have a problem with the fact that we now know this?

Perhaps in light of this incident, the concept of the Pentagon-approved “embed” will turn into a bare blanket and a couple of peanut-butter crackers, far short of the 24/7 access Michael Hastings of “Rolling Stone” enjoyed. With this access, he did what every good reporter does. He got inside the mind of his subjects, portrayed their world, their concerns and their frustrations.

On the flip side, Hastings became a means of whatever agenda they had in being so open with him—or in posing for him in a certain way. Because underneath every exchange of trust between reporter and subject, there are two sides to the bargain. The subject gains something too. The whistleblower gains reform; the self-centered pol gains another clip for his wall or Website; the starlet gains exposure for her latest movie.

McChrystal said his comments were "a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened." That’s true–now. When he and his staff were confiding in the “Rolling Stone” reporter, they knew what they were doing. And the reporter knew what he was doing, too. He did a good job.

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