Logan’s run-in with Rolling Stone (and proper reporting)
Lara Logan (right), CBS News’ chief foreign correspondent (and former reporter for GMTV), went on CNN’s Reliable Sources programme over the weekend to issue a deeply troubling critique of Rolling Stone’s devastating Stanley McChrystal profile. It’s well worth watching. Logan absolutely hammered Rolling Stone’s reporter, Michael Hastings, for “pretending to build an illusion of trust” between the military and the media, and for “pretending to be one thing and then being something else”; she even accused Hastings of lying about the ground rules agreed with McChrystal’s staff, based on no substantial evidence beyond her own sense that “these people… never let their guard down like that”. Most creepily of all, she said, in an intended defence of the US military’s attitude to press management, and her own relationship with them: “if they believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back.”
I have a scrap of sympathy for a part of the point Logan is making. It’s true that there’s nothing fundamentally dishonourable, as is sometimes implied, about reporters working to maintain relationships with sources – indeed, it’s essential to good journalism. (It’s an incredibly difficult balance to strike, and one that all serious reporters wrestle with daily.) Beyond that, though, her argument is really dismaying. It hints – more than hints – at a world in which embedded reporters agree to suppress important matters of public interest for the sake of their own careers; it implies that there’s something out of order about a reporter from outside of the loop (Hastings is small fry compared to a TV name like Logan) reporting a story that the establishment has decided not to go near, that it’s somehow not his place to pursue it; and it downright accuses a journalist of lying based on nothing more than the inevitable grumbles of the subjects of a story who have come out of it badly. The conclusion, if you follow Logan’s logic, is that the reporter has a greater responsibility to the source than the public. It’s arguments like Logan’s that mean that people don’t trust journalists; it’s articles like Hastings‘ that remind us of the indispensable nature of good reporting, whatever the commercial pressures that make it harder and harder to do.
Much more eloquent and significant people than me have weighed in on this. Frank Rich was brilliant in the New York Times on Sunday about the striking fact that many of the biggest scoops in American journalistic history have come from outsiders, not beat reporters. Geoffrey Dunn at the Huffington Post goes to town on that creepy “they will let you back” line. At Salon, Glenn Greenwald argues that Hastings and Logan are examples of two poles of journalism, and makes it pretty clear which one he edges towards. A little off point but still fascinating, Pressthink’s Jay Rosen has a telling analysis of a sentence that appeared on the Politico website, before swiftly being excised, that pointed out that a beat reporter “would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks”. (That was first spotted by the Columbia Journalism Review’s Clint Hendler here.)
If you only read one piece, though, read the incomparable Matt Taibbi’s ranty demolition of Logan’s argument at Rolling Stone itself, a masterpiece of effectively deployed and wholly justified spleen. The piece mentions the striking fact that the Pentagon spent $4.7bn on PR last year, which, given the dramas of the last week, you might think could be put to more effective use elsewhere. Among many other choice paragraphs:
According to Logan, not only are reporters not supposed to disclose their agendas to sources at all times, but in the case of covering the military, one isn’t even supposed to have an agenda that might upset the brass! Why? Because there is an “element of trust” that you’re supposed to have when you hang around the likes of a McChrystal. You cover a war commander, he’s got to be able to trust that you’re not going to embarrass him. Otherwise, how can he possibly feel confident that the right message will get out?Tagged in: Afghanistan, Lara Logan, media, Rolling Stone, Stanley McChrystal, us
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