Loose lips sink careers

General Douglas MacArthur was fired for trying to undermine President Truman’s policy.  General George B. McClellan was fired for lack of aggressiveness against the enemy. General Stanley McChrystal was guilty of neither of these things. He supported President Obama’s announced goals and was unstinting in his effort to carry them out.

He was fired for a different offense – his inability to hold his tongue and make his staff hold their tongues in the presence of a reporter.  If you read the Rolling Stone article, you’ll see that almost all the controversial remarks were made by unnamed aides of General McChrystal, almost were about McChrystal’s political foes and bureaucratic rivals within the government rather than Obama and almost all were off-the-cuff and not in the context of a formal interview.  Nor did McChrystal or any of his staff write the sub-headline about “the wimps in the White House.”

If there is a justification for firing McChrystal, it is that the newspaper article has made him a political embarrassment and also made it impossible for him to work with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

Why didn’t General McChrystal tell his staff to curb their tongues?  Probably Michael Hastings, like many good reporters, had the knack of blending in so that people forgot he was around, and spoke as if he weren’t there.  More importantly, McChrystal and his staff were probably used to dealing with beat reporters who dealt with them on a continuing basis and didn’t want to burn their bridges.

Click on this for the original Rolling Stone article by Michael Hastings

Click on this for a comment on General McChrystal’s lack of discipline by Marc Armbinder of The Atlantic.

Click on this for a Newsweek interview with Michael Hastings on how he got into General McChrystal’s inner circle.

Click on this for a comment on the differences between a beat reporter and a freelancer such as Hastings.

P.S. (6/25/10)

Click on this for another insightful comment on Michael Hastings, Stanley McChrystal and the Rolling Stone article.

P.P.S (6/26/10)

An editor of Rolling Stone said the magazine’s fact-checkers called McChrystal’s staff to verify the quotes, and none of them objected.  But a Washington Post reporter obtained the fact-checker’s questions, which evidently did not include the controversial quotes.

Click on this for what the Rolling Stone editor said about fact-checking.

Click on this for the Washington Post article about the fact-checking.

Click on this for a claim that the the controversial quotes were meant to be off the record.

In my experience as a newspaper reporter, people being interviewed sometimes have a different understanding of the meaning of “off the record” than the reporter does.  Someone being interviewed may understand “off the record” to mean “on deep background,” meaning you can’t use the statement at all, while the reporter understands “off the record” to mean “not for attribution,” which means you can use the statement provided you don’t identify the person making it.

Since almost all the controversial quotes were anonymous, Michael Hastings must have understood “off the record” to mean “not for attribution.”  Evidently the people he was quoting understood it a different way, possibly because they were used to dealing with beat reporters who only used quotes from on-the-record interviews.  It could be that Hastings understood they were making a false assumption, and deliberately refrained from correcting it.

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One Response to “Loose lips sink careers”

  1. Jane Hickok Says:

    You might also want to consider the possible role of excessive alcohol ingestion in this fiasco.


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