Opinions on McChrystal and the media

Barrack Obama’s sacking of General Stanley McChrystal after the General had been quoted bitching about the President and his aides in a magazine article has unleashed a tide of  American reflection on the right relationship of news people to power. (The debate has been given extra life by the sudden departure of a Washington Post blogger, Dave Weigel.) There’s a good introduction to the McChrystal inquest here by New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

Here are links to three pieces which give you a flavour of the discussion, which blends an old one (how close should a reporter get to a source and what compromises, if any, should be made to keep the source helpful?) with a new one: how much privacy does either party have in the linked world of instantaneous publication?

Jeff Jarvis is keen to recruit McChrystal’s story to his argument for the virtues of “publicness”, linked transparency for everyone as often as possible. The shock caused by the McChrystal profile in Rolling Stone, Jarvis argues, was the demolition of the myth that the General was an “opinionless man”. If we abolished the idea that generals didn’t have opinions, we wouldn’t have so much of a problem.

This is a stretch too far. McChrystal’s problem with Obama wasn’t that he had opinions but that he was airing them. McChrystal’s pithy contempt contradicted the Administration’s policy and carried more than a whiff of distaste for the doctrine that the military obey political decisions.

To reduce the issue here to the claim that too much importance is invested in a “myth” that opinions don’t exist skirts around an important element of social organsiation. There are entire professions where neutrality, objectivity, reticence and discretion are wired into behaviour and following those codes can involve not expressing opinions or even disguising them. Lawyers, doctors and public servants, to name only three categories that come quickly to mind.

The revolution in human communication brought about by digital technology is, for sure, going to alter some of this. Sharing and exchanging information is radically altering the way groups do things. But to translate that into a public principle that everyone should operate openly on their opinions skips several stages of discussion. Apart from anything else, we need to ask why the absence of opinions was asked for in the first place.

Jarvis also cites a long, rambling essay by Mayhill Fowler the blogging reporter who caused a minor sensation during the Obama campaign when she published his remark that small town Pensylvanians were “clinging to guns and religion”. Fowler’s piece is not a quick read, but it gives a vivid insight into the trading game in scraps of information which political reporters play and how that looks to an outsider who sees it played for the first time.

Lastly and to complete the arguments that frame this debate, here is David Brooks of the New York Times, coming at the McChrystal fracas from an entirely different angle. Something he’s very good at.


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  1. George: I write from Chile, I am interested to know what do you think in the effect for “journalist 2.0” work in the idea you mention related with “professions where neutrality, objectivity, reticence and discretion are wired into behaviour and following those codes can involve not expressing opinions or even disguising them”. In this new world with blogs, twitter, and so on what happened with cases as the Washington Post´s journalist who use to cover the conservative sector.

    • Eduardo – I certainly didn’t mean that reticence and discretion are wired into the behaviour of journalists! When I wrote that I had doctors and lawyers in mind as examples. But even in journalism, there are distinctions between what is public or published and what is not. If you make notes on an interview, you may not publish everything that is said. One reason for not repeating something might be that it offensive or unfair. Even in the world of blogging and Twitter, that is not necessarily suppressing information that “wants to be free”.
      I don’t know much in detail about the Weigel case, but it seems that he wrote something which the paper found offensive. People can disagree about how offensive it was (or not) or they can ask whether making him elave the paper was out of proportion as a punishment. But a paper which wants to be seen as fair is entitled to set standards for its staffers which won’t necessarily be shared everywhere.