The Rules of Engagement: Journalism Style

THIS IS one I’ll be discussing in the classroom. N.P.R.’s All Things Considered broadcast a very strong piece on Friday about wartime coverage and reporters’ privilege, prompted of course by the Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone profile which served to unseat Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the U.S. top commander in Afghanistan. What is on and off the record when it comes to access? In a moment when the debate over who is protected by shield laws for protecting sources — bloggers vs. staff writers and stringers– this has been a turned-up debate as “the rules” of journalism are being tested.

Here’s a taste:


The “Rolling Stone” article that wound up toppling General Stanley McChrystal’s military career has sparked a roiling debate in journalism circles about access and what exactly constitutes on and off the record exchanges.

The “Rolling Stone” reporter Michael Hastings threw gasoline on the fire when he accused other war reporters of long ignoring the general’s rather dim view of the Obama security team, and instead lavishing him with generally positive coverage.

Some high-profile reporters took exception, including The New York Times columnist David Brooke, a frequent guest on this program and Lara Logan of CBS.

Ms. LARA LOGAN (Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, CBS News): The question is really is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to – I mean to end a career like McChrystal’s? When Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

NORRIS: Logan and others say Hastings violated wartime journalist code by focusing on the McChrystal team’s salty repartee, instead of the steely challenges they face.

The piece — the rest here — goes on to question what part of this is important for the public to know — just the “steely challenges” of the wartime theater or the meta-story of the “steely challenges” of those moving the pieces?


4 thoughts on “The Rules of Engagement: Journalism Style

  1. i was initially most bothgered back during the gulf war when the bush pere administration refused press access and essentially created “feed” news stories, filtering out what they wanted people to see and hear. at that point i no longer trusted american news sources for the war and went in search of alternative viewpoints from the bbc and other foreign agencies.

    on the other end of things, when you are a general with the military you are an agent of the government. the president is the commander in chief, and what he says goes. military leaders who are unable to execute their orders have ways of addressing or airing their apprehensions about policy but attitudes and opinons expressed in uniform that go against the president are news.

    mcchrystal knew he was knocking back beers with a writer from rolling stone. perhaps he wanted to “get caught” and get fired and not have the policy on his conscious. and if there really is this “code” of selective reporting then perhaps the wartime journalists have some serious rethinking to do.

    /2 cents

    • what’s so strange about all of this is that as journalists we are supposed/expected to adhere to a personal code, we’re to practice a “journalism of conscience.” as a rule, when i walk into a situation that is fraught — someone who isn’t sure if he/she wants to talk on the record. i may do an initial conversation on deep background. but if we’re ready to roll on an interview it’s important to set the parameters clearly from the outset: the interview will be on the record. otherwise you’re wasting the source’s time and yours. it’s sort of standard operating procedure. of course when you’re on a beat you have plenty conversations with your regular sources that may not be on the record, and may solely be for deep background — that’s how we get leads on stories, scoops, deeper insight on something that is moving quickly in the news-cycle. this whole “wartime code” has created a lot of discussion both in and out of the newsroom. just yesterday, a friend of mine who isn’t a journalist was appalled by just thought that the reporter had essentially “burned” the source. (that they had explicitly discussed that all was off the record and the reporter ignored the pact; rather than it being some sort of unspoken code to be followed by anyone who was embedded during wartime and reporting.)

  2. while i have heard some great reportage that came from embedded journalists i am uneasy with the concept of government/military sanctioned reporting. and in the wake of watergate i feel the notion of “off the record” has been abused by sources who essentially use journalists to do the dirty work; exposing corruption and misdeeds without sacrificing their own positions (or even for their own political gain).

    “wartime code” like “off the record” has become a way for individuals to taunt journalists into taking the bait of faux information. no longer are people providing facts so mush as they are providing opinions, leaving reporters to weave tapestries of impressions that present a portrait of an event, though not necessarily based entirely in fact.

    i do still blame cable “news” stations and the reagan administration for the weakening of FCC rules for parity in media. i think it set up a situation where they (primarily conservatives) could weaken the bite of journalism without blatantly sponsoring censorship.

    and so.

    • It’s a code none of my reporter friends (albeit those who are beat reporters — cops, crime, politics ) knew of. But all of them have challenges and have to negotiate being inside and access with the larger purpose of doing the job — to inform, educate, analyze, blow the whistle….all this complicates everything: it sets up this secret society transaction…and doesn’t help matters at all in terms of the public, in terms of “trusting” journalists, in terms of transparency. you mention “government/military sanctioned” reporting and its becoming more and more the case that journalists are being dictated to from the top down and threatened about what sort of access we may or not get depending on what the slant of the story is; publicists restricting the time we spend, or a particular line of questioning. it’s frustrating because it’s happening more and more which means that some reporters/”news” organizations are agreeing to it…it’s a dangerous turn of events as you point out — for all of your reasons and those we can only, sadly, imagine.

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