June 20, 2013
McChrystal (Melina Mara/Washington Post)
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Melina Mara/Washington Post)

Remembrances of deceased journalist Michael Hastings, who died Tuesday in a Los Angeles car crash at the age of 33, have been quite consistent: We lost a dedicated and brave journalist who wasn’t cowed by power.

Leave it to Geraldo Rivera to put a contrarian’s spin on things. Yesterday on Twitter, the Fox News personality wrote:

 

Tweeps slapped him for his observation with the most amusing of swipes.

 

 

Even though the topic was raised by Rivera, it merits some discussion. Wind the clock back to June, 2010, when President Obama accepted the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was then commanding U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In accepting the resignation of McChrystal, the president said, among other things:

The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

The Rolling Stone article referenced by Obama, of course, is “The Runaway General,” the magnum opus of Michael Hastings, a long-form investigative piece on the war in Afghanistan, including interviews with McChrystal and key members of his team.

The piece contains this passage:

According to sources familiar with the meeting, McChrystal thought Obama looked “uncomfortable and intimidated” by the roomful of military brass. Their first one-on-one meeting took place in the Oval Office four months later, after McChrystal got the Afghanistan job, and it didn’t go much better. “It was a 10-minute photo op,” says an adviser to McChrystal. “Obama clearly didn’t know anything about him, who he was. Here’s the guy who’s going to run his [expletive deleted] war, but he didn’t seem very engaged. The Boss was pretty disappointed.”

And this passage:

McChrystal reserves special skepticism for [Special Representative to Afghanistan Richard] Holbrooke, the official in charge of reintegrating the Taliban. “The Boss says he’s like a wounded animal,” says a member of the general’s team. “Holbrooke keeps hearing rumors that he’s going to get fired, so that makes him dangerous. He’s a brilliant guy, but he just comes in, pulls on a lever, whatever he can grasp onto. But this is [counterinsurgency], and you can’t just have someone yanking on [stuff].”

And this passage, regarding U.S. Ambasssador Karl Eikenberry, who had written a critical cable about the war strategy that was leaked to the media:

McChrystal and his team were blindsided by the cable. “I like Karl, I’ve known him for years, but they’d never said anything like that to us before,” says McChrystal, who adds that he felt “betrayed” by the leak. “Here’s one that covers his flank for the history books. Now if we fail, they can say, ‘I told you so.’ ”

And there’s more, too:

Last fall, during the question-and-answer session following a speech he gave in London, McChrystal dismissed the counterterrorism strategy being advocated by Vice President Joe Biden as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan.” The remarks earned him a smackdown from the president himself, who summoned the general to a terse private meeting aboard Air Force One. The message to McChrystal seemed clear: Shut [expletive deleted] up, and keep a lower profile.

Now, flipping through printout cards of his speech in Paris, McChrystal wonders aloud what Biden question he might get today, and how he should respond. “I never know what’s going to pop out until I’m up there, that’s the problem,” he says. Then, unable to help themselves, he and his staff imagine the general dismissing the vice president with a good one-liner.

“Are you asking about Vice President Biden?” McChrystal says with a laugh. “Who’s that?”

“Biden?” suggests a top adviser. “Did you say: Bite Me?”

Those are examples of the “conduct represented in the recently published article,” as cited by Obama at the time of McChrystal’s resignation. And the “conduct” here belongs to the general and his people, not to Hastings. One more thing about said “conduct”: As the above abridgment suggests, it wasn’t an isolated quip in a massive magazine piece; it was a theme of the story.

Hastings’ Rolling Stone story was one of the great media stories of its time. Were the quotes accurate? Were they all on the record? Skeptics of Hastings’ work were everywhere, though seldom on the record. Time, however, has a way of processing and rendering judgment on big stories that get challenged by critics upon publication. “The Runaway General” has withstood its test, and it has been scrutinized more than your average investigative magazine story: An official Defense Department report, after all, vetted the juicy portions of the story, without doing violence to a single one of them.

Rivera would be well advised to spend some time with that document. Should he need any further proof of Hastings’ good work, he should review the remarks that McChrystal gave in an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity early this year. The key part:

MCCHRYSTAL: We did a number of media engagements throughout the time I was there because one of the things I had to do was explain the war in Afghanistan to people in Europe, to Afghans, to American leaders, but also to families, people whose sons and daughters were fighting. They had a right to that transparency, so we gave access to a wide variety of media to include periodic embeds. The Rolling Stone was one of those embeds. In this particular case, the account that that reporter produced was very different from my interpretation of events or the nature of my staff, who I have extraordinary regard for.

But listen, I was a commander, when you’re in command, whether you like the outcome or not, you accept responsibility. And that’s what I did.

When the subject of your story quibbles about “interpretations,” well, that says something.

Look-backs on the life of Hastings have stressed his role as a journalistic maverick who breaks the conventions of his industry. Who speaks truth to power. Who is fearless. Surely those are fair and accurate assessments. But Hastings’ most memorable piece of work derives, at least in part, from a tried-and-true convention of journalism: Plant your butt in the presence of powerful people for extended periods of time. And listen.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.