Michael Hastings, Mayhill Fowler and the Dirty Secret of Journalism

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Janet Malcolm’s “The Journalist and the Murderer” begins with a famous maxim I suspect every reporter has mulled at some point. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she writes. It’s a provocative thesis, but I don’t buy it. There are certainly aspects of the profession that are morally fraught; reporting on people’s mistakes and misfortune is part of the package, and we do so knowing it’s not going to make the subjects of those stories feel good. But there is absolutely a way to do this honestly, fairly and without compromising one’s ethics.

In a rambling piece for the Huffington Post, Mayhill Fowler — remember her? — has updated Malcolm’s famous line and applied it to Michael Hastings’ excellent Rolling Stone piece on Gen. McChrystal. “Journalism is an act of seduction,” Fowler begins. “Many times I’ve done the seducing, in writing big stories and small; I’ve also been the seduced, slammed with the gut-wrenching morning-after upon reading stories written about me. So I know just how both Michael Hastings and Stanley McChrystal (& staff) are doing right about now. They are feeling betrayed.” And that, she blithely concludes, is what journalism is all about: “Journalism, in the end, is always an act of betrayal.”

Given Hastings’ role in McChrystal’s canning–an event that could alter a major war–it’s not surprising that his role as a reporter has been the subject of much discussion. Some people wondered whether his status as a freelancer–who isn’t brought into frequent contact with his sources, as a beat reporter might be–made him more dangerous. I don’t buy that either. As Slate’s Jack Shafer argues, a profile is a transaction. Both the writer and the subject know this. (That is, if they’re not too stupid or full of themselves.) The subject gets publicity and the writer gets access that hopefully improves the story. The subject’s flacks will try to cast their boss in the most flattering light they can engineer, and the reporter has to scrub away the fluff, talk to a variety of people (who often have a stake in the story’s outcome themselves), and try to arrive at something that resembles the truth, or at least the truth as it appeared to one person at a moment in time. If it’s a good story, the piece will have some balance–not because of some slavish dedication to false equivalencies, but because neither hagiography nor searing takedowns of woe-begotten idiots are very interesting or useful. The “betrayal” Fowler says Hastings may be experiencing — “criticism” is a better term, by the way — is merely the flip side of publishing your own thoughts. People get to voice theirs in response.

Hastings didn’t betray or seduce anybody. He had an obligation only to do his job–to distill his observations and research into a story that reflected the truth as he saw it. *As far as I know, nobody has disputed the accuracy of the quotes that led to the general’s firing. Fowler has hammered Malcolm’s phrase into something pithier, but her construction is flatly wrong. What’s more, she uses it as a launching pad for a long story about her experience covering the Obama campaign, and how the press, like sheep, swallowed everything the campaign supplied. The point, Fowler says, is that she experienced the same push back that Hastings is (not, actually) experiencing, when she published Obama’s remark about bitter people clinging to the guns and religion. She writes:

Seduction and betrayal tune a pavanne that both sides dance. My first exposure to this stormy marriage at the national level was on a bright, snowy Sunday Iowa afternoon when David Axelrod, who became for me that day the Barry White of spin, strode cheerily into the press compound and began to utter the most patently untrue remarks I had heard in my admittedly few months on the trail. I stood, agape, in a crush of lower level reporters furiously scribbling the Ax blather, a few (this was only 2007, after all) aiming recorders at his mustache. It’s not that the other reporters didn’t know Axelrod was feeding them a line–an impotent and therefore all-the-more poisonous fury emanated from them like heat–but they were trapped. They had jobs to do; they had to report what was said and done that day, no matter what.

No, they didn’t. And I have no idea what the first sentence in this passage means.

I’m sorry, Mayhill, for “seducing” you.

*Update, 5:15 PM: The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the Rolling Stone fact-checker’s emails with McChrystal’s press aide, has just published a story that raises questions about whether some of the contentious material in the story was supposed to be off the record. Rolling Stone stands behind Hastings, who they say violated no ground rules set for the piece.

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