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Clear it with SidneyHow our blog got its name >

Notes on journalism for the common good
by Lindsay Beyerstein

How our blog got its name

Sidney Hillman was a powerful national figure during the Great Depression, a key supporter of the New Deal, and a close ally of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

When the rumor spread that President Roosevelt ordered his party leaders to “clear it with Sidney” before announcing Harry S. Truman as his 1944 running mate, conservative critics turned on the phrase, trumpeting it as proof that the president was under the thumb of “Big Labor.”

Over the years, the phrase lost its sting and became a testament to Hillman's influence.

It's hard to imagine a labor leader wielding that kind clout today, but we like the idea—and we hope Sidney would give thumbs up to our blog.

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Hastings v. the MSM

    Above the Fold

    Was Michael Hastings’ superb piece about General Stanley McChrystal an indictment of the way the mainstream media had covered the general before that?

    This could only be treated as a serious question by the many sages living inside the beltway.  To every serious person living everywhere else, the answer was stunningly obvious: Hastings hadn’t indicted his MSM colleagues--he had humiliated them.

    As FCP first pointed out last October, virtually every profile of McChrystal had either sharply downplayed the defects in his CV or ignored them altogether, including the general’s central role in the cover up of the killing of former football star Pat Tillman by friendly fire.

    Asked about this by the Senate Armed Services Committee, McChrystal said that those involved with the Tillman cover-up "just didn’t line things up right," adding that "it was not intentional...I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive." 

    Pat Tillman’s father violently disagreed:

    The Army reported that information ‘was slow to make it back to the United States.’ To the contrary, the information was sent almost immediately, but there was one set of ‘facts’ for the military and another for my family. As to the military's claim that it kept the family informed, I was briefed three times with a sales pitch of made-up "facts" and assurances of investigative integrity. With respect to the Army's reference to ‘mistakes in reporting the circumstances of [my son's] death’: those ‘mistakes’ were deliberate, calculated, ordered (repeatedly) and disgraceful -- conduct well beneath the standard to which every soldier in the field is held.  I have absolute respect and admiration for Army Rangers acting as such. As to their superior officers, the West Point-Army honor code is: ‘I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor tolerate those that do.’ They should reissue the booklet.

    Then there was the problem of the involvement of McChrystal’s troops in torture on a base outside Baghdad, which was festooned with signs reading  reading "NO BLOOD, NO FOUL," which the Times reported were supposed to mean, “If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it”–and where officers routinely wore no nameplates, just in case some over-zealous prosecutor tried to identify them later on.

    But when McChrystal was chosen to be the new commander in Afghanistan, the Times ran a worshipful profile of him, describing the Tillman incident as "one blot on his otherwise impressive military record"--and then made no mention at all of the involvement of McChrystal’s men in torture.

    On the other hand, it did quote a retired general who said that the new commander was "lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier" who has "all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect."

    Subsequently, the normally excellent Dexter Filkins did another puff piece  about the general in The New York Times Magazine, in which he so sharply downplayed the Tillman incident and the involvement of the general’s troops in torture that FCP wrote him a lengthy e-mail querying him about all the things he had left out of his article to make the General look better.

    Filkins never replied.

    And just two weeks after that, David Martin did a 12 minute and 43 second profile of the general for 60 Minutes, which did not include a single sentence of criticism–much less a mention of Tillman or torture.  Martin did, however, make these hard-hitting observations:

* In another life he could have been a monk.

* It’s hard to keep pace with McChrystal as he races through his marathon days.

* He is perhaps this country’s most battle-hardened general and a one-of-a-kind commander.

    The problem is that nearly all of these pieces are written by reporters on the Pentagon beat, who know from experience that anything resembling a tough article can make it a great deal more difficult for them to do their job in the future, if their Pentagon sources decide to stop talking to them.

    David Martin is a parody of this problem. According to his official CBS biography, Martin has been covering “defense and intelligence matters” continuously for thirty-three years--first for Newsweek and then, for the last twenty-seven years, for CBS News.

    Is it possible for a reporter on the same beat for more than three decades to remain tough or even objective about the people he is supposed to be covering?

    No, it is not.

    But the mindset of Martin and his fellow Washington reporters was captured perfectly by the truly outlandish comments of his CBS colleague, Lara Logan, and Howard Kurtz, on CNN’s Reliable Sources last Sunday.

    First Kurtz peppered Michael Hastings with brilliant queries like this one:

   “When you are there that much, you don't think it's likely that McChrystal and his team assume that some of their joking, that some of their banter would be treated by you as off the record?”

    To which Hastings quite logically replied,

   “It’s not much of a mystery.  If someone tells you something is off the record, I don’t print it.  If they don’t tell me something is on  the record, then it’s fair game.”   

    Hastings added that McChrystal had been “the subject of a series of glowing profiles... And that was a game that General McChrystal’s team played very well, that if you write us a good story, we’ll give you good access.”

    Then Kurtz sat down with Lara Logan to explain how real Washington reporters conduct their craft:

Kurtz: When you are out with the troops and you're living together and sleeping together, is there an unspoken agreement --

Logan: Absolutely.

Kurtz: -- that you're not going to embarrass them by reporting insults and banter?

Logan: Yes.

    Logan then proceeded to say that she was shocked--shocked!--that Hastings had engaged in the most fundamental part of a reporter’s craft: trying to ingratiate himself so that his subject might let his guard down and actually say something interesting or newsworthy:

    And what I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and, you know, he's laid out there what his game is. That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do.

    That may be the most idiotic comment about journalism FCP has ever heard. Matt Taibbi felt exactly the same way: read his tirade against Logan and Kurtz here.

    Kurtz, of course, has for many years been the most corrupt reporter in Washginton, covering the press for The Washington Post, and simultaneously collecting a hefty paycheck from Time-Warner, the owner of a large chunk of his beat.  As FCP has asked many times before, would The Washington Post allow its Detroit correspondent to be a paid employee of General Motors?

    No, it would not.

    Then there was Martha Raddatz, the pentagon flak who masquerades as a Washington reporter for ABC, who, on the same night the Hastings story broke, composed yet another deep, wet kiss for McChrystal to run on World News.  “Few journalists have watched General McChrystal as closely as you,” Diane Sawyer gushed to Raddatz.

   "“If there is one word used most often to describe General McChrystal it is 'discipline,'" Raddatz said in her piece.  “So it is baffling that he and his top aides would be so open with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.” 

 Martha Raddatz offers yet another puff piece of the general 

     Of course it isn’t baffling at all--and it is the one thing about the mainstream media for which Hastings should be genuinely grateful.  It was precisely because the General had successfully seduced everyone from Dexter Filkins to David Martin that it never occurred to him that a reporter might exist who would approach his record differently.

    That’s why it was so easy for Hastings to get him and his aides to say so many indiscreet things about their bosses and their colleagues.

    The great David Brooks predictably longed for the good old days before Watergate, when there was a wonderful “culture of reticence":

    What mattered most was whether people could overcome their flaws and do their duty as soldiers, politicians and public servants. Reporters suppressed private information and reported mostly — and maybe too gently — on public duties.

    But now we have what Brooks identified as “the culture of exposure”:

    By putting the kvetching in the magazine, the reporter essentially took run-of-the-mill complaining and turned it into a direct challenge to presidential authority. He took a successful general and made it impossible for President Obama to retain him. The reticent ethos had its flaws. But the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities, has chased good people from public life, undermined public faith in institutions and elevated the trivial over the important.

    This, of course, is absolute horseshit. Brooks is conflating the media’s unfortunate obsession with the sex lives of public officials (which FCP also abhors) with a series of comments that represent an unmistakable challenge to civilian control of the military.  So while it is true that there is no hard evidence that all of our best presidents never cheated on their wives, it also true that our democracy depends on the willingness of every president to fire every general who makes the kind of incendiary remarks that McChrystal made.

    Finally, we come to Michael O’Hanlon, the most reliable cheerleader for war in all of the Nation's Capital--and, together with the president of Afghanistan, and his distinguished brother, one of only three public figures who argued fiercely for keeping McChrystal in his job after his obvious insubordination.

    Writing in the Washington Post, O’Hanlon cleverly recited all of America’s recent failures  in Afghanistan--and then used them, abra kadabra, to show that we’re really winning there!

    This column reinforced O’Hanlon’s claim to becoming the modern version of Jack Crabb, the Indian scout played by Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, Arthur Penn’s iconic anti-war movie of 1970.

    Crabb is determined to see General George Armstrong Custer massacred by the Indians.   So when the general idiotically asks for Crabb’s advice about whether to advance into the gigantic trap the Sioux and the Cheyenne have set for him, Crabb famously advises,

    “You go down there, General!”   

    Then Custer, his two brothers, a nephew and 264 others were massacred by the Indians.

    All those still following O’Hanlon’s advice are guaranteed a comparable outcome.



   Once again, we leave the last word to Jon Stewart, America's premier press critic: 

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
McChrystal's Balls - Honorable Discharge
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party


Re this: ==Is it possible for a reporter on the same beat for more than three decades to remain tough or even objective about the people he is supposed to be covering? No, it is not.== Depends on the beat and the reporter. Lyle Denniston has reported on the Supreme Court for more than 50 years. I don't know of anyone who has questioned his integrity, toughness and objectivity. And there's, of course, I.F. Stone, if you're willing to consider all of the Seat of Government a beat.

The best generals have always been seriously flawed as humans. I won't make a list here and instead will rely on the obvious nature of that to assume you'll be able to make a list of your own. It doesn't matter who you put at the top of the list - Patton, MacArthur - it's pretty easy to see. And the best soldiers seldom fit into the image of a model peace-time citizen. My contention is that the traits that make some folks turn up their noses at people like this are that those traits are part of the make-up required to do that sort of work. It's an odd way to make a living. You have to have genuine concern for the well-being of your troopers, yet willing to send some to their certain death. You have to convince young people who were good citizens in peacetime to kill and even lust for killing. I have no quibble with what Hastings did and reported. But I am amazed that reasonably sane and intelligent people seem shocked when they see what a battle-tested general is like.
FCP replies: I am not the least bit shocked to see what a battle-tested general is like.  But I do believe McChrystal's central role in the Tillman cover-up and his tolerance of  torture by his troops were both worthy of court-martials, rather than promostions.

keep it up, please , we need more of this kind of reporting!!

Another great article, Charles! It's truly abominable that most of the talking heads and pundit class, while unconcerned with holding the General accountable, have focused their outrage and indignation on a good reporter who was just doing his job.


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