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bootsontheground 06/23/10

General Crushed by Rolling Stone

President Obama has accepted Gen. Stanley McChrystal's resignation at the White House, naming Gen. David Petraeus as his replacement.

McChrystal was brought down by an article that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine by Michael Hastings, a veteran war reporter who once brought his girlfriend with him while he was reporting on the war in Iraq, only to see her murdered in an ambush by Al Qaeda insurgents.

Most reporters that enter the war zone understand little of what they are seeing, because the military is such an arcane business.  This was certainly the case with Michael Hastings, who claims he is "surprised" by all the hoopla over his hit-piece in the Rolling Stone.

Was he out to get the general fired? According to Hastings, that was the furthest thing from his mind. But he did want to point out that the troops are increasingly frustrated with the restrictive rules of engagement being put on them by McChrystal and the Obama administration. 

This is news that Erick Stakelbeck reported way back in December, and I reported in April after returning from a month in Afghanistan. Our warriors are meat eaters, and they are tired of being fed cabbage.

When a journalist embeds with U.S. troops in the war zone, one of the "rules" we're given is that "every interview is on the record." Meaning, if someone says something to me, I can report it. Period.

But there's an unwritten rule, too. Sometimes things are said to give me context on what is going on that don't necessarily need to be repeated. An example is classified information - when you live with the troops, there are times when you will learn things that are classified "secret" for security purposes. But that doesn't give me the right to go out and publish that information.

On every embed, I've heard and seen things that, if reported, could have easily gotten military officers fired. That's because they are people, and in private conversations, they are apt to express their discontent about problems in their chain of command. 

They know that I'm a former military man myself, and feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts with me, because they trust me not to stab them in the back.  There has to be a level of trust between the military and journalists for the embed process to work right.

Michael Hastings took those kinds of private moments and used them for his own benefit, resulting in the downfall of the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While allowing a reporter from the Rolling Stone personal access of that kind to Gen. McChrystal represents a huge mistake by the General and his staff, it also portends poorly for any journalist who wants to embed in the future.

Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone may have crushed the General, but it will keep rolling and hurt the process of news reporting from the war for many years to come.

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