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Matt Von Pinnon, Published June 27 2010

Von Pinnon: Did Gen. McChrystal forget he was talking to reporter?

While most of America waited Wednesday to hear if Gen. Stanley McChrystal would keep his post as commander of the war in Afghanistan, some journalists were taking bets on how long it would be before the journalism that led to the shake-up would be in the crosshairs.

After all, it’s usually the messenger that gets blamed when people realize they’ve said too much to a reporter.

To this point and to his credit, McChrystal hasn’t publicly blamed Rolling Stone or reporter Michael Hastings for inaccurately reporting what he and his staff said about the war and their military and civilian leaders.

But, by Friday, some of those in the military and in McChrystal’s camp reportedly began criticizing Hastings and Rolling Stone for supposedly not adhering to the practice of not printing information shared “off the record” or “on background only.”

In other words, some of those now burned by what they candidly told a journalist while he shadowed them for a month are not necessarily disputing what they said but rather disputing the terms and conditions under which they said it.

And that’s what I figured would happen in this case because, frankly, this kind of thing happens too often, and not just in high-profile stories like this one.

Journalists and regular sources of information occasionally get too close, too casual. When that happens, what is said “off the record” and “on the record” can become blurred.

It’s important that a little professional distance exists at all times so both the source and the journalist clearly respect the rules of the road.

In the McChrystal case, Hastings’ access to the general and his aides was unprecedented because of really odd circumstances.

The Icelandic volcano that kept planes grounded for days on end in Europe a while back also grounded McChrystal’s gang and Hastings in Paris for an unexpected stay, followed by a long bus ride together to Germany.

In those settings, Hastings said the general and his staff let down their guard. They drank and talked candidly about a lot, perhaps thinking the journalist wouldn’t write about what they said.

Journalist Hastings, for his part, said the general and his men knew exactly what they were saying and to whom.

Did bravado become their worst enemy?

Only journalist Hastings, McChrystal and his team know if a trust was broken. If it was, that will catch up with Hastings, just as it caught up with McChrystal regarding his superiors.

For the rest of us, given what we now know:

Are we better off knowing how the general and his men feel about the war in Afghanistan or their take on the leadership of those responsible for making life-and-death decisions?

Does it matter how that information was gleaned?


Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.