Last June, when Rolling Stone published Michael Hastings' article which ended the career of Obama's Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- an article which was just awarded the prestigious Polk Award -- the attacks on Hastings were led not by military officials but by some of Hastings' most celebrated journalistic colleagues. The New York Times' John Burns fretted that the article "has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations" and accused Hastings of violating "a kind of trust" which war reporters "build up" with war Generals; Politico observed that a "beat reporter" -- unlike the freelancing Hastings -- "would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks"; and an obviously angry Lara Logan of CBS News strongly insinuated (with no evidence) that Hastings had lied about whether the comments were on-the-record and then infamously sneered: "Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has." Here's Jon Stewart last year mocking the revealing media disdain for Rolling Stone and Hastings in the wake of their McChrystal story.
Hastings has now written another Rolling Stone article that reflects poorly on a U.S. General in Afghanistan. The new article details how Lt. Gen. William Caldwell "illegally ordered a team of soldiers specializing in 'psychological operations' to manipulate visiting American senators into providing more troops and funding for the war" and then railroaded the whistle-blowing officer who objected to the program. Now, the same type of smear campaign is being launched at Hastings as well as at his primary source, Lt. Col. Michael Holmes: from military officials and their dutiful media-servants. Ever since publication of this new article, military-subservient "reporters" have disseminated personal attacks on Hastings and his journalism as well as on Holmes and his claims, all while inexcusably granting anonymity to the military leaders launching those attacks and uncritically repeating them. As usual, anyone who makes powerful government or military leaders look bad -- by reporting the truth -- becomes the target of character assassination, and the weapon of choice are the loyal, vapid media stars who will uncritically repeat whatever powerful officials say all while shielding them from accountability through the use of anonymity.
Here, for instance, is what Norah O'Donnell said on MSNBC when reporting on the controversy with Tamron Hall:
O'DONNELL: I have been talking to a number of sources today who have said one, that any report coming from The Rolling Stone and this author Michael Hastings, who also "went after" another general, Stanley McCrystal, should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. The title of this, Tamron, is "Another Runaway General": remember that Michael Hastings already brought down another General, Stanley McCrystal. . . . I can tell you that there are a number of people in the military and the Defense Department who are not happy with The Rolling Stone because of what happened earlier with General Stanley McCrystal.
HALL: They can't be happy with it, but if it's what happened, the person is reporting it and it's factual, then that's what they have to deal with. You're not always happy with the truth.
O'DONNELL: That's true, but remember that they, they still question a lot of the previous article even though that brought down General Stanley McCrystal.
Who is it who says that "any report coming from The Rolling Stone and this author Michael Hastings . . . should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism," and what's the basis for that accusation? Who knows? O'Donnell just mindlessly passes on the smear, protecting the identity of the accusers while failing to identify a single specific reason why Hastings' journalism should be called into question. She's simply acting as dutiful, protective spokesperson-stenographer for military leaders (O'Donnell also emphasized: "this general in question, General Michael Caldwell, he is the head of training the Afghan security forces. This is the linchpin, Tamron! The linchpin of the war . . . This is how we get out . . . and make sure Afghan security forces are trained" -- as though Caldwell is such an Important General that Hastings should be ashamed of himself for reporting negatively on him, just as Logan suggested about Gen. McChrystal).
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal's Pentagon reporter Julian Barnes has now written two separate articles which do virtually nothing other than mindlessly amplify the military's attacks on Lt. Col. Holmes and Hastings' story based exclusively on military officials to whom he grants anonymity. He thus notes that "privately, military officers cast doubt on the accusation"; that what Holmes complained about "is a routine part of military staff work, officials said"; that -- contrary to his claims to Rolling Stone -- Holmes "was not trained in the military specialty [of psy-ops], Defense Department officials said"; that "officers speaking privately rallied to the defense of Gen. Caldwell"; and that "a military officer who served with Lt. Col. Holmes and under Gen. Caldwell said the accusation is baseless."
In other words, military officials want to impugn Holmes and Hastings, but are afraid to attach their names to their claims and thus be accountable for them -- exactly the way these officials seek to influence the Afghanistan war debate with covert propaganda, all without any accountability. So they instruct their media servants to disseminate their message anonymously, uncritically, and without a shred of accountability, and "journalists" like O'Donnell and Barnes then snap into line and comply. As a result, the focus of the story has been quickly shifted away from Holmes' allegations of illegal military propaganda to whether Hastings is a bad journalist and whether Holmes has integrity: all accomplished without any of these military officials having to speak publicly or even to offer any specifics. As Hastings told me today:
The key question -- which they are trying to avoid -- is whether it's legal to use an information operations cell-- trained to conduct psychological operations, among other things -- to influence and manipulate U.S. senators. Two lawyers told Holmes it was illegal, and other experts I spoke to said the same thing. But a few media outlets have quickly turned their focus on Holmes in an obvious attempt to discredit him. Now, General Caldwell and his people claim that what the general and his staff were doing was "innocent." I don't doubt Gen. Caldwell and his friends actually believe that -- and that is what's truly disturbing.
That's what our establishment media outlets largely are for: to disseminate and amplify the messages of our most powerful political, military and financial factions without any accountability.
Indeed, this is exactly the same thing that happened when Hastings published his McChrystal story. Several of the largest media outlets granted anonymity to military leaders to attack Hastings and impugn his character:
The Washington Post and ABC News explained Monday why both news organizations relied on anonymous sources for stories claiming that Rolling Stone may have violated source agreements in reporting its explosive profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
“The sources would only allow us to use the material on condition of anonymity,” Post National Security editor Cameron Barr told Yahoo! News. . . .Yahoo! News called attention to the Post's initial story shortly after it went online Friday, noting that reporter Karen DeYoung relied on an unnamed “senior military official” to make allegations against Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings’ methods for sourcing. The official did not provide evidence to back up his or her viewpoint, such as specific quotes in the Rolling Stone article that were supposedly off the record, or the point at which an off-the-record agreement was hashed out.
Still, the Post reported that some anonymous officials believe Hastings "betrayed" McChrystal. . . .Shortly after the Post’s story ran online, ABC News’ Luis Martinez published a blog post raising similar questions about Rolling Stone’s sourcing, and similarly relied on information from a “senior military official.”
Granting anonymity to powerful political and military officials to attack journalists, watchdogs and whistleblowers is about the lowest and most journalistically reckless act a reporter and their editors can undertake -- recall this recent anonymous attack on departing TARP watchdog Neil Barofsky by a Treasury official and enabled by The Washington Post -- as it turns these media outlets into nothing more than protectors of those officials and mindless amplifiers of their attacks, which, thanks to the anonymity, can never be engaged. But that's what they want to be; it's what they are; and that's why these officials tell them they will comment only under the cover of anonymity: because they know it will be immediately granted the minute it's demanded regardless of whether there is any journalistic justification for it.
Anonymity does have a valid purpose in journalism: its legitimate purpose is to protect the vulnerable and powerless when they expose wrongdoing by those who wield power. But most establishment journalists have completely reversed that, so that anonymity is used to protect those with the most power: to enable them to make all sorts of public claims and launch all kinds of attacks on critics without being accountable. When anonymity is used for those purposes, it is inherently and incomparably corrupt (that, of course, is the dynamic that led to public acceptance of patently false claims justifying the Iraq War). But this perversion of anonymity from what it was supposed to be (a means of holding the powerful accountable) into a power-shielding weapon is simply a microcosm of the broader reversal by establishment journalists of the old dictate to "afflict the powerful and comfort the powerless." Most establishment journalists -- by definition -- do exactly the opposite, and their eagerness to indiscriminately grant anonymity to the nation's most powerful officials is simply one manifestation of that power-serving mindset.
On Twitter, Hastings criticized Barnes for granting anonymity to military critics of his article and of Lt. Col. Holmes. So revealingly, Barnes responded by pointing to what he believes is Hastings' hypocrisy: "[Hastings] criticizes me for quoting unnamed officials defending Caldwell. But his McChrystal profile is full of anonymous quotes," Barnes wrote. Like most of his colleagues, Barnes is completely unable to distinguish between using anonymity (a) to protect the powerless when they expose wrongdoing by superiors (as Hastings did in his McChrystal piece) and (b) to shield the powerful from scrutiny and accountability (as Barnes did in his two articles on the psy-ops program): a distinction Hastings quickly pointed out in response. That's because reporters like Barnes have no conception at all that what they do is about holding those in power accountable, so that distinction would never even occur to them. To them, all anonymity is justifiable -- merely upon request -- particularly when it's used to shield their revered official-sources from scrutiny.
It's not difficult to understand the widespread media hostility toward Hastings and the willingness -- the eagerness -- to trash his stories and sources using power-protecting anonymity. In an interview he gave after his McChrystal story last year, Hastings was asked about the attacks on him by fellow journalists and the risk that he would lose "access" as a result of what he published -- a common refrain from journalists criticizing his reporting -- and this was his response:
Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising. My views are critical but that shouldn't be mistaken for hostile - I'm just not a stenographer. There is a body of work that shows how I view these issues but that was hard-earned through experience, not something I learned going to a cocktail party on fucking K Street. That's what reporters are supposed to do, report the story.
In other words, he actually sees his role as being adversarial to those in power, to disclose rather than conceal the truth, and to check the conduct of government officials -- the exact opposite of how most of his colleagues perceive themselves and their role. While Hastings seeks to expose the secret wrongdoing of the powerful, journalists like John Burns, Norah O'Donnell, and Julian Barnes seek to protect it, and thus scorn Hastings and offer themselves up as instruments for powerful officials to anonymously disseminate claims without scrutiny. Hastings and especially Lt. Col. Holmes courageously put their names on their statements; but the powerful military officials who apparently broke the law are able to smear them without any need to identify themselves, thanks to their reporter-servants who serve as government spokespeople masquerading as journalists.
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Speaking of journalistic obeisance to political power: The New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane -- who has quickly proven himself to be the most pliant, vapid and useless person to occupy that position -- today addresses the topic I wrote about late last week. Brisbane defends the compliance by the NYT (and several other American media outlets) with the U.S. Government's request that they conceal from their readers the fact that Raymond Davis -- the American at the center of the conflict between Pakistan and the U.S. whom President Obama deceitfully hailed as "our diplomat in Pakistan" -- actually works for the CIA and, before that, for Blackwater. As I documented, what made this act so appalling was that the paper did not merely conceal information, but affirmatively provided "reporting" that it knew to be misleading, if not outright false. Brisbane notes that numerous readers objected to the NYT's concealment, calling the Paper of Record "a willing pawn of the government's propaganda ministry" and accusing it of being "obviously and by its own admission, in the business of concealment."
Brisbane, of course, defends his employer, and includes one of the best sentences ever to appear in that newspaper:
The constraint [concealing Davis' actual employment] plays havoc with coverage, obviously. For nearly two weeks, The Times tried to report on the Davis affair while sealing off the C.I.A. connection. In practice, this meant its stories contained material that, in the cold light of retrospect, seems very misleading. . . . "Obviously, there are some things that were withheld from some of our stories," said Dean Baquet, the Washington bureau chief. "I would argue that, given the restriction, we tried our best not to be misleading."
That's what the American media has been reduced to: yes, we published government propaganda that we knew to be factually false, because we concealed the information we had that proved it to be false at the request of the Government. But "we tried our best not to be misleading," so what's the problem? And, of course, their Public Editor defends their editorial decisions even while noting that the reporting on the Davis matter "seems very misleading." One might think that acknowledging that a newspaper's news stories were "very misleading" would preclude a defense of the editorial judgments that produced them -- on the not-particularly-radical ground that it's never justifiable for a newspaper to knowingly mislead readers about important political events -- but, as Brisbane's column demonstrates, one would be quite wrong in that assumption. Many establishment journalists believe that anything is justifiable in service of the government's aims, including overtly misleading their own readers.
Finally, on Friday, I discussed the anonymous attacks on Hastings and Lt. Col. Holmes with MSNBC's Cenk Uygur, and also how it relates to the broader attacks on whistleblowers and WikiLeaks -- as a coordinated, media-aided means of silencing critics of government and military power: