McChrystal Piece Stirs Debate On Covering Military

Michele Norris speaks with former war correspondent Stephen Ward, now director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the controversy surrounding the profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal published in Rolling Stone magazine. The article, which led to McChrystal's ouster as the top commander in Afghanistan, sparked debate among journalists about on- and off-the-record exchanges.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The "Rolling Stone" article that wound up toppling General Stanley McChrystal's military career has sparked a roiling debate in journalism circles about access and what exactly constitutes on and off the record exchanges.

The "Rolling Stone" reporter Michael Hastings threw gasoline on the fire when he accused other war reporters of long ignoring the general's rather dim view of the Obama security team, and instead lavishing him with generally positive coverage.

Some high-profile reporters took exception, including The New York Times columnist David Brooke, a frequent guest on this program and Lara Logan of CBS.

Ms. LARA LOGAN (Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, CBS News): The question is really is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious that they deserved to - I mean to end a career like McChrystal's? When Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

NORRIS: Logan and others say Hastings violated wartime journalist code by focusing on the McChrystal team's salty repartee, instead of the steely challenges they face.

To explore both sides of this debate we're joined by former war correspondent Stephen Ward. He's now the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Welcome to the program.

Professor STEPHEN WARD (Director, Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Hello, nice to be here.

NORRIS: Now first, what do you make of the argument that Hastings flouted the rules of wartime reporting - that you see and hear everything but that you don't necessarily report all that you see and hear?

Prof. WARD: I can't remember any journalism ethics book, guideline or whatever that came out and said you got to stay close to these guys. and if they make a mistake and say something stupid, well, then you say, general, do you really want me to quote that?

You know, that's not your job as a reporter. I mean, Logan's comments are incomprehensible to me. What is Logan saying, that a journalist is supposed to decide in advance whether it's egregious enough to print this story?

In my view, what Hastings had was this attitude that he was picking up through these comments. It needs to be put out in the public sphere, and that's what he did, and he did it apparently truthfully.

I mean, I don't see people questioning the quotes as inaccurate. I don't understand anyone saying this article should not have seen the light of day.

NORRIS: Now, folks who cover the war, journalists who cover the war would probably argue that the standards espoused in the classroom are quite some distance from the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chris Hedges, former war correspondent for The New York Times, is quoted as saying, if you're embedded with a unit, then the unspoken rule is that if you report stuff, you are no longer embedded. He says beat reporters, people who cover the military, cover the generals are out there on the front lines, know the cost of writing the truth, meaning that if they write the truth, they no longer gain access.

Mr. WARD: That's right, and that's what's wrong with military and wartime journalism today. It's an indictment of embedding, and we should rethink it.

I'm not speaking from the classroom only. I was a war corro(ph). I've had to deal with generals and the military, and I'm telling you, if you start pulling your punches, so to curry favor with the colonel or the general, you will pull the next punch and the next punch, and you are not serving the public, which is your primary duty, you're serving them.

And by the way, if you're going to do that, maybe we should put a little footnote at the bottom of all your stories saying there were some things I couldn't print, but you know what? I can't tell you.

NORRIS: So is it possible that Michael Hastings wound up exposing more than just what is widely deemed to have been the reckless banter of a general? Is it possible that he pulled back the curtain and exposed the underbelly of military journalism?

Mr. WARD: Yeah, I think he's given us a peek into it and also a very curious peek into some of the attitudes of the reporters out there. I'm quite surprised by some of their attacks on him, simply, you know, complaining about access. Well, that's not the main thing in journalism.

I mean, we can't say the principle can't be if we're going to ruin access, we won't print it. I mean, you know, Watergate would never have happened, all these great investigative stories would never have happened.

NORRIS: Will this story have repercussions? Will it affect future access to military leaders? Will the media get a cold shoulder from the Pentagon?

Mr. WARD: Yes, I think in the short term, it will, but I don't I think many of those same reporters who were complaining about Michael will be welcomed back and will be granted access because perhaps they figure they won't be as tough as Michael, to be quite honest.

The military needs the media as much as the media needs the military. The dance shall continue, although there may be strict rules coming down on being a fly on the wall.

NORRIS: Steven Ward, thank you very much for your time.

Mr. WARD: Thank you.

NORRIS: Steven Ward is the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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