Media, Access and McChrystal

There’s been a discussion (some of it neatly summarized on the Daily Show) of elite journalists’ reaction to the explosive comments made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his staffers to Rolling Stone freelancer Michael Hastings. One admission came via a Politico story, captured by NYU’s Jay Rosen (6/24/10):

And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.

Rosen notes that this line in the Politico piece was subsequently removed, perhaps because it revealed too much:

Think about what the Politico is saying: an experienced beat reporter is less of a risk for a powerful figure like McChrystal because an experienced beat reporter would probably not want to “burn bridges” with key sources by telling the world what happens when those sources let their guard down.

This is revealing, perhaps, but completely unsurprising. Journalists have been admitting to this sort of thing for years. Take one example (cited in FAIR’s Extra! Update, 12/01) from an American University forum (10/1/01) where PBS correspondent Ray Suarez was asked about the failure to pose difficult questions to certain elite guests:

Well, yeah, access is like oxygen when you’re a reporter. And if you’re going to do something I guess that’s going to jeopardize access in the future, you better be pretty sure that this person who is going to perceive what you are about to do to them as burning them is someone that you can do without in the future after you burn them. That’s a tough straddle. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

For an example of how a beat reporter normally operates, take ABC Pentagon correspondent Martha Raddatz’s assessment of Gen. David Petraeus (Nightline, 6/23/10):

A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold.

Or recall the days when Donald Rumsfeld was considered a rock star by the Washington press corps. FAIR’s Steve Rendall ran down the worst of that here:

“Sixty-nine years old, and you’re America’s stud,” Tim Russert told Rumsfeld when he interviewed him on NBC’s Meet the Press (1/20/02); Larry King informed him that “you now have this new image called sex symbol” (CNN’s Larry King Live, 12/06/01). Fox News’ Jim Angle (12/11/01) called him “a babe magnet for the 70-year-old set.”

“I love you, Donald,” Margaret Carlson announced on CNN’s Capital Gang (12/23/01), where the Time magazine columnist appears regularly in the role of left-of-center pundit. Carlson’s Time magazine colleague, veteran defense correspondent Mark Thompson, told the Chicago Tribune (10/22/01), “Although he has not told us very much, he has been like a father figure.”