Journalists should report the news, not become the news. But sometimes life doesn’t work that way.
Michael Hastings, for example, has become part of the story that he wrote for Rolling Stone that ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. The general’s staff feels betrayed by Hastings’ reporting; Hastings believes he has acted professionally.
I have no idea what ground rules were set between Hastings and McChrystal’s staff or in what setting the reported quotes were made. My own rule is that anything said with either party holding an alcoholic beverage is off the record unless it is stated otherwise. (Jamie McIntyre has a good discussion of the dance between source and reporter in such situations.)
To a large degree, a reporter’s decision is driven by what kind of game he or she is hunting. If you’re seeking things such as comprehension, context and explanation to share with your readers, you don’t do what Hastings did. You let the potentially sensationalistic things slide — within reason — for the chance to get at something more important.
Hastings took another, to my mind lesser approach. Whether he misled McChrystal’s staff into thinking he was taking the first approach, when in fact he was taking the second, is something only he and they know, and I doubt the truth is clear to either.
Dave Weigel, until yesterday a writer at the Washington Post who covered the conservative movement, has also become a news subject. Weigel made the mistake of posting emails to a semi-private journalist listserv that were harshly critical of figures in the conservative movement.
“This would be a vastly better world to live in if Matt Drudge decided to handle his emotional problems more responsibly, and set himself on fire,” one email read.
“It’s all very amusing to me,” another read. “Two hundred screaming Ron Paul fanatics couldn’t get their man into the Fox News New Hampshire GOP debate, but Fox News is pumping around the clock to get Paultard Tea Party people on TV.”
The emails were leaked to a conservative blog, and Weigel was forced to resign. That has angered more than a few Washington journalists, who believe Weigel was betrayed and should not have been forced out.
“On a few occasions, Dave, like plenty of others sharing thoughts on a private email list, shared some uncharitable words and opinions about others,” Steve Benen writes. “What’s wrong with that? Nothing; he was among friends.
“Or so we thought. Someone — it remains unclear who — decided to try to destroy Dave professionally by leaking emails from the list. Tragically, it worked.”
There’s a common thread through both stories. Hastings’ bottom-line argument in the McChrystal case is that nothing is really off the record, and as a practical matter that’s true. The general and his staff placed their fate in the hands of a reporter who saw their arrangement differently than they did, and they paid heavily for that mistake.
But that is also the rule that tripped up Weigel. Nothing is really off the record, including emails posted to a semi-private listserv. He never should have written what he did. He placed his fate in the hands of the 400 or so people with access to that listserv, some of whom he barely knew and maybe didn’t know at all, and one of them cost him his job.
Weigel made the same mistake that McChrystal made, and the Post had no choice but to let Weigel go, just as President Obama had no choice but to dismiss McChrystal.
The sword slices both ways.