WASHINGTON — Michael Hastings, the reporter whose Rolling Stone article led to the firing of Gen. Stanley McChrystal because of quotes from him and his staff disparaging Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and other top civilian leaders, defended his ethics in getting the story to a group of military journalists on Thursday night.
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Be aggressive with militaryHasting told a conference hosted by Military Reporters and Editors association and the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative that he has received more criticism from the media than the military.
“When someone who’s not part of the club comes in and does a story … people get very territorial about their field,” said Hastings. “And they’ll try to frame it as though it’s about journalism’s ethics or it’s about ground rules. … It’s not. It’s about power, it’s about who has the authority. And who has the actual authority of the narrative. And when that narrative gets questioned by an outsider the reaction is never pretty.”
Hastings was embedded with McChrystal’s staff for longer than what originally was to have been a two-day stint due to travel restrictions and ended up following the team for weeks. He said he was given access to the general was because the military “felt there would be some strategic benefit from being in Rolling Stone.”
When questioned whether he used material that was off the record, Hastings pointed out that McChyrstal’s staff set no ground rules until after he had been there for 48 hours. He also noted that McChrystal has not denied the comments in the story.
Hastings said he was in Kandahar when the story came out in the July issue and he didn’t expect the reaction and attention it received. “It’s so rare that one does a story that anyone (cares) about at all. To have, three days later, the president to sort of say, ‘Hey, because of this story we’re making a significant change of personnel,’ caught me totally by surprise,” he said.
Hastings contrasted the difference between reporting from the field in combat zones with reporting on politics in Washington or during campaigns.
“I was struck by the strangeness of listening to the politicians talking about the wars they had no real experience with,” he said. “Either threatening violence or praising our heroes, war was treated as this issue, almost antiseptic.”
Some of the journalists present, including Sig Christensen of the San Antonio Express, said Hastings’ article has made it more difficult for military reporters to get access to military personnel. Christensen said the military contacts he’s made from being embedded nine times in Iraq or Afghanistan now say they are afraid of the context in which their statements could be used.
But Matt Southworth, who served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2004 and is now the campaign program assistant for Friends Committee on National Legislation, said Hasting’s story has helped efforts to push for an end to combat in Afhganistan.
“It turned the tide on the discussion on Capitol Hill,” said Southworth. “It really refocused the war effort and refocused, I think, some of the dialogue happening.”