by Matthew L. Schafer
With the fanatic interest around Michael Hasting’s controversial Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal beginning to subside, a much more interesting question than “What was McChrystal thinking?” is emerging. The article, which landed McChrystal in early retirement, has many in the mainstream media arguing over whether Hastings broke the journalistic code of ethics. Hastings and others outside of the mainstream media are arguing that the mainstream media is too close to government officials.
Journalism ethics are by no means binding, but rather a professional “opt-in agreement” of sorts. The Society of Professional Journalists divides its ethical guidelines into four broad categories.
The self-admittedly “voluntary” guidelines fall under: “Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.” The problem with journalism ethics is that many times journalists are in a position where the have to weigh separate ethical responsibilities against each other.
Hasting’s report begs many ethical questions, many of which aren’t new–just unanswered. When is a journalist too close to a source? When is a mutual understanding not in fact a mutual understanding? What responsibility do reporters have to their subjects versus the public?
When asked by Newsweek if the General and his men knew Hastings was a reporter, Hastings said, “Yes. It was crystal clear to me, and I was walking around with a tape recorder and a notepad in my hand three-quarters of the time.”
The military said after the story was published that Hasting’s “broke journalistic ground rules,” ABC reported.
The ethics of newsgathering has been a point of contention for reporters for years. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Janet Malcolm wrote in The Journalist and the Murderer, an ethics study rated as one of the Top 100 works of non-fiction in the 20th century, “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
The journalist, no matter Malcolm’s assessment, still serves a vital role to democracy. Indeed, the journalist’s main responsibility is to the public above all else. “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” the Society of Professional Journalists writes.
In a criticism of Hastings, Lara Logan, CBS’ Chief Foreign Correspondent, said in an interview on CNN’s Reliable Sources, “Clearly, you’ve got someone who is making friends with you, pretending to be sympathetic, pretending to be something that they’re not.”
“You suck, Lara Logan,” Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi wrote in a June 28 response.
Hastings on the other hand said he did the job that the beat reporters refused to do for fear of getting flak (the cold shoulder) from officials the reporter depends on for information. Hastings is chiding what some call the propaganda model of journalism. One that is marked by reporter’s dependence on officials for “information subsidies” and a fear of reprisal for reporting unkind information.
Politico affirmed the caution that reporters take when dealing with sensitive matters and official sources. “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,” wrote Gordon Lubold and Carol E. Lee in a paragraph of an article that was later removed by Politico.
The question for the public, it seems, will come down to who would you rather have reporting for you? The journalist with no abandon or the journalist that plays by the “voluntary” rules? If a journalist is supposed to serve the public, what style of reporting fulfills that end best? Each side has its own proponents, and there is likely no answer in sight. At least, though, people are talking about it.
This story originally appeared in the blog Lippmann Would Roll on June 29, 2010.