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Military-Media Relationship Examined After McChrystal’s Ouster

July 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now: The spotlight falls again on the relationship between the military and news media, after the U.S. Afghan commander is brought down over a magazine interview.

Margaret Warner has our story.

MARGARET WARNER: Two weeks after President Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates today laid out his reasons for a new Pentagon policy on dealing with the media.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. secretary of defense: I have grown increasingly concerned that we have become too lax, disorganized and, in some cases, flat-out sloppy in the way we engage with the press.

MARGARET WARNER: Gates was referring to a directive from the Pentagon July 2 outlining how the military should and shouldn’t interact with the media.

The memo, signed by Gates, said that the Public Affairs Office at the Pentagon must be notified before any military or Defense Department officials grant interviews that could have national or international implications. The aim, the directive said, is to prevent incorrect, out-of-proper-context, unauthorized, or uninformed information from being disclosed to the media.

That memo came out just a week after General McChrystal was relieved of duty over a Rolling Stone magazine article by journalist Michael Hastings. The article quoted McChrystal and his staff making critical and derisive comments about top officials in the Obama administration.

Gates today insisted the new guidelines are not a direct result of the McChrystal flap.

ROBERT GATES: Last week’s memo was not about how the media does its job, but about how this department’s leadership does ours. It is not a change of policy, but a reaffirmation of an existing policy that was being followed selectively at best.

MARGARET WARNER: But reporters covering the military have already voiced concern that the guidelines will have a chilling effect on access to officials and information.

The Rolling Stone story also has ignited a dispute within the press about whether the writer breached an unofficial code between journalists and the military over what can be quoted in what circumstances.

On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” recently, Lara Logan of CBS News said Hastings broke that code.

LARA LOGAN, chief foreign affairs correspondent, CBS News: There is an element of trust. And what I find is the most telling thing about what Michael Hastings said in your interview is that he talked about his manner as pretending to build an illusion of trust and his — and, you know, he’s laid out there what his game is.

That is exactly the kind of damaging type of attitude that makes it difficult for reporters who are genuine about what they do, who don’t distinguish — I don’t go around in my personal life pretending to be one thing and then being something else. I mean, I find it egregious that anyone would do that in their professional life.

MARGARET WARNER: Some unnamed McChrystal aides have been quoted as saying Hastings used comments made in off-the-record sessions with the general and his aides.

Today, Secretary Gates said informing the press and the public remains a top Pentagon priority.

And for more on all of this, we get three views.

Geoff Morrell is the Defense Department spokesman. John Burns is The New York Times bureau chief in London. He has covered the U.S. military in several war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. And Christopher Hanson is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Maryland. His previous 20-year reporting career included covering the first Gulf War.

Welcome to you, all three, gentlemen.

Geoff Morrell, Secretary Gates said today these two events are not related. It wasn’t triggered by the McChrystal flap. But do these two events taken together, the McChrystal fiasco and these new guidelines, are we — is it ushering in a new chill in the relationship between the military and the press?

GEOFF MORRELL, Pentagon spokesperson: We certainly hope not. And we are determined to make sure that doesn’t result from all of this.

I think it’s understandable that, in the wake of the McChrystal incident, that there may be some members of the military who may become more reticent, more reluctant to engage with the press, for fear of the consequences. And, in the wake of this memo, there may be some who overinterpret it, misinterpret it, as some sort of clampdown between our engagements with the press.

And that is not the case on either count. We are not trying to throw up barriers. What we are trying to do is create better communication between our building and the press corps and, by extension, the American people, because, right now, as you heard from the secretary, we are just terribly undisciplined, lax, uncoordinated, not synchronized enough.

And, as a result, unauthorized information is getting out there. Uninformed opinion is being passed off as official government positions. And people are speaking when we don’t have full visibility on it. And that puts the secretary in a difficult position. It puts the president of the United States in a difficult position, when pre-decisional information is getting out before he’s had a chance to come to a decision on these matters.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Chris Hanson, listening to Secretary Gates, listening to Geoff Morrell right here, what do you see happening?

CHRISTOPHER HANSON, assistant professor of journalism, University of Maryland: I think it will definitely have a chilling effect on reporting on U.S. military.

The trickle-down effect on bureaucrats is well-known, as Geoff just alluded to. More and more officers, I assume, will be holding back information. There will be a bottleneck in the Pentagon where these requests for interviews will be sitting. And the public will end up getting less information that it needs.

Also, I think that the — there was a policy there of — excuse me — the Rolling Stone article pointed out that there was a split on policy over how to run the war in Afghanistan, with disputes between different factions.

Under this new regime, under this new set of guidelines, I don’t think that you would be able to ascertain that as well. So, that’s — it’s not simply the — you know, a united front. It conceals when there’s not a united front.

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, what do you think we’re seeing here? What do you think this will signify?

JOHN BURNS, The New York Times: Oh, I think, regardless of what Secretary Gates said today at the news conference on what was written in the Pentagon memo, this is going to have a pretty dire effect on relations between the military and the media in the field.

And, I mean, we have seen the most abrupt and humiliating departure of an American general at war since MacArthur. And it would be strange indeed if officers at every rank, indeed enlisted men, didn’t look at that and take the obvious conclusion from it.

So, I think it’s going to have a dire effect. And there is, as you have already mentioned, an energetic debate amongst journalists about the Rolling Stone article and about how all of this came about.

And I think that we need to — as Lara Logan suggested in that clip, we need to also look — take a look at the mote, or maybe I should say the beam, in our own eye and look at the question of trust pretty carefully.

And there can be no absolutes here. We can’t decide these issues on the basis simply of was it on the record or was it off the record, because so much of what occurs in the field between reporters and military people, whether reporters and commanding generals or reporters and enlisted men, occurs in a situation of informality, where it is ambiguous. And it’s there that trust is absolutely essential.

MARGARET WARNER: And are you suggesting that you think Hastings violated that trust?

JOHN BURNS: You know, I, obviously, wasn’t there. I’m not in a position to say that.

But, from everything I have read, it seems to me that it’s pretty obvious that the remarks that were quoted that did most damage here were remarks that were said in cafes in Paris during that holdover during the volcanic ash period.

And all of us have been through that kind of experience, where we hear military people saying things. I think the fair question to ask when something like that is said — there are two questions. Number one, did the person saying this have any reasonable expectation that they were going to be quoted by name? And, number two, if they didn’t, and you decide to go ahead anyway, which may have been the case with Hastings, is the end in view so important, so overriding that the issue of trust becomes secondary?

MARGARET WARNER: So, Geoff Morrell, how would these new guidelines have prevented, say, that from happening? In other words, how will it really work in practice?

(CROSSTALK)

GEOFF MORRELL: Well, I don’t want to get into…

(CROSSTALK)

MARGARET WARNER: No.

(CROSSTALK)

GEOFF MORRELL: … re-litigating the Hastings case or the McChrystal case, but let me tell you, though, in — listen, an interview like that under these guidelines would have come into our office.

And the benefit there would have been, we would have provided the perspective of Washington. So, a decision that may have looked wise in Kabul, with outside eyes, we may have been able to provide some perspective, some advice that would have led the general and his staff to choose otherwise in terms of progressing with it.

But let me address one concern of John’s, because I have enormous respect for John, as do the secretary, and all reporters who go downrange and embed. Their lives will not change as a result of this. Their engagements with embedded military — or with the military units they embed with shouldn’t change under this.

Captains, commanders will have the authority to speak to their area of responsibility without running it up to our office. The idea here is to get people to speak about what they know about, what they’re responsible for, and to stay within their lines.

Now, should a — should a gentleman who he is embedded with in Helmand Province or Kandahar Province speak to the war at large? Now, he probably is not in a position to speak to that. But can he speak to the operations in his specific area? Absolutely.

The secretary said today a captain downrange should speak to what he is doing. A captain in the Pentagon should — who is working on the budget shouldn’t speak to it. He should keep his mouth shut and go through proper channels.

MARGARET WARNER: Chris Hanson, does that sound like the right line there to you? I mean, do you find that reassuring, that if you are embedded with a unit in the field, and you have been cleared to do it, that they will be free to speak about what they know?

CHRISTOPHER HANSON: No, I don’t find it reassuring at all.

The issue here is, what is — what are national and international implications? I mean, you had a segment recently on “Restrepo,” Sebastian Junger’s documentary about a year in Afghanistan with troops. The company commander there had a lot of trouble in his relations with the local Afghan leaders. He spoke about that. That has national and international implications.

GEOFF MORRELL: But I’m telling you here right now, we’re not trying to restrict that kind of speech whatsoever, because it’s his…

CHRISTOPHER HANSON: But it’s going to happen.

GEOFF MORRELL: It’s not going to happen. If we do this right, it should not happen. We should empower people to make wise decisions.

All we’re asking for is, when something rises above one’s individual area of responsibility, that we eventually get visibility on it, so we can be aware of it, so we can provide insight and perspective and advice, because the reality is, somebody speaks to one thing that they may know about, but it — have a ripple effect throughout the rest of our operations, including decisions that are being made in the NSC or within our department or across the river in other departments.

MARGARET WARNER: So, John Burns, weigh in on this. I mean, can you draw this line? And would you, as a journalist, feel comfortable that you were getting the full story out there?

JOHN BURNS: Well, you know, bad cases make bad law, as they say.

The McChrystal incident, there are many conclusions to be drawn, have been drawn from them, and some of them are already looking negative for us in the press. But, if we look at his successor, General Petraeus, who has been, in my experience, very accessible to the press and very candid, he has not had this trouble.

And it may be that the difference is that General Petraeus is — and I say this in the best sense of the word — a political general. In other words, he has a very good sense of the resonance of what he is going to say in Washington, D.C., and around the world.

I don’t anticipate that he will get himself into that kind of trouble. But, as I say, I don’t think — I don’t think that we can stand on absolutes here. I think we in the press have to really look at cases like this and say, to what extent can we change the way we behave in such a way that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again?

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we are going to have to leave it there.

John Burns in London, Geoff Morrell, and Chris Hanson, thank you.

GEOFF MORRELL: Thank you, Margaret.

CHRISTOPHER HANSON: Sure.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you.