June 30, 2010
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Department of Defense); Rev. Jesse Jackson (Newseum/Maria Bryk).
Gen. Stanley McChrystal (Department of Defense); Rev. Jesse Jackson (Newseum/Maria Bryk).

The Beat Goes On: A Tale of Two Comments

The recent dust-up over the Michael Hastings Rolling Stone article that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job — and possibly his career — offers yet another glimpse into the world of beat reporting and the somewhat cozy relationship some journalists have with their sources.

In the past, controversies such as this often involved anonymous sources. But McChrystal was on the record, making his outspokenness about President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and members of the national security team particularly baffling.

In the aftermath of the controversy — which saw some news organizations rushing to scoop Rolling Stone before the rock 'n' roll magazine could scoop the rest of the media — many current and former beat reporters have gone on the record to explain what they've traditionally kept off the record: that to gain and maintain access to their sources, behind-the-scene shenanigans often go unreported.

We've been down this road before. Reporters covering the White House kept President Franklin D. Roosevelt's disability confidential, and President John F. Kennedy's infidelities were rarely mentioned in print.

In 1984, when he was mounting the first serious run for U.S. president by an African American, the Rev. Jesse Jackson believed that his comment to a Washington Post reporter referring to Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown" would be off the record. Why? Jackson falsely assumed that because the reporter, Milton Coleman, was black, a racial bond existed between them that would prevent Coleman from printing the damaging remarks.

Jackson's slurs found their way into print by another Post reporter. But that didn't stop the barrage of criticism aimed at Coleman from his colleagues and the black community.

The link in both the McChrystal and Jackson incidents is the unspoken belief between sources and reporters that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas — particularly if the journalists want the information to keep flowing as freely as McChrystal's Bud Light Lime. The problem then, as now, was that neither Hastings nor Coleman felt obligated to uphold that tradition and chose to report the news as they saw it.

Hastings was a freelancer who wasn't beholden to McChrystal — at least that's the explanation given by beat journalists as to why Hastings didn't mind dishing the dirt. Hastings's own reason was more direct.

"In the past the general has given pretty good access to a number of journalists, and I believe those journalists were interested in giving sort of a flattering profile of the general, which assures you more access in the future. I understand that, but it's not something I'm interested in doing."

Neither, it seems, was Coleman.

"I don't have any regrets," he said in an interview with American Journalism Review. "I stand by what I did. … I broke a rule, but for a legitimate reason. My view is that we are accountable to our communities, but the leaders shouldn't be confused with the communities."

And the beat goes on.

Exhibits on news reporting and credibility are displayed in the Newseum's News Corporation News History Gallery.

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