Interviewing 101: Lessons From General McChrystal's Demise

Stanley McChrystal afghanistan

Photo: Rolling Stone

If someone had told you 3 months ago that the man in charge of the war in Afghanistan would be fired because of a Rolling Stone interview, would you have believed it?  I know I wouldn’t have. If you haven’t read it already, The Runaway General is a fascinating, if not thoroughly depressing, read, with plenty of profanity to spice up an already spicy piece of writing. 

The protagonist is also the antagonist (General McChrystal), both deeply likeable and infuriatingly arrogant. How can we not root for a guy that shows up in the middle of the night during an impossibly dangerous mission to fight shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers?   But McChrystal’s now infamous attitude of insubordination to the Obama Administration is hardly the most troubling thing about the article.  The situation in Afghanistan is far worse, and far more complicated than many of us may realise.

What is perhaps the most haunting question about this story is: how the hell did it happen?  For those of us who don’t operate in the world of military media relations, the whole thing seems baffling.  Who in their right mind would grant that much access to a reporter? 

For those on the inside, this interview was the result of a set of assumptions long held as safe, and it will probably forever change their interactions with the press. The Runaway General, although it probably will cost us dearly on the ground, and give the “bad guys a leg up” as a friend of mine who just returned from work in Afghanistan said, it is showing us something important about “embedded journalists” and the choices reporters have to make when they are covering our presence in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In an interview with CNN, Michael Hastings, the author of the Rolling Stone article, answered questions about whether he had any regrets, or whether it was ethical to have written the story at all.  What came through loud and clear during the interview is that many (not all) journalists covering our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan choose to write fairly favourable stories in exchange for access to key officials.  And this “access” can mean lengthy periods of time spent in close contact and with plenty of commentary and colour relegated safely to “off the record,” or “on background.”

This agreement, according to Hastings, is so pervasive and understood among the top brass, that McChrystal and his team didn’t need to be “seduced” as Hastings said, and willingly let loose on some truly choice phrases and comments.  Evidently, no ground rules had been negotiated up front about what was fair game to report, and what was not, so Hastings had carte blanche from the very beginning.

Now, before you go judging the journalists writing so-called “glowing” pieces, stop and ask yourself what you would do in their shoes. Would you risk being shut out forever by the very people you make your living from covering?  Would you put American soldiers’ lives at risk simply because you want the truest possible version of things?  It’s a complicated decision, and not one they take lightly, I would imagine.

Hastings made a different choice – he went into these interviews with a cold eye, perfectly ready to “F_ck them over” if his editor asked (this quote taken from Hasting’s GQ article, “Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter”).   As fate would have it, for this story it was time to f_ck over the subjects of his interview… if by “f_ck them over” you mean “write exactly what you saw and heard.” 

But isn’t that the reporter’s job ultimately?  See what I mean?  It’s complicated.

Now to be fair, any good PR person could have searched out Hastings’ past articles to see what kind of reporter he was, and his approach.  That GQ article leaves little doubt about what McChrystal was in for.  But it sounds like his team had been lulled into a comfortable place by long held standards of “off the record unless I say otherwise.”

But here is the question – what do we really need from our journalists during war time?  On one hand, I personally want our troops to succeed, our mission to succeed and good news about progress to be shared.  On the other hand, I also want to know the truth about this war, the money pouring into it and whether the strategy is actually working, or if we need to ready ourselves for a 10 year battle.

So where does it leave us?  For those of us in the PR industry, the lessons are quite clear: When you grant access, be sure everyone understands the boundaries and ground rules.  Reporters aren’t there to write a “book report,” as media analyst Sam Whitmore says, recalling something Dan Lyons pointed out when he was editor at Forbes.  The reporter is there to write the truth about what he or she sees and hears.   Period.  Understand that you are not in control.  You have influence, but never control.

For “civilians” the lessons are less clear, but perhaps more important.  We must be conscious consumers of media.  When we read anything that is too glowing, or too damning, we must become very sceptical. Nothing is ever that simple.  The truth is always infuriatingly nuanced.

While what happened may have tragic consequences, not to mention the embarrassment it caused the administration, anytime the public becomes more aware of the truth behind a situation, the stronger we are as a democracy.

But as Michael Hastings alluded to during his CNN interview, most people would rather not read the details and complexity of the situation in Afghanistan.  They’d much rather read the cover story of this month’s Rolling Stone:  Lady Gaga Tells All.

Bronwyn Saglimbeni works with clients to improve their public speaking and media relations skills. Check out her work at Bronwyn Communications.

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