If you haven't followed the whole media circus after the story broke in Rolling Stone, briefly, Michael Hastings the freelancer whose reporting of McChrystal's and his aides' impertinent remarks about the American civilian leadership and civilian control over the armed forces led to the general's fall, was vilified by some big names within the mainstream media. Among them New York Times pundit David Brooks and CBS News' Chief Foreign Correspondent Lara Logan. Their contention, in a nutshell, was that he had 1) broken an unspoken code of conduct whereby embarrassing things about the American military were never published / broadcast and 2) he had had the freedom to report such things because he was only doing a one-off report and was not looking to gain repeated access to such high level operatives.
Of course such mealy mouthedness has received a suitable backlash from other people within the American media as well. You can read a from-the-gut visceral response to Lara Logan by Matt Taibi in Rolling Stone (appropriately titled "Lara Logan, You Suck") as well as Amy Davidson's defence of Matt Taibi's rant here in the The New Yorker. But perhaps the most telling of all was this op-ed by Frank Rich in the New York Times titled "The 36 Hours That Shook Washington" which encapsulated the issue at the heart of the media flap:
"There were few laughs in the 36 hours of tumult, but Jon Stewart captured them with a montage of cable-news talking heads expressing repeated shock that an interloper from a rock ’n’ roll magazine could gain access to the war command and induce it to speak with self-immolating candor. Politico theorized that Hastings had pulled off his impertinent coup because he was a freelance journalist rather than a beat reporter, and so could risk “burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.”
That sentence was edited out of the article — in a routine updating, said Politico — after the blogger Andrew Sullivan highlighted it as a devastating indictment of a Washington media elite too cozy with and protective of its sources to report the unvarnished news. In any event, Politico had the big picture right. It’s the Hastings-esque outsiders with no fear of burning bridges who have often uncovered the epochal stories missed by those with high-level access. Woodward and Bernstein were young local reporters, nowhere near the White House beat, when they cracked Watergate. Seymour Hersh was a freelancer when he broke My Lai. It was uncelebrated reporters in Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau, not journalistic stars courted by Scooter and Wolfowitz, who mined low-level agency hands to challenge the “slam-dunk” W.M.D. intelligence in the run-up to Iraq."
The more I think about it, the more I believe there are some real lessons to be learnt from this. Now, the first part of Hastings' denigrators' contentions against him probably tells you more about the mindset of the mainstream US media (and a certain sort of "patriotic" journalist anywhere) than anything else. But specifically it is the latter contention that Pakistani journalists might do well to think about, since it encompasses even sincere, generally truthful journalists: the desire - in the paraphrased words of Politico - "not to burn bridges" with important contacts. How many of us compromise on the truth to preserve our "access" to the corridors of power?
Certainly, in a country such as Pakistan where information - even straightforward information - is difficult to get from official sources, reporters must mine contacts within power. But where exactly does one draw the line? Particularly if one's own source could be undermined through the information one has picked up. Of course, the issue of media owners' vested interests in certain centres of power is also inextricably intertwined with this issue. Food for thought.