You might call Matt Taibbi’s angry response, on the Rolling Stone Web site, to Lara Logan’s comments on CNN about how reporters ought to behave a rant—but doing so would imply that he was overreacting, and, as heated as his tone was, he’s not, really. So it’s more like a jeremiad.
Logan, who is CBS’s chief foreign correspondent, said that she wasn’t sure that she would have used the story Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer, had in his hands after spending time with General Stanley McChrystal and his crew. “Well, it really depends on the circumstances,” Logan said. What circumstances? She doesn’t quite say; instead, she immediately launches into what Taibbi calls the part of the interview that made him “really furious,” as well it should have: her suggestion that Hastings is a liar. Hastings, Logan said, “if you believe him”—and does she have any solid knowledge of why we shouldn’t?—“says that there were no ground rules laid out. That doesn’t make sense to me.”
What doesn’t make sense is the way Logan contradicts herself, first saying that she can’t imagine the people around McChrystal talking without explicit ground rules (“I know these people. They never let their guard down like that. To me, something doesn’t add up here. I just—I don’t believe it”) and then, seconds later, when Howard Kurtz asks if there is an “unspoken agreement” about not reporting embarrassing “insults and banter,” saying “Yes, yes absolutely, there is an element of trust.” So which is it—Hastings must be lying because he said no ground rules were stated, or Hastings is a bad child because he didn’t respect an unspoken assumption that you’ve been operating under?
It is also low of her to disparage Hastings for not being a soldier: “Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.” They also serve who only stand and wait for our military and political leaders to say the things that the public needs to know. McChrystal was not a knight riding across the plain; he was an officer subject to civilian control. The most important circumstance, and the reason why Rolling Stone was quite right to publish the article, is that we have a war going on. We have been in the midst of a debate about its expansion and extent and how it is being waged—and why it is being waged, which is a question for us, not just the generals.
And let’s be clear: this is not the story of a conquering hero brought down by a non-job-related foible. McChrystal used bad language, but he also said bad and destructive things that raised questions about the control and direction of our policy and our respect for our allies. (It’s not always O.K. to insult the French.) And he has not succeeded in Afghanistan. Logan asked, “Is what General McChrystal and his aides were doing so egregious that he deserved—to, I mean, to end a career like McChrystal’s?” The answer is yes; the only pity would be if his dismissal is not accompanied by a thorough questioning of our policies in Afghanistan. General Petraeus, in hearings to confirm him as McChrystal’s replacement today, said that the “tough fighting” in Afghanistan would get tougher in the next few months as our new campaigns began to “reduce the enemy’s freedom of action.” How long is that arc? The war has been going on for almost nine years.
Logan was saying, in her way, the same thing David Brooks did in his column last week. According to Brooks, people in power are always saying things that might get them in trouble when he’s around, but he understands why and won’t tell on them. Brooks, never one to miss an opportunity for an elegy to a fairy-tale past in which “a culture of reticence” supposedly prevailed, writes that reporters knew how to be polite and discreet until 1961—between the end of the Chatterley ban and Theodore White’s first “The Making of the President” book. As I wrote last week, this was never entirely true; look at the trouble Patton got in. To the extent that it was and is, one would like to have generals and politicians clever enough to recognize the world they live in, and handle it accordingly—this is a point Hendrik Hertzberg made last week. Patton, in addition to his habit of saying awful things in the presence of reporters, had, as a young officer, been an expert in the design and deployment of the cavalry saber. But he didn’t achieve what he did in the Battle of the Bulge by complaining that the Germans weren’t fighting with swords. We are not going to win in Afghanistan by pretending that our generals, our goals, or the corrupted Afghan government we are propping up are what they aren’t, either.