Axing the General and the Journalist: Was Their Privacy Violated?

The real question raised by Michael Hastings'piece is this: where were the beat reporters covering McCrystal's HQ? If the general and his merry men conducted themselves so unprofessionally, why hadn't the press reported it earlier?
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In media and politics, last week was a time for big mouths, indescrete chatter and abrupt firings. Down went General Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan and reporter/blogger David Weigel at The Washington Post. But following the lead of America's two most important newspapers, the post-firing debate lighting up the Twittoblogosphere was not so much about the general's and the journalist's loose lips as it was about whether their privacy was violated.

But it's clear to me that privacy in this context is just a red herring to distract us from the real issues, which are (roughly in order of importance):

1.Reporters have a duty to spread the news and not get so cozy with their sources that they cover it up;
2.The military has a fundamental duty to foster respect for civilian command; and
3.It's not acceptable, even in the Internet Age, to have a public opinion and a different private one because saying one thing publicly and another privately is still hypocrisy, whether you're a media pundit, a four-star general or a politician.

Yes, of course, it's valid to debate what the Internet has done to privacy and where or whether to redraw the lines between public and private in a Facebook world and on and on, blah, blah, blah. But it's wrong to pretend that privacy is the core issue in the (otherwise unrelated) dismissal of McChrystal or Weigel. It's especially wrong to use the privacy distraction simply to defend a friend or advance a political agenda.

Starting with McChrystal, The New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks blames the media and their "relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities...." But Brooks is trying to make privacy the central issue solely to push his agenda, which is to dismiss the general's outrageous insubordination as "run-of-the-mill complaining." Essentially, Brooks says everyone in DC pisses and moans about everyone else all the time and reporters should let them blow off steam and do their "kvetching" in peace. This is what Brooks does, according to Brooks.

The problem with Brooks' position is there's nothing run-of-the-mill about the picture of McChrystal and his staff painted by Michael Hastings for Rolling Stone. Hastings' portrait shows McChrystal deriding the vice president in front of his men ("...Vice President Biden? Who's that?") and encouraging his subordinate officers to systemically bad mouth practically all civilian authority. McChrystal and his men sound like a group of frat boys complaining about the dean and the provost, except this is a war and the stakes are high.

To me, the real question raised by Hastings' piece is where are the beat reporters covering McChrystal's HQ? If this is how McChrystal and his merry men conducted themselves, it could not have been a secret from the journalists who cover the war on a regular basis. So why didn't they report it? Did they consider McChrystal's feckless contempt for civilians to be a private matter, as Brooks does? If they do, then the reporters misconstrue their duty as badly as McChrystal misunderstands his. (For another view on this point, take a look at Mayhill Fowler's piece on the unwritten rules of the traveling press corps.)

Looking at the week's other high-profile firing, the Washington Post's ex-blogger Weigel was praised and defended by his colleague Ezra Klein, who blogs about economic policy for the Post. It was Klein who started the famed (inside the Beltway) left-of-center email listserv Journolist where Weigel made the comments about right-wingers that got him canned. Weigel, whose "Right Now" blog covered conservatives, published a variety of emails to Journolist that reflected judgments about many right-wingers that were far harsher than the comments in Weigel's posts for the Post. (Examples from various emails: He suggested that Matt Drudge should "set himself on fire"; labeled Sarah Palin, among others, a "ratfucker;" and used the old epithet "Paultards" to describe some Tea Party members.) When Weigel's comments were re-published with great fanfare in right-wing blogs last week, Weigel and the Post parted ways.

In his lengthy defense of Weigel, fellow Post blogger Klein argues that the emails sent to Journolist participants were "private." He cites no less an authority on privacy than David Brooks, quoting from Brooks' column about McChrystal. In the same post, Klein also announces the end of Journolist, which he has shut down following what he see as an invasion of its private space.

Even though Weigel's blog carried the tagline "inside the conservative movement," Klein states with no trace of irony that conservatives were banned from Journolist and only center and left-of-center writers and policy makers were allowed to join. This was supposedly to keep the debate free from attempts to "embarrass" people. Klein asserts, "A private e-mail list is not public..." and, speaking to Weigel's case, he says, "Private e-mails were twisted into a public story."

I reject Klein's privacy claim simply on numerical grounds: the Journolist listserv included several hundred participants before Klein closed it last week. Imagine for a moment, Dave Weigel renting a small theater, inviting several hundred liberal commentators and then taking the stage to call Sarah Palin a ratfucker and suggest self-immolation for Matt Drudge. Does anyone really think, as a practical matter, that comments like that would be accorded privacy in such a setting? I don't think so.

New York University journalism professor and prominent new media expert Jay Rosen was promoting the privacy debate in recent tweets and tweeted to me that the privacy debate is "nuanced"--perhaps more nuanced than I can appreciate. I admit I'm not exactly sure where the line between private and public should be drawn, but private is well south of several hundred DC writers, commentators and policy wonks. I define private much the same way Justice Potter Stewart handled defining hardcore porn. "I know it when I see it."

Liz Mair, a well known right-of-center libertarian blogger, says Weigel is her friend and points out that many (maybe all) of the substantive things Weigel said about right-wingers in the Journolist emails are inarguably true. Setting aside the term "ratfucker," I think she's right. But that's just one more reason Weigel should have published these opinions and observations in Right Now instead of segregating them for the restricted audience of Journolist. Bloggers with an opinion should post that opinion. Isn't that what being a blogger is all about?

My take is simple: The Internet may have changed some things, but it hasn't changed our fundamental duties to one another. Reporters need to report what they find out, not sit on it; they need to find ethical ways to publish the utterances of the powerful, private or public, especially when private statements reveal true beliefs that are contrary to public statements. Generals need to support civilian authority. We all need to be consistent and espouse the same things publicly and privately.

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