Rolling Stone Reporter Michael Hastings: Reporters Write Puff Pieces For Access

Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings was on "Reliable Sources" this morning, and he blew a few of Howard Kurtz's theories out of the water - first,
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Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings was on "Reliable Sources" this morning, and he blew a few of Howard Kurtz's theories out of the water - first, by telling him the most sensational quotes weren't the result of hanging around for two weeks, but were things he was told in the first two days.

Kurtz asked if he thought other reporters went easy on McChrystal and Hastings said McChrystal's staff gave unprecedented access with the expectation that reporters will write "puff pieces".

KURTZ: Michael Hastings, welcome.

Stanley McChrystal gave you an unusual degree of access. And your reporting cost him his job. Any regrets about that?

MICHAEL HASTINGS: I went out to try to tell the best story that I could and write what I saw, I heard and thought. And I had really no control over, you know, the aftereffects. And that really wasn't what I was focusing on. What I was focusing on was trying to write the best story that I could to bring attention to the war in Afghanistan.

I did not expect the fallout that occurred. In fact, I didn't even think that it was possible for General McChrystal to even get fired.

KURTZ: And he got fired rather quickly by President Obama.

Do you think that McChrystal and his top aides got so used to your hanging around that they let their guard down?

HASTINGS: No. I don't think that was the case, because some of the most talked-about parts of the piece happened within the first 24 hours that I was with his team.

One of the most -- I guess people have called it inflammatory passages is when I quote a top adviser saying, "Biden -- did you say 'bite me'?" That was the second morning I was with them in Paris covering an on-the-record meeting that they were having to prepare for a speech later on.

I mean, in fly-on-the-wall journalism, you're there to capture exactly those kinds of moments.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: But when you are there --

HASTINGS: That what makes fly-on-the-wall journalism so wonderful to read.

KURTZ: When you are there that much, you don't think it's likely that McChrystal and his team assume that some of their joking, that some of their banter would be treated by you as off the record?

HASTINGS: I think you'd have to ask General McChrystal and his team what they assumed. But for me, when I go in to write a profile, and no ground rules are laid down, and I'm there to write an on-the- record profile and cover readings while in the room, then that means it's on the record.

I mean, it's not much of a mystery. If someone tells you something is off the record, I don't print it. If they don't tell me something is off the record, then it's fair game. I don't think --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: You got some criticism --

(CROSSTALK)

HASTINGS: -- it's the job of a journalist to, after someone says something --

KURTZ: Right. Not to -- granted, retroactively.

You got some criticism for quoting one comment by one aide while he was getting drunk, or "hammered" is the way you put it. Any second thoughts about that?

HASTINGS: Which quote are you referring to?

KURTZ: I don't have the piece in front of me, but certainly its been widely commented upon that there was some drinking going on.

HASTINGS: Yes. There was drinking going on.

But the only quote from that scene, if I remember, were two of the top senior military officials singing a song that they called "The Afghanistan Song." So I quoted the refrain which was, "Afghanistan!" "Afghanistan!"

And then I quoted General McChrystal observing his men, and saying, "I'd die for these men, and they'd die for me." I don't see what's so controversial about those quotes.

I have to say, I've been in Kandahar and Kabul the last few days, so I haven't really kept up with, you know, what people are saying --

KURTZ: Sure.

HASTINGS: -- about the piece.

KURTZ: Sure.

HASTINGS: I have a general idea, but I haven't really been --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Did the rest of the media, in your view, protect General McChrystal? I mean, there are a lot of glowing profiles about this guy. "Newsweek" called him a "Jedi Warrior."

You come in. You're not a beat reporter. You're there to do one piece, and you gave us a very different side of the way the war is being run. HASTINGS: Oh, I'm positive that that's the case with General McChrystal. He was a subject of a series of glowing profiles. And there's -- this is actually an interesting journalistic point.

There's a reason why when General McChrystal took the job, everyone writes a glowing profile of him, because then that assures access later on. And that assures better -- if you ever write a favorable story, they'll get better access later.

And that was a game General McChrystal's team played very well, that if you get -- that if you write us a good story, we'll give you good access.

They gave unprecedented access to everybody. You know, they let -- you know, debriefings. They let you hang out with them. And they try to make you feel like you're part of the team.

But that's an illusion. You're really part of the team. You know?

And they know that and you know that. You're a journalist. You're there to tell -- you're there to tell it like it is. I'm sort of shocked --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: So, just briefly, you're saying --

HASTINGS: -- or a bit surprised that --

KURTZ: You're saying that in your view, journalists who are going to be covering these guys regularly, covering the war, wrote puff pieces for the express purpose of being able to get more inside stuff, more access from the general and his top officials?

HASTINGS: Absolutely. And I don't think that's exclusive just to General McChrystal and the reporters covering him. And it's not -- certainly it's not all reporters. But I think that's definitely a symptom. I mean, you can go back and read the profiles, anyone can, to see what I'm talking about.

KURTZ: Well, in fact, you wrote about it.

HASTINGS: But that happens all the time in reporting.

KURTZ: Yes. And on that point, you wrote a piece for "GQ" magazine about a different kind of embedding, being embedded with the presidential campaign. And you said, "You pretend to be friendly and non-threatening. And over time you build trust, which everyone knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editors calls for it, you're supposed to (EXPLETIVE DELETED) them over."

Is that what you did here?

HASTINGS: No, because, actually, I didn't have to seduce them or get them to like me very much at all. The most newsworthy things in the piece they said up front, as I mentioned.

But listen, I mean, I'm pretty transparent, right? I wrote a piece where I explained what journalists do. All they had to do is read that piece, and that could have given them a better idea of what -- you know, what journalists do in general.

KURTZ: Right.

HASTINGS: So I feel I've been pretty transparent with my methods. And it was pretty easily accessible. But also, you know, in this particular case, really, I did not have to work very hard to get them to say the things they said.

KURTZ: I see. But let me ask you this --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: -- talking about being transparent. Bill O'Reilly said on his Fox program this week that you're a far-left guy. And he cited I guess the same "GQ" piece where you talked about Rudy Giuliani is a maniac, and you wanted to save America from the horror of a President Giuliani. And you talked about John McCain as Captain Ahab.

So, are you on the liberal side of things, and are you -- do you have doubts about the Afghan War?

HASTINGS: I didn't know thinking Rudy Giuliani was a maniac was exclusive to the far left. But it also should be noted, I wrote two critical articles about Bill O'Reilly a number of years ago, bringing up some of his indiscretions in his past. So maybe he remembered those.

But no, look, hey, if Bill O'Reilly is calling you a far-left critic, in my book, no matter what your political persuasion is, that's probably -- that probably means you're doing a good job. And if you --

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: All right, Michael Hastings --

HASTINGS: -- read the piece closely, and look at the reaction --

KURTZ: I've got half a minute. Sorry to cut you off.

You have a lot of in-depth reporting in this piece about the counter-insurgency strategy and the frustrations of prosecuting this war. Do you think that's all been overshadowed by the somewhat inflammatory comments that led to General McChrystal's firing?

HASTINGS: Well, the only reason people are even reading the story is because of the actual human side of it, how these guys really interact. I mean, when I go out on an embed with a normal unit of American troops, I'm going to sort of capture their banter, capture how they are, capture their venting. Why would I treat General McChrystal and his team any different than I would anyone else? I guess that that would be my question.

KURTZ: You certainly did illuminate the human side of war.

Michael Hastings, thank you very much for joining us from Afghanistan.

HASTINGS: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

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