perm_identity According to Whom?

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 158 ~ July, 2010

It’s a simple phrase, an elementary question, but one which probably should be considered more frequently by people in general, and journalists, in particular, both print and broadcast, and that is “According to whom?”

In an age where passions, and resulting generalizations run high, outlandish pronouncements have a way of masquerading as truth simply because of the lost art of attribution. And thus, we come back to “According to whom?”

As an “accidental” reporter in what seems like a former lifetime, I learned early on that I needed two sources, solid sources, on a story, and most of the time I wanted more, to ensure I was correct. I worked under a number of demanding editors, and despite some unpleasant experiences, I actually learned from all of them. The one thing all of them insisted on was attribution, if I stated something in an article, I’d better be able to back it up and answer the editor if he screamed, “According to whom?”

Sitting in my living room these days, if I relied solely on cable news, and the respective pundits on various networks, I would think the country was either in imminent danger of a Marxist government takeover or there was about to be an impending charge from a right wing militia armed with buckshot and tea. Of course, neither is true, but once again it’s time to check for attribution, who’s saying what, and where is that person coming from, and to what are they affiliated?

A major shift occurred in American journalism with the Watergate scandal and the groundbreaking investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. What many a young journalist failed to notice, however, was these two guys at the Washington Post were professionals and despite all the long hours, and exhausting work to track down and verify facts, Woodward and Bernstein were dependent on sources.

That is brought home very clearly in the movie All the President’s Men, based on Woodward and Bernstein’s book of the same name, when Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, as Woodward and Bernstein, respectively, race trying to nail down sources for a story and are trying to figure out whether the potential source has given them a “non-denial denial” which would mean a confirmation.

Perhaps I’m fortunate I never took a journalism course, with no disrespect to any of the fine journalism teachers across the country, but over the years I’ve run into more “advocacy” journalists than I care to remember. While I was always nervous about getting the story right, so many so-called “serious” journalists were off and running to change the world, to make a difference, but the difference was always in line with their own belief system or ideological bent and never had much to do with reality, or God forbid, facts or verification of facts.

Of course, on the other extreme, I once worked for a hard-nosed publisher who worshipped money and self-interest, so many times he would start with a headline and hope the editorial pieces could be made to fit. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t, but I was always thorough, and through that process, I learned how articles could be easily slanted through omission of salient, yet perhaps inconvenient facts. Overall the publisher respected my integrity, if not always the results of my investigations, but if worse came to worst, at times he would seek to counter my story with an accurate but misleading headline, usually in blaring red, in the hopes it would have more affect or at least counter the first couple paragraphs.

Another friend of mine, a tenacious little Irish guy whose father and uncles worked on the docks in On The Waterfront days, and who had a relative from Hell’s Kitchen who was reportedly one of the last to be executed in the State of New York in the electric chair for raising a gun and shooting another fellow point blank in the head over a trivial difference of opinion, which no one quite remembered, made his living as a hard core investigative journalist, covering organized crime and government corruption. He was big on being able to answer “According to whom?” on everything he reported, as he needed to be since many of his articles eventually culminated in indictments and subsequent judicial proceedings, more often leading to plea deals rather than trials, but still, a lot was at stake.

As an exercise, he and I used to go through articles in local newspapers, reading sentences and too often, laughing in unison, as we exclaimed, “According to whom?” because attribution was missing and the respective reporter had made a divine leap in order to present conjecture or opinion as irrefutable fact. It’s an interesting exercise, one that can be enlightening at times, depressing at others, but also, one can feel comfortable when finding a responsible reporter who does indeed present a balanced story, which is not to be mistaken with an editorial piece, which by its nature automatically answers the question, “According to whom?”

As I was writing this, The Rolling Stone article about General Stan McChrystal, commander of all U.S and NATO forces in Afghanistan, hit, with the inappropriate quotes by his aides about President Barack Obama and the war effort there. I think everyone, or almost everyone with even a minor understanding of the workings of inside politics, recognized the next inevitable step after publication of such an article would be the departure of McChrystal from command, either by resignation or firing.

Yes, there’s attribution in the Rolling Stone article, and the attribution is most likely valid, but once again the journalist was involved in the process of shaping the article, deciding which quotes to use and which to ignore. So, if I had to guess, the journalist in this particular case started out with a premise, and the premise may very well have been legitimate, but the journalist must have known what consequences his article would have for General McChrystal, especially with the proliferation of electronic media in this day and age, where everything is magnified, with snippets almost instantaneously becoming foregone conclusions.

So, here we are, a Rolling Stone article has disrupted the war effort in Afghanistan in a major way, and maybe that’s good, but it was caused by the choices of a journalist in selecting what to present, though one also has to question the arrogance or naivete of General McChrystal in allowing such unfettered access to his inner circle. I’m not sure such an article in the same venue would have exploded the same way, with the same results, 20 years ago, but that was 20 years ago, and today, more so than ever, a rumor or a fact quickly translates and spreads, all the while gathering momentum, as the illusion more and more becomes a solid conclusion, and thus, the reality.

Most news by its very nature is transient, a blip, if that, in average people’s lives and attention span, forgotten almost as soon as it appears. Those in respective articles are generally quickly forgotten, as readers move on with their respective lives. Even those stories with second or third day leads, or ongoing successive articles covering a major trial or a natural disaster, such as the BP oil spill or Hurricane Katrina, eventually fade from front and center, as they are slowly or immediately replaced by the next sensational event.

I agreed with Geraldo Rivera the other night when I caught him on a cable news segment “passionately” questioning why the author of The Rolling Stone article would consciously write such an article, an article which to some, myself included, did nothing to further the greater good. When Geraldo was told Rolling Stone ran the quotes by McChrystal before the story ran, and McChyrstal reportedly didn’t have a problem or objection, one can only speculate that perhaps the general, in his inexperience with the media, falsely believed he was sufficiently covered and protected because almost everything in the article was attributed to unnamed sources, such as “a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations” or “According to forces familiar with the meeting,” or “says a member of the general’s team.” There certainly were an awful lot of “sources familiar with situations and meetings” in the article.

I’m not sure many of us would make out well, or be seen in a favorable light, if comments about us appeared in an article, according to “a classmate who asked not to be named.” How does one respond to “a classmate who asked not to be named” and wasn’t? The incident might be true, but one is certainly left wondering about the context, or the overall purpose of writing about McChrystal being passed out in a shower after drinking too much beer while a cadet at West Point. And once again, according to “a classmate who asked not to be named.”

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes anonymous sources are essential, but one hopes such sources are used responsibly and to highlight a major aspect of a story that those in power don’t want to come to light, for whatever reason. Otherwise, you can imagine what power a journalist has to paint an individual in any negative view he or she desires, by simply relying on unnamed sources or those who wish not to be identified.

In the end, I’m not sure what was accomplished by the article, except to create a mini-drama for a couple days over the showdown between General McChrystal and President Obama, one in which I think the outcome was never in much doubt. In fact, the Rolling Stone article basically dares Obama to take on McChrystal. Others should read the Rolling Stone, if they want, though it’s really not essential, the story has already moved into the blur of the past. General McChrystal is gone and now the narrative will center around his replacement, General David Petraeus, architect of the successful surge in Iraq, tapped by Obama to command the armed forces in Afghanistan.

What stood out for me in the article were the following two sentences: “But, as he moved on through the ranks, McChrystal relied on the skills the had learned as a troubleshooting kid at West Point: knowing precisely how far he could go in a rigid military hierarchy without getting tossed out. Being a highly intelligent badass, he discovered, could take you far — especially in the political chaos that followed September 11th.”

Where did that come from I wondered. Analysis, speculation, McChrystal explaining and stating that to the journalist, or more commentary from unnamed aides and sources close to situations and meetings, and possibly, the inner working of McChrystal’s mind? To me, those sentences in the Rolling Stone article, surrounded by all the other details and conclusions, clearly were a challenge, a double dare, if you will, getting right in President Obama’s face and declaring, on the part of General McChrystal, “I know best, better than ambassadors, foreign policy advisors, Senators John McCain and John Kerry, and even you, Mr. President, so take your best shot, if you are willing and able.” As it turned out, President Obama was more than willing and able, and General McChyrstal did indeed get tossed out of Afghanistan, and in short order.

In the final analysis, the previous ramblings in this particular column are about an article by a journalist, who had access to General McChrystal and his team of close advisors at Kitty O’Shea’s bar in Paris, where the drinks were flowing, and this one said this, and another said that, and outside sources and such were called to weigh in on aspects of the article, and now you have my take on things, which, obviously is not fact, but at least is certainly according to me.