I thought I could just let it go that the great rock-and-roll paper of my youth turned into a slick magazine. But, the editors broke a story about Goldman Sachs profiting from/causing every stock market crash since the 20s - great journalism, even though it was one of those ”do ya think?” stories (who would have guessed this of our friends on Wall Street?). Then, they find one of their own hired hands stuck in a travel delay with a big-time U.S. General, and the resulting story causes all hell to break loose. Wha? From the Rolling Stone?
“Our specialty for years has been long-form journalism, deep reporting and politics. I’ve had a strong passion about having a say in national policy,” the ever-modest Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner told The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz this week. Well, he certainly got his wish. General Stanley McChrystal, arguably one of the best warriors of our time, and one who gained respect from our allies (“Where McChrystal Led, Britain Followed” – Robert Fox), was canned.
Say what you will about Obama losing control of the Afghan policy. Or about the incredible arrogance of the staff around McChrystal in spite of the modest success the surge has brought. What’s interesting to me is the a) total collapse, or b) expert execution of Army’s public relations machine around this media relations disaster/victory. I am not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I believe that some folks are as smart as they say they are, but this mess leaves me firmly of two minds.
Some part of me wants to believe that it was just serendipity that brought RS freelancer Michael Hastings together with McChrystal for a visit that began with two days and morphed into about a month – stranded in Europe by the Iceland volcano, traveling to Berlin together and then on to Kabul. In this version of my public relations analysis, I could see Army Public Affairs challenged by the extent of the accidental access, possibly, or not having the right seasoned veteran traveling in the public affairs capacity with the McChrystal posse. A few beers, an unobtrusive tape recorder, some “aw shucks” leading questions from a skilled reporter, and BAM!
The Christian Science Monitor’s Christa Case Bryant, has posted a great story “The McChrystal Rolling Stone article: the story behind the story” on the subject of Hastings, who is not one of those reporters that strive for balance or objectivity by his own admission (this is in the great Rolling Stone tradition). So, the Army PA folks saw some red flags, you would hope. This reporter couldn’t have snuck up on them with his press credentials from a generally anti-war publication, my reasoning goes.
“Public Affairs fulfills the Army’s obligation to keep the American people and the Army informed, and helps to establish the conditions that lead to confidence in America’s Army and its readiness to conduct operations in peacetime, conflict and war,” says the Army’s website. I wonder if the savvy Public Affairs leader Brigadier General Lewis Boone had his own “aw, s***” moment over morning coffee or evening cocktail when he got the news of this breaking story?
The other part of my brain, the more political and sinister, sees in all of this some potential that the General is pushing back against civilian control that is a key cornerstone of our democracy. What if this was part of a public relations plan to further paint President Obama as generally incompetent in all things war-related? I’m a little wary of raising the issue, but could it be that this unusual access to the General was planned, and that the comments by his staff were made generally with the permission of the head man in charge (with him adding some spice of his own to the mix)? This probably wouldn’t be the first time that such political machinations have been attempted, I think.
Just to take it one more step on down this path, General McChrystal is going to get a massive payday for his book, just like Octamom or any of a number of self-made celebrities. He had nothing else to prove in the Army, and I’m going to assume the pension is secure. Why not create a little celebrity notoriety that will play well with a large number of the folks back in the states?
Regardless of what is appropriate in the chain of command, there are plenty of people who would be OK with insubordination to this president, the General may have reasoned, and some of them are in a position to offer him vast riches. Being ousted in a tilt with Obama certainly will warrant a good look by Fox News (see News Hounds posts) for an analyst position, at the very least. And, what about the compensation and lifestyle for a celebrity General? He can receive pension benefits if he leaves the military, and enjoy the largesse of capitalists of all stripes, in jobs ranging from technology and manufacturing to media. Boards of Directors, interviews out the wazoo and lofty op-ed pieces all await him.
Celebrity-seeking PR smarts or naive miscues? We’ll see soon.