I have two answers for people who ask whether they should cooperate with a reporter assigned to write a feature story about them.
The short answer is “no.”
If that advice proves unsatisfactory, I give this longer answer:
The first thing a subject must ask himself is what’s in it for him. A director who is releasing a new movie or an author who has written a book can reap measurable PR value by allowing a reporter to shadow him and write a penetrating piece. Likewise, a politician running for office might profit from a feature if it raises his Q quotient.
But for most players, there is no real reason to submit to an in-depth profile such as the one that Gen. Stanley McChrystal did for Rolling Stone, a profile that has cost him his command in Afghanistan. Was there any upside to agreeing to the profile? Had it contained none of the disparaging comments about the president, the vice president, their aides, and U.S. allies, McChrystal still wouldn’t have gained from the article’s publication. Magazine profiles don’t turn public opinion or influence Congress. They just don’t. So why bother?
If the lure of the profile remains irresistible, the prospective subject should approach it with the same iron fist he does any meeting he convenes: He should know beforehand what its outcome will be. Having agreed to a profile, McChrystal should have prepared a well-grooved story for Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings. Had Hastings refused that story, McChrystal should have excused him from the session, explaining that he had a war to prosecute.
McChrystal and his camp appear to have understood another profile maxim: Always limit the exposure of the subject to the journalist. They obviously had this in mind when they invited Hastings to Paris for just two days. So far, so good. But instead of speaking softly and giving Hasting the ingredients for transformation into a feature, they immediately start with the trash talk. Hastings listens in as McChrystal, who hates fancy restaurants, expresses his anguish at the compulsory dinner date he has with a French cabinet minister. “I’d rather have my ass kicked by a roomful of people than go out to this dinner,” the general says. An aide to the general calls the dinner date “fucking gay.” A top McChrystal aide deliberately mishears the last name of the vice president as “Bite Me.”
Still, if Hastings had witnessed only McChrystal and co.’s Paris indiscretions, maybe he’d still have his command. As Hastings explains to Newsweek, the two-day visit “turned into this month-long journey following General McChrystal and his staff around from Paris to Berlin to Kabul to Kandahar and then back to Washington, D.C.,” because the Icelandic volcano disrupted travel in Europe. The month-long exposure turned Hastings into a fly on the wall, and, as everybody knows, flies spread disease. Almost anybody can moderate his behavior for a day or two, especially if he’s being watched. But nobody can do it for a month with visits to three continents. Familiarity breeds candor, and candor, once released, can’t be recalled.
A subject who insists on sitting for a profile must know who he is and be comfortable with having himself sketched. (Do such people exist?) One of the triumphs of the Hastings feature is that it reveals that McChrystal lacks that self-awareness.
Another tip: One should never ever, ever, ever imbibe in the presence of a reporter during the course of a profile! How obvious is this one? Yet we learn from Hastings’ interview in Newsweek that McChrystal and his staff “were getting hammered” in Paris when the trash-talking went down. “By midnight at Kitty O’Shea’s [Paris pub], much of Team America [McChrystal’s staff] is completely shitfaced,” Hastings writes. Booze is a crude kind of truth serum. Even accomplished alcoholics lose their verbal discipline after spiritual lubrication. This is why reporters absolutely love to meet sources for drinks. [Addendum, June 25: Hastings dropped me an e-mail to clarify. “The ‘trash-talking’ occurred fairly regularly throughout a number of settings,” he writes, not just over drinks.]
If you’re a boss, you should be much more wary about submitting to a profile. Every boss breeds sycophants, and as he breeds more over time he comes to believe that his lips mint nothing but wisdom. A smart reporter understands this about bosses and knows better than to quarrel with or interrupt the boss when he starts spouting. McChrystal is nothing if not a supreme and fearless boss. Between 2003 and 2008, his job as commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command was to track down enemies in Iraq and kill or capture them. Why should he fear an “embedded” reporter from Rolling Stone? Of what danger is he? McChrystal found out.
Always run a few sprints before running a marathon. I would wager that if McChrystal had more experience working with reporters, he wouldn’t have let Hastings hear what he heard. As Hastings reports, the press has largely “given McChrystal a pass” on two controversies—the alleged coverup of Pat Tillman’s friendly-fire death and the alleged abuse of prisoners in Iraq. Still, McChrystal can’t claim that he was fresh to the profile game, having sat for a 9,500-word New York Times Magazinepiece in October 2009.
Another lesson to draw from McChrystal’s fall is that an entourage can always be trusted to ape their leader’s behavior. Where do you suppose an unnamed adviser to the general learned that it was OK to tell Hastings how “disappointed” McChrystal was in Obama? Or who do you suppose endowed another aide with the moxie to call a top Obama aide (and a retired four-star general) a “clown”? If McChrystal did himself with his own loose lips, his staff must be charged as accessories.
A popular theory endorsed yesterday by Politico—before the site tossed it down the memory hole today—is that Hastings was inherently dangerous because he’s a freelance reporter. According to this theory, freelancers happily burn their subjects because they’re not likely to return to them, whereas beat reporters must rely on maintaining good day-to-day relations with them. I don’t buy this. Feature writers and beat reporters are equally capable of taking a dive for their subjects. I don’t know of any beat reporter who wouldn’t have gotten a promotion for catching McChrystal and his staff shooting off their mouths, and I don’t know any newspaper that would have hesitated to publish the story.
Moral of the story: If you’re going to talk crazy, no reporter will protect you from your foolishness.
Tom Ricks disagrees with me, thinking that beat reporters (he was one) would protect the brass. What do you think? I take orders at firstname.lastname@example.org and give them via Twitter. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate’s readers’ forums, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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