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May 27, 2010

McChrystal v. McClatchy

Last week, US Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's office extended a rare invitation to McClatchy to join the top military commander in Afghanistan on a day-long assessment of the situation in Helmand.

KandsmalleThe Marjah military campaign has come under increasing criticism in the media. And political leaders in DC and Europe gave McChrystal an ear full of concerns about the pace of progress in Helmand and its impact on the unfolding plans in neighboring Kandahar.

McChrystal and his team gave McClatchy privileged access throughout the day. McClatchy was allowed into every briefing, save one short meeting at the beginning of the day when McChrystal first arrived in southern Afghanistan at Camp Bastion.

The result was this story, titled "McChrystal calls Marjah a 'bleeding ulcer' of Afghan campaign."

The story, especially the headline, sparked an immediate furor as the US military called the headline "intellectually dishonest" and strongly requested that the on-line headline be changed.

In response, McClatchy Foreign Editor Roy Gutman defended the article and said there appeared to be no need to change the headline.

"Good headlines always pick the most salient point of a story in order to grab reader's attention, and this one did its job," Gutman wrote.

As might be expected, the "bleeding ulcer" quote came up during a Pentagon briefing yesterday with UK Major-Gen. Nick Carter, the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As we noted in the story, Carter told Pentagon reporters in February that it would take about 90 days to assess the success in Marjah.

"I guess it will take us another 25 to 30 days to be entirely sure that we have secured that which needs to be secured," Carter said in February.  "And we probably won't know, for about 120 days, whether or not the population is entirely convinced by the degree of commitment that their government is showing to them. So I guess looking downstream, in three months' time or thereabouts, we should have a pretty fair idea about whether we've been successful. But I would be very cautious about any triumphalism just yet."

About 100 days after making that prediction, Carter again appeared via satellite to talk with Pentagon reporters yesterday about the state of affairs in southern Afghanistan.

One of the first questions Carter fielded was about the "bleeding ulcer" quote.

"When General McChrystal referred to Marja as a bleeding ulcer, he was talking about the perception of the outside world," Carter told the Pentagon reporters. "And of course, in the same way that it's important that Afghan perceptions go in the right direction, it's important that the outside world also has the right perceptions. And I think his feeling was that some people in the outside world would regard Marja as being a bleeding ulcer. That's not the way he sees it in theater, nor, indeed, is that the way that the Afghans see it. It's very important, I think, that things are set properly in context."

In short, McChrystal's folks felt as if the headline and structure of the story made it appear as if McChrystal was pessimistic about the way things were going in Marjah when he was merely trying to light a fire under his commanders.

But McChrystal wasn't just talking about public perceptions in the outside world. He raised significant questions about the pace of progress and suggested that more troops at the start might have done a better job of securing the area.

The story made it clear from the opening anecdote that McChrystal was trying to convey to his commanders that political impatience was growing in Washington and Europe. And the full "bleeding ulcer" quote included in the story made that point clear.

Because of the extraordinary access given to McClatchy to classified briefings in Helmand, all quotes used in the story -- including the contested "bleeding ulcer" quote -- were run by McChrystal's team before being published.

In fact, because of the delicate political dynamics, McClatchy went back a second time to make sure that McChrystal's folks had no objections to McClatchy printing any of the quotes used in the piece - including the "bleeding ulcer" line.

Again, McChrystal's media folks gave the go-ahead to use the information.

The only thing McChrystal's folks asked to make clear was that McChrystal was joking when he told Carter it was "your plan" when they debated troop strength.

At no point before the article was published did McChrystal's team object to using the "bleeding ulcer" quote.

Now, Gen. McChrystal's folks are accusing McClatchy of intellectual dishonesty.

Readers of the story, and the exchange of letters, can judge for themselves.

Comments

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had the press handled Patton's eccentricities and anger management issues a bit more gingerly, war II would probably have ended sooner, that a field marshal is able to function with such a degree of transparency in today's theater of conflict is remarkable, only thing missing is a sad sack vignette

The story itself was excellent but the headline was pretty stupid.

Great reporting. The "Bleeding Ulcer" report will be one of the definitive war stories of the campaign. By showing the unvarnished McChrystal, Nissenbaum has elevated the general's credibility.

I practically always side with the military in this sort of military-media dispute, but in this instance, and taking you at your word that you indeed ran everything past the military twice before printing anything and without receiving any objections, then I'm going to side with the media this time.

*Especially* since you were invited, though it's not stated here whether you had been seeking an invitation of if General McChrystal sought you out (which probably would be only indirectly relevant, at most, true).

Maybe there's room for debate about the headline. Impossible to say, since I don't know how much of the information gathered actually made it past the editing process and how much ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Even so, it seems hard to fault you overall.

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