Embedding Conflicts of Interest

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"Embedding Conflicts of Interest"

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Mike Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter whose work ended the career of General Stanley McChrystal but has never been questioned in terms of accuracy, has been denied permission to embed anew with a unit in Afghanistan. “There is no right to embed,” explains DOD spokesman Colonel David Lapan in what I take to be an accurate, albeit besides the point, take on the legal issues.

And Adam Weinstein further explains:

Plus, there’s a disturbing precedent for Hastings’ treatment. Last year, US commanders in Iraq kicked Heath Druzin, a Stars & Stripes reporter, off an embed, ostensibly because he was a distraction to his host unit. But then an Army PR officer made the mistake of complaining in writing that Druzin’s reporting wasn’t sunny enough. “Despite the opportunity to visit areas of the city where Iraqi Army leaders, soldiers, national police and Iraqi police displayed commitment to partnership, Mr. Druzin refused to highlight any of this news,” she wrote to Druzin’s editorial director. Stripes then pulled out all the stops, calling the military’s move “an attempt at censorship and…also an illegal prior restraint under federal law.”

This is a sensitive issue for a lot of professional journalists, including friends of mine, but I think it’s pretty obvious that the military’s practice of doing these embeds constitutes a heightened version of the conflict of interest that’s endemic to the reporter/guy-who-talks-to-reporter dynamic. Cooperation from the military is a valuable career resource to either a journalist or a think tank researcher, and though that cooperation isn’t contingent on you adopting an absolutely uncritical stance toward what the military is doing it is contingent on maintaining a general spirit of good will. That means maintaining what the military regards as an adequately respectful attitude toward the military and its leadership and its prerogatives in American society, it means not embarrassing people unduly (see, e.g., Hastings), and it means hoping for good luck.

The military’s hardly unique in this regard. If you interview someone, come away with the impression that he’s an idiot, then write that he’s an idiot, then ask for a second interview you’re likely to be turned down. Which is why I’ve tried to develop a business model for myself that doesn’t depend on my ability to persuade important people to talk to me. And that’s true all up and down across the enterprise. But the military is an unusually closed world, and the field of operations in Afghanistan is unusually difficult to penetrate without official cooperation so consequently the dilemma exists in heightened form.

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