The Power of the One-Shot

Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Click image to expand

Jack Shafer does a lessons-learned document for future subjects of magazine profiles, based on the demise of General Stanley McChrystal’s career. There’s good stuff in there, but I really think he gives this aspect short-shrift:

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.

I think that sort of misconstrues the issue. The scenario in which a two-day trip to Paris “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.” due to the travel disruption caused by the Icelandic volcano simply never could have happened to someone working for a daily newspaper or a web reporter. You’d be filing dispatches regularly, no single incident would be particularly newsworthy, and you’d obviously be eager not to piss everyone off and get kicked out of the entourage. Instead you might report, in general terms, that General McChrystal is a manly-man who’s uncomfortable with fancy-pants European stuff.

You’d report what beat reporters have in fact reported, namely that there’s tension between McChrystal and other key officials, much of it centered around their different approaches to Hamid Karzai. You’d let what you see and hear inform your coverage. But you wouldn’t publish anything like “The Runaway General.” Now later on you might write a book in which you really unload, and then you’d get slammed by Brad DeLong in much the way he slammed Tom Ricks for covering the same people differently in Fiasco than how he covered them in his earlier Washington Post articles.