It isn’t uncommon for a powerful man to be seduced by the Siren call of an investigative reporter—only to see the resulting article trash his reputation. PR expert Eric Dezenhall on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s obvious mistakes, from drinking during interviews to letting ego get in the way.
It’s a form of seduction that even smart and strong-willed people like Gen. Stanley McChrystal cannot resist: A reporter who wants to tell your story, capturing your grand destiny and historic significance.
Joan Didion confessed long ago to being an unusually effective Siren: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
All of us who deal with reporters regularly take calculated risks. And all of us who do so have been scorched for taking these risks. It doesn’t mean we’re stupid: Getting misquoted or misrepresented is as attendant to media relations as, well, a general taking casualties in battle.
My experience has been that the open presence of a camera or tape recorder knocks 40 points off of the average big shot’s IQ.
But there are risks, and there is the call of the Siren, better known as the Ego. This was the creature at work in Gen. McChrystal’s career-ending decision to give a tape recorded interview—over drinks no less—to Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings.
The goal of a good investigative reporter like Hastings is not to “get the facts”—that’s just the cover—it is to capture a plausible, emotionally resonant and potentially award-winning narrative. American libel law does not require a reporter to be fair, balanced, or necessarily even accurate. (He just can’t be maliciously and recklessly inaccurate.)
• Read our full coverage of McChrystal's Rolling Stone interview fallout. There are three pathways the Siren uses to ensnare a target. The first is vanity: convincing the target that the world sits on the edge of its proverbial seat to hear from you, you, you, in all of your magnificent glory. Furthermore, the thinking goes, you, with your unrivaled craftiness, will counter-seduce the reporter to your worldview.
The second device is fear: The Siren persuades the target that she will destroy him if he doesn’t talk. Cooperating with the reporter can work if you’re a source, but not if you’re a big fat target, which an active military commander in an unpopular war surely is.
The Siren’s third ploy is treachery, the most insidious contemporary trick being the noble-sounding call for “transparency.” The idea is to make the target believe that providing running commentary is somehow a legal requirement of him (as if under oath in court), in his best interest, or an unshakable tenet of crisis management. None of these arguments are necessarily true.
Corporations and institutions like the military have perfectly honorable reasons not to “share,” the primary one being that those who have enemies don’t wish to assist them in their own destruction with information they might disclose. A cunning investigative reporter, though, will have a target believe that not aiding and abetting your own implosion is some form of malfeasance.
General McChrystal, of all people, should have been wise to the transparency swindle given the business he’s in, especially with a tape recorder plopped down in front of him.
My experience has been that the open presence of a camera or tape recorder knocks 40 points off of the average big shot’s IQ, because it appeals to both his vanity and the delusion that there is an ironclad bond of trust between him and the reporter, in which whatever ground rules have been negotiated are as holy as the 10 Commandments. While the McChrystal camp has made some noises about the violation of ground rules, that’s a tough sell given the subject matter, the stature of the reporter, and the presence of notepads and rolling tape. (Michael Hastings, the reporter who nailed McChrystal, told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he was clear with his sources that the interviews were on the record, and that McChrystal’s candor demonstrates his “natural kind of recklessness.”)
It may have also been helpful for McChrystal to consider a few other clues: Hastings had written a critically acclaimed and genuinely moving book about the violent death of his fiancée in Iraq. Is this someone in a mindset to write something nice about America’s military adventures?
Then there is Evan Wright, the Rolling Stone reporter who embedded with 1st Reconnaissance Marines during Operation Iraqi Freedom and ended up with a book and a mini-series Generation Kill, and who was quoted as follows: “I had to maintain my objectivity as a journalist, and my loyalty was to the story not to them as people,” he says. “Unfortunately, that’s how a journalist is. Someone once said, ‘A journalist’s job is to charm and betray.’ Charm and betray, that’s what a real journalist does. Not that you mean to betray them, but often when you write what happens, it seems like a betrayal.”
McChrystal is in good company. Gen. George S. Patton was notorious for making coarse remarks in front of reporters only to be disciplined, but there’s something about winning clear battlefield victories against a universally loathed enemy that made his media foibles forgivable.
And no less a fox than Richard Nixon, believing he was savvier than the reputed lightweight, David Frost, hanged himself with the line, “When the president does it, it’s not a crime.” The only people who thought Nixon rehabilitated himself in his interview with Frost were committed Nixon-haters furious that he was given any chance to speak at all.
No public figure can be faulted for taking prudent risks with reporters and getting jammed up. It’s a cost of doing business. But at the very least, do a little homework, and don’t drink and jive.
Eric Dezenhall co-founded the communications firm Dezenhall Resources, Ltd., and serves as its CEO. His first book, Nail 'em!: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Business, pioneered techniques for understanding and defusing crises.