The McChrystal affair and the media

Loose lips sink ships, and apparently general careers as well.

The McChrystal affair itself looks like a very small episode to me as long as there's no strategy change, but it's a great example.

Let's recall the reaction; McChrystal's competence got questioned because he failed to keep the public ill-informed on the attitudes in his staff and the friction in the chain of command. The journalist got criticised because he supposedly jeopardizes future "access" to important people by reporting the truth once.

This mini scandal was a demonstration about how modern Western media works today: Honest, accurate reporting about the truth is the exception, an accident that jeopardises the author's career.

(the funny version:)
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
McChrystal's Balls - Honorable Discharge
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Western democracies are built on the assumption that the media keeps the electorate informed about reality, in order to enable them to make a decision (vote) in their interest. A democracy with a media failure is a failure, the mere illusion of democracy a.k.a. opiate of the masses.
The latter, more harsh view of the role of the media seems quite fitting in light of the low quality of many TV shows and news shows. (Why the heck should news be a show or entertaining at all!?)

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We cannot tell the media what to do without giving up even the illusion of democracy, so other forms of correction need to be considered.
An improved power balance is a promising idea.
Let's assume that all those crappy journalist who tell us about press releases instead of about actual news really would love to be good reporters, but they fear repercussions (lost "access") too much. Wouldn't it help then to give them more rights, the right to access, for example?

The really, really bad news here is that exactly the country with the McChrystal/Rolling Stone example has a law of that kind - the Freedom of Infomation Act. Similar laws have been enacted in many countries, including Germany (2005). Obviously, this doesn't seem to suffice.

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Another approach than "rights" is power. The classic economic solution against the exploitation of workers by corporations is to allow them to unionise and strike. The union can be roughly as large as the corporation (or the inter-trade organisation) they're facing (members vs. employees). This can roughly balance the previous power asymmetry and lead to greater general welfare.

Similarly, journalists become powerful enough to end their dependence on "access" could as part of a greater mass.
Persistent problems have rarely easy fixes, and this was none as well. Media concentrations have remarkably negative effects on media plurality and the quality of national news. These media concentrations are employer-side concentrations, of course. Would it be possible to build a journalist trade union that can boycott those who use the ability to deny interviews to sanction journalists for no good reason?

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Nowadays we have the internet and thus new forms of media that begin to compete with traditional media organisations. Maybe the new news channels could help to inrease awareness of the problem?

Any way; we should fix our media in order to get better informed on relevant issues.

Maybe I'll live to see a nation in which reporter's relations are not about keeping crap secret and "news" interesting, but about keeping the public (= the sovereign) well-informed.

Sven Ortmann


  1. No, the reason McChrystal got fired is because he is subordinate to the President, who is the Commander in Chief. As such, he should have kept his mouth shut to the media.

    That is not to say that there is anything wrong with Rolling Stone doing its job, but in the chain of command, actions like McChrystal's have consequences, and canning McChrystal was not only entirely justifiable but mandatory if Obama was to maintain any credibility as Commander in Chief.

  2. I know those technicalities, but they're not interesting in my opinion.
    Interesting is that McChrystal would still have that job if the freelance/Rolling Stone reporter had done business as usual.
    The whole thing only became a scandal because a reporter broke ranks and actually sent the truth to print.

    The media's reaction was close to disbelief; how could a reporter value a single good & true story higher than future "access"?

    This was actually similar to the business media's attitude towards CEOs; CNBC, Bloomberg and others are proud about their "access" to CEOs, their ability to deliver meaningless interviews.
    Meanwhile, they failed completely in regard to the bubble, failed to uncover the excessive risks of banks and BPs properly, failed to use whistleblowers to uncover ENRON & Wolrdcom or Maddoff in time.

    I don't care about the particular U.S. esxpectations about apolitical officer corps; Germany has had poor experiences with a apolitical & overly loyal officer corps.
    The media behaviour was the real story in my opinion.

  3. Actually, I think the Internet provides a fine feedback loop to controlling the media.

    Their monopoly on mass information distribution is broken and people get to hear many different voices

  4. Although the Internet definitely has had a significant effect on how people (like us) get their news and political information, it on the other hand is still firmly in control of the same kind of oligarchy.

    This review has some good information regarding this.
    The following graphs from the book really show the situation very well.

  5. I feel the internet tends to act more as an echo-chamber for the mainstream media. What little actual reporting is done online generally succumbs to the same pressures as older media forms. There is some good investigative journalism done online today, but you have to really be looking to find it.

    That said, you certainly have access to a much broader array of opinions and interpretations of events online from Naxalites to Nationalists. It's difficult to say which direction the internet will go as it matures, it might become a competitive environment for quality journalism, or it might get co-opted by the efforts of politicians and certain corporations who want to end net neutrality and exercise quasi-monopilistic control over the internet.

  6. A few things to point out:
    1) The internet is not the web.
    2) Think mile-wide centimeter deep. It isn't the big sites that matter (after all, they can be adsorbed into the controlling collective) it is all the little nooks and crannies that information can spread.
    3) Reorganizing our society around the internet will take a long time. Look at how long it took society to adjust to the printing press.