Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone writer whose reporting compelled the White House to fire Gen. Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, does not mince words when it comes to allegations that he broke pre-arranged ground rules or agreements to go off the record.
"They were lying," Hastings said, referring to the unnamed sources who leveled the accusations last month as fallout from his story mounted. "What they said to The Washington Post and, I think, to the Army Times is fiction. And they know that."
He was speaking Thursday at a small luncheon hosted by the American Society of Magazine Editors.
Not only did he adhere to the ground rules, Hastings said; he even went beyond them, running some quotes from McChrystal's staff without attribution that he had every right to attach to names. He did that not to protect the speakers, he said, but merely as "an editorial decision."
"Whatever ground rules were put down, we followed them," he said. "Whenever someone said something was off the record, I followed that. There is absolutely no gray area here. How it works is the reporter goes and hangs out with a subject and writes down what the subject says and does."
One bit of evidence that Hastings played fair: He's already been approved by the military for another assignment. "There's actually an embed that's waiting for me in Afghanistan," he said.
A 'Fake Controversy'
Hastings dismissed as a "fake controversy" the idea, propagated by The New York Times's David Brooks and a few others, that he somehow took advantage of his subjects' trust or naivete. Never for a moment, he says, could they have failed to realize they were in the presence of a reporter. "I don't look like these guys," he said. "The only thing I was missing was the Matt Drudge press hat."
McChrystal and his aides said what they said, he believes, not because he lulled them into a false sense of security but because they already had a false sense of security going in. "His team viewed themselves as basically untouchable," he said. Such was their confidence, Hastings himself failed to realize the potential impact of the material they were giving him. "I was thinking it would get people's attention in Washington for maybe six hours or so."
Hastings said he personally found McChrystal charming and likable, but he didn't think being likable generally makes much difference in how a subject gets portrayed when there's a juicy story to be written. "These guys are nice guys," he said. "I'm a nice guy. We're all nice guys. Who gives a shit?"
Despite the danger illustrated so vividly by McChrystal's downfall, he said, people will continue talking to journalists -- and to him personally -- because there's something in it for them, he said. "Having a journalist around is like having a pet bear. Most of the time it's really cool, but once in a while it'll bite your hand off."
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