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McChrystal’s mouth, lack of media savvy, end career

Posted June 29th, 2010 in Media Relations, Public Relations and tagged , , , , , by Jeff Bentoff

Think print is dead? It’s not healthy, but you can’t play taps for it just yet. Consider this: A former counterculture mag that’s evolved and is still kicking, Rolling Stone magazine, just caused the “resignation” and retirement of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

What killed McChrystal’s career wasn’t actually Rolling Stone’s newsprint and ink. It was the general’s mouth – and his lack of understanding of media.

Like many a source, McChrystal grew a bit too comfortable with reporters around him (see New York Times’ Gail Collins funny column) and began to believe that they wouldn’t report his every word. As discussed on NPR’s “On The Media” this week, beat reporters typically don’t write everything they see and hear.

As a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, I developed sources by looking the other way at times. I once wrote about a law enforcement unit conducting a planned drug raid after riding along with the officers. Before the raid, the officers, all plainclothes, met at a bar with me in tow. And they had a drink or two. While on duty. Just a few hours later, they raided a drug house, and ended up drawing weapons to save the life of an undercover officer inside.

Did I write the drinking part of the story? No. Did that help me win their trust in the future? Yes. That said, if the bust had gone bad, maybe I would have written about the drinking. Or if one of them had been in a DWI accident. Was it smart for them to take me to the bar and watch them drink on duty before an armed raid?

I recall being with an elected official I worked for who surprised me by telling a trusted reporter we ran into something, off-the-record, that was very juicy. Off-the-record. Well, not long after, another reporter, a friend of the first reporter, called me, saying she had heard from “a source” that this elected official had said such and such. Guess what? This second reporter wrote the story. It was a huge story. And the elected official had a big headache of a problem that lasted for months.

What McChrystal and others sometimes forget is that reporters have a job to do. Put something juicy in front of them, their job will be to try to get it into the media. Maybe not every time. But you never know.

Another interesting aspect of the Rolling Stone story is that the magazine initially gave excerpts of its story exclusively to AP and didn’t post the story online until the next day. This drove interest in their print edition. As columnist David Carr wrote today, it also drove Time magazine and the website Politico to run PDFs of the print story on their websites – until Rolling Stone demanded their removal.

So, reporting isn’t dead, and neither is print – not within the last few days, anyway.

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