Rolling Stone, which last week published the profile of General Stanley McChrystal that got him removed as the head of the US war effort in Afghanistan, received a lot of criticism over how they had handled the story on the web.
And, to some degree, they certainly deserved it, right? They had the scoop of year, maybe, and they failed to handle it in a way that guaranteed it would drive people to their website. People were somewhat apoplectic that much of Rolling Stone exists behind a paywall accessible through a subscription.
And why not charge for their content? Rolling Stone’s not a charity, a not-for-profit employing people who donate their time putting the magazine together.
Rolling Stone chief Jann Wenner apparently believes that it cost some investment to create the content, it’s not unreasonable to ask people to pay a little — and really is a bit of a bargain. For less than the cost of one issue every month, you get two issues and online access to the complete archives.
And it’s not like Wenner’s some freak out in the wilderness on this. The New Yorker’s David Remnick believes that charging people for content is not unreasonable.
So, here’s my question: is it possible that maybe there was something else behind all of this criticism, some sort of ulterior motive, perhaps?
Probably not — at least on purpose.
What the reaction to the article does show is just how lousy a job the media’s been doing in general (no pun intended).
Pretty much all of the reaction to the story has been about the most salacious quotes in the story — about how McChrystal and his aides personally criticized President Obama and others — and whether the quotes were on the record or off the record.
CBS’s Lara Logan even slammed Rolling Stone writer Michael Hastings, saying he’s “never served his country the way McChrystal has.”
It’s almost as if none of these critics have actually read the piece — just the prurient quotes that have been pulled out.
And why do I think this?
Because if you read the story, you might find that the most disturbing part is not that a general and his top aides are occasionally outspoken and maybe not all that politic.
The most disturbing part is that you get the sense they seem to have doubts about the war itself.
“If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular,” one top aide tells the magazine.
And while much has been made of McChrystal’s supposedly close relationship with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the article makes it clear, the relationship ain’t perfect.
Hastings recounts how the day before the “doomed offensive” in Marja, the general needed to talk to Karzai but was told he was sleeping.
“After several hours of haggling, McChrystal finally enlisted the aid of Afghanistan’s defense minister, who persuaded Karzai’s people to wake the president from his nap.”
A lot of reporters, perhaps upset about being beat or perhaps upset by a freelancer writing something a lot of beat reporters haven’t written (see Politico’s now infamously deleted: “And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks”), chose to ignore the substance of what Hastings wrote and focused on the titilating.
And, if you have any doubt that the thing about the paywall is a red herring, for weeks Rolling Stone has been running astoundingly detailed pieces about the failure of the Interior Department to do its job, the pieces have been free on the website and really, no one’s picked them up.
People should not be surprised that Rolling Stone does great reporting.
And maybe they should do a better job of promoting their own stuff.
But let’s be real about what this is all about. People would rather focus on salacious than substance (I’m not saying everyone, clearly there’s lots of great, great, great reporting going on) and, as a result, sometimes they miss stuff and they’d rather have people not notice so they engage in misdirection.
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