Right Opinion

The Unwritten Code

Roy Exum · Jul. 5, 2010

It is tragic. No one will dispute Stanley McCrystal is one of the most brilliant generals the United States Army has ever had. But as word comes he will get to keep his fourth star when he soon resigns from the only job he’s ever known, I find I must mourn the plight of his executioner.

This may sound funny but I’ve known a handful of guys like Michael Hastings, the scruffy free-lance writer whose gossipy article in Rolling Stone magazine just shattered the general’s entire career. His piece is entitled “The Runaway General” and it appropriately begins with the single sentence, “‘How’d I get screwed into going to this dinner?’ demands Gen. Stanley McChrystal.”

Suffice it to say the article tumbles downhill from there and, as you ask yourself how I dare label any general as “brilliant” who is so stupid he agrees to be profiled in Rolling Stone magazine, let’s just say there are hundreds of others who have also been slain by printer’s ink.

What saddens me is that being a reporter is the same as any other profession. There are great writers and there are bad ones. There are those full of values and character and there are those who are a little lean. Henceforth, every reader becomes a judge and few ever render the same verdict.

I know virtually nothing about Michael Hastings. The first red-light indicator is that he glories in being an imbedded war correspondent. The second “red” comes when you hear that after a stint turned sour with another magazine, he wrote a vicious article bashing his former employer. But the biggest factor is that the writer has endured a rash of personal tragedies himself, including a fiancée who got herself killed doing the same thing and a sad history of substance abuse.

Like I said, I’ve known some others like Michael down through the years in the news business. It used to be most of the “free thinkers” would flame out but, in recent years, after they have lost their appeal and standing they’ve become editors of magazines similar to Rolling Stone (read “drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll”) and hired other bozos just like them.

That’s why, now with increasing volume, you hear an outcry over “the liberal media” or “unprincipled reporting” or “gotcha journalism.” It used to be when a newspaper reporter would cover the courthouse he would wear a coat and tie, or she a tasteful dress, but nowadays this new breed of journalist more often resembles a defendant.

That, then, becomes the greatest tragedy of all. Here we have a famed general whose entire career has been devoted to excellence, and endless study, and the sacrifice of spending only one month a home all year. Yet instead of an enemy bullet, he is felled by a punk kid who most probably would benefit from psychiatric help.

Back in my days as an imbedded reporter, when I covered the Southeastern Conference football “wars,” I heard all sorts of tantalizing tales over late-night beers with SEC generals and their staffs. Some of these tidbits would definitely have an impact on an impending battle had they been written but you didn’t dare reveal them because it would violate the code.

All of the old reporters knew that the unwritten code was one of confidentiality and, back then, those who broke it a time or two didn’t ever last very long. Instead of the fun nights after practice, they wound up as some proof readers somewhere who never could figure out why suddenly they were going home to watch Ozzie and Harriett.

Think about it. Just as cream will rise to the top of cow-fresh milk, the same is true with doctors, teachers and even lawyers (in most cases). Nothing takes the places of integrity, character and principle. You watch Stan McCrystal. He’s 55 years old and something great is bound to happen next. He didn’t get to where was by being “ordinary” and, in the years ahead, he will excel at whatever he does.

Michael Hasting, however, best be on guard. This month he’s the talk of Washington. He’s the guy who wrote an article that brought a general down. Oh, wow! Right now he’s giving interviews but then what? Another war? Another city? No matter what it is or where, I can guarantee he won’t be invited to go out with the others.

People who break the code hardly ever last and while Michael Hastings has a marvelous ability with words, his Waterloo will come when he finally realizes of all the hurdles he’s faced, when a writer breaks the code the nib on his pen usually doesn’t last much longer.

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