What’s the Role of a Journalist: To Cozy Up to Power or Uncover the Truth?

If you haven’t yet read Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece that got Gen. Stanley McChrystal booted from his job as the top commander in Afghanistan, do so here. It’s a marvelous scoop of reporting, not just for the snarky jibes McChrystal and his aides threw at Obama administration officials, but also for its revelations on how badly the United States is losing this war. Now, Hastings, a freelance reporter, is being criticized for exposing the insults and embarrassing behavior. Lara Logan, a foreign correspondent for CBS, blasted Hastings on CNN for what she felt was a breach of trust on his part that could possibly damage journalists’ relations with the military. Watch Hastings defend himself, followed by Logan’s remarks below:

But Logan quickly got blowback herself. Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, an outspoken investigative reporter most famously known for his recent exposes on the financial crisis, excoriated Logan on his blog, and accused her and others in the mainstream media of putting access to people in power above serving the public they are supposed to work for. Taibbi’s writing is not for the faint of heart (he’s quite liberal with expletives), but what he has to say on this subject is well worth reading.

Like Taibbi, I am just as deeply disturbed by Logan’s comments, as they say a lot about what’s wrong with American television and newspaper coverage today. Printing puff pieces about the military’s exploits in the war theater is not the job of any reporter – embedded or not. Being a stenographer for the government is not a reporter’s job either. And, contrary to what Logan believes, presenting “balanced,” “he said-she said” coverage is doing a disservice to the public, who, in order to make sound political decisions, absolutely needs to know who is telling the truth.

A story may not just have two sides, but many, and one side may be outright lying. The public has a right to know that, and the journalist needs to expose the lie – or the embarrassing behavior – that may be hindering progress. If journalists can’t get access to interview people in power, they must be resourceful and get the information they need some other way. It is doable and has been done many times before by independent journalists around the world. Neither should Logan, CBS nor any other mainstream media outlet be public relations representatives for the military. That kind of attitude is what got us into these wars.