NEW YORK (Reuters) - When the U.S. military gave Rolling Stone magazine access to the top general for Afghanistan, they probably hoped for a positive profile that might lure new recruits, not a scandal that would cost the general his job.
So says Rolling Stone Executive Editor Eric Bates on why his writer, Michael Hastings, was given enough unfettered access to General Stanley McChrystal for the “The Runaway General” piece that it brought down the commander.
“They (the U.S. military) give us access because a lot of our readers are younger, and being able to reach a younger generation is really imperative to them,” Bates told Reuters.
Bates said the youth culture magazine has a long history of in-depth military coverage and a proud reputation for hard-hitting reporting.
But with America fighting messy wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said the Pentagon might have expected that a positive profile in Rolling Stone of the general leading operations in Afghanistan might boost recruitment.
Instead the profile portrayed McChrystal and his aides making disparaging comments about U.S. President Barack Obama and other civilian leaders, prompting the commander-in-chief to relieve McChrystal of his command Wednesday.
Bates said he was not surprised McChrystal was so forthcoming and blunt, saying the military leader saw himself as a “terrorist hunter” with “cowboy style.”
Indeed, he said, most of the general’s most explosive remarks came within five hours of Rolling Stone’s reporter gaining access to him.
Bates said that suggested McChrystal was “extremely frustrated with the progress of his strategy” in Afghanistan and with some civilian leaders in the White House and that he wanted the profile to shift the debate.
Founded in San Francisco in 1967 by Jann Wenner, who remains editor and publisher, and music critic Ralph J. Gleason, the magazine helped define the youth culture of the 1970s and built a reputation for in-depth, colorful, new journalism.
Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” began as a contribution to the magazine. Tom Wolfe’s book “The Right Stuff” had its genesis in pieces for the magazine on the depression some astronauts suffer after being to the moon.
And “The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse, about reporters covering the 1972 U.S. presidential campaign, began in the pages of the magazine and is studied by journalism students to this day.
Recently, Rolling Stone’s reputation has been buoyed by a piece on the Obama administration bungling BP’s catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill and an article on Goldman Sachs that became known for its description of the Wall Street giant as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Vanity Fair media critic Michael Wolff credits the magazine with “a 40-year history of knowing how to do this type of journalism.”
“Rolling Stone has always been receptive to these kind of old-fashioned investigative reporting big pieces,” Wolff said. “These are the pieces you can score big with and the pieces that also require a lot of luck.”
Wolff said since Rolling Stone does not face the pressure of producing such explosive pieces every week — a pressure facing struggling news weeklies like Newsweek and Time — that when it does get a big story, it makes a huge splash.