'Cult of David Petraeus': Did media perpetuate a myth?
Members of the Pentagon press are shaking their heads in the wake of the David Petraeus scandal. Some think Petraeus's savvy and personable style led them to be too soft on him.
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“The commander of the war in Afghanistan and I ran side by side, talking about great world events,” Mr. Loeb recalls in a post-scandal piece. “I could scarcely believe I was getting this kind of access.”Skip to next paragraph
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Loeb was also embedded with the 101st Airborne Division when it was under the general’s command in 2003. “Petraeus granted me unfettered access to his command headquarters,” he writes, adding that he “found the general – and what he’d accomplished – impressive and inspiring.”
Some of the criticism, like Ackerman’s, is self-reflective. Other reporters point with some anger to the “media-military industrial complex,” in which reporters become fellows at defense industry-backed think tanks, sharing office space “with retired generals whom they’d regularly quote in their stories,” notes Michael Hastings (who wrote the Rolling Stone article that led to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s resignation as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan), in a blog for Buzzfeed.
The stories produced by this relationship served to build up “an unrealistic and superhuman myth around the general that, in the end, did not do Petraeus or the public any favors,” Mr. Hastings writes.
They also helped to deflect tough questions. Though Petraeus provided tremendous access, few real revelations tended to come of it. In other words, the stories tended largely to reinforce Petraeus’s point of view. Even when reporters disagreed with Petraeus, they still used his language.
For example, Petraeus would often say progress on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan was “fragile and reversible.” When reporters quoted him on this line, however, they were still using the word “progress.”
Petraeus’s downfall reveals “that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it,” Ackerman argues.
He recalls an interview he conducted on a morning run with the general as “he calmly parried my wheezed questions.” It was only afterward that he realized “I didn’t gain any useful or insightful answers, just a crazy workout story that I strained to transform into a metaphor for the war.”
The result was a quote from Petraeus noting that war, like running, is exhausting but requires perseverance. Ackerman shakes his head at his own reporting. “Ugh,” he writes.
The verdict among defense reporters digesting the Petraeus fallout, in other words, is that access can be intoxicating. It also can be overrated.