'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.

By , Staff writer

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    Gen. David Petraeus, then-commander of ISAF and US forces in Afghanistan, speaks to the media at his office in Kabul, Afghanistan, in this 2010 file photo.
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The case of former CIA Director David Petraeus has not only caused head-scratching in the halls of the Pentagon and within the intelligence community. It has also inspired journalists to do a bit of soul-searching within their own ranks.
 
 The questions tend to go something like this: Were we too easy on him?

The now-retired four-star general, who ran the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was routinely called the greatest strategic military mind of his generation. While an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, has no direct connection to Mr. Petraeus's military achievements, it does take the glow off the cult of personality that had developed around him. And defense reporters are now acknowledging they played no small part in burnishing that once-shining image.

Why did the press corps – usually so hard-bitten and cynical – come under Petraeus's sway? He was indisputably a genius at cultivating the press. 

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He promptly answered journalist e-mails and had an impressive command of journalistic lingo – like off-the-record, background, and deep background – that remains a bit foggy to the general public, and even many reporters.

“His ability to talk to a reporter for 45 minutes, to flow on-the-record to background or off-the-record and back, and to say meaningful things and not get outside the lane too much – it was the best I’ve ever seen,” recalls retired Col. Pete Mansoor, Petraeus’s executive officer in Iraq, in a piece by Wired defense reporter Spencer Ackerman. 

Writing for the magazine’s Danger Room blog, Mr. Ackerman wrestled with a blunt and brave notion: “How I was drawn into the cult of David Petraeus.” 
 
 Petraeus understood how access could help soften the media's rough edges. The general routinely invited reporters for morning jogs, giving them a sense of being part of the action. “It’s embarrassing to remember that that felt pretty good,” Ackerman recalls.

Vernon Loeb – the Washington Post reporter who ghost-wrote Ms. Broadwell’s book, “The Education of David Petraeus” – also partook in runs with the general.

“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.”

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.

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