You don’t need a McCrystal ball to see an embedded hack is a bad idea

YOU have to ask why on earth General McCrystal agreed to have a journalist embedded with him for eight weeks.

What was in it for him? He’s already been promoted by the President. Admittedly, he has some issues with the President and the White House gang, but not even a man this thick would have consciously set out to change their attitudes and behaviours through a magazine.

You also have to ask if the General had never heard of the scorpion and the frog. The apocryphal scorpion meets a frog on the bank of a river. Quite a broad river.

“Hello, Frog,” says the scorpion.

“Hi, Scorpion,” responds the frog, giving him a capital letter out of instinctive respect, not to say cowardice. Scorpions are the Revenue Commissioners of the animal kingdom. You don’t want to draw them on you without reason.

“Any chance of a lift across this here river?” the scorpion goes on.

“All due respect, Scorpion, I’d be out of my mind. You’d sting me.”

“Frog, think this through. If I sting you, you die and sink. Therefore, I drown.”

“Good point. Hop on.”

It doesn’t look pretty, the resultant two-storey ferry, but it works. Up to a point. That point being the mid-section of the river. Halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog, paralysing him.

“Why the hell did you do that?” the frog asks, as it sinks. “Now we’re both going to drown.”

“It’s in my nature,” says the sinking scorpion.

Now, when a contributing journalist to Rolling Stone asks permission to hang around with you, day and night, for eight weeks, what’s likely to be in the journalist’s nature?

If he was a warm and cuddly pal who wanted to present the best aspects of you to the wider public, he’d be in public relations, not journalism. Warm and cuddly have nothing to do with journalism for the good and simple reason that neither sells newspapers. Warm and cuddly certainly don’t sell Rolling Stone.

Anybody who had conducted even the most basic armchair intelligence work would have established that maybe an amber light was indicated on this embedded journalist thing.

McCrystal didn’t even have to do his own research. All he had to do was call in the top bod from his internal PR outfit and put the suggestion to them: should he have an embedded journalist for Rolling Stone with him for eight weeks, said journalist’s purpose, the production of a magazine profile feature?

“You out of your cotton-pickin’ mind?” the major or one-star general in charge of PR would have said, adding a “Sir” to take the harm out of it.

“The hack’s gonna spend eight weeks with you? He ain’t gonna produce a generally positive piece, sure as shootin’. Sir. Every time you drop your trousers, he’s gonna include the trouser- dropping. He won’t find your normal decision making processes interesting enough for a feature. Sir.”

PR people frequently try to throw themselves in this fashion in front of a client who is demonstrating an in-built urge for self-immolation. They get it in the neck, no matter what the client decides. If the client turns down the media opportunity, praising the PR advisor’s wisdom, they secretly harbour resentment and believe the PR person to be overly cautious and insufficiently imaginative. If they over-ride the PR person’s advice and a McCrystal happens, the PR person still gets walloped, because either they were regarded as so minor that they didn’t even get asked for their advice or they gave rotten advice when they were asked.

Now, here’s a little insider trading from the PR front. The client cordially hated by all PR executives is the one who knows a smidgeon about PR and who’s done well when she or he has talked to media. In PR terms, a little learning is a seriously dangerous thing. It empowers clients to give voice to their inner gobshite. They decide the PR person doesn’t like any media opportunity that comes directly to the client and not through normal channels, is a control freak past their sell-by date and it’s time to take independent action. So they leap from the airplane without a parachute and are surprised to be reminded about the law of gravity by going splat on the ground.

McCrystal’s splat opportunity came because he didn’t think it through and work out that when someone hangs around you for a while, but has no great function in your life, as long as they’re civil and shut up and don’t get in your way, you’re going to begin to quite like having them around. They become part of the family. You’re sufficiently at ease with them to talk freely. Way too freely, in McCrystal’s case, allowing the Rolling Stone guy to do what his employer would always want him to do. He captured General McCrystal and General McCrystal’s inner circle saying stuff that an inner circle might say among themselves, but which, printed in a magazine and publicised by advance press releases, read like the stuff of treason. The General was summoned to the White House and fired.

In past times, to be relieved of your post at the top of an army by your ultimate commander, the President of the United States of America, would have been the shame-slicked road to disgraced anonymity. Just a couple of decades ago, a guy like McCrystal would have fallen off the radar fast and permanently, appearing maybe once, maybe a decade later, in one of those “Where are they now?” features.

These days, however, he’ll be bombarded with offers to write books or present TV programmes.

That’s what’s just happened with Eliot Spitzer, a former US mayor of heel-clicking rectitude who got caught with prostitutes, him apparently being a frequent customer of their services. Named, shamed and ousted. But – in the golden circle of notoriety – that was just the beginning of a new career, as presenter of a CNN current affairs programme.

Spitzer didn’t win the job through talent or skill. He won it through notoriety. Somebody in CNN decided that viewers would tune in to see someone notorious.

Disgrace is currently the biggest attraction on TV. Witness the serial meltdown of Kerry Katona, whose frequent outings on TV are like a scientific experiment proving that someone with a spectacularly ghastly childhood is likely to inflict a variation of the same on their own offspring.

Next up for a big job on TV through the disgrace audition is Al Gore, separated from his wife, accused of paying for late-night massages and doing more than his fair share of groping. Reinvented, he is. Ready for his next career.

If that next career is on TV, let us pray it doesn’t involve him kissing anyone onscreen. The memory of that wife-kissing episode makes us wonder why we didn’t spot the breakup coming. I mean, what happily married couple would ever do that marathon in front of the world’s cameras?

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