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Since Gen. David Petraeus’ resignation as CIA director, after admitting to an extramarital affair, many journalists are asking, “Were we too easy on him all along?”
“Like many in the press, nearly every national politician, and lots of members of Petraeus’ brain trust over the years, I played a role in the creation of the legend around David Petraeus,” writes national security reporter Spencer Ackerman in a Wired piece published Sunday entitled, “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus.”
Ackerman uses his own relationship with the general to highlight how easily the press was swayed by Petraeus’ intellect, personality and willingness to engage with reporters. “I bought into it, especially after I found Petraeus to be the rare general who didn’t mind responding to the occasional follow-up request,” he writes.
Petraeus was not only willing to answer questions, but would go so far as to call up reporters, sometimes on a daily basis, just to chat, said former NBC national security reporter Fred Francis on CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
That apparent openness, Ackerman says, was appealing. And over time, Ackerman felt himself questioning whether his reporting was too negative or too ideological, as Petraeus’ staff would sometimes assert.
“To be clear, none of this was the old quid-pro-quo of access for positive coverage,” Ackerman writes. “It worked more subtly than that: the more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed. Nor did I write anything I didn’t believe or couldn’t back up — but in retrospect, I was insufficiently critical.”
The biggest irony surrounding Petraeus’ unexpected downfall is that he became a casualty of the very publicity machine he cultivated to portray him as superhuman. … Another irony that Petraeus’ downfall reveals is that some of us who egotistically thought our coverage of Petraeus and counterinsurgency was so sophisticated were perpetuating myths without fully realizing it.
On the same episode of CNN’s Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz asked Francis, The New York Times’ Peter Baker and USA Today’s Jackie Kucinich whether journalists who came to know Petraeus and trust him over the years have the necessary distance to report on recent events.
“Let’s face it, General Petraeus is well-known with reporters all over town and had spent a lot of time cultivating the media and answering our questions, to his credit, even from long distances and at odd hours of the night, so he probably does get a little more of a break,” Baker said. “I think he did get a benefit of the doubt by virtue of the fact that he had long time relationships with the media.”
Some, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Meet the Press,” question whether his affair could’ve — and maybe should’ve — been separated from his ability to function in his capacity as director of the CIA.
“I wish we could go back to the time when the private lives of our public figures were relevant only if they directly affected their public responsibilities,” Kearns says. “What would we have done if FDR had not been our leader because he had an affair with Lucy Mercer? Think of the productive years that Clinton could have had if Monica Lewinsky hadn’t derailed him.
“We’ve got to figure out a way that we give a private sphere for our public leaders. We’re not going to get the best people in public life if we don’t do that. This thing is really sad. This man was a great general, a great leader, and for his career to come to an end because of a private matter that affects his family and him and evidently doesn’t have national security concerns. I don’t know how you unravel it, but I wish we could.”
The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald called out journalists for making similar statements bemoaning Petraeus’ resignation, seeing it as a byproduct of America’s fascination with and near worship of its military.
“Speaking ill of David Petraeus — or the military or CIA as an institution — is strictly prohibited within our adversarial watchdog press corps,” Greenwald writes. “Thus, even as he resigns in disgrace, leading media figures are alternatively mournful and worshipful as they discuss it.”
Military worship, he writes, is the central religion of America’s political and media culture and journalists are its “most pious high priests.” Journalists often gave Petraeus a pass on issues such as the effectiveness of the Iraqi training program or the validity of statements he made about the Benghazi attack, Greenwald says.
“Yet none of those issues provokes the slightest concern from our intrepid press corps,” Greenwald writes. “His career and reputation could never be damaged, let alone ended, by any of that. Instead, it takes a sex scandal — a revelation that he had carried on a perfectly legal extramarital affair — to force him from power. That is the warped world of Washington.”
BuzzFeed’s Michael Hastings steps outside that world in a fearless 1,700-word story in which the magazine writer known for his no-holds-barred profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal lists a litany of “sins” previously committed, though ignored, by Petraeus.
“More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’s entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth; on deception; on building a false image,” Hastings writes. “How did Petraeus get away with all this for so long? Well, his first affair — and one that matters so much more than the fact he was sleeping with a female or two — was with the media.”
While the media might be sympathetic in their coverage of Petraeus’ resignation, they have not shied away from publishing stories about Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley. The AP identified Kelley on Sunday as the woman who complained about receiving emails from Broadwell. Broadwell, the author of a recent hagiographic book about Petraeus, is believed to be the woman with whom he had the affair.
“There’s no evidence Kelley was having an affair with Petraeus as well — just that she had received emails from Broadwell that warranted a complaint against the 40-year-old married biographer,” writes Jessica Testa on BuzzFeed — one of several news sites to publish photos and facts about Kelley, such as her husband’s job and the cost of their home.
Related: New York Times says “The Ethicist” column is not about Petraeus situation