There’s no doubt that the sex scandal that prompted CIA director David Petraeus’s sudden resignation late last week is a big story. New details–verified or not–seem to arrive almost by the hour.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams called him (11/9/12) a “a man of such sterling reputation,” and confided on the air to one guest that “it is impossible to be a member of the military establishment, it’s impossible to be a journalist who has covered these wars going back 10 years and not know Dave Petraeus, as you and I both do–soldier, scholar, Princeton PhD.”
The New York Times (11/11/12) referred to the “dazzling career” of a “soldier-scholar blazing with ambition and intellect,” a “slender fitness fanatic” who was “known as a brainy ascetic.”
On CBS‘s Face the Nation (11/11/12), David Gergen proclaimed: “I think it’s a tragedy for the country. David Petraeus, a warrior scholar, I think he has been one of the finest leaders of his generation. He is an iconic figure for any number of young troops.”
The reporter who broke the story also sounded pained by the whole affair. Appearing on MSNBC with Rachel Maddow (11/9/12), Andrea Mitchell began by saying:
I have to tell you. I don’t take any pleasure in this…in the sense that this is really a personal tragedy. And there are families involved. People involved on all sides. And the men and women of the CIA, an agency that has many things to be proud about, many things to be proud about that, and that is under fire right now for other reasons.
CNN host Wolf Blitzer (11/9/12) sounded grave as well, calling the resignation
a very, very sad moment given his distinguished military career, his career more recently in the intelligence community, one of the most brilliant generals by all accounts we have had over the years, a Ph.D., graduate of Princeton University. Somebody who is not only a general, but a scholar who knows the stuff and by all accounts doing an excellent job over at the CIA. So it is a very sad moment not only for him and his family, but for everyone who knows him and indeed for the country right now.
In case that wasn’t clear, Blitzer reiterated: “I want to just underscore how sad this is for the U.S. military, the Army, the CIA, indeed the country, that someone of this stature must end a career under these circumstances.”
The thing about corporate media’s love affair with Petraeus that there were never any attempts to hide it. As ABC military reporter Martha Raddatz once put it (6/23/10): “A warrior and a scholar, Petraeus is sometimes jokingly referred to as a water walker, since almost everything he touches seems to turn to gold.” Or as David Ignatius of the Washington Post wrote: (12/29/10):
I’ve seen Petraeus give many briefings over the years, and it’s a bit like watching a magician at work. Even though you’ve seen the trick before, and you know the patter, you still get mesmerized.
Petraeus understood how to use the media, and reporters understood that regular contact with a military commander was unusual. As CNN‘s Erin Burnett (11/12/12) summed up: “He made us all feel special. How quickly he would respond to e-mails. Yes.”
Now, there are some who regret how they covered him. Wired‘s Spencer Ackerman wrote a thoughtful piece (11/11/12) headlined “How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus.” He observed that “Petraeus recognized that the spirited back-and-forth that journalists like could be a powerful weapon in his arsenal.” He added:
To be clear, none of this was the old quid-pro-quo of access for positive coverage. It worked more subtly than that: The more I interacted with his staff, the more persuasive their points seemed.
So it wasn’t just that Petraeus and his staff kept in touch–they could also convince you that they were right.
But the self-reflection has its limits. On CNN‘s Reliable Sources (11/11/12), Howard Kurtz said this to USA Today reporter Jackie Kucinich:
But that access, Jackie Kucinich, that Petraeus granted to some journalists, military journalists and others, has really produced a lifetime of favorable coverage, of positive headlines. I mean, this is a guy who had a terrific image. At least in part–I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve it, I’m not saying he didn’t accomplish a lot in Iraq and Afghanistan, risking his own life, but in part because he courted the press.
Kurtz’s comments illustrate the limits of this criticism in corporate media: Petraeus’s accessibility no doubt impacted coverage, but his record as a military commander deserved much of the praise it received.
Journalist Michael Hastings, whose book The Operators takes a critical look at the Afghan War, had a much different view. “More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image,” he argued (BuzzFeed, 11/11/12).
Hastings points to Petraeus’ failures in Iraq, starting with a troubled 2004 program to train Iraqi security forces. He adds:
On his final Iraq tour, during the so-called “surge,” he pulled off what is perhaps the most impressive con job in recent American history. He convinced the entire Washington establishment that we won the war.
And the “success” of Petraeus’ Iraq surge led to an escalation of the Afghan War based on the notion that the same could happen there. A critical assessment of Petraeus’s record could also be found on Democracy Now! (11/12/12), courtesy of guest Juan Cole. But those discussions were few and far between.
A more typical media reaction might be that of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who writes (11/13/12) that Petraues should be replaced as head of the CIA with… Petraeus:
But now that it has all been done, is there a better man to fill Petraeus’s CIA seat than Petraeus himself? He is blackmail-proof and more than qualified for the job.