Some journalists are starting to ask whether their coverage of Gen. David Petraeus glossed over difficult questions about his command of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Spencer Ackerman, a senior writer at Wired who covered Petraeus, says the media’s tendency to portray the general as “larger-than-life” is having serious consequences.
“Harder questions about strategy, about the two wars in general that Petraeus had commanded had gotten sort of swept under the rug while focusing on the mystique, the myth of this somewhat super-human figure, Petraeus,” Ackerman says. “Painting him as a super-human has its consequences in moments like this.”
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. New details continue to emerge about the investigation that lead to the resignation of General David Petraeus as CIA Chief. FBI agents had reportedly known since last summer about the extramarital affair between Petraeus and biographer Paula Broadwell, but that information was not shared with the White House at the time because there was no evidence that the affair compromised security or that a crime had been committed. The scandal though represents a huge fall from grace for David Petraeus. He was credited with helping to bring the war in Iraq under control with the so-called surge back in 2007 and 2008. He later got good reviews for his command in Afghanistan as well, before going to the CIA. Spencer Ackerman is a senior writer at Wired who covered Petraeus and he says tough questions about the general’s command were not always asked.
Spencer Ackerman: In particular, the coverage around Petraeus during the surge in 2007 and 2008 was almost uniformly positive. There was some critical reporting indeed, but a lot of it has sort of melted away in the public eye; you know, you had sort of the apotheosis of Petraeus during this Sept. 2007 testimony at Congress. And this was sort of something the Bush administration wanted to cultivate and wanted someone who had such a sterling reputation to be the face of the Iraq war during that period.
Werman: So do any of the revelations about Petraeus’ affair about your own sense that his greatness as a soldier and general was due in part to a subtle but successful media blitz. How much of all of that now colors his ability as a general leader as someone who is now credited with turning the tide in Iraq?
Ackerman: It’s gonna be difficult to disentangle. Nothing in his personal life, you know, when it comes to this affair reflects on his military career. The affair appears to have occurred after he had retired from the Army. The reason why I wrote my piece was because it seemed that there needed to be some stock taken journalistically about the degree to which you know, harder questions about strategy, about the two wars in general that Petraeus had commanded had gotten sort of swept under the rug, while focusing on you know, the mystique, the myth of this, you know, once super human figure of Petraeus. And also painting him as a super human has its consequences in developments like this. The consequences that he doesn’t uphold a kind of enormous outside standard of probity that you know, probably in reality few of us could have.
Werman: And is that because of the kind of very turbocharged media machine that was built up around him? I mean is that why we have this such a great difficulty in disentangling the different strands today?
Ackerman: I think there are two different levels of responsibility. One is the you know, the staff around Petraeus did seem to you know, be able to build him up as this larger than life figure and secondly, there’s the responsibility of journalists to penetrate through that.
Werman: You talk about you know, this interview that you got with General Petraeus when you were embedded in Mosul, I mean basically you were allowed to interview him as long as you went on this long very tough run together. What did that kind of convivial sort of interview yield for you and for him?
Ackerman: I couldn’t complete the entire run, I have to confess to you. I was way too out of shape for that and Petraeus seemed to really enjoy the fact that he could simultaneously lead and exercise class while fending off and entertaining some questions from a journalist about policy and strategy. And you know, I have to confess that you know, it had a kind of subtle effect on me. There really is a cautionary tale in getting too close to the people that you cover. It’s a difficult thing.
Werman: Probably too early to ask this question, but right now knowing what you know, Spencer, what do you think the human foibles of the man actually put national security in doubt?
Ackerman: We need to see if in fact, the general exposed any classified information to Paula Broadwell. We found just now that she you know, gave a speech at the University of Denver on Oct. 26 in which she appears to reveal some at least sensitive or unknown details about the CIA activity in Benghazi. That seems just very surprising that a private citizen would know or would reveal that. While it seems right now that the FBI has concluded that it wasn’t such a breach of national security, there seems to be a lot more to this story that’ll come out in the coming days. I think Petraeus is gonna come back. You know, Washington wise men seem to do so and Petraeus had you know, such a sterling career that it seems that after a period of due self reflection and you know, healing with his family that we’ll see him again on the national stage. A lot of that really will depend on what kind of, you know, jeopard, if any, there was for national security in this instance.
Werman: Spencer Ackerman, a senior writer at Wired. His most recent piece is title How I Was Drawn Into the Cult of David Petraeus. Spencer, thanks a lot.
Ackerman: Thanks so much for having me.
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