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How did reporters know so much, so fast, about McMaster?



This post is about journalistic process—how the work of reporting actually happens. For illustrative purposes, I will focus on the appointment of Gen. McMaster as National Security Advisor.

Now, very few of us had ever heard of him before this weekend, when he appeared at Trump’s side. Naturally, we were curious about him. Who is he? What has he done? What sort of General? Most of all, we wanted to know about his character—for “character is destiny,” as Heraclitus noted 2,500 years ago.

We didn’t have to wait very long to learn about the General’s character. Within moments, literally, of the official announcement, we heard the most glowing encomiums about him.

“A smart strategic thinker,” Forbes told us.

“The smartest and most capable military officer of his generation,” CNN proclaimed.

“Widely respected,” said the New York Times.

“Fiercely outspoken,” said the Washington Post.

“The Army’s smartest officer,” said Slate.

“A long and distinguished career,” said NBC.

“A cutting-edge strategist,” said the Washington Times.

Now, McMaster may well be all these things. I don’t know. But, as a journalist myself, who understands how reporting works, here’s my question: How did these media come up so quickly with all this flattery? How do they know these things before they’ve even had time to do basic research? I mean, within minutes of the appointment, every media outlet—right and left, print, broadcast and digital—had McMaster walking on water.

I’m not talking about fast info on things like what books he’s written, what commands he’s held, and other aspects of his curriculum vitae. I mean the stuff about his character. How do reporters come to these lofty conclusions almost immediately?

Think about it: If you’re a reporter, you should have at least 3 sources for most stories–more, even, for something this big. You have to call them or text or email them, or even meet with them. It takes time; they don’t always get back to you instantly when you leave a message. Or someone will say, “You know, I’m not the best person for what you’re looking for. Try ____.” You can check out Google and Wikipedia, but those, too, take time, and are not always reliable. Journalism doesn’t happen fast; it’s not microwaved food, it’s a slow-cooked stew. And yet, we saw absolute unanimity about McMaster, in little more than the time it takes to blink.

One explanation I’ve heard for this phenomenon is that McMaster is well-known among journalistic circles, so that the Big Reporters at Big Media have been acquainted with him for years. I “get” that. When I was a wine journalist, there were certain people in the industry I called all the time—and so did the other writers—because they were credentialed, and would take the time to answer questions, both on and off the record. Such individuals are worth their weight in gold to reporters, who are always on deadline and need reputable people to quote.

Still, I always was aware of the downside: you have to be very careful about your sources. You may like them, you may respect them, you may trust them—but never forget that they, too, have agendas.

I don’t know what McMaster’s agenda is, if he has one. He may be just the right guy to control Trump’s impulses (although, to be honest, I doubt it). But we should wonder about the swiftness with which these glowing accolades were showered upon McMaster. In this era of fake news, and especially with an administration addicted to it, we need to demand the most rigorous standards of reporting.

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