Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Petraeus courted the press

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
updated 4:01 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: David Petraeus long had a good relationship with the media
  • He says the general's courtship of journalists brought him favorable headlines
  • Kurtz: In coverage of scandal that led to resignation, media have given him benefit of doubt
  • He says the press has given Petraeus a pass on question about security in Benghazi

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- David Petraeus had another love affair long before the one that cost him his job running the CIA.

It was with the press.

The retired general's skillful courtship of journalists brought him a career's worth of favorable headlines and has, to a remarkable degree, softened the coverage of his fall from grace. Petraeus accomplished this in part by granting reporters access -- though none quite as extraordinary as that accorded his biographer, Paula Broadwell, who several news organizations have identified as the other woman in the extramarital affair he has acknowledged.

Watch: Are the media unfairly trashing Paula Broadwell in Petraeus scandal?

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Consider, for instance, the way NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who broke the story of Petraeus' resignation on Friday, described her scoop.

Media verdict on Obama victory
Matthews regrets Sandy comment
Broadwell explains access to Petraeus
CIA Director David Petraeus stepped down Friday, November 9, 2012, citing an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Many questions surround the affair, including why it was necessary for Petraeus to resign and the future of his marriage to his wife, Holly. Here's a look at other U.S. sexual scandals that led to political stumbles and downfalls. CIA Director David Petraeus stepped down Friday, November 9, 2012, citing an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Many questions surround the affair, including why it was necessary for Petraeus to resign and the future of his marriage to his wife, Holly. Here's a look at other U.S. sexual scandals that led to political stumbles and downfalls.
Public figures, private missteps
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Photos: Public figures, private missteps Photos: Public figures, private missteps

"I don't take any pleasure in this in the sense that this is really a personal tragedy," Mitchell said on MSNBC. "Having covered Gen. Petraeus myself here and overseas, I am absolutely convinced from all the communications I have had from people directly involved that this was a matter of honor."

Watch: Why are the media obsessing on Hillary Clinton and 2016?

As NBC's longtime defense correspondent Fred Francis told me on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Petraeus would call him and other reporters regularly to chat off the record or on background.

Little surprise, then, that the tone of the coverage could be summed up as "huh?" Did Petraeus really have to quit over a garden-variety affair? Was this some sort of ploy to avoid testifying this week on the fatal attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi? Turns out FBI investigators stumbled upon the affair while looking into Petraeus' e-mail account.

Watch: Karl Rove rejects reality on Fox News

His earlier relationships with journalists yielded benefits for both sides. During the Iraq invasion in 2003, Petraeus, then commanding the 101st Airborne, allowed Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson to shadow him, including on a Black Hawk helicopter. Here is just one passage from what Atkinson, a stellar military reporter, later turned into a book:

King: Petraeus' resignation doesn't preclude testimony

"We stood 15 feet beyond the tent flap. I blinked at the swirling dust, and felt grit between my molars. When Petraeus turned to face me, I was alarmed to see how troubled his blue eyes were. "This thing is turning [bad]," he said.

"The 3 ID" -- the 3rd Infantry Division, fighting just ahead of the 101st around Najaf -- "is in danger of running out of food and water. They lost two Abrams and a Bradley last night, although they got the crews out. The corps commander sounds tired."

Petraeus famously turned to Atkinson and said: "Tell me how this ends."

Watch: Why Barack and Michelle photo went viral

Now that kind of access isn't just smoke and mirrors; Petraeus ran the risk that the mission might have been a disaster. But he trusted journalists, took them into his confidence, and in return was portrayed as a swashbuckling general, military intellectual and, eventually, potential presidential candidate. Newsweek even ran a feature on Petraeus' "Rules for Living." (The author? Paula Broadwell.)

This is not to say the plaudits weren't deserved. Petraeus literally wrote the manual on counterinsurgency, made important gains while leading George W. Bush's surge in Iraq, and adjusted strategy when President Barack Obama asked him to oversee the war in Afghanistan.

But since Obama sent Petraeus to Langley last year, he has kept an unusually low profile. As questions swirled about the CIA's role in the Benghazi tragedy, he said nothing publicly. A CIA director without the deep media relationships that Petraeus enjoyed would have faced a torrent of stories about why he was missing in action and whether he had bungled the job of diplomatic security. Instead, the press gave Petraeus a pass.

What's your reaction to Petraeus' resignation? Sound off with CNN iReport

Maybe that's true on his career-ending episode as well. But that has hardly been the case with Broadwell, whose e-mails triggered an FBI investigation. (In hindsight, it might not have been the height of discretion to do a television tour about your book "All In," talking about how awesome your subject is.)

Author Tom Ricks, who portrayed Petraeus favorably in his Iraq war book "Fiasco," writes on Foreign Policy's website:

"Petraeus took the samurai route and insisted that he had done a dishonorable thing and now had to try to balance it by doing the honorable thing and stepping down as CIA director. But why? Petraeus is retired from the military. If the affair happened back when he was on active duty, it is part of the past. And there is nothing illegal about civilians having affairs."

Maybe that's the right tone. But contrast it with the way that politicians and business executives routinely get pummeled for fooling around -- though it's different, and should be, if subordinates are involved (or an intern, in Bill Clinton's case, or a housekeeper, as in Arnold Schwarzenegger's).

News flash: Even top officials are human. They succumb to temptation. And they get a lot more sympathy in times of trouble from journalists they have befriended.

King: Petraeus story 'doesn't add up'

House majority leader knew of Petraeus affair in October

Petraeus letter: 'I showed extremely poor judgment'

Opinion: How Petraeus changed the U.S. military

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:15 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:28 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT