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.
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.
Consider, for instance, the way NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, who broke the story of Petraeus’ resignation on Friday, described her scoop.
“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.”
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.
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:
“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.”
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.
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.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.