U.S. military criticizes McClatchy story on McChrystal in Marjah

McClatchy NewspapersMay 26, 2010 

WASHINGTON — The NATO International Security Assistance Force has criticized the headline on McClatchy's report Monday from Marjah, Afghanistan, "McChrystal calls Marjah a 'bleeding ulcer’ in Afghan campaign," as mischaracterizing the remarks of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan.

Here's the full text of its e-mail Tuesday, addressed to Mark Seibel, McClatchy managing editor, online, and the response by Roy Gutman, McClatchy foreign editor:

Dear Mr. Seibel,

I am writing to you today so that we might come to some agreement about what this command views as a mischaracterization in Dion Nissenbaum's article entitled "McChrystal calls Marjah a 'bleeding ulcer' in Afghan campaign" and other variations on that theme.

The key part of that dialogue that Dion witnessed was "You don't feel it here, but I'll tell you, it's a bleeding ulcer outside." That would have been further clarified by the quote Dion asked to use (which did not appear in the final edited copy) about Gen. McChrystal being asked in Europe and the U.S. whether we are failing. The essence of the comment is not that Marjah itself is going badly: as he said to Dion in a follow on interview on the plane ride back to Kabul — it's largely on track. It's that it's misperceived to be going badly. It's a distinction, but one I'm sure you grasp and one that could have been better conveyed, even accounting for the motive of wanting to generate interest in the story using the sensational quote: "McChrystal calls for action against perceptions of 'bleeding ulcer' in Marjah," etc.

While the "bleeding ulcer" quote was in the discussion that Dion said he'd summarize (and ended up quoting extensively), it's intellectually dishonest for The McClatchy Company to use that quote as a headline that summarizes his position. We need strongly request that the headline be changed in the on-line versions.

Based on the exchange between Dion and Gen. McChrystal's personal PAO, Lt Col Tadd Sholtis, we had every reason to expect a story about mixed progress throughout Central Helmand and an effort to keep operations moving at as rapid a pace as possible against the various challenges. Instead, post-editing, one must read some 14 paragraphs into the story in order to get anything that suggests the picture is mixed, and you need to go 40 paragraphs into the story in order to get anything that explains Gen. McChrystal's actual intent in the dialogues quoted. The elements of a balanced story are there, but with the way it's organized we didn't get one.

Finally, Dion's version of this story that appears on his blog is a much more balanced representation of what actually took place that day.


Gregory J. Smith, Rear Admiral, USN
DCOS Communication
NATO International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan

Dear Adm. Smith,

Thank you for your letter, which criticized the McClatchy headline and the balance in Dion Nissenbaum's story about Gen. McChrystal.

Thanks also to the command for inviting Dion on the Marjah trip and for clearing and elaborating on the quotes. We welcome the opportunity to inform the U.S. (and world) public of the candid discussions that are under way in theater. In part because McClatchy serves 55 American military base communities, we especially welcome the command's open attitude to requests for briefings and embeds from our reporters.

On the headline, though, we've discussed it and do not see it as intellectually dishonest or a mischaracterization. It was drawn from the first part of Gen. McChrystal's statement; "This is a bleeding ulcer right now," and your staff cleared that statement. Moreover, in the context of the opening anecdote, which suggested that outside pressures are intense and political leaders have limited patience, the further exchange Gen. McChrystal had about force levels and the facts on the ground, Marjah is a very problematic place in the short term. It adds up to being a "bleeding ulcer."

Good headlines always pick the most salient point of a story in order to grab reader's attention, and this one did its job. On the issue of balance, the story portrays Gen. McChrystal's trip as a reality check for himself, the troops on the ground and the American public. The news was in his warnings to the troops about the level of political impatience in Washington and in Europe with the operation in Marjah. Our reporting back here confirms the accuracy of his assertions.

The underlying reality that more time is needed, conveyed in the response of the officers on the ground, has also been confirmed to us independently from other sources in the Marjah/Helmand AOR. Having all those elements laid out in the upper part of the story gave it coherence, so we consider the story faithful to the facts on the ground as best we can determine them from Dion's trip and other sources in the AOR.

We hope the story gave the public and policymakers a better understanding of what the U.S. is asking its forces to do in southern Afghanistan and of the obstacles they face.


Roy Gutman
Foreign Editor
McClatchy Newspapers
Washington, D.C.


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