The recent resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Afghanistan commander, was in no small part the result of the in-depth writing of independent journalist Michael Hastings of Rolling Stone magazine.

When President Obama accepted McChrystal’s resignation from his post, he was quick to offer the scathing condemnation that the former commander’s remarks about administration officials represented conduct that “… undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic process.”

A free press whereby reporters are able to reveal facts crucial to any citizen who wants to be informed about our country’s actions is also an integral part of our democratic process. Hastings has been both widely praised and strongly criticized for giving the reading public important, verifiable facts about significant people in the military, practices and policies in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Can the same vigilance in reportage be attributed to America’s mainstream press? To a too-large extent, the answer is a resounding “no.”

The reality is that much of the mainstream media is too deeply dependent on access to the Pentagon and other government entities to rock the boat and risk losing all flow of information.

“If someone tells you something is off the record, I don’t print it. If they don’t tell me something is off the record, then it’s fair game,” Hastings told host Howard Kurtz on CNN’s Reliable Source program.

But the writer went on to characterize the nature of the access game that many journalists feel compelled to play. “There’s a reason why when Gen McChrystal took the job, everyone writes a glowing profile of him, because then that assures access later on. And, that assures they’ll get better access later.”

But, Jamie McIntyre, CNN’s senior Pentagon affairs correspondent from 1992 to 2008, spoke on his blog recently of a “dirty little secret” among beat reporters: “Gen. McChrystal might have been under the misimpression Hastings would protect him, in return for the great access and candor. The dirty little secret among beat reporters who routinely travel with top military officials is that there is an unwritten code, a general understanding that off-color jokes, irreverent banter, and casual conversations are off-the-record unless otherwise agreed upon.”

But even McIntyre conceded on NPR’s On the Media program that the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the legal code for U.S. armed forces, explicitly bars contemptuous remarks by military officers about the commander-in-chief. Essentially, Hastings should be commended, at the very least, for exposing a military officer whom he witnessed violating military law.

Certainly, independent journalism is about more than this current news story. The broader issue, even in this case, is why the mainstream media seem so reluctant to ask tougher questions and demand comprehensible answers.

What, for example, are we really still doing in Afghanistan? Is it worth all the bloodshed and social, political and economic consequences? If so, please explain that reasoning in terms that the average U.S. citizen can understand. Who is running this thing? What is the actual agenda?

When we speak of independent journalism, not bound by corporate media, we are speaking of a relatively small segment of our news outlets. Even with the blogosphere, websites such as the Huffington Post, Alternet and publications such as Mother Jones, the amount of non-commentary investigative reporting is still very limited.

Independent journalists clearly have limited access to the White House, government agencies and corporate entities. Dedicated informed readers must sift through a lot of muck to piece together anything resembling a full picture of any one issue.

The responsibility of any journalist and editor worth her oats is to ethically serve the public interest by providing timely, accurate information on issues of significance.

Feeding the public with puff pieces, infotainment and emotional hype at the expense of hard facts is antithetical to good journalism.

Watchdog and investigative reporting should not be subverted by the media becoming buddies with the subject of inquiry. Journalism is a discipline, believe it or not, and form over substance simply won’t cut it, ever.

The corporate media are probably necessary, but they score poorly when it comes to fulfilling the ideal of a media that reflect a democratic society. Too often our newspapers, online, radio and television media cheer on the military- industrial complex, big banks, etc., while sweeping under the rug the news that the average person should know.

There may seem to be a very diverse body of viewpoints being expressed on our broadcasts, satellites, cable, Internet and print, but in reality, the media are more like a mixed hodgepodge of conflicting information that do less to inform the public and more to confuse them.

We need more independent journalists who are inspired and paid to sift through the chaos.

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer and a New York Times Fellow at the International Longevity Center USA. He can be contacted at:

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