ON THE RECORD: Rick Atkinson

Rick Atkinson, a Hoover media fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter, sat down with the Review’s Tristan Abbey for an exclusive interview on February 14. The following are excerpts from that interview. To view the entire transcript, please visit www.stanfordreview.org.

When did mainstream journalists stop being Ernie Pyle? Is this a good or bad development?

I’m not sure it’s either good or bad because if you define yourself as a mainstream journalist that means that you’re adhering to a certain set of strictures, a credo of sorts, and if you don’t buy into that then you probably don’t consider yourself a mainstream journalist…
I think the problem becomes when there’s either confusion in the mind of the purveyor of this kind of journalism or confusion in the mind of the consumer of this sort of information. If you are a consumer and you believe that a highly opinionated, highly skewed source of information is, in fact, purporting to be mainstream, purporting to be objective, purporting to adhere to the strictures that many of us who grew up in the brace of the Washington Post and the New York Times espouse, then I think that’s problematic.

Is there in some a sense a divorce between the journalist and the nation, that journalists are no longer rooting for the troops—is that detectable in the reporting, in the attitudes of journalists?

Well, it’s not the job of the journalist, and never has been, to root for the troops, or to root for the cause, or to be a proponent for either an individual or the collective. You’ve certainly found, in recent years, journalists being criticized for growing too close to the troops. It’s one of the central criticisms of the embedding process, that by virtue of living and, in some cases, dying with soldiers you become, naturally, quite emotionally attached to them.

I know this to be the case from having spent time with the 101st Airborne, among other units—but Iraq in 2003 with the 101st—and I will always feel a little flutter when I see that Screaming Eagles patch, because I’ve got lots of friends from there….

This is way before you were born, but I can remember during the Vietnam War the definition of “alienation” was said to be “when your country’s at war and you’re rooting for the other side to win.” I don’t think we’re there. I don’t think there’s anybody that I know who calls himself a journalist of any stripe who is espousing the cause of the insurgents.

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