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Page Six Blackmail, Rummy & General George S. Patton

By David Mastio

Just as the facts of The New York Post's Page 6 blackmail scandal were oozing out in all their juicy detail a few days back, on the other side of the journalistic world, a gaggle of retired generals started complaining up a storm in an effort to get Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld fired.

The two stories seem totally unrelated, but if there is one thing that gets journalists worked into a self-righteous fury, it is news that lets reporters loudly express previously held opinions from behind the patina of objective news stories.

Before the faintest hint of blackmail, plenty of journalists already had it in for Page 6. Gossip isn't really journalism and gossip about the gossips is just too juicy to pass up. And, well, the owner of the Post is also the owner of that evil cable "news" network beating the pants off CNN, so no self-respecting mainstream journalist can pass up the opportunity to take a poke at Murdoch.

In the same vein, over at the Pentagon, before the first general said boo, military reporters already thought that Rumsfeld was messing things up in Iraq. Watch their press conferences with Rummy on C-Span and you can just see the frustration dripping from their every question.

It turns out that a little blackmail and wartime personnel changes also have a funny historical resonance.

Everyone who has cable has seen at least part of the legendary movie "Patton" for which George C. Scott won an Oscar (also 1970's best pic and best directing). One of the classic anecdotes in the movie, presented in an only slightly twisted fashion, is the famous slapping incident. Patton finds a couple enlisted men lying in hospital beds suffering only from "shell shock" next to men still bleeding - and dying - from terrible wounds. In a rage, Patton slaps the soldiers around, as he later explains, in an effort to reawaken their self-respect. Things go downhill from there.

There's an interesting bit of history that didn't make it into the movie related in a classic Patton biography A Genius for War by Carlo D'Este.

Fairly quickly after the slapping incident, the Saturday Evening Posts's Demaree Bess, NBC's Merrill Mueller, Newsweek's Al Newman and John Charles Daly of CBS got wind of the story and interviewed some of the witnesses. Rather than file the story, they decided, along with some other journalists covering the Seventh Army, that the Supreme Allied Commander - Eisenhower - needed to know what was going on.

According to D'Este, even as the fighting in Sicily continued, Bess, Mueller and another writer, Quentin Reynolds of Collier's flew to see Ike. "In return for killing the story, they wanted Patton fired," D'Este writes.

In other words, in the middle of a war, a gaggle of journalists tried to blackmail America's top general into firing one of his most effective subordinates. They didn't succeed, because as Eisenhower wrote, "Patton is indispensable to the war effort - one of the guarantors of our victory."

No, blackmail is not par for the course among journalists. But there is a lesson here. No matter how well versed they get to be in a subject, journalists are not really experts and they don't have all the information that folks at the top have.

Journalists also don't have the right perspective. When Eisenhower was deciding whether to give Patton the boot, he had to be thinking about the next campaign - and what generals he had on hand to command the next battles. Ike knew he would be held accountable for his decisions. Journalists don't think that way.

If the European war lingered on into 1946 because we didn't have our best generals at the front, nobody was going to blame some Newsweek reporter named Al Newman. Just as Ike was the one with all the information to decide on Patton, George Bush is the one to decide on Rummy, no matter what Jamie McIntyre thinks.

David Mastio, a former Bush administration speechwriter and editorial writer for USA Today, is the editor of InOpinion.com.


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