Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How Petraeus courted the press

By Howard Kurtz, CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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.

(CNN) -- 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.

Watch: Are the media unfairly trashing Paula Broadwell in Petraeus scandal?

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

Consider, for instance, the way NBC's Andrea Mitchell, who broke the story of Petraeus' resignation on Friday, described her scoop.

Media verdict on Obama victory
Matthews regrets Sandy comment
Broadwell explains access to Petraeus
CIA Director David Petraeus stepped down Friday, November 9, 2012, citing an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Many questions surround the affair, including why it was necessary for Petraeus to resign and the future of his marriage to his wife, Holly. Here's a look at other U.S. sexual scandals that led to political stumbles and downfalls. CIA Director David Petraeus stepped down Friday, November 9, 2012, citing an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. Many questions surround the affair, including why it was necessary for Petraeus to resign and the future of his marriage to his wife, Holly. Here's a look at other U.S. sexual scandals that led to political stumbles and downfalls.
Public figures, private missteps
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Photos: Public figures, private missteps Photos: Public figures, private missteps

"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."

Watch: Why are the media obsessing on Hillary Clinton and 2016?

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.

Watch: Karl Rove rejects reality on Fox News

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:

King: Petraeus' resignation doesn't preclude testimony

"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."

Watch: Why Barack and Michelle photo went viral

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.

What's your reaction to Petraeus' resignation? Sound off with CNN iReport

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.

King: Petraeus story 'doesn't add up'

House majority leader knew of Petraeus affair in October

Petraeus letter: 'I showed extremely poor judgment'

Opinion: How Petraeus changed the U.S. military

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT