Michael Hastings, Bridge-Burning Journalist (1980-2013)

By Jim Naureckas – 15 Comments

You can tell what kind of reporter Michael Hastings was by the kind of reporter who hated him.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that it has impacted, and will impact so adversely, on what had been pretty good military/media relations,” the New York Times’ John Burns told right-wing talkshow host Hugh Hewitt (FAIR Blog, 7/16/10). Burns was discussing Hastings’ Rolling Stone profile (6/22/10) of Stanley McChrystal that ended up costing the general his job running the occupation of Afghanistan–mainly because Hastings kept in all the impolitic comments that McChrystal and his underlings assumed would be discreetly ignored.

Burns expected that any decent reporter would do the same thing:

MichaelHastings-350x450My feeling is that it’s the responsibility of the reporter to judge in those circumstances what is fairly reportable, and what is not, and, to go beyond that, what it is necessary to report.

Hastings, a reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed who died in a car crash in L.A. yesterday at the age of 33, didn’t see it as his job to maintain “good media/military relations,” or to decide what is “necessary to report.” To the contrary–he told CounterSpin (1/27/12) that one of his golden rules for reporting was, “What does everybody know who’s on the inside, but no one’s willing to say or write.”

Hastings never forgot that journalists’ loyalties are supposed to be with the public and not to the government officials whose actions they cover–and that approach distinguished him not only from Burns but from most of his colleagues. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith (6/18/13) recalled in a tribute to his reporter:

Michael cared about friends and was good at making them; it visibly pained him when, late in the 2012 campaign, the reporters around him made little secret of their distrust for him. But he also knew…he was there to tell his readers what was going on.

What Tim Dickinson (Rolling Stone, 6/18/13) called Hastings’ “enthusiastic breaches of the conventions of access journalism” were what enabled him to report the unguarded assessments of the officers running the occupation of Afghanistan: “Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it’s going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm.” It’s not that other reporters didn’t hear such remarks–but they knew better than to report them, or thought they did.

A Politico story quoted by NYU’s Jay Rosen (6/24/10) got at the structural problems that prevent most journalists from telling their readers the truth:

And as a freelance reporter, Hastings would be considered a bigger risk to be given unfettered access, compared with a beat reporter, who would not risk burning bridges by publishing many of McChrystal’s remarks.

(Rosen noted that that line got edited out of later versions of the story, perhaps because it revealed too much.)

McChrystal’s replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, was a favorite of most of the press corps, but Hastings went after exactly what got him that great press: his superlative skills at image management. “More so than any other leading military figure, Petraeus’ entire philosophy has been based on hiding the truth, on deception, on building a false image,” he argued (BuzzFeed, 11/11/12).

Hastings had a refreshing lack of worry about his image; arguing for BuzzFeed to publish in full a testy exchange between himself and a Hillary Clinton aide, Hastings responded to Ben Smith’s warning that the correspondence didn’t make either side look particularly attractive:
“Everyone knows I’m an asshole. The point is that they’re assholes.”

His lack of pretense was evident in his advice to aspiring journalists:

When interviewing for a job, tell the editor how you love to report. How your passion is gathering information. Do not mention how you want to be a writer, use the word “prose,” or that deep down you have a sinking suspicion you are the next Norman Mailer.

Joining the general panic at Hastings’ escape from the herd with his McChrystal piece, CBS’s Lara Logan told CNN’s Reliable Sources (6/27/10; FAIR Blog, 6/28/10):

I mean, the question is, really, is what General McChrystal and his aides are doing so egregious, that they deserved to end a career like McChrystal’s? Michael Hastings has never served his country the way McChrystal has.

Given the relative benefits to the United States of an aggressive free press compared to occupying foreign lands, many would say Michael Hastings served his country much better than Stanley McChrystal ever did.

About Jim Naureckas
Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR’s bimonthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR’s website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR’s program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.


Guy Montag
1 week ago
Both of Hasting’s books are well worth reading. His 2008 book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad,” is especially poignant now; his first fiancée died in a car that was set on fire in an ambush.
Last June, I exchanged emails with Michael after I wrote a post annotating his 2012 book “The Operators” about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s central role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s 2004 friendly-fire death in Afghanistan. In January, he thanked me for sending him my post about McChrystal’s disingenuous memoir (see “Something to Die For” & “Never Shall I Fail My Comrades” at the Feral Firefighter blog). I now regret never calling him with the phone numbers he gave me in his last email.
I’ll miss Michael’s honest, no BS reporting that is sadly lacking among the stenographic mainstream press (e.g. we both wrote about our unpleasant interactions with the Pentagon’s NYT reporter Thom Shanker).
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1 week ago
Love FAIR. But this regurgitation:”died in a car crash in L.A.” is not what we expect from you. Not even a glancing mention of the suspicious circumstances that we all now what happened?
1 week ago
well said and well done, jim. here’s my little tribute to my friend and colleague. http://therenodispatch.blogspot.com/2013/06/the-sad-death-of-one-of-americas-last.html
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1 week ago

I certainly hope that Mr. Hasting’s friends use their investigative skills to present some facts and the possibility of murder. Who shot the video of the accident? Why was he out at 4 PM? What do fire fighters and mechanics make of the accident? What was he investigating? Was he threatened? It seems that he would not just lament a friend’s suspicious death.
What a brave man. When others were talking about the Petraeus affair, he asked why and identified the General’s Shia death squads and creation of a civil war.
1 week ago

Correction: Why was he out at 4 AM?
Sara Landers
1 week ago
to Mary:
Mr. Hastings was a brilliant and brave journalist but to suggest his death was anything than what it was is ridiculous. There were eye witnesses who have said they first heard the car speeding and looked up to see him hit and tree and the car burst into flames. While he was all. the good things said about it, he was 33 and possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs and his driving was impaired. Who knows why he was out at 4 AM. He could have been on an assignment, or any reason, but that is hardly a reason to suspect a conspiracy or murder!!!
1 week ago
This reporter was apparently about to report on John Brennan recently appointed head of the CIA, and past preparer of the “kill list” for Pres. O. That his work may have meant the end of two Generals active in the field of imperial wars and occupation — what would be their qualms about a little payback? What about John Brennan who has demonstrated his lack of what might be called elegance whenever he gets close to a camera or microphone? I have no info. and if I did it would have to be hearsay, but I can’t discount the idea that something very much out of the ordinary occurred. Remember, Brennan was a GW Bush appointee before Pres. O. Should this help one’s imagination, a bit?
Kathleen Murphy
1 week ago

To Sara Landers,
Let’s get one thing straight, an explosion is NOT a “car accident,” and we should all expect better from FAIR than joining the corporate chorus on that one. And if the testimony of the witnesses meant anything to you, you would’ve also noticed that they all said they heard, and felt, an explosion. (Perhaps those witnesses will be soon be threatened by the FBI to stop saying it was explosion?)
I find it hard to believe that a person who (was it just a day before?), advises his friends to have a lawyer present if the FBI comes around asking questions, then immediately turns around to be so stupid as to drive 100 mph in a residential zone???? Really? And, as you inventively suggest- “33 and may have been under the influence” -a nice little character bashing of someone you don’t even know, shame on you! (But, “it has to be a car accident because there’s no possible way it was a murder” -right? A cowardly circular argument, please GROW …UP!!!!)
And now all we have left is an FBI denial that it was even investigating Michael Hastings? Sorry, I’m going to believe Michael Hastings before I ever believe the FBI. (But perhaps that image of “33 and under the influence while driving 100 mph in a residential area” is going to help the FBI look more credible in the public mind?)
This idea that every person who doesn’t trust our corporate government’s version of events is a “stupid conspiracy theorist,” is a symptom of cognitive dissonance that Americans collectively need to snap out of -or we will never get out from under the thumb of the fascist corporate dictatorship which is unfolding every day, before our very eyes.
Please, FAIR, have the maturity to care more about the facts than preserving some superficial public image that you are not like… Alex Jones? You are over-doing it this time with this Michael Hastings “car accident” story and impressing no one.
David Lloyd-Jones
1 week ago

Well, so much for “Reliable Sources,” which was always my sign to turn off the TV on Sunday morning: Howie’s gone (back?) to Fox.
I’ve always prided myself on my enemies, who select themselves well, and I think Hastings could do the same.
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Jack Y
6 days ago

Not to pile on you Sarah…but your knee jerk reaction to bring up intoxication is kind of strange to say the least. Where did that come from. I guess we will never know though…since the car EXPLODED upon impact and his body is said to have been burned beyond recognition. This does not normally happen in a car accident…even a 100 MPH head on collision. I do media history now…but I have worked on many a car and have many friends who do that as a profession today…unless a car is sitting there for awhile leaking gas, the new cars don’t “EXPLODE!”.
And FAIR…you could have left it at “died in a single car accident early in the morning. An investigation is still underway.” It reminded me of a news blip I remember seeing late at night/early morning from way back…when Headline News was young and a day or two before the Noriega trial. The lead government “witness” was killed in a single car accident…ran in to a building all by himself. Even as a late teen/early 20 something then I thought to myself…really? The government lets their star witness go for a ride alone right before a trial they claim is historic. I assumed he was taking to the witness coaching very well. Imagine how many powerful people Noriega had dirt on in the drug running circles.
Always being a “coincidence theorist” is no less naive or intellectually dishonest than always being a “conspiracy theorist”.
Hopefully I’ll get to meet you on the other side Michael:-) Not too soon though!