NYT Public Editor Joins Critics of Hastings Obit

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan

In death as in life, journalist Michael Hastings is creating a public debate on good journalism.

After the New York Times received criticism for its harsh obituary of Hastings (6/19/13), Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (6/22/13) responded with an article headlined, “Hastings Obituary Did Not Capture His Adversarial Spirit.”

Sullivan wrote, “An obituary of the journalist Michael Hastings missed an opportunity to convey to Times readers what a distinctive figure he was in American journalism.”

The paper had published an obituary which read to many (FAIR Blog6/20/13) as an attempt to discredit his most prominent work: the Rolling Stone article (6/22/10) that brought down U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. One passage from the obituary read:

An inquiry into the article by the Defense Department inspector general the next year found “insufficient” evidence of wrongdoing by the general, his military aides and civilian advisers.

The inspector general’s report also questioned the accuracy of some aspects of the article, which was repeatedly defended by Mr. Hastings and Rolling Stone.

In her take on the obit, Sullivan said that while “the obituary…is not factually inaccurate, as far as I can tell,” she said it “seems to diminish his work’s legitimacy.”  She asked obituaries Editor Bill McDonald “to respond to the complaints that the obituary gave the Pentagon inquiry undue emphasis,” and printed his response:

In a 12-paragraph obit, that aspect of his story came up in paragraphs 6 and 7, after calling him in the lead paragraph “intrepid,” noting the Polk Award for his work and recounting the considerable impact his article had. Only then did we report–as we must, if we’re going to write an honest obit about him–that the article triggered a Pentagon investigation and an inspector general’s report, which challenged Mr. Hastings’ reporting. That was a pretty newsworthy development and an inescapable part of his story, and in an obit of 425 words or so, we dealt with it in about 50.

(McDonald’s characterization of the inspector general’s report as having “challenged Mr. Hastings reporting” is dubious; it was primarily concerned with whether McChrystal or others had committed punishable offenses under the military code, which was not an argument that Hastings’ article made.)

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings

While Sullivan observed that obituaries don’t necessarily have to be nice (“An obituary is not intended to be a tribute. It is a news story about the life of a notable person”), she suggested that the Times gave scant space to the qualities that made Hastings deserving of an obituary in the first place:

The Pentagon references, suggesting a debunking of the Rolling Stone article’s conclusions, got more space than what many consider to be essential information about Mr. Hastings: that he was a fearless disturber of the peace who believed not in playing along with those in power, but in radical truth-telling.

She noted that a quote from BuzzFeed, Hastings’ last outlet, was originally in the online version of the obit but was cut for space from the print version, which is the edit that goes into archives like Nexis:

Michael Hastings was really only interested in writing stories someone didn’t want him to write–often his subjects; occasionally his editor. While there is no template for a great reporter, he was one for reasons that were intrinsic to who he was: ambitious, skeptical of power and conventional wisdom, and incredibly brave.

If there wasn’t space for that, Sullivan noted, a tweet from the Freedom of the Press Foundation hit home more succinctly:

Rest in peace Michael Hastings, a journalist’s journalist, who embodied the First Amendment’s adversarial spirit.