A bridge-burning journalist whose loyalty was to the public
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 left 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:
My 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 Los Angeles on June 18 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 to ask, “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, like this statement from his McChrystal expose: “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 about media priorities.)
McChrystal’s replacement, Gen. David Petraeus, was a favorite of most of the press corps (FAIR Blog, 11/13/12), 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 own image; arguing for BuzzFeed to publish in full a testy exchange between himself and a Hillary Clinton aide, Hastings (BuzzFeed, 6/19/13) 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 the occupation of foreign lands, many would say Michael Hastings did much more for his country than Stanley McChrystal ever did.