Michael Hastings died last night at the age of 33, the victim of a "a fiery car crash in Hollywood." He reported from the ground in both of America's hot wars, and he died in a car crash in Hollywood. As one of the journalists who was lucky to know him, first admiring his work as a reader then thinking "Oh thank God" whenever we reconnected on the 2012 campaign trail, I'm having trouble working through the pathetic injustice of this situation.
Hastings was a cynic blessed with talent and purpose, and he was a survivor. When he was 25, he moved to Baghdad. His girlfriend followed him there, and died there. He wrote a memoir about his heartbreak and it was leaked to snotty New York literati, who mocked it on the Internet. The controversy (Hastings would tell people later, with a remarkable lack of bitterness) opened the gate to legal purgatory. Hastings bounced back with an embed job covering the 2008 campaign for Newsweek. He endured it as long as he could, then quit and wrote about the horrors for GQ. Had he stayed, he wrote, "he would have come to truly hate his campaign staff and their smug belief, based, unfortunately, on an accurate reading of the past, that they can lie to our faces and we’ll swallow it." Instead he bounced back again, writing a story from Afghanistan that ended the career of Stanley McChrystal.
I didn't meet Hastings until 2012, at the lamest possible place—a post-White House Correspondents' Dinner brunch. He took my compliments, we talked about what was wrong with political reporting, and we stayed friendly through the 2012 campaign. Hastings was not just nice, he gave so freely of his time and advice and energy that you wondered how he did his own work. But it's no fun when reporters remember a casual acquaintance by keeping themselves in the story. Ben Smith's tribute to Hastings stands on its own. Anyway, all my good memories of Hastings involve him slumming it on the trail. Nothing good he told me failed to make it into print, which is a terrific rule for a journalist. If you're keeping a lid on the story, why? If you won't tell it, who will?
The time he got told off by a Hillary Clinton aide while reporting the Benghazi story. Hastings emailed Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton aide who'd moved with her to the State Department, after Reines attacked CNN for reporting on the contents of the late Ambassador Chris Stevens' journal. "Why didn’t the State Department search the consulate and find AMB Steven’s diary first?" asked Hastings. "What other potential valuable intelligence was left behind that could have been picked up by apparently anyone searching the grounds? Was any classified or top secret material also left?"
Reines sent a long, snippy response, deriding Hastings for the way he'd approached the story. "I believe that you of all people," he wrote, "after famously being accused of violating agreed upon ground rules and questionable sourcing, would agree that it’s important for a news organization to maintain its own integrity if it is to be trusted." He was shaming him for the story that took down a general and won the National Magazine Award. Remember, the person who wrote this email was paid by your tax dollars as a representative of your government. The exchange continued, and Hastings baited Reines so effectively that he won a cowed apology.
The time he trashed the 2012 campaign writ large. Hastings published an e-book, Panic 2012, after the race was over. It pissed off reporters who'd played by the rules of access, and who thought Hastings treated them unfairly. He'd expected that; in his 2008 GQ story, he wrote that "the price you pay as a reporter for writing stuff that doesn’t echo the campaign’s message is excommunication from your sources," and it was obvious he'd never succumb to that. So he wrote an expose of the campaign trail, not the campaign. (There was original reporting about the mechanics of the Obama campaign's Web ops, too, if you're into that.) Readers learned all about the snooty rules that promote big-name reporters and leave cameramen in steerage, of the source-greasing that reporters do for no real gain, and of the personalities that shape the news for them. His digression about Jay Carney dismissed him as a sycophant with "a serious, $10,000-a-day habit of following presidents around the country and the world."
Carney's bias, even at Time, was never to the right or to the left -- his bias had always been against news itself. No one I spoke to could remember a single story Carney had written.
Hastings wasn't really interested in power. He was interested in what power did to people. He wrote for his readers, not to please his sources, as witnessed in
The time he refused to be chided by Rahm Emanuel. Also in Panic, Hastings recounted a post-election event that he recorded and attended to get close to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After the speech he tried to ask Emanuel about his advocacy for an Obama super PAC. Emanuel wouldn't co-operate. "You're from Rolling Stone," he said. "I'm gonna be really clear. You guys have screwed two professional people. One of them is the president of the United States." Hastings kept his recorder rolling.
MH: You insulted me. I'm a journalist. There were no ground rules there. There was a videotape. And I'm politely asking you a question -- that's my job.
RE: And I'm being polite to you, on the record to you. I'm not gonna ... what you did to Stanley McChrystal.
MH: I didn't do anything to Stanley McChrystal. You guys shouldn't have escalated in Afghanistan.
After the interview, Hastings fended off an aide who wanted the recording to be deleted. Here, again, was an example of a public servant acting unaccountable, for no public purpose. Had Hastings been sheepish, it would have been another off-the-record anecdote about Rahm Emanuel being a jerk. It became an on-the-record story about Emanuel looking clownish.
In his obituary of Hastings, Ben Smith links him to the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson and of oppositional Watergate-era journalism. That feels right—Hastings blended the best of both styles. Political journalism, if you approach it the wrong way, is a high-speed ticket to the world of the comfortable. You're not supposed to use that ticket. You're supposed to afflict the comfortable. You're supposed to make them hate you, fear hearing from you, and tell you things they know they shouldn't. I'm worried about all the unaccountable S.O.B.s who'll never have to worry about Michael Hastings reporting on them. Reporters: Give them something to worry about.