Michael Hastings, remembered

The Week
Michael Hastings participates in a discussion on journalism and politics in Washington D.C. last year.
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Michael Hastings participates in a discussion on journalism and politics in Washington D.C. last year.

A young war journalist dies

Michael Hastings was the type of national security reporter I didn't have the guts to be.

"A dick?"

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I guess — well, yes. A dick. A dick to those in power. Fearless. Someone who didn't care what others thought of him.

I had given the news of Hastings' death to a military contact of mine, someone who venerated one of the men that Hastings did not, and my contact was very rude and blunt in his assessment. Hastings had been, apparently, a dick to him.

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I didn't know Hastings well. We exchanged emails a few times.

I do know that he was actively disliked by government higher-ups. He was a rule-breaker. He didn't follow tradition, or customs, or habit. He was not deferential.

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From my limited interactions with Hastings, I could tell that he thrived off of that defiance. He found the relationship between war reporters and the generals and admirals they cover to be much too cozy, and then he went along and did something about it.

He forced the Pope, Gen. Stanley McChrystal — a decorated Ranger, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and a former commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command — to abdicate his throne. And then he wrote a book about it.

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I place Hastings in a cadre of other young writers (Jeremy Scahill and Daphne Eviatar are two) who rigorously interrogate powerful interests and become advocates for those bullied by government power. They see generals and admirals and wonder not how to cultivate them as sources but instead what they're doing to abuse their power.

Unlike muckrackers of the past — Jack Anderson comes to mind — they don't make deals with the devil to bring down other devils. Eviatar is simply tenacious. Scahill is relentless. Stories in search of unflinching, uncompromising advocates seem to be attracted to their energy.

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I am no Michael Hastings and I probably never will be. My temperament and orientation is different. I approach my subjects from a different angle and I ask different questions. I do pretty well for myself.

But when I'm in the arena with people like Hastings, I'm always forced to check myself. This continuing, largely backgrounded argument between those who want to blow the house down and those who want to renovate it is valuable for journalism. It sharpens our edges and keeps those in power constantly guessing.

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Hastings was a combatant.

He died yesterday in a car crash a few miles from where I live. He leaves behind a wife, Elise, and many, many friends.

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