Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Michael Hastings and His Journalist Enemies

By Spencer Ackerman

My friend Michael Hastings died in Los Angeles on Tuesday. His death leaves a journalistic void, and not just the one created by the loss of a fearless reporter. Michael's untimely death at 33 deprives Washington journalists and national security professionals of one of their favorite people to sneer at, condescend to, and ignorantly deride.
It occurred to me last night, as I stared into the drink I drank to toast my friend's memory, that I spent more time defending Michael to colleagues, military officers, bureaucrats, tweeps and random people than I did actually talking to him in person.
You might think Michael's track record needs no defending. He wrote an immortal Rolling Stone article that exposed a caustic military contempt for the Obama administration and which led within days to the resignation of the Afghanistan war's commanding general, Stanley McChrystal. The coterie of national security journalists around Washington began to fear that there would be a before- and after-Hastings period in journalistic-military relations. Yet, a bit more than a month after the piece, I was in Afghanistan on an embed with the US military, without any evident post-Hastings professional reprisal.
I heard a lot about Hastings while in Afghanistan. Very little of it was from the soldiers and air force personnel I was with. Nearly all of it was from fellow journalists, and none of it was positive. How could Hastings publish off-the-record jibes made by officers who were trying to be welcoming to him, the complaints went; what kind of arrogance led him to want to make a name for himself like this? What was his problem with McChrystal, anyway? Didn't he know McChrystal was trying to rein in the war?
As Michael would spend the rest of his life explaining – I can't believe I'm writing those words – he didn't publish anything that was explicitly off-the-record; but neither did he stop observing the boorish behavior of McChrystal's senior aides while the beers flowed. There's a reasonable professional journalistic debate to be had about what to do with material uttered by sources when they're drunk. But I found few people were interested in chewing over that question. They simply wanted to feel superior to Hastings.
A common complaint I have heard from my fellow national security journalists over the years is: Hastings doesn't have to put the time in. By that, they meant that Hastings could afford the luxury of offending the military, because he didn't spend each day working out of the Pentagon, going on embeds, or otherwise maintaining relationships with the people he covered.

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