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. And he was warm and honest in a way that left him many unlikely friends among people you'd expect to hate him.
Michael, who died at the age of 33 in a high-speed wreck in Los Angeles early Tuesday morning, wasn't like any reporter I've ever worked with. He found conflict constantly, but never by accident. We fought, first, over the adjectives in his stories — "discredited" was a favorite — and then over his theories, which were typically the opposite of whatever I was hearing from my Washington sources. In the meantime I marveled at his talent and at the thing I hadn't particularly expected: his generosity.
The talent first. That is the reason Michael's death was news to so many people who didn't know him personally, the reason his stories hit a nerve almost without fail.
Michael's journalistic roots were in the 1970s, in gonzo writers like Hunter S. Thompson who flung their bodies at the story, and often got hurt. He had been badly hurt once: His fiancée was killed in Baghdad in January 2007, when he was a Newsweek reporter there, and her death was still utterly raw to him when he published his first book, I Lost My Love in Baghdad.
And then the other part: He knew how to tell it. He knew that there are certain truths that nobody has an interest in speaking, ones that will make both your subjects and their enemies uncomfortable. They're stories that don't get told because nobody in power has much of an interest in telling them — the story, for instance, of how a president is getting rolled by his generals.
There is perpetual handwringing in journalism about how to make Worthy topics interesting to a broad audience. The simple fact is that Michael had discovered the answer: Make it about power and sex and personality and conflict (because, by the way, it usually is) and — and here's the real trick — draw a straight and clear line between the vibrant reporting and the point. His most vivid scenes, set in the carnage of Baghdad at its worst days, or in the grim light of pay-per-view in an Iowa hotel room, were never gratuitous. Michael's most famous story, the one that got General Stanley McChrystal fired, was a great yarn, but it was also about something: a military leadership that had turned its tactical sophistication inward, and trapped a president it disdained into a war he didn't want to fight. The story helped push the American government to pull out of Afghanistan, not because a general said some bad words, but because those words conveyed the general's sense of superiority to his civilian masters.
Michael found those stories because he never forgot his job. It is so easy, and so basically human, for journalists to want the people around them — including their sources — to be their friends. 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 what he was there — in Denver, or Paris, or Hollywood — for. He was there to tell his readers what was going on.
Michael made people nervous — he made me nervous — with his jittery energy and what Tim Dickinson, in his obituary of Michael, called his "enthusiastic breaches of the conventions of access journalism." (He also knew this about himself: When we started emailing, in January 2012, about his coming to work for BuzzFeed, he included this codicil: "I'd need a clause somewhere in the contract that says if BuzzFeed fires me for saying or writing something controversial or offensive on BuzzFeed or on Twitter or elsewhere, there will have to be some kind of severance payment. I have a demonstrated ability to really piss powerful people off, and I would need some kind of assurance that BuzzFeed has my back, 120 percent.") That intense sense of responsibility was to his readers — "friends," he typically began his tweets — not to his sources, and so he had no time for implied off-the-record agreements or of the clubbiness of the traveling press corps. It takes an enormous level of tolerance for awkward social situations to infuriate the small group of people with whom you are traveling, eating, and sleeping for weeks on end. He did that, mostly for good reasons, with the protection only of a pair of giant headphones.
Michael had made no secret of his lacerating views of much of the political press — his 2010 GQ article on the experience was filled with self-loathing, too, for having been part of the machine. ("Jacking off in a hotel room was not unlike the larger experience of campaign reporting.") But he also couldn't control his curiosity. When we began talking that January, he wrote that while "I have a pretty good gig … the pull of the campaign trail is always very real," he had an instinct that we were doing something "fairly unique/hot/exciting." And so he somehow persuaded his Rolling Stone editors to let him dive into the campaign for BuzzFeed, while persuading me to let him, somehow, amid the 96 pieces he wrote for us, to complete a powerful story about "America's Last Prisoner of War" for Rolling Stone.
And this time out on the trail, he ran in the other direction. He infuriated his peers by breaking unwritten rules: He wrote about events that were presumed, though not stipulated, to be off the record; he wrote about what reporters said and did; and he wrote that the president had joined a cocktail hour with the press, though he respected his agreement not to report on the substance of the conversation. He knew his role was to tell his readers what he knew — not to hold things back. He liked to quote an old Newsweek colleague, Peter Goldman: "Journalists' behavior is always on the record."
His own certainly was. He is the anti-hero of his campaign book, Panic 2012, and included a scene of his own intemperate, drunken rage at another reporter, as well as a familiarity with "my cooler than thou persona," which backfired when he found himself about to meet Obama, "dressed like a beachcomber" in shorts and a pink T-shirt. He scrambled to put on a suit.
Great journalists take themselves and their work seriously because it is serious; they know the power they wield. Michael knew how good he was, how much damage he could do. He was shy of playing gotcha games with junior staffers — his target was always the principal.
He cared about his image — he worked out hard, looked good in clothes and in pictures, and enjoyed it — but he always cared more about the story. One day last fall, he had a furious exchange with a spokesman for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. His impulse, and mine, was to print the back-and-forth, the crucial exchange of which was:
Reines: Why do you bother to ask questions you've already decided you know the answers to?
Hastings: Why don't you give answers that aren't bullshit for a change?
But there was a problem: Michael had not exactly conducted himself as well-mannered professional in the exchange. "You will look," I pointed out to him, "like an asshole."
"Everyone knows I'm an asshole," he said. "The point is that they're assholes."
Michael had a great nose for conventional wisdom and conventional taste, and a visceral, irresistible urge to run the other way. If every reporter in Washington knew that Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama's close aide and friend, is a disaster — the view of her internal enemies, who happen to be closer to the press — Michael's impulse was to find the other narrative: The "Revolt of the White Male Ego" (capital letters Michael's). If the problem with reporting on an Afghan hospital scandal was that the images were simply too horrifying to print, Michael wanted to use a new medium to display them all.
Michael's curiosity took him to Hollywood, his last beat. There, he saw the same thing he had seen in Washington and Afghanistan: power and its abuse and its devastating effect on a man's life.
Michael's large sense of himself and of his abilities could, and perhaps should, have made him into that feared caricature, the egomaniacal bigfoot magazine writer. But unlike most ambitious and successful reporters in their thirties, Michael was also intensely interested in the younger people around him. I didn't particularly expect him to show up to work at BuzzFeed — he was one of those magazine writers who did their own thing — but during the spring and summer of 2012, before he encased himself in giant headphones for the mortal combat of the Obama campaign charter — he was there most days. He gaped at the exotica an editor sitting beside him collected from dark corners of the internet. He invited the whole office to his apartment after our holiday party. He was obsessed with online animal culture and with the corgi, Bobby Sneakers, he shared with his wife, Elise Jordan. He was more obsessed, only, with Elise, whose thoughts, plans, and prospects he couldn't stop talking about when I last saw him in New York two weeks ago.
Michael always had time for advice to young reporters, many of whom really got to learn from him. He handed out scoops to the kids around him — sometimes based on complicated calculations about his own byline, sometimes out of pure generosity. He gave great, sensible advice: "Go to D.C. for a couple of years, it's money in the bank, source-wise, even if you hate it." A half-dozen young reporters walked away with a bit of his fairy dust.
Perhaps most to Michael's credit, though, is the esteem of his enemies. I asked Michael's advice not long ago for who to call for a story about David Petraeus' comeback, expecting a list of haters. Michael's definitive story on the former general and CIA director had, after all, begun, "The fraud that General David Petraeus perpetrated on America started many years before the general seduced Paula Broadwell…"
Instead, Michael gave me the emails of some of Petraeus' closest friends and allies. "I shouldn't mention your name, right?" I asked. "Actually," he said, "I should"; and his name, of all things, prompted people devoted to Petraeus to talk openly and freely to me. I still haven't quite figured that one out.
Tuesday night, one prominent defense intellectual whose views on counterinsurgency operations, among other factors, had meant Michael never much liked him, messaged me.
"I was struggling to explain to my wife why the death of Michael Hastings made me sad. He didn't much like me, and I didn't much like him," he wrote. "But I respected his pluck and his courage, even when I disagreed with him."
Some of that was Michael's warmth, charm, and charisma. Some of it, I think, was the opposite: His anger and fearlessness made working with him, or against him, something more than the usual journalistic transaction. There's a relief in dealing with someone and knowing where he stands.
In a way, Michael was born too late: He wrote with the sort of commitment of the generation of reporters shaped by the government's lies about Vietnam, not by the triumphalism of the 1990s or the reflexive patriotism of the years after 9/11. He was surer than most of us that power is, presumptively, not to be trusted. Writers of his courage and talent are so rare, and he was taken way too soon. There are few like him. We will miss him terribly.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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