A promising young reporter's life was tragically cut short when Michael Hastings died in a car crash early Tuesday morning at the age of thirty-three. Hastings exemplified intrepid journalism at its best.
His crowning glory was a 2010 Rolling Stone piece that took down General Stanley McChrystal, the then-commander of the war effort in Afghanistan. Due to the aura of Rolling Stone, Hastings managed to get the confidence of McChrystal and his advisers, catching them making intemperate comments and dissing politicians randomly.
Here's a typical exchange from the piece: "Are you asking about Vice President Biden?" McChrystal says with a laugh. "Who's that?" "Biden?" suggests a top adviser. "Did you say: Bite Me?"
The story was about much more than the injudicious banter that McChrystal engaged in with his coterie. It also captured the frustration a lot of U.S. soldiers felt with the command staff in Afghanistan and questioned the wisdom of the Afghan enterprise. But the comments were what did McChrystal in. President Obama made him resign.
"The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be met by -- set by -- a commanding general," Obama said. "It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system."
Hastings turned the article into a book, "The Operators," that became a bestseller and received favorable critical attention, including in The Progressive. I read the book, too, and found it to be a delight in its mix of rich detail and gonzo-style reportage.
"I never expected the McChrystal story to have the impact that it did," Hastings said. "It forced me to try to top the reporting. I think we succeeded at that."
He indeed did. Hastings did a number of other impressive pieces for Rolling Stone, including an expose of the U.S. Army's use of psy-ops to influence Senators and a report on the drone war. By the time he wrote the McChrystal profile, Hastings already had a book out, "I Lost My Love in Baghdad," about the killing of his fiancée in Iraq while he was covering the war for Newsweek. At the time of his death, Hastings was working for BuzzFeed.
Hastings was famously irascible, and even managed to get a Hillary Clinton aide to completely lose his cool. But he often channeled his temper in the best of ways.
"Michael was angry. He was also loving, and thoughtful, and constructive, and brilliant, but he was angry about things that weren't right in the world," Rachel Maddow said in a touching tribute. "He was angry with things that weren't right in the world, and with war, and with loss, and that drove his reporting and it made him fearless when he realized he had found something important that he could report."
Even the establishment media joined in the homage to Hastings.
"Hastings is today, and will likely continue to be, remembered as the journalist who brought down a four-star general and the face of the war in Afghanistan," said the Washington Post's Max Fisher. "But that story was just one piece of a remarkable but too-short career of speaking the truths that no one else was willing to, keeping his notepad open when others might have closed it, a refusal to play by the unspoken rules, and a delightful disobedience to which we were all beneficiaries."
Last year on Reddit, Hastings offered ten tips to aspiring journalists. They included:
"You basically have to be willing to devote your life to journalism if you want to break in."
"You really have to love writing and reporting. Like it's more important to you than anything else in your life -- family, friends, social life, whatever."
More journalists need to follow the advice of Michael Hastings so that the incredible work he did doesn't die with him.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive and co-editor of the Progressive Media Project, is the author of "Islam" Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today (Praeger).