What We Owe Michael Hastings

I met Michael Hastings (1980-2013) three times.

The first time was in the middle of the chaos of the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago and the accompanying mass protests. Hastings, unlike the other journalists I knew who were in town, was there covering the summit and the protests – he had the much-sought credentials to get access to the VIP side of the security barriers, to watch the world leaders and generals meet firsthand.

The rest of the credentialed press corps – whom Hastings later described as “one of the most boring collectives of journalists ever assembled … very keen on not missing any press releases handed out at the NATO media desk” – weren’t that interested in getting a view from the wrong side of the fences and police lines. Hastings was, and he was more than happy to come hang out on the front steps of the apartment in which I was putting up his friend, Jesse Myerson (who reported on the protests for Truthout and got Hastings’ take) and an Occupy Wall Street activist, to smoke and shoot the shit.

At the time I met him, he was probably by far the most well-known, successful journalist I’d encountered personally, both in terms of mainstream recognition and undeniable, measurable achievements. He was already just “Hastings” to me and everyone I knew who followed foreign policy and national security journalism – he’d earned being referred to by last name only.

And yet he was so much more approachable and humble than many writers who have achieved much less than he did. Let’s face it: a lot of journalists, even the good ones, have egos that outstrip their accomplishments. That’s often an almost necessary vice, made more acute by economic pressures in today’s media climate. Their ambition pushes them on to get new scoops, to claw their way up, to carve out a niche, but when it bleeds over into personal interactions, it can be an ugly attribute.

Hastings was different, not just in my experience but by all accounts. He was the archetypal rock star journalist in some ways – funny, irreverent, charismatic, likely to cause trouble – but he didn’t act like he deserved to be treated as one. He was no saint, and I’m pretty sure there were times he made editors and colleagues tear their hair out, but he didn’t play the big shot. (And the tributes from Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed are worth reading.)

That’s the kind of thing that people always say when a person dies, especially when they die before their time. They say, “He/she was the best of us,” and you don’t know whether to believe it. Believe it – Michael Hastings was the best of us; that’s why so many of the best of the rest are devastated today.

The second time I met Michael Hastings, he muttered something unrepeatable (for now, here) after taking part in a panel at Netroots Nation on “Intervention, Isolation and the Future of Progressive Security Policy.”

The wording of that title, which is euphemistic to the point of being Orwellian, should give you an insight into how the discussion was framed. It was election year, and the dominant spirit at the conference had reverted to largely cheerleading Barack Obama’s re-election. Hastings was the only member of the panel to seriously push back against the idea of drones, targeted assassination and other ways to kill people as Exciting New Sophisticated and Necessary Tools with which the United States could maintain its wonderfully altruistic strategic goals. (Ali Gharib, generally an excellent reporter, was uncharacteristically subdued.)

You can watch the whole thing here, although – as can be said for a lot of Hastings’ panel and TV appearances – it’s worth skipping most of the parts where anyone else was speaking. The first words Hastings said were, “Jesus Christ, everybody looks fucking hungover. Maybe I’m projecting.” But he also snuck in an extremely deadpan reference to the limits of the debate, in which ideas like pacifism are predetermined to be outlandish – and he did it so drily that I think the rest of the panel may have missed it.

My disbelief at his passing turns to anger. Anger at all the extant journalists who could but never will achieve what Hastings did in his unduly short career, the ones who won’t do that because they do not seek to expose the truth about powerful people, instead preferring to actively shore up power, or write equivocal mush, or bash easy targets only.

Having met him briefly only twice, in September of last year I got an email from Michael to tell me he was coming to Chicago and ask: did I want to dine at Morton’s Steakhouse on Buzzfeed’s tab? I still don’t really understand why he chose to invite me – we had good friends in common, but surely he knew cooler, more important people in this city to hang out with? And yet the outpouring of tributes to him are full of stories like this.

He warned me that a couple of people who were working on the Obama campaign might show up for dinner, too. I was grateful they never did, not just because of how beyond disillusioned I felt with that administration and campaign, but because it meant I got to monopolize Hastings’ company.

Hastings was a pragmatic guy – he told me over dinner that he wanted Obama to win re-election because Romney’s foreign policy advisers actively wanted a war with Iran, whereas at least Obama’s people would be reluctant. He was also pragmatic in the sense of not confronting powerful people immediately if he could hang around, drink with them and then write down something damning they let slip. But he had principles, and when he called people out, he called them out hard.

On another of his visits to Chicago, working on his book Panic 2012, Hastings ran afoul of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose sheen of invulnerability had been severely dented by the Chicago Teachers Union strike. Little wonder that Emanuel wasn’t happy to see a journalist of Hasting’s caliber on the job – but Chicago’s mayor lost his cool to such an extent that he physically grabbed the reporter. And when Emanuel told him “I’m not going to let you do to me what you did to Stanley McChrystal,” Hastings shot back: “I didn’t do anything to Stanley McChrystal, you guys shouldn’t have escalated in Afghanistan. Four Americans died there this week, buddy.”

During times of grief, anger turns to bargaining. Here’s the deal I’d like cut with any god who will listen, since I know we don’t get him back: don’t take any more young journalists from us, and we – as individuals and an industry – will do better. All the stooges going on TV to defend the NSA’s mass surveillance program because Obama is a Good Guy who Knows Best, all the pundits currently working on their op-eds about how Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald are Not Good Guys and so we can’t trust their message – they’ll all take a moment to pause and think again. “What Would Hastings Do?” they’ll ask themselves. (Here’s the answer.)

I know that won’t really happen, but it’s a nice thought. Real reporting is the poorer for Michael Hastings’ passing, and it was in pretty rough shape already. We have to do better. We owe it to him.