I woke this morning to the very sad and shocking news that American journalist Michael Hastings had been killed in a car crash in Los Angeles. I was surprised (from my ageless, timeless bubble) to find he was the same age as me – thirty-three. Hastings, no doubt famous mostly in the United States and amongst journalists, was a war correspondent in the Middle East (where his fiancé was killed in 2006) and a political reporter in Washington. His magnificent destruction of General Stanley McChrystal in Rolling Stone cost the commander in Afghanistan his job. It was the thing that made his name.
For those who don’t know the story: McChrystal had been bad-mouthing Obama and the White House to his underlings, mocking and deriding their management of the war effort in rather puerile and unbecoming ways. Hastings noted that the enclave, buddy atmosphere that existed between the troops and the journalists embedded with them meant that nobody even considered writing about this.
I wonder if anyone else really considered the implications of what was surely seen as casual insubordination from the supreme officer. McChrystral’s frequent pathetic jibes (‘Who’s Joe Biden?’ was famously one of them) were a very dangerous thing indeed. As Obama pointed out, citing Hastings’ article when he announced that McChrystal was out of a job, for a commanding officer to undermine his civilian superiors is an act against the foundations of social democracy – and is certainly against the founding values of the United States. That our armed forces are controlled by civilians, and not soldiers, is a cornerstone of a balanced state. McChrystal’s jibes may have been bitter and arrogant windbaggery of the highest order, but they are the made of the same stuff as coup d’état.
Hastings realised this, whereas nobody else did (or at least they decided to do nothing about it). I’m not saying the affair was going to result in tanks on the White House lawn, but McChrystal’s behaviour was at the very edge of treason. Hastings was a man driven by the need to tell stories, but more importantly he was my generation’s purest acolyte of Orwell’s maxim: ‘Journalism is printing something someone else doesn’t want you to print; everything else is public relations.’ I’d be amazed if Michael Hastings ever printed a line of PR in his life.
He was famously difficult to get along with. He was fiery and energetic, and had no time for the spinmeisters of Washington, or the backslapping and whooping of the embedded experience. He was interested in the story. His editor at Buzzfeed said in a very poignant article on the news of his death that he was born out of time, and would have been in his element uncovering the government lies about Vietnam in the seventies. Well, his last article was a fantastic piece about the hypocrisy of Obama over national security and the invasion of civilian privacy after Greenwald’s unveiling of PRISM in The Guardian. This is how Hastings wrote:-
The attitude the Obama administration has toward (Bradley) Manning is revealing. What do they think of him? ‘Fuck Bradley Manning,’ as one White House official put it to me last year during the campaign.
Screw Manning? Lol, screw us.
The cuts, the swishes of the sword, the positioning of the information in a swift drama, it spins; the ironic ‘lol’ meant to impersonate the schoolboy arrogance of the official in question. Hastings was a Great writer in the American journalistic tradition.
I first came across him as a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher. He was fidgety and intense, just back from Afghanistan, but I knew I was looking at the kind of journalist that was just about rare enough for me not have been driven to do it myself. I joined Twitter in order to follow him. I saw him immediately as my generation’s Kapuscinski, (and of course, Kapuscinski would have been great on Twitter). I saw in him, as a political gonzo, a new Hunter S. Thompson, not the gawping medicine man of the sixties and seventies, but the one who was on the campaign trail with Clinton and wrote the fantastic Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie in 1994 (Thompson’s best book).
I cannot help but feel his investigations into PRISM, (drawing on the years of sources he built up reporting from Washington) was going to be an ankle he was not going to release his jaws from any time soon. He is a loss to journalism, he is a loss to democracy, and (as brittle as that bridge already is) he is a loss to my sense of feeling good about the world.