Yesterday the world was greeted with the tragic news that 33 year old, US investigative journalist Michael Hastings died in a car crash in LA. Apart from being a fearless reporter, he was also a friend. I’m still in shock.
We weren’t overly close but met years ago at a writer’s festival in Brisbane and re-connected around once a year in New York in the following years. We would email irregularly about what we were working on, various investigations or books. He was also generous and personable. He never let fame go to his head. His warmth, dry humour and contempt for most corporate journalists (something we shared) was infectious. The last time we hung out was in September 2012. We spent hours walking across New York, stopping now and then for a bite to eat, while we discussed publishing, war, Barack Obama, the media, his marriage and how we make the tough decisions in life.
Tributes have been flowing in over the last 24 hours. Rolling Stone and Buzzfeed (the two, recent places he worked), journalist Marc Ambinder (who comments on Michael’s bravery in not being interested in keeping powerful interests happy), Democracy Now!, CNN’s Piers Morgan, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman… and… The New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson. The New York Times couldn’t even fairly remember Michael without questioning some of his fearless reporting (something challenged by his wife, Elise). It’s an establishment publication to the end. I love Rachel Maddow’s tribute:
All the details of Michael’s death are unclear though Wikileaks tweeted the following this morning:
Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.
For me, Michael was that truly rare journalist who didn’t give a fuck what the establishment thought about him. He reported fearlessly from Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. He wasn’t, like so many of his colleagues, keen to romance the military or government sources. He saw first-hand the disaster that US-led wars caused since 9/11 and he had no intention of offering cover for these crimes. As an independent journalist myself, there are very few compatriots who I respect for never siding with the state and always remembering that our job is to be adversarial and not complacent. Michael is one of the few journalists I cite as an inspiration in my upcoming book, Profits of Doom. I was excited about the prospect of him reading it.
One of the reasons I always admired Michael was that he could have taken a very different route. Being a national security reporter since 9/11 presents a few options. The first is to become embedded psychologically with the system and the other is to challenge every step of the way. Michael chose the latter and I see myself in the same mould. He was vigorously attacked for this stance, especially after his sensational scoop on Stanley McChrystal that resulted in his resignation. I reviewed Michael’s book, The Operators, for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012 and noted the following:
“I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising,” independent American journalist Michael Hastings told The Huffington Post in 2010. ”My views are critical but that shouldn’t be mistaken for hostile – I’m just not a stenographer.”
Such a mindset is what makes this book a compelling read and ensures its status as one of the most devastating and incisive works on the Afghanistan war since Washington and its allies invaded in 2001.
Hastings concludes, after spending extensive time with generals and military advisers, as well as reporters who hang on their every word, that the conflict was lost years ago. The warped logic of the war, the author states, is that, ”we’re there because we’re there. And because we’re there, we’re there some more.”
Afghanistan today has nothing to do with September 11, 2001, ”terrorist havens” or al-Qaeda. ”It didn’t matter that in Afghanistan, the US military had come up short again and again,” Hastings argues. ”What mattered is that they tried. The simple and terrifying reality, forbidden from discussion in America [and mostly in the mainstream media in Australia], was that despite spending $600 billion a year on the military, despite having the best fighting force the world had ever known, they were getting their asses kicked by illiterate peasants who made bombs out of manure and wood.”
Hastings is that rare journalist who doesn’t believe in venerating military figures who give him access in Washington and American war zones. A key aspect of his investigation is its brutal excoriation of embedded media and the lack of accountability in the pundit class. His staccato writing feels immediate in today’s war debate.
And here we are. The journalistic world and democracy is weaker today without Michael. He’s that rare breed that should inspire a generation of reporters to be gutsy and recognise that great reporting should upset the powerful. Be fair and truthful. Be honest. Take risks. Visit trouble spots and don’t re-publish press releases as news.
I miss him already.
RIP, my friend.