"If you continue to do this, you’re not gonna be welcome here"
After watching today's Meet the Press, I was reminded og this excellent piece by the NYTimes ombudsman, Margaret Sullivan regarding the rather snotty NYT obituary for journalist Michael Hastings:
An obituary of the journalist Michael Hastings missed an opportunity to convey to Times readers what a distinctive figure he was in American journalism.
The obituary, which has drawn criticism — most notably in a strongly worded e-mail from Mr. Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, to the executive editor, Jill Abramson, and others at The Times, including the public editor’s office — is not factually inaccurate, as far as I can tell.
But it doesn’t adequately get across the essence of Mr. Hastings’ journalism or the regard in which he was held. And, in the way it presents the Pentagon’s response to his most celebrated article in Rolling Stone, which brought down Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the obituary seems to diminish his work’s legitimacy.
That section of the short obituary reads:
An inquiry into the article by the Defense Department inspector general the next year found “insufficient” evidence of wrongdoing by the general, his military aides and civilian advisers. The inspector general’s report also questioned the accuracy of some aspects of the article, which was repeatedly defended by Mr. Hastings and Rolling Stone.
It provides a link to a 2011 Times article, the headline of which many find overstated and misleading: “Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides.”
Ms. Jordan noted that the Pentagon also accepted the validity of some of Mr. Hastings’ findings, and she made this salient point about the headline of the earlier article: “Insufficient evidence to prosecute is not the same as ‘clearing’ someone of a misdeed.”
I asked the obituaries editor, Bill McDonald, to respond to the complaints that the obituary gave the Pentagon inquiry undue emphasis. He disagreed:
In a 12-paragraph obit, that aspect of his story came up in paragraphs 6 and 7, after calling him in the lead paragraph “intrepid,” noting the Polk Award for his work and recounting the considerable impact his article had. Only then did we report — as we must, if we’re going to write an honest obit about him — that the article triggered a Pentagon investigation and an inspector general’s report, which challenged Mr. Hastings’ reporting. That was a pretty newsworthy development and an inescapable part of his story, and in an obit of 425 words or so, we dealt with it in about 50.
Granted, an obituary is not intended to be a tribute. It is a news story about the life of a notable person. And because of The Times’s reputation and its reach, its obituaries carry great weight for establishing a person’s legacy. They matter.
In this case, the Pentagon references, suggesting a debunking of the Rolling Stone article’s conclusions, got more space than what many consider to be essential information about Mr. Hastings: that he was a fearless disturber of the peace who believed not in playing along with those in power, but in radical truth-telling.
A quotation from the BuzzFeed Web site appeared initially in the online version of the article. It read:
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.
The quotation was cut for space reasons in the print edition, and that version is the one that is archived.
The obituary wouldn’t have needed a lot of space to get that point across.
What is important about this, besides the obvious, is that the McCrystal allegations caused quite a ruckus among the elite press who covered him. he was a "good guy" who they had protected for a long time and they were aghast that Hastings had a different view of his job as a journalist and didn't care much for their clubby arrangements.
People remember him now, appropriately, in death as the amazing person he was. But at the time there was a lot of anxiety about the kind of journalism he practiced. As Robin Abcarian described it in this tribute:
With a healthy skepticism, if not contempt, for the deals and tradeoffs between reporters and campaigns, he disingenuously broke unspoken rules about off-the-record encounters, and seemed to revel in alienating fellow reporters, whom he considered too cozy or complicit with the campaigns.
Naturally, he was the object of deeply conflicting emotions among reporters, who were intrigued by him, but also wary.
“I do not get along too well with organized groups of journalists, apparently,” he told MSNBC.
“I had what I call the ‘Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls Treatment.’ ”
In his ebook “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign,” Hastings wrote entertainingly about the slights and insults directed at him by campaign staffers and fellow reporters, and about how he was nearly kicked off the Obama campaign plane after writing about the president having an off-the-record drink with reporters.
“I wasn’t up on all the niceties,” he told MSNBC. “I was lectured by the guy who runs the White House Correspondents Assn. And then they said, ‘If you continue to do this, you’re not gonna be welcome here.’”
Hastings may have disdained the press pack, but he needed it as a foil for his lacerating observations. And however unpleasant it was to be dissected by this talented young reporter, he did many of us who have covered national politics a favor.
Michael Hastings reminded us that our greatest work is often accomplished not by following the rules, but by breaking them.