MEDIA
06/19/2013 06:35 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2013

Michael Hastings Popped The Press Bubble, From The Campaign Trail To The Front Lines

NEW YORK -- Nearly one week ago, Jeremy Scahill and several friends were hanging out in a Los Angeles hotel room to watch his taped appearance on the “The Tonight Show.” One of those friends was Michael Hastings, the award-winning Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed reporter who died in a fiery car crash Tuesday morning at age 33.

“He was so warm and effusive and excited, as if we'd just won the Super Bowl,” Scahill told HuffPost on Wednesday.

Scahill chatted with Jay Leno that night about “Dirty Wars,” his revealing new documentary on the extent of U.S. military involvement around the world. It was notable that Scahill, an intrepid reporter who's filed dispatches from war zones and sites of drone strikes for the left-leaning Nation magazine, would appear on the nation's most-watched late-night program. Hastings, he recalled, “was giddy that someone from our tribe had made it on one of those shows.”

That loose “tribe” includes journalists who -- like Hastings and Scahill –- have reported on U.S. power in an uncompromising way, showing little concern for maintaining the type of access-driven relationships with government officials that are common in Washington.

Hastings' unflinching Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, which led to the Afghanistan commander’s resignation in 2010, showed his willingness to hold those in power accountable and sparked a debate over how America's longest-ever war was being waged. The word "fearless" has been thrown around repeatedly since news of his death broke.

Scahill described Hastings as “an epic shit-disturber and "the antithesis of the caviar correspondent.”

“He just loathed everything that establishment journalism stood for,” Scahill said. “You could see it in his pores and the look in his eye, that world of professional kvetchers. They treated him like a virus in the body of their little club.”

Hastings had some friends in the national media and, by several accounts, was generous with his time in helping out younger reporters. But his relationship with some journalists -- both on the campaign trail and on the front lines -- was often strained. That's because Hastings never shied away from popping the press bubble in articles and interviews, taking aim at the tribal customs and, at times, cozy relationships, that routinely develop between reporters and government, military and campaign officials.

FROM IOWA TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK AGAIN

The first time I met Michael Hastings, he confronted me.

It was a New Year's Eve party for journalists in Des Moines, three days before the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Hastings suspected that I had published a leaked copy of the proposal for his first book, “I Love My Love in Baghdad,” a wrenching account of his fiancee's death in Iraq, in The New York Observer the year before. Despite his suspicions, I had nothing to do with the story. And after a contentious back-and-forth, we ended up chatting over drinks.

Hastings was covering the 2008 campaign for Newsweek, reporting for the election post-mortem the magazine traditionally published in November. But Hastings quit the prestigious job that summer and later wrote a harsh account of life in the campaign press bubble.

“If you’re traveling with a campaign day in and day out, it’s difficult to get any critical distance on what you’re seeing, and the price you pay as a reporter for writing stuff that doesn’t echo the campaign’s message is excommunication from your sources, which doesn’t sit well with your editors back at the home office,” Hastings wrote.

Just as Hastings ruffled feathers within the campaign press corps, he similarly antagonized veterans on the foreign policy and national security beat a couple years later, when he published “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone story about McChrystal.

The June 2010 piece not only led to the Afghanistan commander’s ouster, but it caused consternation among some journalists who thought Hastings had broken the rules by reporting candid conversations within McChrystal’s inner circle. Some major media outlets, like ABC News and The Washington Post, quoted anonymous military sources criticizing Hastings’ sourcing. (McChrystal declined to comment on Hastings’ death when reached Wednesday.)

Hastings was still reporting in Afghanistan when the McChrystal piece exploded back in Washington. A few days later, amid criticism from establishment journalists, I emailed Hastings for his response.

"Hard not respond to this without going back to an old saying,” Hastings wrote. “I'm paraphrasing: reporting is what someone somewhere doesn't want known. Everything else is advertising. That's more or less how I feel. I find it very strange that the response from a few of the pundits has been: Journalists should do more to protect the powerful. Seems to me they're already pretty well protected for the most part."

Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for The Guardian, wrote Tuesday about the criticism of Hastings he heard in Afghanistan a month after the McChrysal piece was published.

Very little of it was from the soldiers and air force personnel I was with. Nearly all of it was from fellow journalists, and none of it was positive. How could Hastings publish off-the-record jibes made by officers who were trying to be welcoming to him, the complaints went; what kind of arrogance led him to want to make a name for himself like this? What was his problem with McChrystal, anyway? Didn't he know McChrystal was trying to rein in the war?

Ackerman added that “the amount of hate Michael received from his fellow journalists for that McChrystal piece remains shocking even years later.”

In a Rolling Stone obituary, Tim Dickinson described Hastings as “hard-charging" and unabashedly opinionated.” Hastings, he wrote, “had little patience for flacks and spinmeisters and will be remembered for his enthusiastic breaches of the conventions of access journalism.”

Hastings, who famously published an expletive-filled exchange with one of Hillary Clinton’s top advisers over Benghazi in September, also broke unspoken agreements between political reporters and operatives during the 2012 campaign.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told HuffPost in February 2012 that coverage of the Obama campaign had become dull. He said Hastings might help remedy that since he’s “not someone to write boring things.”

In September, Hastings revealed that Obama privately met with dozens of reporters at a Florida hotel at an off-the-record drinks event set up by the campaign that no other reporter covered. While Obama and his aides’ comments were off-the-record, the existence of the meeting (and what reporters said during it) was not. In his post-election e-book, “Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign," Hastings described how a Wall Street Journal reporter tried to get Obama to agree to an interview at the event by using a sock puppet.

In a moving remembrance, Smith wrote that Hastings had “infuriated his peers by breaking unwritten rules,” but said he “knew his role was to tell his readers what he knew -- not to hold things back.”

'HE TOOK ON THE POWER ESTABLISHMENT'

Cenk Uygur, host of Current TV's "The Young Turks," on which Hastings frequently appeared, told HuffPost that “Michael was just a great old school journalist and he took on the power establishment, which I hope other reporters will do.”

“We’ve unfortunately lost that strain of journalism -- otherwise known as journalism,” he added.

Uygur said that most reporters and “98 percent of the people on TV have become total lapdogs" who are unwilling to hold the government accountable.

“They’re all deeply enamored with each other,” Uygur said of journalists and government officials in Washington. “You go to the White House Correspondents' Dinner: Everybody’s buddies. But they weren’t buddies with Michael Hastings. You’re supposed to make them uncomfortable. No one can argue that they weren’t made uncomfortable by Michael Hastings."

“We've lost one of the great young journalists of our generation,” Scahill said. “He was part I.F. Stone, part Hunter S. Thompson, with the bit of hardened war correspondent thrown in there.”

Scahill recalled Hastings talking excitedly last week about stories he was working on, including ones about the NSA. Hastings also spoke about the property he wanted to buy in Vermont. “Totally full of life,” he said.

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