In the pre-dawn darkness of Tuesday morning, a brand-new Mercede-Benz coupe veered out of control at high speed in Hollywood, slamming into a tree at the corner of Melrose and Highland avenues. Residents of the Hancock Park neighborhood near the crash scene told of being awakened shortly after 4 a.m. by what sounded like an explosion. The car burst into an raging inferno of yellow flames, a spectacular accident that ended the life and turbulent journalism career of the 33-year-old driver, Michael Hastings.
Most famous for a controversial 2010 Rolling Stone magazine article that led to the resignation of the top U.S. commander in the Afghanistan war, Hastings also reported on the Iraq war, covered two presidential campaigns and authored three books. After joining the staff of the liberal blog BuzzFeed in 2012, Hastings had recently moved to Hollywood where, as his colleague Ben Smith wrote in an obituary remembrance, ”he saw the same thing he had seen in Washington and Afghanistan: power and its abuse.”
Details of the circumstances leading to his death remained elusive. While the journalistic world paid tribute to their late colleague, none offered any explanation of why Hastings, who married a former Bush administration staffer two years ago, would have been driving recklessly through the palm-lined streets of Los Angeles in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning. Hastings had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, but there was no immediate indication from police officials that he was intoxicated at the time of his fiery fatal accident.
The Los Angeles Times reported that “neither the LAPD nor the coroner’s department could officially identify the body found in the vehicle,” which was “burned beyond recognition.”
Some online conversations about the strange death of the iconoclastic young reporter conveyed hints of paranoia. Since the end of last year’s election campaign, which Hastings covered for BuzzFeed, he had written about the film industry, including the movie Zero Dark Thirty and the prosecution of Die Hard director John McTiernan. But he also continued writing about politics, and his final article at BuzzFeed, published June 7, was a scathing piece about the Obama administration’s surveillance policies. Eleven days later, Michael Hastings was dead.
War, Love and Death: Hastings ‘Radiated a Sort of Energy’
Michael Hastings was the son of high achievers. Both his parents are physicians in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. Hasting struggled with a drug problem during his college years, but after graduating from New York University in 2002, he quickly sought out the competitive fast track for ambitious young reporters. He hired on at Newsweek magazine and, in 2005, went to Baghdad as a war correspondent at a time when U.S. forces were battling a terrorist insurgency and Iraq was teetering on the brink of anarchy. His girlfriend, a former publicist for the liberal Air America radio network who was also in Iraq working for a non-profit organization, was killed in a 2007 attack by Sunni extremists. In 2008, Hastings published a book about his romance with Andi Parhamovich called I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story.
Rachel Maddow, who had worked with Parhamovich at Air America, said Hastings was “contorted with grief” at a New York City memorial for his slain girlfriend. His anger made Hastings “fearless,” Maddow said in a five-minute tribute to him on her MSNBC program Tuesday. Praising his reporting as “merciless,” Maddow said Hastings “radiated a sort of energy that made you realize he was unafraid and it made you treat him different than other people in the business.”
As a political reporter, Hastings was openly contemptuous of objectivity, a liberal who shared the anti-war, anti-Republican sentiments widespread in his generation of journalists. In a GQ article recounting his work covering the 2008 presidential campaign for Newsweek, he called former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani a dangerous “maniac”:
On one of my first days, I watched Rudy deliver his stump speech in Peterborough, New Hampshire. As you might imagine, it was a little focused on the “terrorist war against us.” His solution was to “go on the offense” — meaning more aggressive torture techniques, recklessly increasing the size of our military forces, fighting an unending war in Iraq, and possibly bombing the shit out of Iran. …
I quickly realized Rudy was a maniac. I had a recurring fantasy in which I took him out during a press conference … saving America from the horror of a President Giuliani.
Hastings rejected objective journalism as a fraud and said most reporters secretly shared his views:
Objectivity is a fallacy. In campaign reporting more than any other kind of press coverage, reporters aren’t just covering a story, they’re a part of it — influencing outcomes, setting expectations, framing candidates — and despite what they tell themselves, it’s impossible to both be a part of the action and report on it objectively. …
I wasn’t alone in the press corps. I don’t think I spoke to another journalist who ever said one good thing about [Giuliani]. What did we say? We made fun of his divorces and his wives, that he’d married a second cousin, that he surrounded himself with corrupt cronies, that he had a piss-poor relationship with his children, etc. We talked about his megalomania and his cynical exploitation of September 11.
Describing his own habits on the campaign trail, Hastings said he watched pay-per-view pornographic videos in hotel rooms and said masturbating to porn “was not unlike the larger experience of campaign reporting.” After Giuliani dropped out, ceding the GOP nomination to Sen. John McCain, Hastings switched to covering Hillary Clinton‘s campaign for the Democrat nomination. “I thought it might be better jumping over to the Democrats; at least I wasn’t appalled by their basic ideas,” Hastings wrote, but sympathized more with her rival, Barack Obama. “I didn’t want to pretend that I thought she should win,” he wrote and, after it became obvious Obama had the nomination locked up, he dropped out of Newsweek‘s campaign coverage rather than be re-assigned to covering McCain’s Republican campaign: “I would have come to truly hate his campaign staff and their smug belief, based, unfortunately, on an accurate reading of the past, that they can lie to our faces and we’ll swallow it.”
Taking Down ‘Runaway General,’ Praising Obama’s Success
After Obama was elected on a promise to reverse Bush’s foreign policy, Hastings traveled to Afghanistan, where troop levels had been increased to fight the Taliban insurgency. It was in 2010 that Hastings scored the story that made him famous and ended the military career of the U.S. commander, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal. After meeting with the general and his staff at a NATO gathering in Paris — where, at a pub, they got “completely shitfaced.” — Hastings got unprecedented access to the leader of the American effort in Afghanistan. Hastings said he was surprised that McChrystal would be so friendly to a reporter for Rolling Stone.
The portrait of McChrystal that emerged in Hastings’ June 2010 article “The Runaway General” was unflattering in the extreme, quoting the general’s staff expressing disrespect for civilian leaders, and quoting U.S. troops disparaging McChrystal’s counter-insurgency strategy. As soon as the article was published, McChrystal came under fire in the media and in Congress, as did Hastings, who was accused by critics of using his access to the general’s inner circle to dishonestly sabotage McChrystal. Within days, President Obama relieved the general of command in Afghanistan.
“The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be … set by a commanding general,” Obama said at the time. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.” McChrystal retired from the Army a month later. A Pentagon inquiry subsequently cleared McChrystal of wrongdoing and challenged the accuracy of Hastings’ story, but the reporter and his Rolling Stone editors stood by the article, which won the prestigious Polk Award for magazine journalism.
Hastings reportedly received a “six-figure” advance payment to write a book based on his Rolling Stone reporting and last year published The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan, which became a New York Times bestseller. By the time the book came out, Hastings had joined the staff of BuzzFeed, where he covered the 2012 presidential campaign, making no secret of his support for Obama. In a March 2012 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan, Hastings said he was “actually quite impressed” the first time he met Obama in 2006, when the Illinois Democrat visited Iraq as a junior senator.
“You could tell this guy was obviously one of the most talented politicians around,” Hastings said, praising the president’s “numerous” foreign-policy successes. “I mean, the argument that Republicans have had for years … that Democrats are weak on national security, I mean, that’s just not going to hold water this year. You have [the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama] bin Laden … you have Libya which has been successful and you have the fact that he ended the war in Iraq, which was a very divisive war, and he’s on a path out of Afghanistan.”
Hasting’s coverage of the campaign for the popular liberal site BuzzFeed was criticized by former Romney campaign adviser Richard Grennell who took to Twitter after the reporter’s June appearance on CNN, saying Hastings “laughs at GOP foreign policies, applauds Obama.” While praising other BuzzFeed staffers, Grinnell said of Hastings: “Unfortunately, the guy they have covering the Obama team is proving to be anti-GOP and an Obama sympathizer.”
Although he provided generally favorable coverage to the Democrat’s re-election campaign (with headlines like, “At The Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama Is Winning“), Hastings did write articles critical of the Obama administration’s handling of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stephens and three other Americans.
Drones, Surveillance and the Unexplained Crash
After the election, Hastings published an e-book, Panic 2012: The Sublime and Terrifying Inside Story of Obama’s Final Campaign. He also continued writing for BuzzFeed, criticizing the administration’s policy of using drone attacks against suspected terrorists and also, in his final article, focusing on the Obama scandals with the headline: “Why Democrats Love To Spy On Americans.” On Twitter, he had expressed his support for Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who exposed the surveillance program.
The crash that killed Hastings early Tuesday morning puzzled many. The car that Hastings drove to his fiery death was a Mercedes-Benz C250 that sells for about $40,000. With a turbocharged engine that delivers more than 200 horsepower, the C250 has been praised for its handling: “It stays flat through [curves] and sticks to the road.”
The WikiLeaks organization said in a Twitter message Tuesday: “Michael Hastings contacted WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson just a few hours before he died, saying that the FBI was investigating him.” Concerns that Hastings’ death might be something other than an accident prompted one automotive writer to remark sarcastically that “conspiracy theorists … are already claiming that the military-industrial complex found a way to cap the guy.”
However, video taken by a local cameraman appeared to show that, moments before Hastings’ fatal crash, he was traveling at high speed when he ran a red light at the intersection of Highland Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard, four blocks from the scene where the silver Mercedes slammed into a palm tree and burst into flames.
The engine of the Mercedes was reportedly found more than 100 feet from the vehicle, which led a former LAPD officer who now works as a private auto accident investigator to tell an LA Weekly reporter that the driver “was hauling Irish ass and lost control.”
Meanwhile, Hastings’ wife Elise Jordan, formerly a speech writer for Republican Secretary of State Conzdoleezza Rice, seemed intent on defending her late husband’s journalistic reputation. After a New York Times obituary mentioned the Pentagon’s criticism of Hastings’ article about McChrystal, Jordan wrote to the newspaper’s editors, saying she “was shocked and saddened” by what she called “a blatant mischaracterization” in the obituary.
- Richard Winton, Andrew Blankstein and Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times: Journalist Michael Hastings dies in L.A. car crash
- Ben Smith, BuzzFeed: Missing Michael Hastings
- Michael Hastings, BuzzFeed: Why Democrats Love To Spy On Americans
- Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone: Michael Hastings, ‘Rolling Stone’ Contributor, Dead at 33
- Michael Hastings, GQ: Hack: Confessions of a Presidential Campaign Reporter
- Piers Morgan, CNN: Michael Hastings on President Obama
- Eddie Scarry, FishbowlDC: Fmr. Romney Spox Rips BuzzFeed‘s Hastings
- Mandy Nagy, Legal Insurrection: Michael Hastings and Wikileaks — Let the conspiracy theories begin