Michael Hastings and the New York TimesPosted: June 23, 2013
The New York Times has ignited a debate with its obit of Michael Hastings, the reporter whose Rolling Stone article on Gen. Stanley McChrystal got the general fired. (Read the article, “The Runaway General,” here.) The Times appeared to question the truth of the article, citing a DOD Inspector General’s report that found insufficient evidence of wrongdoing to prosecute McChrystal or any of the aides Hastings had written about.
The Times had reported on the finding in 2011, saying in its headline that it “clears” McChrystal and aides, which overstates the case. As Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, pointed out in a letter to the Times, finding too little evidence to pursue formal charges is not the same as clearing someone of all wrongdoing. In mentioning it in the obituary, the Times does nothing to walk back that over-broad characterization, which is still alive on the website. It leaves the impression that Hastings was wrong when the reality seems to be more complicated.
(The article itself does not live up to its headline; instead, it details what the IG report actually proves to be wrong in Hastings’ piece vs. what it simply could not independently corroborate.)
Critics of the Times felt that including what they see as a reflexive defense of the establishment and, in the process, an attack on Hastings was not appropriate in an obituary. FAIR argues that the Times has a history of doing this.
At the Times, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan seems to side with those who found the obit to over-emphasize one aspect of Hastings’ career and, as a consequence, fails to capture the adversarial spirit with which he approached his work in general. Obituaries editor Bill McDonald, cited in Sullivan’s piece, defends it.
My take: The IG report falls short of invalidating Hastings’ work, and the Times gives it more weight than it merits. It is certainly fair to highlight controversial aspects of a persons life and work in an obituary. McDonald is correct that an obit is a news story about a prominent person’s life, including the controversial or negative aspects.
News stories, though, need to be complete. In his email response to Jordan, McDonald said: “I think it’s also clear that it’s not The Times that is questioning the article’s accuracy; it was the Defense Department. We’re simply reporting what it publicly said.” (The Huffington Post has Jordan’s email and the response here.)
But journalism doesn’t stop with “reporting what was publicly said.” That should be just the beginning. Hastings’ article was published three years ago yesterday. If it had been materially wrong, it would have been thoroughly discredited long before now. His obituary was not the place to refight the battle — especially since Hastings is no longer here to defend himself.