Michael Hastings and the New York Times

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.

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings

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.

One Comment on “Michael Hastings and the New York Times”

  1. Guy Montag says:

    In her take on the obit, Margaret Sullivan said that while “the obituary…is not factually inaccurate, as far as I can tell” …”

    As she noted, the references to the Pentagon’s report suggest “a debunking of the “Rolling Stone” article’s conclusions” and discredit Hastings’ work. So was Sullivan implicitly saying the Pentagon references were a disingenuous prevarication, a “lie borne out by facts, if not the truth”?

    “the obituary…is not factually inaccurate.” What the hell does that mean? (If you take out the double-negative, she’s saying the obituary is “factually accurate”). She seems to be agreeing with the NYT’s obituary editor McDonald 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.” So, if the obituary repeats/reports the Pentagon’s lies, that’s OK with her because it’s technically true the Pentagon said it?

    “As far as I can tell.” How much fact-checking did she do? Why didn’t she do sufficient fact-checking to discover which side has more credible evidence and logic to support its case? [for links to source material, see “More NYT’s Lies Borne Out by Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog].

    Did she read the DoD’s six-page report whitewash and compare it to Hasting’s detailed account in his book “The Operators”? (I’ve read both and the report is a complete joke). Or ask Elise Jordan to take a look at Hasting’s transcripts/tapes to verify the facts for herself? Or try to get Gen. McChrystal or any of his staff to actually go on the record to dispute the accuracy of the profile?

    Unfortunately, Sullivan’s column dodged the central of the obituary controversy that concerned Michael Hasting’s widow Elise Jordan: the truthfulness of his “Rolling Stone” profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Sullivan failed to resolve this issue by failing to sufficiently research & discuss the pathetic weakness of the Pentagon’s report.

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