In the 24 hours since the tragic death of journalist and author Michael Hastings was first reported on Tuesday, those who knew him, worked with him, and covered his work have offered numerous remembrances of the man best known for his Polk Award-winning Rolling Stone piece, “The Runaway General.”
That article, which presented a dim view of the U.S. strategy in the Afghanistan war and exposed a military command structure working to actively undermine its civilian leadership, also contained several accounts of less-than-professional behavior and comments by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the International Security Assistance Force commander, the disclosure of which led to McChrystal tendering his resignation in June 2010.
But it’s an obituary in The New York Times that has sounded a discordant note amid the rest of the encomiums. And now Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, is firing back at Times brass.
In its obituary of Hastings, posted online Wednesday evening, the paper of record casts doubt on the accuracy of his profile of McChrystal. Here's the salient part of the obit, penned by Margalit Fox:
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.
(Fox also identifies Hastings’ piece as a “cover story.” It was not. Rolling Stone featured Lady Gaga on the cover of the issue containing “The Runaway General.”)
But the notion that McChrystal was somehow “cleared” in this matter is a story to which the Times has long tried to stick. When the inspector general's report was first released, the Times headlined it: "Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides." It did no such thing.
That said, it’s unclear whether the Times' reaction to Hastings' story is rooted in professional jealousy or a knee-jerk defense of the establishment. The inspector general's report said it could not confirm some elements of Hastings' reporting, but that was to be expected. Hastings quotes the general and his aides making disparaging remarks about their civilian superiors. Such people would be unlikely to acknowledge having said such things, especially considering that Hastings allowed some of them to remain nameless.
Jordan did not take kindly to the Times’ remembrance, and in an email to Times' editor Jill Abramson, asked the paper correct its report before printing it in the morning paper. Abramson sent the note to Bill McDonald, obituaries editor, who rejected the request. Both emails were provided to The Huffington Post:
I was shocked and saddened to read a blatant mischaracterization of my late husband Michael Hastings’s Rolling Stone story “The Runaway General” in his obituary.
The obituary states: “An inquiry into Mr. Hastings’s 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’s editors.”
If a reporter at the Times actually would read and properly analyze the Pentagon report, they would find exactly the opposite. The report clearly states: “In some instances, we found no witness who acknowledged making or hearing the comments as reported. In other instances, we confirmed that the general substance of an incident at issue occurred, but not in the exact context described in the article.”
As Rolling Stone stated in response to the Pentagon report, “The report by the Pentagon’s inspector general offers no credible source — or indeed, any named source — contradicting the facts as reported in our story, ‘The Runaway General.’ Much of the report, in fact, confirms our reporting, noting only that the Pentagon was unable to find witnesses ‘who acknowledged making or hearing the comments as reported.’ This is not surprising, given that the civilian and military advisers questioned by the Pentagon knew that their careers were on the line if they admitted to making such comments.”
Unfortunately, the mischaracterization in the obituary reflects a longstanding -– and ongoing –- misrepresentation of the facts in and surrounding this story by the Times. Your archived story of the Pentagon report, for example, still carries the headline: “Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides,” even though the report did no such thing. Insufficient evidence to prosecute is not the same as “clearing” someone of a misdeed. It is as if a district attorney had found no witnesses to prosecute a suspected murderer – the only other witnesses being his accomplices -– and the Times ran a story headlined, “DA Clears Alleged Killer.”
I personally transcribed and have all the tape recordings of Michael’s interviews during his time with McChrystal and his staff. I can personally verify that some of the most damning comments were made by McChrystal himself, and many others made by his aides in his presence were greeted with his enthusiastic approval. Michael refused to give further evidence to the Pentagon investigators, even though he could have directly attributed a host of insubordinate comments to others on the general’s staff, in part because he believed that it was not the role of a journalist to open his notebooks to the military, and in part because he felt that what was needed when it came to the war in Afghanistan was not a change in personnel, but in policy.
I trust you’ll make these corrections online and before you print tomorrow’s paper.
Here’s McDonald’s reply:
Dear Ms. Jordan
Jill Abramson passed along your email concerning our obituary about Mr. Hastings. First, I hope you’ll accept our condolences. I must say, however, that I don’t believe we’ve mischaracterized the Defense Department report from 2011.
As the report stated, “Not all of the events at issue occurred as reported in the article. In some instances, we found no witness who acknowledged making or hearing the comments as reported. In other instances, we confirmed that the general substance of an incident at issue occurred, but not in the exact context described in the article.”
In other words, as the obit states, “the inspector general’s report … questioned the accuracy of some aspects of the article.” I don’t know how else you could interpret the passage quoted above (“not all of the events occurred as reported,” incidents occurred “not in the exact context described”).
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, while noting that your husband received a Polk Award for the article and was vigorously defended by Rolling Stone. So we see no reason to change the obituary.
Again, I’m very sorry about your loss.
Jordan’s letter to Jill Abramson also was sent to New York Times national news editor Sam Sifton, and to New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan.