By Caitlin Kelly
File this one under — really?
Michael Hastings, a 33-year-old reporter for Buzzfeed whose Rolling Stone report on comments made by aides to Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal ended McChrystal’s career, died early Tuesday in an explosive one-car crash in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Video of the crash scene posted to YouTube shows an extremely fiery aftermath of the fatal wreck, with Hastings’ car burning furiously at 625 N. Highland Ave. The car burns on the median strip outside the office of psychic Madam Mazale.
I’ll start with a cliché—from about the age of 12 I knew I wanted to write. (Or join the Marines, win a congressional medal of honor, and run for president.) As a teenager, I discovered guys like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, and had a serious Beat literature phase. I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances. That didn’t work out so well. I wrote a column at my school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at LCC.” (Lower Canada College, the name of the high school I attended in Montreal.) Then I moved to Burlington, Vermont, where I went to a Catholic school. I was promptly banned from writing for the school newspaper there. The principal was a rather large man named Brother Roger. He didn’t take kindly to an essay where I compared him, perhaps unfavorably, to Jabba the Hutt.
Anyway, after bouncing around at a few colleges, I ended up at New York University. During my last semester, I got an unpaid internship at Newsweek International. I probably was the only one who applied, as the work at first was primarily on Friday and Saturday nights. But I’d been chastened enough by life at that point to realize that I’d managed to get my foot in the door, so to speak, and I wasn’t going take it out. So I more or less lived at the Newsweek offices, and the internship turned to a full time position. I guess I was 22 at the time. I loved it, and I learned how to write an edit there…. I never refused an assignment or anything an editor asked me to do, which helped my cause.. But after about three years, I started asking to be sent to Iraq. By that time, America was already suffering from its first bout of Iraq fatigue—circa 2005. It wasn’t a hot story. Not many people were banging down the door to go. So my bosses finally sent me in August 2005. Six months or so later, the civil war broke out, and all of sudden, Iraq was a really big story again.. I was named the magazine’s Baghdad correspondent a few months after that. That meant I was now going to move to Baghdad permanently…
Here, he talks about writing his first book. about the death of his girlfriend Andi, in Iraq:
What was the hardest part of living through it? And then, of writing it — commodifying something painful and personal into a book.
I’d never experienced violent or sudden loss. It’s something one can’t prepare for, and it’s difficult for those who haven’t experienced it to really understand how life-changing it can be. So losing Andi was the hardest part, the most horrible thing that has ever happened in my life. And I get into this in the book, but I of course felt my own guilt for being over there, for Andi being over there. Writing it was the only relief. The book is what kept me going.
I didn’t really consider the questions of commodification until after the fact. I tried to focus on the positives. The proceeds of the book could start the Andi Foundation, which they have, and we’ve been able to already do great things there, another way to keep Andi’s memory alive. We’ve even made amends with NDI, and have established an annual fellowship with them in her name. They’ve still never admitted their massive failure, but no point in holding a grudge. My goal was also to make Andi a part of the history of the war and, I’m quite proud of the fact that the book has been published around the world; it has been excerpted in many more countries, so Andi’s story really has reached hundreds of thousands of more people. I felt fortunate that a publisher was giving me the chance to share her story, and my story. Most war dead are lucky if they get a writeup in the local paper.
There are negatives, of course. But they’re nothing compared to the actual positive things that publishing the book accomplish. But it’s not like this is some uplifting story. A thousand books aren’t going to get her back, nothing is. It it’s a horrible situation, mind-numbingly horrible, but you try to do what you can. You desperately search for silver linings, lemonade from lemons, whatever you can grasp onto to help deal with the pain, to give her death meaning.
There’s a great quote by Wallace Stegner, talking to students in a writing workshop: “If you spill your guts on the floor,” he told his students, “Don’t be surprised if people step on them.” The bread and butter of journalism is the pain and misery of others. So I find it funny that when a person writes about their own pain and misery, others in the media are quick to level the charge of exploitation. Sort of ridiculous, really.
The New York Times ran a short item today about Michael’s death as well:
Hastings, who was 33, was described by many of his colleagues as an unfailingly bright and hard-charging reporter who wrote stories that mattered. Most recently, he wrote about politics for the news website BuzzFeed, where the top editor said colleagues were devastated by the loss.
“Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story, and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered from wars to politicians,” said Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief.
Smith said he learned of the death from a family member.
Authorities said there was a car crash early Tuesday in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles that killed a man, but coroner’s officials could not confirm whether Hastings was the victim.
Hastings won a 2010 George Polk Award for magazine reporting for his Rolling Stone cover story “The Runaway General.”
His story was credited with ending Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s career after it revealed the military’s candid criticisms of the Obama administration.
One wise friend, with decades of media experience at the highest levels, in D.C. and elsewhere, asked me the question — was this really an accident?
A bright, tough, ambitious journalist dies alone in a fiery one-car crash?