Remembering Michael Hastings
The shock has yet to subside. Michael Hastings, the reporter for Rolling Stone and BuzzFeed, died at 33 early Tuesday morning in a car crash in Los Angeles. Michael's talents as a journalist, his true fearlessness and ability to tell stories, have been much remarked upon. His BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, in an obituary that captures the complexities of Michael's work, "marveled at his talent and at the thing I hadn’t particularly expected: his generosity." At Rolling Stone, his colleague Tim Dickinson wrote that Michael "will be remembered for his enthusiastic breaches of the conventions of access journalism." I, along with scores of other journalists who knew him, will remember him for all those things—and much, much more. Some of us were lucky enough to call Michael a friend.
Michael the reporter was a thing to behold, and no less Michael the friend. He disdained low-level aides and flacks—"his target was always the principal," Smith wrote. That parsing of the pecking order, though, didn't extend to his personal life or interactions with colleagues. It can be tough to get a word with star reporters, but not Michael. Young journalists flocked to him, and he talked freely with them. He cared about what even his most junior colleagues thought. He gave and gave and gave to young reporters, who wanted to know his secret ("devote your life to journalism"—and he did); he employed his well-honed bullshit detector and, if everything was copacetic, deferred to them.
When he was working on his campaign book, Panic 2012, I sat with Michael and Ruby Cramer, a young BuzzFeed reporter who was helping with research, as they discussed a point in the manuscript. Michael was hard-charging—sometimes appearing to "go a step further" than others might—but his first loyalty rested with the facts. When Ruby questioned the provenance of a quote, Michael listened intently, lodging with her all his trust, and heeded her instincts. Such was his respect for this young cub reporter, whose considerable talents Michael spotted and harnessed for his book before releasing her to Smith's charge (where she went on to become one of BuzzFeed's many scoop machines).
"Hastings was not just nice, he gave so freely of his time and advice and energy that you wondered how he did his own work," wrote Dave Weigel in his remembrance. I've wondered, too. But there's no wondering about how Michael got sources to open up: when he asked you questions, probed your ideas and then shut up to let you talk, it was like you were the only person in the universe. A furious observer, his eyes might've been darting around a barroom as you chatted, but then he'd ask a question that hit at the heart of whatever you just said.
Obviously, Michael's generosity wasn't limited to listening: he also talked. Boy, did he talk. A mile a minute. His brow furrowed when he made his most serious charges, always backed up by his reporting, and he laughed and smiled as he pointed out the absurdity of his many detractors' arguments. The consummate reporter, Michael showed up for television interviews with pen and pad, taking notes and checking them as he debated. But when he got worked up, he relegated his professional instruments to props in his characteristic gesticulation: circling both hands before his chest, each rhythmic down-stroke hammering home the point he was making.
Anyone who ever held a conversation with Michael—or, hell, even those who just saw him on teevee—knew exactly why his pieces caught so many people's attention: he really knew how to tell a story. If you were friendly with Michael, you always got a sneak peak at the big story coming up; he just couldn't help telling it. At a party I threw last year, Michael and I retreated to a quiet corner for a smoke, and it turned into an hour-long discussion about the stories he was working on, and behind-the-scenes reviews of some old ones. This was a pattern: you'd step out of a bar or a party for a cigarette, and Michael would spin yarns, his eyes bulging out of his head more than they usually did at the exciting parts—the damning parts, that is, about the powerful.
I'd forgotten Michael had shown up at that party until I was reminded of it on Twitter. But I shouldn't have—Michael always showed up. Not one instance comes to mind, when he was in town, that Michael failed to arrive at an invitation—whether on two weeks' notice or two minutes'—either for the two of us to chat, or to gather with some other reporters, activists, sources or just friends who he wanted to meet and who, of course, wanted to meet him. Every time, he showed up.
He also invited frequently. I ended up at BuzzFeed's holiday party this past winter because Michael asked me to come. He introduced me to everyone there. He threw the after-party at his then-home with his wife, the national security commentator Elise Jordan. Michael and Elise had skipped out early from the BuzzFeed party itself to set up appetizers, just like they did the weekend before last when, instead of a rollicking start-up's-worth of revelers, just me and my cousin—a White House-based news producer who Michael had met on the trail—went over. We spent hours on the patio, just talking.
Michael clearly loved entertaining, in every sense of the word. That's not surprising considering his abiding love for all things Hunter Thompson (a passion I shared), who was known for both his hilarious Gonzo journalism and gatherings in his Colorado kitchen. On his wall, Michael had a framed poster from Thompson's 1970 campaign to become the sheriff in Aspen, Colorado, a gift from Elise. Late one night last year, I glanced up with envy at the bright red, double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button as Michael and I sat and listened to Thompson's tape archive. It's a mix of mad rants and contentious exchanges with story subjects. Michael remembered where all the good parts were, and skipped around to cut some of the fat—the more incoherent rambling—for my sake. Thinking back today, I couldn't help but recall that the Hell's Angels—interviewed on the tapes—didn't much like Thompson's book about them, and even beat him up at the end of their year together. No doubt some of Michael's subjects harbored the same feelings about him.
After appearing on a weekend cable show with Michael in February, he invited me to tag along for brunch with his father and younger brother. How typical: opening up a family meal to a friend with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning. We ate as Michael explained and demonstrated the social video-sharing site Vine to his dad. Michael beamed when he talked about his father, Brent, a doctor, and his brother, Jeff, a decorated Iraq war veteran. They and Michael's other family members, especially Elise, have been foremost in my mind over the last two days. They lost a son, a brother and a husband.
Watching Michael with younger reporters, or doling out advice to aspirants, it was easy to see him years down the road, still baby-faced and energetic, but with some gray hair and a couple extra pounds on his slender waistline. He'd still be coaching, still be helping colleagues achieve their ambitions, and still making time for his friends, to discuss grave matters or just laugh for a while (or both at the same time). Then there're the expectations for the important work he would have produced. The journalism industry, the country and the world are worse off for losing him. He was a model journalist just as he was a model friend—it's impossible to know which he was better at. He will be sorely missed.