Michael Hastings, the 33-year-old journalist who died in a one-person car accident in Los Angeles this week, was probably most famous for his 2010 Rolling Stone feature The Runaway General which resulted in Afghanistan commanding general Stanley McChrystal being fired. According to Hastings’ reporting, McChrystal openly mocked his civilian commanders, including President Obama. The article won the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting.
In its obituary for Hastings, citing a Defense Department Inspector General report, The New York Times questions the accuracy of The Runaway General:
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.
Hastings’ widow, Elise Jordan, responded to the Times’ obit with an email to editor Jill Abramson (that was shared with the Huffington Post). In part, Jordan writes:
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.”
Jordan also mentions a previous Times’ story that claimed the already-fired McChrystal had been cleared of any wrongdoing. The report, Jordan says, “did no such thing.”
After offering condolences, Times’ obituary editor Bill McDonald, rejected Jordan’s correction request and went into greater detail to explain why including the dispute was important:
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[.]
McDonald claims that it is “not The Times that is questioning the article’s accuracy; it was the Defense Department.” But by adding the dispute to its obituary, the Times is obviously making an editorial choice to raise the issue as part of Hastings’ legacy.
In her original email, Jordan offered what appears to be a partial explanation for the discrepancy between the Pentagon report and her husband’s reporting. She says Hastings refused to cooperate with investigators “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.”
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