I’m not the person to write a personal appreciation of Michael Hastings, the 33-year-old investigative journalist who died in a car crash in Los Angeles yesterday. I never met him; I don’t know if he was a good guy, or a bad guy, or both in what ratio. I knew him only as a reader. Ben Smith, who most recently edited him at Buzzfeed, captured what distinguished Hastings in a post yesterday: “Michael Hastings was really only interested in writing stories someone didn’t want him to write — often his subjects; occasionally his editor. While there is no template for a great reporter, he was one for reasons that were intrinsic to who he was: ambitious, skeptical of power and conventional wisdom, and incredibly brave.”
That said, maybe the best tribute to Hastings’ legacy lives on in all the people inside and outside Washington who didn’t appreciate him and his work—the subjects, sources, press-spinners, and insiders who had come to expect a certain deference, slack, and awarding of mulligans that Hastings did not consider himself obligated to give. He wrote a famous Rolling Stone feature that cost Gen. Stanley McChrystal his job in Afghanistan. He clashed furiously and publicly with figures like a Hillary Clinton aide, who tried unsuccessfully to browbeat Hastings over his Benghazi coverage.
Not many reporters can hope to emulate Hastings’ ability to both dig out scoops and package what he learned into compelling reads with a no-B.S. point. But in his short career, he did dedicate himself to one principle that any journalist would be better for keeping in mind: You work for your readers, not for your sources.
Much journalism as practiced today depends on access, which often depends on not pissing off the powerful. You want your calls returned; you want to be able to tell your editor that, yes, you can get that high-profile interview. And many journalists—whether from ambition or simple human nature—don’t want to endure the shunning, attacking, and awkward encounters that come from exposing the people they deal with professionally, or rejecting a widely-agreed-on narrative. Thus, stories are saved for the bar, do-overs granted, horses traded.
Hastings didn’t trade those horses. He knew that to do so would be trading something—knowledge—that belonged not to him but his audience. If he learned something interesting, something that mattered, it was his job not to hold it back, even if that meant breaking an unestablished rule of decorum.
In the responses I’ve seen to Hastings’ death among journalists, I’ve seen sadness, great respect, and—if I may read between the lines—maybe a little shame that more of us don’t always remember who our work is meant to serve. That shame is not a bad thing. If Michael Hastings’ death, and his life, move a few reporters to ask themselves what he would do in their situation—if a couple more truths get told, a couple more sources pissed off—consider that the last gift of his short career. RIP.