“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” –George Orwell
Sometimes something just hits you on a lot of different levels.
Dad told me about someone who’d died recently. Someone from home. Well, he’d moved away, so it was someone I’d never known, but I knew his family. His uncle was actually my dentist, growing up. It was a small area. Most of us had the same providers – dentists, doctors, hairdressers. You shopped for clothes at the same place. You were all homogenized. You were all bricks in the wall.
This kid’s family was kind of a big deal. He was born a few towns over. His dad was a heart surgeon, his mother was a doctor, both of his brothers eventually became doctors, his grandfather was a doctor, his uncle was a dentist. Dad said I probably would have met him eventually, but the family had moved away before the kids grew up. I didn’t pay a lot of attention. What attention was I going to pay to the brother of my dentist and his family? I was a kid. It’s not like we hung in the same social circles. Hell, when I was that age, I didn’t HAVE a social circle. I read. It is what I did.
But this kid spent some of his formative years in the same environment I did. There are a couple types of people who come out of our area: the kind that love it, and stay forever, raising their own families; and the type that escape and don’t look back, and don’t GO back, other than for brief visits or familial obligations like birthdays or weddings or the ever-popular funeral.
I’m not judging the people who stay. There needs to be a place for everyone. Some people love it up north. And it is pretty, if you like such things. Very naturey. If you buy a house, you usually get a butt-ton of land along with it. So you can have like a garden and a tree-swing or something, I don’t know. And if you like to drive a really long way to get to things like, oh, I don’t know, stores, or movie theaters, then this is the place for you. Or if you want to keep a billion goats. Or if you want to be a farmer.
However, there are those of us who move away because a small town chafes, and in a small town people know everything you do all the time, and in a small town people have VERY long memories, and remember you when you were three and fell in a mud puddle and eight and vomited on the school bus and sixteen and dated that guy that cheated on you. And they don’t hesitate to bring these things up. And they still treat you like the person you were, not like the person you are. And driving half an hour to buy milk is ridiculous, especially in the winter. THOSE LITTLE UNPAVED ROADS ARE SLIPPERY.
Some of us move away because a small town chafes and we wonder, what else is out there? Because we can hear those other things calling to us. And we answer the call. And we don’t look back.
This is Michael Hastings. Until he was 11, he grew up in the same area as I did. And last week, he died. Did you know about this?
He was a journalist. He wrote for Buzzfeed and GQ and Newsweek and Rolling Stone. He was tenacious. He fought for things he believed in. People threatened him if he dared publish some of his stories; he published them anyway. His fiancée died in Baghdad in 2008; he met and married another writer a few years later, but wrote a book about the loss of his fiancée in a war he not only didn’t believe in, but he believed we’d been lied to about.
In 2010, he had an article published in Rolling Stone about General Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in the Afghanistan war.
McChrystal didn’t like the president. If you don’t like the president and are in the military, you shush it. Because, no matter your politics, the president is your commander-in-chief. McChrystal didn’t seem to think he needed to operate under the same rules as everyone else, and in front of a reporter, he criticized the president. Some reports say that Hastings got death threats before he published the article. He published it anyway. McChrystal got a call from the White House, which I believe is very much like getting a very big “See Me” in red at the bottom of your paper in school. He was asked to step down. Guess who took his place? Good old Petraeus. What’s up with these generals doing boneheaded things, I have to ask you? I get it’s a high-pressure position, but seriously, take up a hobby like maybe video games or crochet or something because DAMN, can you even imagine getting called into Obama’s office and being scolded and then fired? It would be SO EMBARRASSING.
(The New York Times, in Hastings’ obituary, strangely tried to backpedal and say that the article might have not been the most factual, but Rolling Stone stands behind it, saying they have recordings of every moment of interview to back up the words. I have to believe Obama’s administration wouldn’t have let a general of that level go based on just an article without looking into it a little more deeply, and it seems shady of the Times to put that out there after the guy was gone.)
Hastings was confrontational and a little shouty and sometimes cussed at famous people and had kind of a fast-and-loose writing style that got all the facts in there, but skated the edge of sarcasm in a somewhat delightful way. It was journalism for the ADD-generation. But it wasn’t stupid. It was intelligent and well-written and surprisingly world-weary for someone not even in his mid-thirties yet.
On June 18, he sent out this email to his friends:
And then a few hours later, according to eyewitnesses, he was seen driving his Mercedes as fast as it would go in Los Angeles. He crashed into a tree. The car exploded. They had to identify him from a composite of fingerprints and dental records.
The police closed the case almost immediately; they said there was no evidence of foul play. The FBI was quick to step up and say they weren’t investigating him, even though normally, the FBI doesn’t bother commenting at all on what they’re up to. Others who know him, who know the area, and who know that type of car, aren’t so sure this is so cut-and-dried.
The car shouldn’t have exploded. Why was he driving like that? Why was he even there? Why was the FBI asking his friends questions? Why did the police close the case so quickly? What was the big story? (Some say he was onto something having to do with the Petraeus case; some say it was something bigger, maybe CIA-related.)
You know what Dad has to say about this. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, of course you do.
“That’s what your government does, Amy. Your government kills people. To shut them up. That’s what they do.”
(Dad also told me not to write a blog post about this, or I’ll be the one silenced next. And if I WAS foolish enough to write about this, when I got in my car after work tonight, check for A., cut brake lines, B., a ticking sound as if there’s a shoebox bomb under my seat, C., the failure to start immediately, which means there’s an ignition bomb “or at least that’s what happened in a show I watched one time,” or D. a blanket in my backseat that wasn’t there when I got to work and it’s kind of lumpy, because under that is a contract killer who will pop up when I’m halfway home and kill me dead dead dead.)
I don’t know if there’s a conspiracy. I have to agree the whole thing seems Scooby-Doo-and-the-gang hinky. I like the writing I’ve read from this guy. He wrote well. He gets my respect for that. Whether or not he was the greatest guy, had the highest moral standard – well. I didn’t know him. I know if you’re good at something, if you’re very good at something, you get a sort of tunnel-vision. You see that thing you’re good at and you don’t see much else. I think his tunnel-vision was reporting. He wanted the truth to be out there for general consumption. He also, whether it’s a selfish thing or not, wanted to be the one doing that – breaking the news, getting the accolades for it. Hell, why not. If you’re good at it, why not be the one getting the kudos.
But did the FBI kill this guy because he was onto something and then cover it up? Oh, I hope not. I really hope that’s not the case.
Listen. I (not surprisingly) have a soft spot for our writers. I have an additional soft spot for our reporters. It’s easy to read the paper or articles on the internet and not see the author that wrote them. It’s easy to read for information and not for the heart that’s beating behind it, for the person that did the work to bring that to you.
I still carry the romance of journalism around inside me. I always thought it would be just brilliant to be that person, the one getting up at 2am to cover a breaking story, the one typing toward deadline, dealing with the copyeditors, holding a fresh copy of your work in your hand, knowing people were reading your words with their morning coffee. I have a little of that now that I’m able to write theater reviews and I’m over the moon about it. I’ve had friends who’ve been that person, the person who writes the stories, who have to deliver the not-so-pretty truth to the masses. I know how hard it is. And I respect the hell out of these people. (And honestly, envy them. Just a little. OK. A lot.)
If this is some sort of cover-up and not a terrible accident (Dad: “Of COURSE it is. Get your head out of the sand. You’ll get sand fleas”) then I’m disappointed in wherever this order came from. And I’m (again, again, AGAIN, it seems like I am more than I’m not, nowadays, doesn’t it?) disappointed in my country. Because you don’t kill your writers. You don’t kill the seekers of truth. You don’t kill the people who are looking to disseminate that truth out to the public.
Or, well, yes. You do. You do, because those people scare you. Because there’s nothing more dangerous than the truth. And you need to make them be quiet. And there’s no sure-fire way to do that, so you silence them permanently.
He was a small-town boy for the first 11 years of his life, though. He grew up where I did. The same landscape molded him as molded me. He carried the same sounds and sights and smells around in him as I do. We came from the same soil. We had the same shared experiences flowing in our veins.
I like to think, somewhat optimistically, that at some point in the past, we crossed paths; that our eyes met and we saw there the shared understanding that we were meant to get out, that we were meant for other worlds than this.
And I mourn him. And I mourn the loss of a distinctive voice, and I mourn the loss of someone who, when presented with death threats if he dared publish the truth, shrugged and had the article hit the presses anyway. I admire the drive that compels one to write. I admire the drive that compels one to right.
I feel we lost someone who could have helped us find our way a little more clearly last week, and this hit me hard.
Stay safe, writers; stay safe, those who bring us the truths, both large and small. We need you more now than ever.
(Title from a transcript of an interview with Hastings, here)