Times public editor: Obituary did not capture Hastings' "adversarial spirit"

The New York Times failed to convey "what a distinctive figure he was in American journalism"

By Prachi Gupta

Published June 22, 2013 3:17PM (EDT)

In a post published Saturday, The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has acknowledged that the Times' obituary of intrepid journalist Michael Hastings, who died earlier this week in a fiery car crash in Los Angeles, was inadequate. "An obituary of the journalist Michael Hastings missed an opportunity to convey to Times readers what a distinctive figure he was in American journalism," she writes.

Hastings' widow, Elise Jordan, and others in the media, criticized the Times obituary; in a letter to editor Jill Abramson, Jordan wrote that the obituary formed a "blatant mischaracterization" of Hastings. She cited a passage in the obituary that cast doubt on the Hastings' reporting in the Rolling Stone story that had led to the ousting of General Stanley McChrystal:

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

Sullivan writes that the obituary "is not factually inaccurate, as far as I can tell," and obituaries editor Bill McDonald defended the language in the obituary.

Sullivan concedes, however, that the obituary "doesn’t adequately get across the essence of Mr. Hastings’ journalism or the regard in which he was held."

"And, in the way it presents the Pentagon’s response to his most celebrated article in Rolling Stone, which brought down Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the obituary seems to diminish his work’s legitimacy," she writes.

Sullivan continues:

Granted, an obituary is not intended to be a tribute. It is a news story about the life of a notable person. And because of The Times’s reputation and its reach, its obituaries carry great weight for establishing a person’s legacy. They matter.

In this case, the Pentagon references, suggesting a debunking of the Rolling Stone article’s conclusions, got more space than what many consider to be essential information about Mr. Hastings: that he was a fearless disturber of the peace who believed not in playing along with those in power, but in radical truth-telling.

Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Elise Jordan Journalism Michael Hastings Obiturary Reporting