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ink-stained wretches

Times Public Editor Criticizes Michael Hastings Obituary

Michael Hastings.

Last week's many remembrances of Michael Hastings, who died in a car wreck in LA early Wednesday morning, mostly focused on the late journalist's  tenacious pursuit of the truth and his willingness to go after powerful people — qualities that ultimately led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal, who gave up his job after Hastings's damning 2010 Rolling Stone profile of him. However, the New York Times's Hastings obituary drew some criticism for seeming to cast doubt on the McChrystal piece, for which Hastings won a Polk Award. "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," read the obituary. "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's widow, Elise Jordan, e-mailed Times executive editor Jill Abramson to point out that the Pentagon's difficultly finding witnesses to confirm McChrystal and others' most notable quotes was "not surprising, given that the civilian and military advisers questioned by the Pentagon knew that their careers were on the line if they admitted to making such comments." Additionally, she took issue with the Times' archived story on the report, which was titled "Pentagon Inquiry Into Article Clears McChrystal and Aides." "Insufficient evidence to prosecute is not the same as 'clearing' someone of a misdeed," Jordan wrote. "It is as if a district attorney had found no witnesses to prosecute a suspected murderer – the only other witnesses being his accomplices — and the Times ran a story headlined, 'DA Clears Alleged Killer.'"

The message was passed along to the Times' obituaries editor, Bill McDonald, who declined to alter the piece, writing that it was "clear that it’s not The Times that is questioning the article’s accuracy; it was the Defense Department." The Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, entered the fray on Sunday with a post acknowledging Jordan's point about whether McChrystal & Co. had, in fact, been cleared. She also wrote that she asked McDonald whether Hastings's obituary overemphasized the Pentagon matter. McDonald rejected the complaint, pointing out that the piece began with a mention of Hastings's Polk Award and the "considerable impact" of the McChrystal piece: "[The Pentagon inquiry] was a pretty newsworthy development and an inescapable part of his story, and in an obit of 425 words or so, we dealt with it in about 50."

But it seems Sullivan disagreed. After noting that a Times obituary "is not intended to be a tribute," she concluded that, "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." To that end, Sullivan titled her piece "Hastings Obituary Did Not Capture His Adversarial Spirit." At least the fallout did.

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Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Guardian