After his death, there was an outpouring of grief. For all his abrasiveness, and sometimes because of it, he had endeared himself to a lot of people, and the posthumous adoration of Hastings’s colleagues was striking: Rachel Maddow attended his memorial service in Vermont; BuzzFeed established a national-security-reporting fellowship in his name; and last month, he was honored with the Norman Mailer Award for Emerging Journalist. His publisher, Blue Rider Press, recently announced that it will bring out a novel Hastings wrote some years ago, a roman-à-clef satire about his time working at Newsweek.
Most interesting was the viral fascination of strangers who, at a time when journalists rank lower than chiropractors in public opinion, saw Hastings as a valiant exception. What he stood for, to these people, was so important and rare that surely his death must hold more meaning than a senseless random event.
The Internet, by and large, was certain that it wasn’t. The crash had occurred on a dead-straight section of road. Mercedes cars “don’t explode.” The engine block was found more than 30 yards away from the car, a distance explicable to chat-room denizens only by some sort of “car bomb.” A clip uploaded to YouTube—shot by a videographer who happened to be parked on Highland with a dashboard-mounted camera running, and apparently showing Hastings’s car barreling past right before the crash—was deemed suspicious. Conflicting police statements didn’t help: An LAPD spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times that there was “no evidence of foul play,” but then the investigating detective said nothing had been ruled out. On Twitter and Reddit and in the febrile swamps of websites like InfoWars and Prison Planet, there was heated squabbling about “the official narrative” and false-flag operations and staged accident scenes.
WikiLeaks poured on accelerant, tweeting on June 19 that “Michael Hastings death has a very serious nonpublic complication. We will have more details later.” It would turn out that Hastings had sent one of his I’m-being-investigated e-mails to WikiLeaks lawyer Jennifer Robinson. An unusual public disclaimer by the FBI, stating that Hastings wasn’t under investigation by the Bureau, became fuel for further conspiracy mongering. And Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism czar, told the Huffington Post that “my rule has always been you don’t knock down a conspiracy theory until you can prove it [wrong]. And in the case of Michael Hastings, what evidence is available publicly is consistent with a car cyber attack.” Inside Edition asked: “Was it an accident or was it murder?”
With the Justice Department secretly eyeballing AP reporters’ phone records and the NSA dragnetting everyone else’s metadata, it didn’t seem totally crazy to imagine the government might be listening in on your calls. Uygur told me he has several friends who keep their laptop cameras taped over. This was the water Hastings swam in. “Even when I was talking to him about the drone stuff,” filmmaker Robert Greenwald says, “I said, ‘I’m sure there are many ears on this phone call, Michael, ’cause we’re saying drones, we’re saying Pakistan.’ ”
Hastings was self-aware enough to recognize he was to some degree playing a character: the swashbuckling reporter, dispatched to distant longitudes to bear witness to man’s savagery and/or idiocy. “He was very familiar with the literature and mystique of the war correspondent,” his friend Jonathan Darman says. In The Operators, Hastings’s second book, “there’s almost a double consciousness, where he identifies with the war-junkie psychology but is also critical of it.” Though many of those closest to him reject the idea that Hastings was trying to kill himself, they also recognize that if he wanted to go, he couldn’t have planned it better: the sudden, violent elimination of a Man Who Knew Too Much, trailing a plume of mystery and questions about whether Powerful People got to him, with intimations of a Karen Silkwood–style conspiracy. “A sick part of me thinks this is Michael’s last story, in a way,” says Ruby Cramer, a BuzzFeed reporter who started out interning for him.
Late one morning at the L.A. crash site, six weeks after Hastings’s death, mixed with the dirt around the blackened base of the tree, there was still a layer of dark soot salted with tiny flecks of glass. Two nearby standpipes that the car had broken when it mounted the median stood jagged-edged. The site had become a shrine, and more than 40 small American flags now poked out of the ground, next to flowers, candles, and messages like RIP MICHAEL HASTINGS and THE EYES OF THE WORLD ARE WATCHING NOW. A photograph of Hastings, altered to show blood running down his face and taped and pushpinned to the tree, bore the words didn’t have to know you to know the truth of what happened. As I stood taking photos, the light at Melrose turned red and northbound traffic on Highland backed up. A red convertible was stopped beside me, and the driver, a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, asked if I thought Hastings had been murdered. “I do,” she said.