If before the McChrystal piece Hastings had shown a casual, not entirely earned disregard for his peers, afterward it became essential to his professional identity. It’s unclear that the article had any impact beyond an HR shuffling—McChrystal’s successor, David Petraeus, pursued a similar counterinsurgency strategy—but after other journalists attacked him, Hastings started explicitly thinking of himself as the person his defenders described: a truth teller, someone willing to confront the powerful, one of the few razor-toothed journalists in a pack of lapdogs. Hastings was angered by the corrosive clubbiness of access culture, by the media’s haste to pick on those out of power and to give a pass to those in it. This was the Hastings who’d be interviewed, in subsequent years, under headlines like Psychology Today’s “Journalist Michael Hastings, Purveyor of Truth.”
It was in this same favorable light that Hastings would cast the cancellation of his book by Little, Brown. When he turned in the manuscript for The Operators, it included long passages graphically detailing a multiday, bicontinental sexual dalliance in Berlin and Dubai with a pseudonymous bombshell Hastings claimed to be either a spy, escort, or kept woman. “The editor thought it was kind of childish and beneath Little, Brown and not literary and just salacious,” a Hastings friend says. Hastings himself felt that Little, Brown should have expected what he delivered. But the larger problem, says someone familiar with the situation, was that the manuscript read mostly as an expansion of the magazine article.
The book was ultimately picked up by Blue Rider, a Penguin imprint, but the switch in publishers cost Hastings a lot of money—he wouldn’t get the remaining payments on the original advance. Another writer might have chalked up the change in publishers to “editorial differences,” but Hastings in later interviews would describe Little, Brown as having been “gutless” and claim that “they lost their nerve”—implying that the publisher was afraid of powerful unnamed forces. He would also lash out at Little, Brown editor Geoff Shandler, alleging on BuzzFeed that Shandler had told him he was “aroused” by Paula Broadwell (a claim Shandler indignantly denied to a publishing blog). “If someone said ‘no’ to him, it was so personal,” says someone involved in the publication of the book. “It served his purpose, whether professionally or psychologically, to conflate any obstruction in what he wanted to do with being clearly motivated by some deeply amoral or cowardly standpoint.”
A more heedlessly oppositional Hastings was on display when he took a job with BuzzFeed to report on the 2012 Obama campaign. Soon after joining the Obama charter, he ran afoul of the White House by reporting the existence of an off-the-record drinks session. Hastings also engaged in a three-act contretemps with a pregnant Wall Street Journal reporter named Laura Meckler that seared him into campaign-press lore. According to Hastings’s later account, at an off-the-record drinks gathering in Orlando, Meckler used her brief audience with the leader of the free world to pull an Obama sock puppet out of her bag and in a squeaky voice pantomime the president accepting an interview request from the Journal. The next day, Meckler insisted to Hastings that the event had been off the record. Hastings responded: “Everything was off the record. Except what you did.” Weeks later, at a hotel bar in Vegas, according to several people present, a very drunk Hastings loudly called Meckler a “cunt” and had to be physically pulled away. Hastings later apologized, but the détente didn’t last. Late one night on the press plane, Meckler was talking with a Times editor about attribution when Hastings turned around, knees on his seat, and injected himself into the conversation. Meckler said something to the effect of, “What would you know about ‘off the record’?” Hastings replied, “Well, at least I don’t work for Rupert fucking Murdoch.” Things escalated, and finally Hastings shouted, for much of the plane to hear, “I officially retract my apology. You are a cunt.”
Throughout it all, Hastings carefully tended his reputation. After he e-mailed State Department spokesman Phillipe Reines the question “Why don’t you give answers that aren’t bullshit for a change?,” and Reines responded that a Pentagon investigation had concluded Hastings was an “unmitigated asshole” who should “fuck off,” Hastings insisted BuzzFeed publish the exchange. He also made a point of putting online his recording of a run-in he had with Rahm Emanuel, and the day after that confrontation, appearing on Piers Morgan, he called CNN’s Barbara Starr “a spokesperson for the Pentagon.”
But while Hastings would later speak of having received “the Lindsay Lohan Mean Girls” treatment from other political journalists, of the half-dozen fellow reporters on the charter with whom I spoke, all expressed affection for Hastings. “The truth is he was parachuting in to do something all of us wish we can do and can’t,” says one. “When someone comes in and says he’s not going to play by the rules, it touches a nerve, but also there’s respect.”
His style notwithstanding, Hastings was more of an insider than he liked to admit. Rolling Stone is decades past being countercultural; BuzzFeed’s animating purpose is appealing to the most mass of audiences; and Hastings got married in 2011 to Elise Jordan, a Yale graduate and former speechwriter for Condoleezza Rice. At the rehearsal dinner, Barbara and Jenna Bush both gave toasts.