Last night, we learned of the tragic death of Michael Hastings, a relentlessly independent journalist whose 2010 reporting in Rolling Stone ended General Stanley McChrystal’s military career.

For some necessary context, this is Rolling Stone ‘s description of that piece:

Hastings’ unvarnished 2010 profile of McChrystal in the pages of Rolling Stone, “The Runaway General,” captured the then-supreme commander of the U.S.-led war effort in Afghanistan openly mocking his civilian commanders in the White House.

The maelstrom sparked by its publication concluded with President Obama recalling McChrystal to Washington and the general resigning his post. “The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be met by – set by a commanding general,” Obama said, announcing McChrystal’s departure. “It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our democratic system.”

This morning, barely removed from news of Hastings’ death, Michael Calderone, The Huffington Post‘s Senior Media Reporter (and a journalist I generally respect), apparently thought it would be an important journalistic task to ask McChrystal what he thought of Hastings’ death:

Calderone’s move to ask McChrystal for comment so soon after Hastings’ death immediately struck me as mildly inappropriate, given the former general’s connection to Hastings. More than that, however, it struck me as something – a comment from McChrystal – that would have virtually no journalistic value or significance.

Rather, it felt more along the lines of a sensationalist attempt to stir up a rival in the immediate wake of Hastings’ death. It smacked of TMZ intrusion for the sake of sensationalism. Intuitively, it felt misplaced for a reporter of Calderone’s standing.

I Tweeted as much:

Calderone responded:

Of course, the nature of their connection is precisely why such an inquiry could be seen as unfortunate, given we’re barely removed from Hastings’ death. I pressed Calderone on the journalistic merit of what he did:

His response got to the heart of his motivation to ask McChrystal, and how that motivation relates to our media’s worst, sensationalist instincts:

I thought people might want to know. People wanting to know information does not merit a topic’s journalistic value. People, it seems, want to know what Serena Williams thinks about Steubenville. They want to know what Melissa Etheridge thinks of Angelina Jolie’s double mastectomy. They want to know about Paris Jackson’s birthday party. (All of these examples are culled from today’s Yahoo! lead stories.)

A story’s journalistic weight is not just determined by what people want to know, but by how the information will further the public good and inform the populace in ways that counter the narratives of those in power.

I said as much to Calderone – that people wanted to know how rivals felt in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, for example, and that such desires didn’t make reporting on such matters worth a hill of beans from a journalistic perspective.

Calderone, a quality reporter who, it seems, got momentarily sucked into the desire for sensationalism masked as journalism, didn’t respond. I trust it wasn’t because he had chosen to ask another rival of Hastings’ what he or she thought of his death.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG


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