Last week’s premature and untimely death of Michael Hastings produced numerous reflections on the loss of the hard-charging, courtesy-defying, convention-resisting, prickly-querying, and discomfort-inducing reporter. Embedded within the remembrances are a lesson and a cautionary tale for women in the workplace: a brilliant primer on self-advocacy and an unwitting warning about pervasive unrecognized assistance.
First, a lesson: Hastings knew, understood, and demanded recognition of his value. Ben Smith, his editor at BuzzFeed, recalled that when Hastings negotiated his contract, he insisted that he would “need a clause somewhere in the contract that says if BuzzFeed fires me for saying or writing something controversial or offensive on BuzzFeed or on Twitter or elsewhere, there will have to be some kind of severance payment. I have a demonstrated ability to really piss powerful people off, and I would need some kind of assurance that BuzzFeed has my back, 120 percent.”1 Smith read this criterion as a symbol of Hastings’ dedication to his readers, his loyalty to the story over sources.
More than anything, however, this move — crass as it may sound — represents Hastings’ responsibility for and investment in himself. He knew his worth as a writer and the liability he posed to his employer and his bank account; by playing the former off the latter, he created a personal workman’s compensation policy. Imposing a financial penalty meant that an intentionally infelicitous remark was less likely to result in dismissal and that he would be financially protected should an ignominious firing come to pass.
In other words, Hastings leaned in. In Sandbergian terms, he sat at the table, requested what he needed, and built an ideal work environment. Not everyone has the bargaining power Hastings did, nor are all employees negotiating with an outlet like BuzzFeed. And a young Michael Hastings would not have pulled this off, as older and wiser Michael Hastings knew (working for free was, he lamented, part of the business).2 But making yourself indispensable is what gives leverage, and thus even when context calls for a more delicate approach, Hastings offers women a template for making work work for them.
Second, a cautionary tale. Just because Michael Hastings knew his value did not mean he always credited those who supported him — in tangible as well as emotional terms.
Hastings is perhaps best known for writing General Stanley McChrystal out of his powerful job as the military’s top commander in Afghanistan. His crisp, action-packed, conversation-igniting article in Rolling Stone notified the American public of McChrystal and Co.’s disparaging treatment of Barack Obama, his (civilian) Commander-in-Chief.3 But Hastings did not single-handedly oust McChrystal from his perch. The tango danced by this trio of men — Hastings, McChrystal, Obama — stood on the work of at least one woman.
The fall of the powerful, if “runaway,” General relied on Hastings’ narrative, a story built around quotes from McChrystal himself. And the recent flap over the New York Times’ obituary of Hastings offered a curious tidbit: it was not Hastings but his wife, Elise Jordan, who transcribed the tapes on which McChrystal implicated himself.4 In response to the NYT’s less than laudatory remarks about Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece, Jordan fired off a letter to the editor defending her late husband by, in part, offering her personal knowledge of the research.5 “I personally transcribed and have all the tape recordings of Michael’s interviews during his time with McChrystal and his staff,” Jordan disclosed.
Her intention was to “personally verify that some of the most damning comments were made by McChrystal himself,” but she unintentionally betrays a critical ingredient in the elixir of Hastings success: unacknowledged (and likely unpaid) help from his wife (then-girlfriend). Jordan is a professional writer in her own right — a former speechwriter to Condoleeza Rice, a press officer for the National Security Council, and a contributor to publications such as The Weekly Standard and The Wall Street Journal.6 But she never merited a byline, a co-authorship, or even recognition for her work for Hastings. (Surely someone who can commandeer a pre-emptive severance package could, if desired, negotiate an acknowledgments section in a book, but Hastings’ The Operators includes no such section.)
This is not unusual. Read a piece of scholarship from the mid-twentieth century, and you are likely reading the work of a male scholar and his wife. Peruse the acknowledgments sections of history book and you might discern the presence of a research-assistant-typist-editor-cum-wife. Scientists too benefited from wise wife selection: choose a smart woman and she could run a lab, run regressions, and run analyses — in addition to running errands, running after children, and running the home. If these women were lucky enough to marry a solicitous man, they received a brief mention for their thankless and uncompensated labor; otherwise, their scut work went uncredited and their husbands received salaries, tenure, and prizes.
Transcription is the essential but boring work that backs up assertions and makes arguments possible. Few academics and journalists with the means to pay for transcription do it themselves. (Just today I received an email from a transcription agency that charges $85 per half hour of tape – tedious accuracy does not come cheap.) It’s possible, though highly improbable, that Hastings paid Jordan for her work. More likely is that Jordan did what girlfriends and wives have been doing for decades, if not centuries: working for their partners for free, invisibly doing the menial work necessary for success, and, in so doing, devaluing their own work and contributions. It’s rarely the undetectable women (in a heterosexual world) who receive the accolades (or the acolytes).
And this is where prudence is warranted, for investing in oneself — as Hastings most certainly did — does not necessarily correlate to investing in others. Hastings advised writing for free, not transcribing for free. The former could lead to a journalist gig; the latter never will.
One might counter that this is simply what partners — or, for that matter, friends — do. It’s certainly the case that writers trade editing and feedback. But writing and editing represent intellectual exchange, reciprocal opportunities to shape ideas. Transcription, in contrast, serves as the dull backbone supporting innovative reportage and scholarship. And so while it is true that transcription can yield key thoughts, more often it represents the daily grind of training that prepares a runner for a race.
Thus Michael Hastings — who combined insatiable ambition with cynical skepticism to produce some of the finest contemporary investigative reporting — remained derisive of power in all but the most expansive realm of life: the gendered division of labor.
** There are, of course, models of power couples who supported one another to great career heights. But when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not find a job after graduating from law school (she was a woman in an era when women had to account for their home responsibilities alongside career options, she did not start assisting her husband Marty in his legal work.7 Rather, she found an advocate, a law school professor who, Jeffrey Toobin has reported, “essentially extorted a federal judge” to hire her by insisting no future students would come his way if he didn’t take a chance on Ginsburg. The Ginsburgs built law careers side-by-side, much as many writers do. But they each excelled in their domain and did their own work. And when Ginsburg was appointed to the D.C. Circuit, her husband followed, continuing his work as a litigator and as a professor at Georgetown, earning a renowned reputation in tax law and as a chef.
- Ben Smith, Missing Michael Hastings,” Buzzfeed, June 18, 2013. Return to text.
- Summer Anne Burton, “Michael Hastings Had 10 Tips For Young Journalists,” Buzzfeed, June 19, 2013. Return to text.
- Michael Hastings, “The Runaway General,” Rolling Stone, June 22, 2010. Return to text.
- Elise Jordan on Twitter. Return to text.
- Margalit Fox, “Michael Hastings, 33, Winner of Polk Award, Dies,” New York Times, June 19, 2013; Jim Naureckas, “NYT Pays Tribute to Hastings by Attacking Him After Death,” FAIR, June 20, 2013; Ryan Grim and Jason Linkins, “Michael Hastings’ Wife Obliterates New York Times For Dismissive Obituary,” Huffington Post, June 19, 2013. Return to text.
- Novak profile [Ed: page no longer live. Formerly at: http://www.thephillipsfoundation.org/fellows/2010/elise__jordan/novak_profiles.cfm] Return to text.
- [Ed: web page moved. Formerly at: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-06-06/opinions/39784052_1_graduate-school-letter-52-years] Return to text.