The Last Assignment: On Truth
A former Rolling Stone fact checker on a story that changed the course of history
“I have no doubt this book reflects the flaws of my memory and biases I’ve developed, many unconsciously, over a lifetime. I ask the reader’s forbearance for these shortcomings.”
— Gen. Stanley McChrystal, retired
“What do you think is going to happen to him?” Michael asked me over the phone from his home in Vermont.
With the receiver pressed against my ear, I looked up from my cubicle’s computer in Rolling Stone’s Midtown Manhattan office. This was June, 2010. It was after 10 p.m. and I was tired after another long day at work. A painting of a shirtless Axl Rose hung from the opposite wall. In the office behind me, the art director finalized the issue’s cover featuring Lady Gaga, a pair of machine guns militantly pointed from her black bustier. My desk was empty aside from the computer and a stack of papers that I had printed in order to keep track of my work. I had just spent the previous week fact checking a feature profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
By that point in the week, as we wrapped up the latest issue of the magazine, I knew strangely intimate details about McChrystal. I knew his wedding anniversary. I knew his graduate ranking at West Point. I even knew a beer that he liked to drink. But aside from how the profile provided me with my last paycheck as an assistant editor at Rolling Stone, I didn’t really care about any of these McChrystal facts.
I didn’t even really believe that something could be factual — so what did it matter what we printed?
That isn’t to say that I had anything against McChrystal. I simply didn’t care about facts in general. I didn’t even really believe that something could be factual — so what did it matter what we printed? Most journalists — and probably most nonfiction readers — would take issue with my indifference when my main responsibility as an editor was to simply verify the facts.
But that’s how cynical I’d become with journalism by the time that Michael Hastings asked, “What do you think is going to happen to him?”
Michael had gained unprecedented access with the general and his inner circle over a month in Europe that spring. In those weeks abroad, Hastings heard McChrystal’s aides make juvenile jokes about Vice President Joe Biden (“Biden? Did you say, ‘Bite Me’?”). Another called National Security Advisor James L. Jones a clown. McChrystal himself was quoted as being critical of U.S. diplomats Karl Eikenberry and Richard Holbrooke. The relationship with the latter was apparently so strained that one of McChrystal’s aides insinuated that Holbrooke’s emails were as welcomed as piss sprayed across the general’s legs. President Obama came off as weak in the comments made by McChrystal’s men, who supposedly referred to themselves as Team America, further making themselves out to be the ill-advised, drunken miscreants that Hastings portrayed them as in an extended scene in a Parisian bar.
It was a big story for Michael — his first for Rolling Stone. I had never worked with him prior to that week. As for myself, I was scheduled to quit Rolling Stone just a week after closing the McChrystal story. After six years of growing apathy in New York, I was finished with journalism, and for months, possibly years before quitting the magazine, I was finished with facts. I’d become so jaded with “truth” that I never bothered to think about how the comments attributed to McChrystal and his staff would lead to one of Time magazine’s Top 10 U.S. News Stories of the year.
I’d become so jaded with “truth” that I never bothered to think about how the comments attributed to McChrystal and his staff would lead to one of Time magazine’s Top 10 U.S. News Stories of the year.
“I don’t know,” I told Michael over the phone, aloof about the article’s content. “He’ll probably just get a slap on the wrist.”
“Yeah,” he said, sounding much farther away than Vermont. “You’re probably right.”
And for the next three years, I believed Michael when he agreed with my blasé response. For another day, I believed in my own detachment.
But when the story was leaked to Politico and Time over the weekend, facts suddenly mattered to me again.
As a Rolling Stone fact checker, it was my job to verify any detail that could be proven wrong. The wedding anniversary. The favorite beer. But also the quotes. Many major publications have fact checkers, of course, but not all magazines check the quotes. Rolling Stone’s research department verifies quotes through the reporter’s notes, interview transcripts, or in some cases, through the original source (albeit worded differently in order to confirm the essence of what was said). Michael’s story was nothing without the quotes. Whether or not McChrystal and his staff said anything cited in the article made the story international news. The quotes would lead to the end of McChrystal’s 34-year-long military career. Whether the quotes were true would also determine Rolling Stone’s reputation.
Michael’s story was nothing without the quotes.
As the leaked story rapidly circulated across the media, however, there was a major problem: I didn’t know if any of the quotes were true.
A journalist doesn’t stop believing in facts over night. After majoring in journalism in Minneapolis, I moved to New York in 2004 for an internship with The Village Voice and then The Nation. After spending my college years covering topics as disparate as campus protests and high school equestrian sports, I dreamed of working on major stories — the types of articles that might actually change history. Within a year of living in New York, however, I found myself at Rolling Stone as a freelance fact checker.
I obviously knew Rolling Stone. I had subscribed as a teenager but that was when the magazine was better at covers of Laetitia Casta posing naked on a bed of rose petals than it was at generating buzz with its political coverage. I was mostly embarrassed to be working for Rolling Stone in 2005. Us Weekly was just down the hall. The Dave Matthews Band was on the cover.
I was mostly embarrassed to be working for Rolling Stone in 2005. Us Weekly was just down the hall. The Dave Matthews Band was on the cover.
But after working on a few issues, I was put on a political article, and then another one, and very quickly I realized that Rolling Stone was essentially doing the type of left-leaning political work that I had envisioned for myself after graduating. It was not a dream job. I considered it a stepping stone to something better. But that stepping stone stretched for five years. It was a very long five years. Without having actually read any Nietzsche in that time, I slowly developed the rather Nietzschean thought that there are no facts, only interpretations.
In my first months, I immediately noticed some journalism school red flags: Editors often told fact checkers that we could rely on whatever source material the reporter supplied, even if we couldn’t be sure of where it came from — something that could easily lead to a Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair episode of fabulism. In other cases, some reporters edited quotes far more than is generally allowed in a newsroom. At least one writer put words in a speaker’s mouth.
Being a young and naïve purist made the job wildly more difficult for not only me but any editors working above me. In my first couple of weeks on the job, I had an issue with a tiny blurb related to the marriage of the White Stripes’ Jack White and the model and singer-songwriter Karen Elson. In a tiny photo caption running only a few words long, the editor wanted to refer to Elson as “Mrs. White.” It was a last-minute addition to the magazine just before going to press. At 11 p.m. on a Friday, however, we weren’t going to get official confirmation on whether Elson was actually taking White’s last name.
It seems ridiculous to me today. But it didn’t when I was 23 and everything had to be correct. As far as I knew, an inaccuracy could mean my job and tenuous livelihood in New York. Perhaps it could even mean any future work in journalism. It’s forgivable to be naïve at 23. But the argument with that editor over “Mrs. White” lasted more than 20 minutes and involved the input of at least two other Rolling Stone employees. “Mrs. White” was what ended up on the page. Though Elson never actually changed her name.
As far as I knew, an inaccuracy could mean my job and tenuous livelihood in New York.
Despite these learning experiences, I still fully embraced the fact as a somewhat holy thing in that first year. Everything had to be true. An editor might have final say over a fudged detail. But at some point in the editorial process, I needed to cover myself by documenting how I had at least tried to make the detail as true as possible. As a fact checker, your job is to never be wrong. And since the magazine did employ fact checkers, the blame over errors was rarely placed on the writer. The blame was placed on the person whose one job was to never be wrong.
This created an anxiety that grew out of me like a fully-grown twin, taking over my body, making me incredibly irritable and on edge. Being a purist was bad for my health. It was bad for my relationships. Trying to feel better about myself, I’d scrutinize new issues of other magazines, like Harper’s, to see if they published any corrections. On the rare occasion that they needed to set the record straight, I felt incredibly relieved: If Harper’s isn’t perfect, my mistakes must not be so bad. But I didn’t make mistakes because I was too tightly wound to let any errors leave our office for the printing press. I was a truly great fact checker. The editors appreciated it. I was given more high-profile work. No error could get past me. But I slowly became borderline neurotic in the process.
A month after leaving Rolling Stone, I took a road trip with three of my long-time friends from Minneapolis. We drove west from the Twin Cities to meet more friends scattered across the Rockies. I don’t know if the trip had any particular meaning for them. But for me, it was a time to decompress and cleanse myself of the five years that I had just wasted sitting tense behind a computer at Rolling Stone.
After the first day’s 12-hour drive in our rented conversion van, my friends and I stood on a gravel road cutting down the middle of a Nebraska cornfield. By July, the stalks rose high above our shoulders, swaying like silk handkerchiefs beneath the night sky. Before moving on, we needed to piss or smoke weed or both. But I’d stepped out of the van at 9 p.m., stretching my legs as if I’d just stood up from another incredibly long day at Rolling Stone, and I cheerfully cursed the same way that I might if I’d never seen rain or snow.
I’d stepped out of the van at 9 p.m., stretching my legs as if I’d just stood up from another incredibly long day at Rolling Stone, and I cheerfully cursed the same way that I might if I’d never seen rain or snow.
The sky wasn’t sequined by only Ursa Major or Ursa Minor. Nor was it only Cygnus’s beak or Sagittarius’s bow and arrow. The arena of blinking constellations lit up the mosquitoes bobbing around our heads.
While looking straight up at the stars, I jogged across the dirt and gravel with my arms spread out as if taking flight. After living six years among the artificial lights of New York City, I wasn’t the least bit sarcastic or even stoned when I said, “It feels like traveling through space.”
After a year at Rolling Stone, I was anxious to move on. I wasn’t writing for the magazine. I was still fact checking. I was only freelance without any security. But I had done something rare in the research department: I had gained the trust of the national affairs editor Eric Bates. I was fact checking most of the magazine’s political coverage, and Bates had a big assignment for me: I’d contribute research and fact checking to a massive story by Bobby Kennedy Jr. that purported to uncover how the 2004 presidential election was stolen by Republicans.
I had done something rare in the research department: I had gained the trust of the national affairs editor Eric Bates.
It was a major project. One of our national affairs writers was also assigned to the task. After Bobby handed in the article, we worked for four months to clean it up and provide substantial additions to the reporting. I was essentially told to make it better. I wasn’t, however, really made aware of how extra research was needed because Bobby’s previous story was a mess. In the weeks before I began working for Rolling Stone in 2005, Bobby had written a terrible article connecting autism to vaccines, which was simultaneously published by Rolling Stone and Salon. The list of corrections and clarifications that it led to was laughably long. (Salon, unlike Rolling Stone, later retracted the story.) I was never told this but Bobby essentially needed a babysitter on his new article. That’s not how I felt, though. I felt like I was being given a truly important assignment — working with a Kennedy no less.
The article covered a wide array of malfeasances, from shoddy electronic voting technology to voter suppression in its many forms. It was enough to make most observers say that the country’s elections needed better oversight. But an odd thing happened as we inched closer to our June publication date: 350,000 suddenly became the magic number. That was the number of uncounted Ohio ballots that we needed to tally in order to say that, if counted, the election should have tipped to Kerry instead of Bush. So rather than focusing on the glaring tools of suppression that definitely needed to be addressed, we were suddenly trying to figure out how to come up with that specific number. We did this in as many roundabout ways as we possibly could. If Bates wanted 350,000 votes, we were going to find them.
If Bates wanted 350,000 votes, we were going to find them.
Nearly as soon as the article went to press, however, Farhad Manjoo wrote a Salon article that eviscerated every vague word choice and piece of half-baked logic that we tried to pass off as fact. One of the most glaring discrepancies in the article was when we wrote, “a total of 72,000 [Ohio] voters were disenfranchised through avoidable registration errors — one percent of all voters in an election decided by barely two percent.” That number wasn’t wholly invented on our part. A report by the Greater Cleveland Voter Coalition did say that about 42,500 votes “may have been lost” across the state. But in our quixotic search for the magic number, we also included 30,000 votes that the report said were only “at risk” of being lost. So nearly half of those voters weren’t disenfranchised. Perhaps they were at risk of being disenfranchised. But who knows? I personally didn’t care about the magic number. The other voting oddities made the article important. The number, however, was what ended up on the cover of the magazine.
The print magazine never addressed the discrepancies outlined in Manjoo’s Salon article. I was racked with so much stress over Bobby’s story that I never even read Manjoo’s article in full until I did research for this essay. As the letters poured in from across the country that month, my second self constantly clogged my throat, constricting tighter any time the article was mentioned.
At one point, reporters from a major Nevada newspaper wrote to question info about their state that we’d included in a sidebar. In a last-minute addition to the story, we said that “the state’s two most populous, Democratic-leaning counties recorded no presidential vote on 10,000 ballots.” That would be a lot of people showing up at the voting booth in a presidential election only to not actually vote for president. The Nevada journalists said that they hadn’t heard of any such issues. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, for example, found that Nevada counted only 1,976 such votes statewide, which might sound like a lot but it certainly wasn’t 10,000 in two counties.
I’m not sure how I let the much larger number into the story. A Nevada citizen had brought a lawsuit that included the number. But I had no idea where she was getting it herself. I tried reaching out to her without success. But Bates did not want to run a correction. He told me to keep searching. I was tasked with finding a source that would make the number real. And this is the mentality that would slowly become my mantra. Anything could become true if you made it true.
I was tasked with finding a source that would make the number real. And this is the mentality that would slowly become my mantra. Anything could become true if you made it true.
But I hadn’t yet fully succumbed to it then. After much more research and a growing panic, I went to Bates again and apologized. I couldn’t make the number true. So I was given the fact checker’s most dreaded task: He told me to write a correction. My heart sank. I couldn’t believe that one of my articles would need a correction. And it was an article that I worked so hard on, contributing a swath of new reporting. I was more than just a fact checker in this story. But in the end, I had only one job. I had to be right. And I was wrong. So I wrote up the correction.
Looking at recent corrections printed by the magazine then, I decided to end it by writing, “We regret the error.” When I showed the correction to Bates, he told me to cut that line. We apparently didn’t regret the error. After a few more hours of fearing that I’d be sent back to the dregs of American Idol articles, I learned that the entire correction had been cut from our Letters page. It wouldn’t show up online either.
I could not make the number true on my own. But a higher editor had. We ran no corrections in relation to Kennedy’s piece. I realized that facts didn’t always need to be true.
“It does!” my friend Chris said as he tilted his head back in the middle of the Nebraska night. He softly jogged between the rows of corn under the blanket of constellations. “It does feel like being in space!”
Despite my “clean” record, the fear of publishing a correction grew overbearing in my five years at the magazine, so much so that all possible errors, no matter how mundane, became equal to me. It didn’t matter if it was correctly spelling Lil Wayne’s name without an apostrophe or triple-checking that a public figure truly said something potentially slanderous in our pages. Fact checking, or needing to be right, or at least believing to be right at all mental costs at every hour, created such enormous stress that I largely grew blind to any actual reality around me. Journalism, by its very nature, pushes people toward this sort of detachment. It encourages people to approach life in ways that most professions — or at least decent people — would never accept.
Fact checking, or needing to be right, or at least believing to be right at all mental costs at every hour, created such enormous stress that I largely grew blind to any actual reality around me.
In 2007, I worked on an article by Erik Hedegaard, a reporter who primarily did stories on celebrities, like Robert Downey Jr. or Carrot Top. But for some reason he decided to do a feature on E. Howard Hunt, a controversial figure in America’s Cold War-era spying world who supposedly knew WHO REALLY KILLED J.F.K.
The article ended with the not-at-all-likely conspiracy theory that Lyndon B. Johnson ordered Kennedy’s assassination. Two years into my tenure with Rolling Stone, I was well-acquainted with the magazine’s relationship with facts. But I wasn’t yet prepared to let an error onto the page. The L.B.J. theory was one thing but Hedegaard had at least attributed it to somebody. That wasn’t even the weirdest thing about the story:
The article also included a strange anecdote about the actor Kevin Costner offering to pay Hunt for the truth about Kennedy’s assassination. Costner had supposedly been in contact with Hunt numerous times. The actor even visited the former spy’s home in the hopes that he’d be able to finally extract this incredibly important correction in American history. But the anecdote had come solely from Hunt’s son. Hedegaard never attempted to confirm it. He merely left it in the article as if it was fact. He didn’t even attribute it anyone. So I thought, What the hell? Let’s see if Costner has anything to say about this.
I sent Costner’s people a list of questions about the anecdote that I hoped to confirm.
Catching me completely off guard, the actor actually called me after receiving the questions. He said he wouldn’t comment on them and went on to make a somewhat serious threat about “severe consequences” if we printed anything untrue about him. This was highly atypical of a celebrity. Usually an actor would just say “no comment” through their publicist. So perhaps he was being weirdly paranoid. Or maybe he was just bored that day. But unlike a normal adult who’d respect what would be a reasonable request in other circumstances, I continued to harass him:
“So you’re saying that this story is untrue?” I asked.
“I’m not commenting on that. I’m saying that if you print anything false about me, there will be consequences.”
“So you’re saying that the story is true?”
“That’s not what…”
“So parts of it are true?”
Our van careened down the western slope of the Rocky Mountains a day after leaving the Nebraska cornfield. Chris pressed the accelerator, sending the speedometer over 85 miles per hour, swerving in and out of slower traffic down the steep interstate. A metal guardrail lined our right side, flush with the edge of the narrow lane. Past that cliff stood rows of pointy green fir tops that were rooted far below us. Iggy Pop and the Stooges blared from the speakers: The tin-can lead guitar of “Search and Destroy” kicked back and forth from my passenger-side door back to the rear end ten feet behind. The friends who were spread across the backseats seemed unaware of how many times we could have landed in a hawk’s nest or been impaled by a Colorado pine. Chris noticed me looking at the speedometer.
“Vince says we gotta get to Hotchkiss by three,” he said.
“Why three?” I asked.
“I have no idea.”
In 2007, I was finally offered a full-time job as an assistant editor. The managing editor Will Dana approached me at my desk. He had a big goofy grin on his face, and said, “Do you want a job?” as if it was going to be the best news I’d ever heard.
But I looked up at him and said, “I don’t know.”
He walked away as if I’d just ruined his day.
Admittedly, fact checking for the magazine did at least lead to good stories to tell people. I once spoke to Cormac McCarthy, who was so wonderfully reclusive that when I told him, “It’s an honor to speak to you,” he nearly said the same thing to me until he realized that he was Cormac McCarthy. For another story, I spoke to Heidi Fleiss, the former “Hollywood Madam” who made headlines in the 1990s. Based on my speaking voice over the phone, she told me that I should fly to Nevada and be a prostitute at a new male brothel that she was planning to open. And then some days I’d come into the office to see The Band’s Robbie Robertson with his feet up on the desk at another cubicle.
I once spoke to Cormac McCarthy, who was so wonderfully reclusive that when I told him, “It’s an honor to speak to you,” he nearly said the same thing to me until he realized that he was Cormac McCarthy.
But fact checking at a pop culture magazine like Rolling Stone provides a different type of stress every issue. Sometimes you need to talk to a famously difficult scientist who refuses to dumb down any of his work for a popular readership (or for the fact checker who’s at least trying to be dumbed down right). Sometimes a Pentagon spokesperson doesn’t want to admit that the crew on a multibillion dollar defense shield uses Adirondack chairs on top of the thing. Sometimes the reporter can’t remember the restaurant that he ate at with Zac Efron. He tells you that all he can remember is that it was on L.A.’s Riverside Drive and a Bob’s Big Boy was across the street, and this is still a couple years before every single restaurant is on Google Maps, so you’re stuck calling the manager at Bob’s Big Boy, asking if there’s a diner with a green awning across the street, and even after you track the place down, you realize years later that you spelled the diner’s name wrong.
But sometimes you feel like you’re doing incredibly important work, so the stress is worth it. Sometimes you work on a Matt Taibbi article about wasteful defense contractors in Iraq that feels so necessary that for a moment, you believe in the power of facts, that they could change, say, the direction of a war. They don’t. But you believe it at the time. At least you do until the next issue when Taibbi writes a story with the following lede: “Quietly and miserably, like an anxious mother tiptoeing away from an autistic child who has fallen asleep with his helmet on…” And you wonder how you could have ever been so naïve.
But sometimes, in exceedingly rare moments, you realize that the “facts” in these articles aren’t just entertainment to everyone. They aren’t only filler between ads. I worked on a story that documented the deaths of eight soldiers who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Again, this was a story written by a reporter who didn’t normally cover politics. The reporting was generally sub-par. So I ended up speaking to the families of nearly all of these men and women, going over the excruciating details of their short lives. I’d listen to these mothers and fathers tear up, one after another. But they each got through it. They all wanted the story to be told. And they wanted the story told right. When I returned home to my Brooklyn apartment on those nights, I completely broke down, crying on my bed, feeling helpless to do anything.
They all wanted the story to be told. And they wanted the story told right.
That might have been the last time that I full-heartedly cared about facts.
Our van wound along the narrow county roads that twisted through the mountains and hills leading to Hotchkiss, Colorado, population 944. The music shouted over us, none of us saying a word as we barreled into our friend Vince’s hometown. The tires squealed as we cut corners. The guys laughed out of excitement and nerves. We plunged into Hotchkiss’s tiny downtown, circling its few blocks for the Creamery Arts Center, where Vince told us to be by three o’clock. It was 3:05.
Chris parked the van askew. We ran to the Creamery’s front door, bursting in as if searching a burning house for children, and found an incredibly crowded but completely silent hall. We turned heads with our laughter until we realized that we were ruining the quiet. A third of the town’s population — sun burnt men and women with starkly blue eyes who wore southwestern patterns — quietly waited as nine Tibetan monks slowly filed into the room.
I could make a simple graph that charted the trajectory of my career at Rolling Stone alongside my belief in facts. The line charting my years at the magazine would consistently go up at a 45-degree angle, of course. The line charting my belief in facts, however, would start high but consistently go down at a 45-degree angle. The midpoint of that graph, the dead center of the X, came along with one of our features reporters.
When fact checking a piece that he wrote on the War on Drugs, I turned up information from his sources that was so drastically different from what he originally reported, that Bates felt obligated to give me a research credit on the story — a rarity at Rolling Stone. In a story about a flawed medication, the reporter actually invented dead bodies. He wrote that numerous corpses had been found neglected in the basement of Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. This wasn’t true at all. The closest corollary that I could find was a hospital in Salem, Oregon, that had retained urns full of ashes of its unclaimed deceased patients. I’m not sure how he got his information. Another fact checker told me that he said he only dreamed something that he put into another one of his articles.
…it’s impossible to fact check a dream.
Despite this, he continued to write for the magazine. It was infuriating because it’s impossible to fact check a dream. You inevitably waste hours searching for something that never even existed. But by the midpoint of my time at Rolling Stone, I realized that good reporting didn’t make a successful reporter. You just needed to be able to present things in a way that would be interesting — perhaps it could even be turned into a fictional movie.
The Tibetan monks circled a table displaying a sand mandala that they’d meticulously created for a week in this tiny Colorado town. The monks wore orange and maroon robes. Their hats spiked over their heads like yellow mohawks. One of them began throat singing: The ominous grumble forced from his mouth sounded like a bullfrog bellowing into a didgeridoo. The others rhythmically chanted along. In finely timed flourishes, each introduced a new instrument to the song: a drum, cymbals, six-foot-long horns that reverberated into the floor, more horns sounding like trumpets. The mandala’s red, blue, and green sands glittered between them.
Tibetan Buddhists believe that deities are present in the sand, and the artwork is supposed to convey positive energies to the community viewing it. But as soon as the instruments were put aside, one of the monks revealed a hand brush and hunched over the sand. He slowly swept away the intricate designs of the mandala, letting days of work disappear with small flicks of his wrist.
By 2009, my fourth year at the magazine, I was in a strange stage with my relationship to facts. The stress of being right all of the time never really abated. But I also didn’t really see the point in anything that we were doing. I needed to be right in order to continue receiving paychecks. But I hated my job. So I began to shut down, largely becoming unfeeling, completely indifferent to anything. This affected more than my work life. I was finally dating a woman who had been my dream girl since 2001 — but I broke up with her because I had very little grip on reality. I drank more than usual. I’d worked on so many stories about other people that I didn’t really know who I was anymore. I certainly wasn’t a journalist but I’d played one for many years.
I’d worked on so many stories about other people that I didn’t really know who I was anymore.
I worked on Matt Taibbi’s infamous Goldman Sachs article where he equated the banking giant to “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” I didn’t think that the joke would work because the vampire squid doesn’t actually have a “blood funnel.” I told Taibbi this. Certainly the marine biologists would write in. But he didn’t really care. I told the editor, Bates again, the same thing. But he may have cared even less. Perhaps it was obvious that the vampire squid didn’t have an appendage as ridiculously named as a “blood funnel.” Bates seemed surprised that even the “vampire squid” was real. But I was beyond jokes at that point in my career. I was only droning along, waiting for each day to end. But then there’d just be another day.
With the mandala’s sand swept into a small pouch, the monks led everyone in the room out the front door and into the sun. A couple hundred people casually walked down the town’s main street, filling both lanes as the monks continued playing their drums, cymbals, and horns. My friends and I followed along, grinning over what we’d stumbled upon as the monks led us down to the North Fork Gunnison River, a thin waterway that bubbled westward.
“What do you think is going to happen to him?” Michael asked me.
Who could have guessed that my last assignment for Rolling Stone would actually be one of those very few articles that truly changes the course of history, the type of thing that I’d wanted so badly five years earlier?
I was so misanthropic that I wasn’t even aware of it.
I was primarily annoyed with the article. Working with Michael did not go smoothly. A responsible reporter sends all of their relevant notes to the fact checker. If somebody at Rolling Stone considered how inflammatory the comments would be, there probably should have been interview transcripts. Michael sent me a couple of notebooks that were half-full of indecipherable scribblings that needed a Rosetta Stone for translation. This is odd considering how he later wrote in his book The Operators that after his month with McChrystal, he had “seventy pages of single-spaced notes [and] over twenty hours of audio recordings.” I never saw any single-spaced notes. When I asked him for the audio, he refused to send it, telling me that it would be impossible to go through all of it in time prior to our deadline. Though he managed to go through it all himself when writing the article in 48 hours and sending it to Bates, as he notes in The Operators.
After a raucous night in Paris described in the article, Hastings also writes in The Operators that upon returning to his hotel, he “typed up what happened that night, down to the last detail.” I never saw anything written in detail. I vaguely recall seeing the word “AFGHANISTAN!” written in his notes, but like nearly everything, there was no context around the word. The capped name could have meant anything. That was the case with nearly all of the quotes, at least the quotes that were legible in his notebook. Most of them were not. Did the notebook say “Bite Me”? If it did, it wasn’t clear to me.
It was my last assignment. I wouldn’t need to fact check anything again. What did it matter if the quotes were accurate?
But whatever. It was my last assignment. I wouldn’t need to fact check anything again. What did it matter if the quotes were accurate? Almost as an afterthought, I sent McChrystal’s spokesperson a list of details that I wanted to confirm.
But when I woke up on the morning after the story had leaked to the media overnight, the spokesperson was already fired for letting the general seem so careless in the press. Within hours of the leak, McChrystal was called back to Washington by President Obama.
I was internally panicking. I had no idea if the quotes were true. I could already envision myself testifying in court due to a defamation case. Bates wanted me to come into the office as soon as possible.
I ticked off the minutes of the day, waiting for McChrystal to deny everything said in the article. I knew that something must be coming: My last assignment would be a grand fuck-up that nobody could have predicted, no matter how apathetic I’d become.
But as the day wound to a close, McChrystal never denied the major details. He actually issued an apology. I thought that I was going to collapse at any moment. Perhaps Michael was as well. In The Operators, he also notes how “they weren’t denying it… By apologizing, they had confirmed the validity of the story. I was relieved,” which is a strange thing to admit if he was certain about the story himself. Why would they deny it if he’d done diligent reporting? But Michael went on to cover for himself, saying that a denial “would have been difficult to do anyway because of the tape recordings and notes I had of the interviews.” Though he wouldn’t even let me, his fact checker, see or hear the majority of those records.
It was a terrifying and exciting week. In Kandahar on another assignment, Michael was supposedly getting absurd warnings from friends about how Americans “might try to take” him out. While sitting in the stands at a Mets game on the following Saturday, my coworker and friend Meredith sent me a text saying that my list of questions had been leaked to the Washington Post. The newspaper actually published all of them on its website. I immediately panicked but I didn’t even have a smartphone so I couldn’t look them up.
“Is it bad?” I texted back. My three friends next to me immediately pulled out their phones as I cringed over what they might say. “Does it say my name?” I asked, trying to not become frantic.
I had made a national news headline: “Rolling Stone fact checker sent McChrystal aide 30 questions.” But to my relief, the article didn’t name me. It barely contained any information outside of the email exchange with McChrystal’s aide. It only said, “The questions contained no hint of what became the controversial portions of the story.” This can be read two ways: 1.) I’d either pulled off a sly journalistic move to cover our intentions, or 2.) I simply didn’t care enough about the article to run some of the info by the spokesperson.
I had made a national news headline: “Rolling Stone fact checker sent McChrystal aide 30 questions.”
Rather than deny the comments in the article, McChrystal resigned from his post. I couldn’t believe it. I’d somehow taken part in one of my biggest goals as a naïve journalism student years earlier. But I’d droned through it like it was the most useless white collar work imaginable.
By the day that my email had leaked, however, I did feel something like a celebrity. I obnoxiously told my parents, “I’m the most famous fact checker in the world.” I went to Meredith’s apartment to celebrate her birthday with friends. The place was full of leftwing journalists. Some reporter with military contacts approached me to say, “The Army hates you.” Apparently the entire Army, if that’s possible. Some of us drank Bud Light Lime, mocking McChrystal’s favorite beer. At least we said it was his favorite beer in the magazine. Talking to his press aide, that probably wasn’t exactly true. But that detail was funnier so we left it in.
All three of us — Hastings, McChrystal, and I — knew to some extent that there was no such thing as a fact. Humorously, McChrystal notes in his memoir My Share of the Task that on the night of the story’s leak, he was actually at a meeting attended by both Eikenberry and Holbrooke, the two men who he’d disparaged in the article. McChrystal obviously doesn’t rehash any of those comments in his own book. For his part, McChrystal dedicates little more than a page of his 452-page memoir to the downfall precipitated by Rolling Stone. Michael Hastings is never named in the book.
All three of us — Hastings, McChrystal, and I — knew to some extent that there was no such thing as a fact.
McChrystal shapes his own narrative: “With us would be a reporter from Rolling Stone who was periodically interacting with our team, to give him an appreciation for the difficulty of the task they faced.” From McChrystal’s perspective, his team had a difficult task. That’s all they had to show the reporter. There is no reason for him to remember any other narrative. Nobody reading only his book could remember anything different.
In Tibetan folklore, a creation myth says that the stars first appeared in the sky “because of the past good deeds of the gods.” Along with the sun and moon, the constellations are a reminder that “our world was once a peaceful, beautiful place, free from suffering and pain.” Elsewhere, the Dali Llama emphasizes how the Buddha taught followers to have a “correct view of reality.”
I barely knew Michael but I’d later learn that we each suffered the same pain — the overbearing need to find reality.
My future wife’s mother asked her, “Are you sure he’ll still want to quit after all of the excitement?” Bates said, “People think it’s crazy that you worked on this and you’re just going to stop now.” Michael went on to be fairly famous. He made numerous television appearances, talking about and often defending the story. He went on to write more damning reports on government officials, the types of things that likely created a torrent of anxiety that, in my opinion, wasn’t balanced by the journalistic payoff. McChrystal largely went quiet for the next year, waiting out the storm. A couple months after leaving Rolling Stone, I briefly became a cheesemonger.
Despite my one connection to McChrystal, I liked him after reading his memoir. I was largely indifferent to him in the week that I was first acquainted with his life. But after seeing his side of the story, he was more than a drunken buffoon gallivanting across Europe. He was an intelligent man. A man who cared about the soldiers working for him. A man who obviously faced an unwinnable battle and sometimes needed to blow off some steam over the decisions he wasn’t able to make himself. He was every single person who’s ever had a boss.
“Life would go on,” he wrote in My Share of the Task. “In April 2011, the Department of Defense inspector general’s office would release a summary of its review into the allegations outlined in the Rolling Stone article. The investigations could not substantiate any violations of Defense Department standards and found that ‘not all of the events occurred as portrayed in the article.’”
Michael, however, wrote that the report “reads comically,” and went on to deride its inconsistencies. He particularly disliked how the report stated, “We were unable to establish the exact words used or the speaker.”
But here’s the thing: Neither could I. Considering my experience, that line sums up the incidents better than anything else I’ve heard. The article may have given Michael’s interpretation of his time with McChrystal. But who knows what’s completely true?
“These conclusions came out quietly,” McChrystal continues, “almost a year after the tornado of controversy the article created, but they were important to me.”
And why wouldn’t they be important to him? McChrystal gets to have his truth. It might not be what everybody remembers. But who really remembers Stanley McChrystal anymore? Brad Pitt’s upcoming straight-to-Netflix movie based on Michael’s book doesn’t even use McChrystal’s real name. My mother-in-law sometimes sends me articles on Gen. David Petraeus, mixing up the two men and their indiscretions. And I recently saw a teenage girl on a field trip at an art museum: She wore a t-shirt that had a picture of the Rolling Stone cover with the McChrystal story. Lady Gaga stares across the page, the two machine guns violently pointing from her breasts like a nightmare. The girl wearing the shirt likely had no idea what the words “Obama’s General” in the bottom corner of the cover meant as she must have been no more than seven years old when the story appeared. The facts matter very little in the end.
McChrystal gets to have his truth. It might not be what everybody remembers. But who really remembers Stanley McChrystal anymore?
The copy of McChrystal’s memoir that I checked out from the San Diego Public Library happened to be a copy signed by the general himself. The signature couldn’t convince the book’s original owner to save it on their own shelves. In the end, most of us are the equivalent of that unloved memoir. We believe in something so wholeheartedly that we’ll tell the story until it is true. Some of us will even publish those “facts.” We’ll even sign our names, saying, This is who I was. But in the end, even those versions of the truth will be lost with so many other unread books. That isn’t necessarily something to be sad about.
Everyone crowded around the monks as they concluded their ceremony. People pushed through thorny scrub brush lining the river. Others stood on a low bridge that barely cleared the water. Children climbed trees to see from above. While some of my friends stood farther back on shore, I made sure to stand where the water met land, getting a clear view of the robed monks at the river’s edge. The sun warmed my scalp as I freed myself from the brush and trees looming overhead.
A single monk stood ankle-deep in the river, wetting the ends of his robe. I watched him slowly shake out the colored sands from his pouch. The grains poured into the water, slipped and slid over each other, and drifted free.
Michael Hastings is dead now. On June 18, 2013, at 33 years old, he sped through Los Angeles in his Mercedes, launched over a median, smashed into a palm tree, and was trapped in a fireball when his car exploded at 4:25 a.m.
I didn’t really know Michael outside of Rolling Stone. But he was apparently “paranoid by nature,” as he notes in The Operators. In the book, he goes on a long tangent imagining how a woman at a bar in Berlin is likely a spy trying to extract information from McChrystal and his team. “The idea that this woman might be a spy — sent by a foreign intelligence agency to snoop on General McChrystal — seemed both dangerous and hilarious.” The paranoia, however, seems to have fallen more squarely into the former category in the year leading up to his death. His stories’ subjects had reportedly made him increasingly paranoid. According to a New York magazine article, Michael told a neighbor that he’d noticed more helicopters flying over his house than usual. He said that his family and friends were being interviewed by the FBI. He told one employer that he needed to hide for a while.
When Michael asked me “What do you think is going to happen to him?” I honestly believed him for three years when he agreed with me. It’ll probably just be a slap on the wrist. Even in his book, he repeats what he essentially told me: “I didn’t think it was possible for him to be fired. No way.” But after learning more about Michael, my memory of that conversation doesn’t make him sound so sure. He sounds worried. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him next. Knowing what I know now, both about Michael and my own experience, I wonder if the assignment had created so much stress for him that he just wanted somebody to say that everything was going to be okay — that the career that he’d built for himself wasn’t going to be swept away. But as a journalist, that’s exactly what I needed.