In June, when 33-year-old journalist Michael Hastings died in an unusual single-car accident, it quickly became a perfect storm for conspiracy theorists. Here we were at the apex of NSA paranoia, and a reporter famous for investigating the U.S. government and decrying the surveillance state was suddenly dead. Looking at the comments on HuffingtonPost, many ordinary liberals were highly suspicious of the crash, some outright assuming that of course he was murdered by the powers that be, yawn.
It did seem somewhat suspicious. Hastings died at 4 in the morning, driving an estimated 100 MPH on a residential street in Los Angeles before crashing into a palm tree, with enough impact to throw the engine block 50 yards away. What a weird way to die. I wanted to dig deeper, so I created a Google Alert and watched the news -- and the opinion -- come in.
During the long wait for autopsy and toxicology reports over a slow-news summer, various dubious "journalists" were happy to fill the void and keep people talking possible murder. One rose to the top quickly: Kimberly Dvorak, a Southern California freelance reporter whose stories on Hastings were bought by San Diego 6, a local affiliate of the CW television network based in Tijuana, Mexico.
So, not exactly the Washington Post.
In an early piece on Hastings' death -- which was reposted on dozens of "news" sites -- Dvorak wrote that:
1. An eyewitness saw the car going at maximum speed, then "heard a couple explosions shortly before the car crashed"
2. The explosion was so intense that it took the coroner's office two days to identify the body
3. Toxicology would reportedly take weeks to complete (even though "in stark contrast," James Gandolfini's toxicology in Italy had been completed in only a few days)
4. Shortly before his death, Hastings had sent an e-mail saying he was on to a big story
5. Hastings had said that he received death threats about once per year
6. "Accounts of the car crash" had contained "erroneous details" that "were hard to overlook" (like, the street was actually wide and straight, not narrow and curvy)
7. Even though the LAPD found no immediate evidence of foul play, the intensity of the fire, as judged by watching videos, resembles a thermite burn1 -- "gasoline generally doesn't burn that hot" (in Dvorak's opinion)
8. The LAPD "refuses to release the accident and toxicology reports"
9. The LAPD refuses to make the vehicle available for inspection ("which only fuels speculation")
10. Although Hastings had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, "his family and friends say he kicked the habit."
Dvorak also mentioned an interview in which HuffingtonPost had asked counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke to weigh in on the Hastings case. Clarke -- ever the provocateur -- stated that the crash was "consistent with a car cyber attack" that could remotely control the speed and braking.
Further articles were routinely picked up by left-leaning news aggregators. Dvorak wrote that Hastings hadn't touched alcohol in five years and "drove like a grandma," according to his friend, Staff Sergeant Joe Biggs2; that the palm tree hit by the car showed "seemingly minimal damage" and only a scratch on the curb; that in TV interviews, Hastings' wife "kind of had a smile on her face and didn't seem like a grieving widow"; and finally, that according to her own analysis of a surveillance video (using a "mathematic equation" for speed supplied by "a University professor"), Hastings' car was going only 35 miles per hour at impact.
Well, when you consider all of these facts, I guess he was murdered! I mean, there were clearly explosions3 and stuff, and stuff burning that wasn't gas, and the car was being driven by someone on a laptop or something who could make it go 100 MPH, or, well I guess I mean 35 MPH. Simple physics says only an explosion would launch an engine 50 yards -- normal car accidents aren't like that, and I know, 'cause I've seen 'em on TV. And you can't trust the LAPD, remember OJ? All I'm saying is, keep an open mind by reading all of Kimberly Dvorak's articles, and then come to your own conclusions!
What are they hiding under that sheet, other than a grotesquely burned corpse?
Imagine the embarrassment when Michael Hastings' accident, autopsy, and toxicology reports were published.
Most of the headlines said that meth and pot were found in Hastings' system. While true, the drug levels were determined to be too low to have contributed to the crash. Other details were more telling: According to interviews with family members, Hastings had relapsed into poly-substance abuse about a month prior, and his brother was soon to arrive in L.A. to try to get him into a rehab program. Hastings had delusions that he was invincible. In 1999, he had been abusing Ritalin and crashed his car into a pole, and subsequently checked into rehab. Later we learned that Hastings had recently come to believe that his car had been tampered with and that helicopters over L.A. were tracking him.
No, drugs didn't cause Hastings to drive 100 MPH. But, he appeared to have a bit of a screw loose, and the addiction and delusion was just a symptom of that. Brilliant journalist, yes; pillar of the community who drove like a grandma, no. What's disturbing is that many of my fellow liberals picked up on the murder narrative, because, well the government with the NSA and everything just seemed so darn sinister.
Actually, the murder talk had already been largely deflated, once Hastings' brother and wife came forward to say that it was probably only a tragic accident. Even while the new "casual conspiracy theorists" were describing to each other a stable, responsible Hastings being remote-controlled toward his fiery, explosive murder at the hands of vengeful government agents -- great scene for a movie, huh? -- his family privately knew that he was simply advancing toward self-destruction.
Ouch. That's gotta hurt, when the victim's own family denounces the cinematic narrative of the journalist-hero getting cyber-gunned down. (Maybe the wife and brother were bought off by the New World Order global bank? Sure....)
I'm not saying for certain that Hastings wasn't murdered. It's just so unlikely, given what we know now. It's an Occam's razor thing: Either, sinister forces came together to commit a Black Ops high-speed murder on the gritty streets of L.A. using cutting-edge wireless cyber-hacking technology, ooh! Or, a very talented dude who was already unstable and had a sad history of psychiatric problems, early one morning just snapped.
Doesn't make for a great movie. Then again, reality seldom does.
1. Many 9/11 conspiracy theorists believe that the World Trade Center buildings were demolished using thermite, a notoriously difficult-to-ignite incendiary.
2. If you want to give your "expert authority" more credibility, add a title or two, or three ("physics Professor Dr. Steven E. Jones, Ph.D.").
3. The reporter Dvorak routinely conflated sudden fire with explosion. There is a difference; actual explosions shred vehicles. Plus, eyewitness testimony is unreliable and easily manipulated.