According to a member of Michael Hastings's family, a widely circulated story that the investigative journalist's body was cremated by authorities without the family's permission is flat-out untrue.
The story that the cremation was unauthorized -- further stoking credible suspicions aroused by Hastings's strange death in a fiery one-car crash, complete with a dramatic explosion -- has raged across the Internet for weeks.
A recent count showed 475,000 results for "Hastings cremated" and 357,000 for "Hastings cremation." The top results all reported that the family did not want the cremation. The clear implication was that this was proof of a cover-up -- that "the authorities" had rushed to dispose of the body in a way that would make further inquiries, such as an autopsy, impossible.
But a family member told WhoWhatWhy, "It was our wish to have Michael's remains cremated." In fact, this family member said the cremation came about at the family's specific request -- and only after an autopsy and toxicology tests, whose results are pending.
In light of this simple, clarifying statement, it's worth asking: How do blatantly counter-factual rumors and untruths get traction in the cybersphere?
Often, as in this case, they start with legitimate suspicions: just before his death Hastings told associates he was working on a blockbuster story involving the "NSA." Building on these suspicions, a reporter makes an ambiguous statement that sounds like a shocking revelation -- but is actually the result of a leap of faith, an unwarranted assumption by the reporter... which turns out to be incorrect.
Here is a local television reporter for a commercial station in San Diego, Kim Dvorak:
"A close family friend did confirm that Michael's body was sent home in an urn, meaning he was cremated and it wasn't the request of the family...in fact the family wanted Michael's body to go home."
Soon, the story was everywhere -- including on almost all of the websites that generate heavy traffic by catering to those who hunger for a steady diet of stories hostile to the government, no matter their veracity.
When we contacted Dvorak by email to ask where she got the "unauthorized cremation" claim, she replied:
"I will not be sharing sources for privacy reasons. I will point you to Elise Jordan's CNN interview where she had plenty of opportunities to deny details reported on San Diego 6 (we are affiliated with CNN)."
The problem with this disingenuous reply is that Elise Jordan (Hastings's widow) was not asked about the cremation by the program's host, Piers Morgan. The short interview segment did not include discussion of any details of the crash or aftermath, beyond Jordan's statement that she accepted the crash as an accident and that her husband was always working on multiple intriguing stories at any one time. While this assertion may well be premature, it is not so surprising given the sort of pressures on family members to demonstrate restraint in such circumstances. (From several sources, WhoWhatWhy understands that the family and friends remain curious, like the public, and open to further information that may shed light on the incident.)
Meanwhile, another person Dvorak interviewed fits the description she used in her original report, of "a close family friend." That's Joe Biggs, a retired staff sergeant who was close with Hastings and who did in fact speak to her about the cremation.
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