Book review

Late reporter Michael Hastings' novel indicts media over Iraq coverage


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I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a strong sense of deja vu about the current situation in Iraq. Reading Michael Hastings’ posthumously published novel “The Last Magazine” definitely exacerbated that feeling.


“THE LAST MAGAZINE”
By Michael Hastings
Blue Rider Press

Hastings, a recipient of the Norman Mailer Award for Emerging Journalists, was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, a writer for Buzz Feed, a former intern and Iraq correspondent for Newsweek, and author of books such as “The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan.”

Mr. Hastings is best known for “The Runaway General,” a 2010 Rolling Stone profile on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then supreme commander of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Mr. McChrystal was quoted bad-mouthing his civilian superiors, which led to his recall to Washington and resignation.

Hastings died in a car crash in June 2013 at the age of 33, but his writing enjoys a roistering afterlife. His 2012 story on Taliban prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl still is considered the definitive report on the soldier. At the time of his death, the FBI was investigating Hastings’ reporting on Mr. Bergdahl, which it considered controversial.

Found nearly complete by Hastings’ widow, “The Last Magazine” tells the story of an earnest, 20-something journalist named Michael Hastings who works as an intern for the fictional weekly news magazine, The Magazine.

Mr. Hastings’ reporting, according to the Rolling Stones obituary, refused “to cozy up to power.” “The Last Magazine” works in the same vein; it’s a thinly veiled roman a clef and a satirical indictment of the media’s complicity in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It’s at once thoughtful, contumacious, self-conscious and cheeky.

Allusions to real-life figures at Newsweek abound. The international edition editor, Nishant Patel, “an Indian Cary Grant,” is a clear reference to Fareed Zakaria. Managing editor Sanders Berman, a “young fogy,” is a likely Jon Meacham.

War’s hell for writers and editors, as well as those locked in actual combat. “The Last Magazine” maps the war in Iraq onto newsroom wars among editors and writers. Nishant and Sanders jockey to be next editor-in-chief. Caught in the crossfire are journalists such as Hastings and the gonzo foreign correspondent A.E. Peoria, both eager to gain prestige in print media that has survived by “making brands of bylines.”

The chapter “Why We Fight” is a mash-up of quotes from real and fictional editorials in favor of the war. The pre-war bravado of Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria are juxtaposed with those of Sanders and Nishant.

Two years after the invasion, The Magazine does an about-face. Nishant pens a cover story “How They Got It Wrong,” which calls the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq “the most catastrophic foreign policy decision to be made in the twenty-first century.”

There’s a sharp double standard with respect to reporting The Truth. Peoria is pilloried on CNN when his early report on Abu Ghraib is attacked. He’s dismissed following his televised disgrace, which precipitates an existential crisis. “You fool ... how could you have thought you were going to be your own brand?” Peoria wonders.

Hastings leaks sensitive information to online competitor wretched.com; his deception is painful to read but telling how low writers must go in order to climb ranks. Hastings describes wretched.com and the burgeoning blogosphere that breeds “a strange kind of apathy and nihilism and ambition” as reportage from the anal canal of news.

“The Last Magazine” veers off in too many directions from midpoint on. The lengthy section on Peoria’s monthlong sexcapade in Thailand is meant to titillate but lacks relevance. Peoria’s involvement with the soldier he saved in Iraq, who’s become a transsexual since his discharge, is a promising call out to Chelsea Manning and issues of sexuality and the military, but it seems hastily cobbled together.

Despite the loose last half of the book, “The Last Magazine” is an enjoyable read and call to action that dishes the “terrifying inside story” on politics’ effect on news and the politics of news itself.


Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at The University of Pittsburgh and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle (julie.azzam@gmail.com).

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