Decoding

06.18.14

Newsweek Takedown From Beyond the Grave: Michael Hastings’s Fiction Tells the Truth

The late journalist left behind a novel satirizing his fellow Newsweek employees. But this delightful book has much more than mockery on its mind.

Rare is the roman à clef where you think you can identify every single real person in it. But in the case of The Last Magazine, a novel drafted by my one-time Newsweek colleague Michael Hastings before his untimely death in a fiery car crash a year ago this week, I am pretty sure I know who everybody is and, maybe more importantly, who everybody isn’t. And, yeah, I knew them all personally.

Never mind. What makes this novel work—really, I can’t think of a better little tome to take to the beach—is that it’s just so much fun, so wicked, so amusing, and so brilliantly observed. The caricatures of people living and dead (career-wise) are only part of its charm. I haven’t read a better send-up of hackery since the last time I dove into Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 classic Scoop (whence comes the title of our own irreverent, insatiable publication The Daily Beast).

For those who follow the fortunes and misfortunes of the news business these days, it won’t be much of a challenge to figure out who’s who.

There is a redoubtable Indian-born editor of the magazine’s international edition, who has his own cable news program. This brilliant intellectual and Machiavellian self-promoter, called Nishant Patel in the novel, is author of a groundbreaking book on “benevolent dictatorships.” Around the office cubicles it’s considered he “might accept some kind of government position at the NSC or State,” or “might accept some kind of position in academia, president of Princeton or something,” or “might take over the domestic edition of The Magazine after the editor in chief retires.”

The corporate drama that all Newsweek veterans remember pits Patel against a brilliant young Southerner named Sanders Berman, a historian whose great loves are war and religion, and who “looks like he got his wardrobe from raiding Mark Twain’s closet.” As Hastings describes him on first encounter, “Berman is wearing a bow tie and is hunched over slightly—he’s a 37-year-old trapped in a 67-year-old’s body, and from what I’ve read about him, he’s been trapped in a 67-year-old’s body since puberty.”

No, Mike is not really very nice to either Fareed Zakaria or Jon Meacham in this book. And one would expect no more or less from the Hastings who brought down Gen. Stanley McChrystal with a famous-infamous Rolling Stone profile, then went on to write the best-seller The Operators about the war in Afghanistan.

But, again, that’s probably beside the point, and the novel in the end is not really about the high and mighty in the executive suite or the intrigues among them that contributed to the demise of “the last magazine” as we knew it. It’s about two versions of Mike Hastings.

The greatest tension revolves around what it means to be a reporter on the make, with all the moral compromises that may entail.

One is the ingénue intern-researcher, a rather familiar figure, as if The Devil Wears Prada had been transposed to the mainly male world of newsmagazine journalism. That character is called, helpfully, Michael Hastings, and he is in his early-to-mid 20s. The other version of him is a young foreign correspondent called A. E. Peoria in his early-to-mid 30s, a veteran of combat and craziness, who’s pushing the very thin edge of that envelope called sanity.

To be sure, Mike borrowed a bunch of details from the life of another of our colleagues, Adam Piore, including the gay parents, the problems with addiction, the refuge in academia, as Adam wrote quite proudly this month in Slate. But, I’m sorry, Adam, you are no A.E. Peoria.

Hastings, in the book, is mistaken for a Mormon, since he doesn’t smoke, doesn’t snort coke, doesn’t drink. Peoria indulges in, and mostly enjoys, just about every vice known to man or woman from New York to Baghdad to Bangkok. He’s running on adrenaline, booze, and dope when he’s not running on empty.

The core of the story is set against the backdrop of the Iraq invasion, the buildup, and the immediate aftermath. The speed with which the media establishment embraced the warmongering of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush is brought home with savage accuracy (although at Newsweek, it should be said, there was some resistance from some of us). And the scenes are even sharper as the whole enterprise turns sour and those same pundits who pushed the war on the public try to walk back their disastrous prognostications with young Mike Hastings looking up appropriate quotes and references from them.

In the midst of all this, there’s a wonderfully improbable but weirdly credible plot twist involving an emasculated soldier.

But the greatest tension revolves around what it means to be a reporter on the make, with all the moral compromises that may entail. “There’s no guarantee in this business on anything, you know,” a strung-out Peoria-Hastings tells Ingenue-Hastings toward the end of the book. “Anybody who does journalism and doesn’t realize that what we’re doing is totally immoral is a fucking clown, you know?”

I don’t think Mike actually believed that. I don’t even think Peoria-Hastings does. But they both knew they were always on the edge. And ultimately that’s why Mike’s reporting was so important. He not only “told truth to power,” he told it to the rest of us, whether reporting fact or, as it turns out, writing fiction. And that, in the end, is why this great raucous, raunchy, wonderfully readable novel is, really, quite unforgettable.