Recently an old colleague from Newsweek got in touch and with curious urgency suggested I pick up a copy of the forthcoming novel The Last Magazine, by the late journalist Michael Hastings. Ten years ago, when I was a junior reporter at Newsweek preparing to cover the war in Iraq, Mike was a 22-year-old intern, parked in one of the cubicles outside my office. He was a friend and a confidant, and later I would come to immensely respect his raw, real war reporting and uncompromising questioning of authority figures like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s top commander in Afghanistan, who resigned after Mike’s blockbuster story in Rolling Stone.
I hadn’t known about Mike’s novel. Most people didn’t. After his tragic death in a car accident last year, one of his former colleagues sent an old draft to his widow, Elise Jordan, and she found several versions on his laptop. So I got ahold of an advance copy. It was, I saw, a thinly disguised roman à clef about Newsweek in its twilight years, a parable with broad themes about idealism, ambition, and the moral compromises journalists make to succeed in the world of New York City media.
The primary character is a 22-year-old intern named Michael M. Hastings. The other central character, whose journey frames the narrative thrust of the novel, is “a classic old-school journalist” who “fuels his brilliant war reporting with alcohol, drugs and transvestite hookers.” His name is A.E. Peoria.
In the novel, Peoria comes to the magazine after spending 18 months reporting in Cambodia. I did too. Peoria is his early 30s when he heads off to Iraq. So was I. He has two gay parents (I do as well), and his girlfriend writes for a pornography magazine. My girlfriend back then worked for Penthouse Variations, a fact I never hesitated to boast about.
This Peoria fellow was instantly, eerily recognizable. I was slightly unhinged back when I worked alongside Mike—drinking, sneaking naps under my desk, and revealing way too much information about my personal life to anyone who would listen. (Mike writes in the book that Peoria had a psychological condition called “CDD,” or compulsive disclosure disorder.) I didn’t think anyone was paying attention. But apparently Mike was taking notes.
In the book, Peoria leaves his job, sobers up, becomes a journalism professor at a small college, and falls in love. My story diverges on a couple significant details, but I did quit Newsweek for a better-paying job, regretted it, finally sobered up, taught journalism at a small college, and fell in love with my wife and started a family.
It’s an uncanny feeling, to read ruminations about a long-ago, angst-ridden period in one’s life. But Mike, characteristically, does an excellent job, evoking the soul-crushing force of Newsweek’s fluorescent-lit hallways and the frustrations of toiling in the shadow of self-absorbed media “personalities” who spend more time building their personal brands than managing a news organization.
To be sure, in many places Mike exaggerates the truth to make his points—sometimes absurdly so. But his depiction of what it was like at Newsweek back in the early aughts is so accurate at times, I’m convinced he must have been writing down dialogue as he was living it.
Back in those days, as a young journalist, it could feel both glamorous and exhilarating to work at Newsweek—especially if you came from the penny-pinching world of daily newspapers, as I did. There were the catered Friday-night dinners at Top of the Week, on the 22nd floor (Mike calls it Top of the Mag), with its stunning views of Central Park that made you feel, in his words, like you were “part of the big time, one of those Captain of the Universe types.” We did fly business-class back from the Middle East after covering Iraq (not first-class, as Mike writes). And every Friday night after the magazine’s close, black town cars with tinted windows lined up on the curb outside our offices on West 57th Street, waiting to whisk us wherever we wanted to go.
But Newsweek could also be an intensely political, cutthroat place to work, with a star system and a hierarchical, almost feudal pecking order. There were internal factions, the clique of young editors Mike describes, for instance, “who were replaying their high school fantasies of being the cool kids.” People did peruse stories in the computer system and examine the comments from the top editors at the bottom of the pieces for a sense of who was in favor. These comments, called “red notes,” Mike writes, could be read as “an indication of the star power of the writer or reporter, how valuable they are to the magazine.”
The environment depicted in Mike’s book is driven by big egos and buzz. The character based on my boss at the time, Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria—an elegant, high-end dresser occasionally in argyle socks, often on television, who wrote a book about “illiberal democracies” that many of his underlings had on their shelves but few had read—is maneuvering against a character based on former Newsweek managing editor and eventual editor Jon Meacham—an affable “thirty-seven-year-old trapped in a sixty-seven-year-old’s body,” who “looks like he got his wardrobe from raiding Mark Twain’s closet,” wrote a best-seller about World War II, and was also often on television. Despite his brilliant reporting, Peoria is a pawn between the two men, set up by his editors and ruthlessly sacrificed when his investigative story about torture sparks riots in Iraq and angers official Washington. (That didn’t happen, either.) The idea, that “the Magazine” exists for a noble purpose, to capture some objective reality and hold officials accountable, the Hastings character comes to realize, is a self-serving myth. Actually, it’s a joke.
In the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, The Last Magazine is entertainingly over-the-top. Peoria waves around naked pictures of his girlfriend, drops acid in Bangkok, gets a venereal disease, and snorts cocaine in an airplane bathroom on the way back from Dubai. In places there are unusually detailed sex scenes that are just plain bizarre. By the end of the book, Peoria has smoked crack and copulated with multiple partners at the same time, on multiple continents. None of that was actually true, but then again Mike always did have a great imagination.
A normal person might feel violated. I was a little … surprised at first. But now I’m totally flattered. Plus, I don’t feel I have a right to be angry. After all, I have made my living writing about the lives of other people for more than 20 years. And I still believe in the journalistic values Mike attaches to A.E. Peoria—values that Mike embodied better than almost anyone he came across in his own journalism career.
I always admired Mike’s fearless commitment to highlighting the hypocrisies and puncturing the self-serving delusions of official Washington and the media establishment tasked with covering it. He was uncompromising, relentless, and ruthless in pointing out when the incestuous, quid-pro-quo culture of Washington had corrupted the journalists supposedly tasked with holding the establishment accountable to the public.
It’s a profound tragedy that The Last Magazine will be Mike’s last word on this subject. I found it to be an immensely entertaining—sometimes insightful—novel, even though I was wincing the entire time.