What was meant to be Michael Hastings’s first novel, “The Last Magazine,” is his final and only one. This talented young journalist and war correspondent died last year in a car crash at 33. This book, which he’d apparently told few people about, was rescued from his laptop.
In most regards, it’s a minor work: As satires about journalism go, it’s not going to make anyone forget Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” (1938) or Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights, Big City” (1984) or Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists” (2010). But it’s fast and funny and humane. When I put it down, it called to be picked up again.
Mr. Hastings captures a small but cruel and disorienting era, roughly 2002-7. He zeros in on the American news media’s complicity in the rush to war in Iraq, on the withering of venerable brands like Time and Newsweek and on the rise of needling web magazines, run on a shoestring, like Gawker. He gallops through these years like a knight with a long pole on horseback, and he finds plenty to skewer.
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On June 18, 2013, Michael Hastings died in a single-vehicle automobile crash in his Mercedes C250 Coupé at approximately 4:25 a.m. in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. A witness to the crash said the car seemed to be traveling at maximum speed and was creating sparks and flames before it fishtailed and crashed into a palm tree. Video from a nearby security camera purportedly shows Hastings’ vehicle speeding and bursting into flames after crashing. Witnesses described the car’s engine being ejected 50 to 60 yards from the scene. Hastings’ body was burned beyond recognition. The coroner identified the body by matching fingerprints with those the FBI had on file. Two days after the crash, the Los Angeles Police Department declared that there were no signs of foul play. The coroner’s report ruled the death of Hastings to be an accident. An autopsy showed that the cause of death was massive blunt force trauma consistent with a high-speed crash. Hastings was eulogized in the media by figures such as Christopher Hayes, Rachel Maddow, his co-workers at BuzzFeed, and others.
Soon after his death, some press reports described the crash as suspicious. Earlier the previous day, Hastings indicated that he believed he was being investigated by the FBI. In an email to colleagues, which was copied to and released by Hastings’ friend, Army Staff Sergeant Joe Biggs, Hastings said that he was “onto a big story”, that he needed to “go off the radar”, and that the FBI might interview them. WikiLeaks announced that Hastings had also contacted Jennifer Robinson, one of its lawyers, a few hours prior to the crash, and the LA Weekly reported that he was preparing new reports on the CIA at the time of his demise. His widow Elise Jordan said his final story was a profile of CIA Director John O. Brennan. The FBI released a statement denying that Hastings was being investigated.
Former U.S. National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-terrorism Richard Clarke said that what is known about the crash is “consistent with a car cyber attack“. He was quoted as saying “There is reason to believe that intelligence agencies for major powers—including the United States—know how to remotely seize control of a car. So if there were a cyber attack on [Hastings’] car—and I’m not saying there was, I think whoever did it would probably get away with it”. Several car experts have commented that there is no reason to suspect foul play in the crash. Motor Trend technical director Frank Markus said that the ensuing fire was consistent with a high-speed car crash.
Hastings’ widow Elise Jordan has said she believes his death to be “just a really tragic accident”. His older brother, Jonathan, said he believed Michael was experiencing a “manic episode” shortly before his death, and that he may have had suspicions were it not for this observation. Cenk Uygur, friend of Hastings’ and host of The Young Turks, told KTLA that many of Michael’s friends were concerned that he was “in a very agitated state”, saying he was “incredibly tense” and worried that his material was being surveilled by the government. Friends believed that Michael’s line of work led to a “paranoid state”. USA Today reported that in the days before his death, Hastings believed his car was being “tampered with” and that he was scared and wanted to leave town.
The FBI file on Michael Hastings and its attachments (totaling 21 pages) were released to the public on September 24, 2013, after investigative journalist Jason Leopold and MIT doctoral candidate Ryan Shapiro filed a joint suit in July 2013 against the FBI for ignoring their FOIA requests for the file. The FBI failed to respond to the requests within the allotted 20-day period. On August 15, Leopold released a statement that read, “The Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicated that the FBI has likely located responsive records pertaining to investigative journalist Michael Hastings”. Al Jazeera, along with Shapiro, released results from a FOIA request showing that the FBI’s Washington field office had opened a file on Hastings in June 2012 to store “unclassified media articles” and “memorialize controversial reporting by Rolling Stone magazine on June 7, 2012″. The attorney who filed the FOIA lawsuit, Jeff Light, suggested that it was uncommon for the FBI to open such files on reporters.