August 28, 2014 by newsgetting
At first glance, “The Last Magazine: A Novel” by Michael Hastings would appear to lack relevance in the current media age. A fictional account of life inside a failed magazine — Newsweek — in a dying industry — print — written by a now-dead journalist, the book seems very much beside the point. And the march of history aside, does the world need another roman à clef from inside the world of Manhattan media, whose bottomless interest in itself is not generally shared by the public?
But even from the grave Mr. Hastings has demonstrated anew an ability to reframe the debate. The novel, exhumed by his spouse after his death and published last week, reads as vivid archaeology that reveals much about the present moment.
The book seems eerily relevant in part because it arrived the same week it became clear that while America was done with Iraq, Iraq is not done with America, not by a long shot.
The novel begins when its main character, Michael Hastings, gets a job as an intern in 2002, just as the media tom-toms of battle are rising. “There’s war in the backdrop, looming and distant and not real for most of these characters, myself included,” he writes in a dose of self-indictment.
Things changed for Mr. Hastings — the person, not the book character — after he went to cover the war in Iraq for Newsweek, and then, most notably, when he profiled Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, for Rolling Stone in 2010. The article used intimate access to expose the cynicism and ambition of the general and his staff, and General McChrystal was forced to step down.
Some establishment journalists cried foul even as Mr. Hastings won a Polk award, suggesting he did not play by the rules. Those rules suggest that we always know more than we tell our readers and collaborate with our sources even as we cover them. (Writing in New York magazine three weeks ago, Frank Rich suggested that Mr. Hastings’s book was a sharp rebuke to the commenting class.)
That may be why politicians and journalists are now neck and neck in a race to the bottom of public trust. According to a poll released by Gallup last week, fewer than a quarter of news consumers trust what they read, watch or click on, a historic low.
Mr. Hastings’s book comes on the heels of last year’s “This Town,” by my New York Times colleague Mark Leibovich, which vividly described how the media has traded its independence for access and become one more part of a suspect apparatus.
As Iraq has reminded us this month, when we climb on board and yield our skepticism, the lies we tell ourselves and then our readers can come in for a big beating. Wars are rationalized, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction become pretext for action, and quagmires are rendered in victorious terms.
Much has changed since the period Mr. Hastings chronicles, most notably that the audience has fled established print outlets and suspicion of government has soared. The notion that a magazine of all things is central to the national discourse seems quaint, and the country will no longer be lulled to sleep by talk of quick, winnable wars.
The public is less prone to the allure of Great Men pontificating from inside a magazine, the television or behind a lectern at a news conference. The jig is up.
In Mr. Hastings’s book, even as the protagonist strives to become what he despises — a big-deal magazine writer — he realizes that soon enough it will all go away. “I feel like I’m a blacksmith in the days of Henry Ford’s assembly line, an apprentice scroll writer in the months following Gutenberg’s great invention, or a poet in 1991,” he writes.
Amid the self-seeking people at the magazine — with many hands on a greasy pole of advancement composed of book sales, cable segments and cocktail chatter — the making of war is just one more career opportunity. Finger to the wind, the men who run the place send squads of underlings and assistants scurrying for pillows, lunches and research on the coming conflict for their large thoughts for The Magazine, which is what Mr. Hastings calls Newsweek.
The milieu of the book paints a picture of a treehouse where like minds connive and look for an opening. But far below them, there is the sound of sawing — steady and implacable. The tree will fall. The insurgents — in media, in Iraq, in the world at large — are on the march and a privileged perch is no longer assured.
The emperors, as it turned out, had no clothes, and now they have no kingdom. Newsweek withered, was sold for a dollar, was revived, sold, revived again, all while hemorrhaging money. Newsmagazines sell less than half of what they did on newsstands in 2008, and their ability to start (or end) conversations by their choice of cover subjects is never coming back.
The national pulse, once embodied by the appearance of the Beatles or Steve Jobs on magazine covers on the newsstand, is now something that is measurable in seconds by what is trending on the web. In that context, “The Last Magazine” is a portrait of cartoon excess, with its hefty car-service bills, grave self-import and conjured-up news hierarchies.
There is still some great magazine journalism going on — Mr. Hastings’s McChrystal piece among them — but for the most part magazines have become just one more channel of data.
It is a reminder that the cocksureness of the ruling class is a reflection not of wisdom but aggrandizement. The fact that many of the political architects of the failed war are back on cable pontificating about what needs to happen now tells you all need to know.
“No one ever accuses America of being a nation of historians,” Mr. Hastings writes. “Our impressions over the long run are formed by a few vivid pictures and a tagline.”
For the Iraq war, the iconic image is President George W. Bush speaking in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner just weeks after the invasion began. Many in the media went along with the conceit, including myself at one point. More than a decade later, the mission in Iraq is continuing and far from accomplished.
But as Mr. Hastings points out in “The Last Magazine,” being a nimble member of the media means almost never having to say you’re sorry. “We captured Saddam,” one editor tells another in the book. It is always “we” when victory is at hand, and always “they” when the marble rolls off the table.
Journalism is a blunt instrument, a sometimes ugly business in which Mr. Hastings occasionally finds himself implicated. “In my defense, I’d like to point out that we at The Magazine are always doing unseemly things, always taking people’s experiences and actions and desires and totally mangling them for our purposes.”
To wit, there have been those who suggested Mr. Hastings’s mysterious and tragic death at age 33 showed he was too honest for a world where the truth is overwhelmed by careerism and propaganda. In truth I have no idea why his car ended up smashed into a palm tree in Los Angeles in the early morning hours of June 18 a year ago. I just know he left something remarkable behind.
Last week, I published a column about the failure of the news media to pay sufficient attention to the Virginia primary in which the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, was upset in stunning fashion. I implied that The Washington Post was among those who missed the story. In fact, less than a month before the primary, The Post published a front-page article noting that Mr. Cantor’s opponent was “gaining national attention as a potential threat to Cantor’s hold on his solidly Republican, suburban district.” There was other relevant coverage as well. Contrary to what I wrote, it’s clear The Post provided important reporting on the story.
By David Carr (The New York Times)