My "Journo-less" Summer...So Far (Part 5 of 8)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014
This is the fifth installment for my personal journalism-related observations of the current summer promised, a posthumously released, thinly veiled "tell all" novel kept media tongues wagging for the early part of the summer but it also drew new attention to a career--and a life--that ended way too soon.

5. "The Last Magazine":

With all of the books I have set aside for reading and the many boxes I have stacked up in my garage, it would take a lot of hype and buzz to get me to read one that has just been released. Michael Hastings' posthumous "novelization" of world and personal events during his time working at Newsweek in the early 2000s was one of those books. Although he was killed in an auto accident in June 2013 at the age of 33, his unfinished manuscript was found in a desk drawer and was released by his widow with little editing on June 17th to a host of critical acclaim. Coming in at 299 pages in its electronic form (352 in hard cover), it wasn't a long read but it was one that required frequent referrals to my own recollections of that time period or visits to Wikipedia for refreshers on the circumstances Hastings was retelling.

I became familiar with his work like most people did when his bombshell article about then-top US and NATO commander General Stanley McChrystal was published in a July 2010 edition of Rolling Stone magazine. Because of travel problems (which included those caused by the eruption of an Icelandic volcano earlier that same year), Hastings got access to the general and his inner circle that went far beyond that normally extended to members of the media. It was the information he obtained during those "workarounds" that produced the most damning citations in his piece and earned McChrystal a one-way ticket out of Afghanistan and an early retirement from the Army. Much of that magazine material was included into a 2012 book, "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan", that provided an unflattering expose about US military operations and leadership in that war-torn country. Speculation surrounding the odd circumstances of Hastings' death somehow being tied to this reporting or to other work he was doing at the time of the suspicious high speed car crash in Los Angeles had been circulating since that June 2013 event. Those hypotheses were reinvigorated when the FBI, who initially denying that they had any files on Hastings, released 21 pages of materials through a Freedom of Information Act request that consisted of two articles related to his investigative reporting of the now-repatriated Army sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.

I won't review the book or ruin the plot for you in case you didn't read it already (and, because of the graphic content, I would not recommend this book for readers easily upset by language, drug use or non-traditional sexual activities) but I found a few passages within it to be extremely congruent to my own relationship with journalism. When "gonzo" foreign correspondent A. E. Peoria was inventorying his journalistic skills in a moment of personal crisis after an embarrassing appearance at a book party, he described them this way:

He could gather information half decently and present that information half decently, but it was always other people's information, others' doings, always the observer--to make a career out of observing other careers, what did that say of him?

In another moment of introspection while on assignment in Baghdad after the US-led invasion, he--through Hastings' retelling--makes the following observation:

Journalists, Peoria knew, as a whole, were first and foremost suspicious of each other--especially if it was another's perceived successes, and especially if they had been writing about themselves; it was seen as cheating. Never write about your own problems, write only about the problems of others.

And that, in a nutshell, is what journalism is all about--telling someone else's story by avoiding the "crutch" of your own opinions/viewpoints as much as possible. The final quote here has Peoria  contemplating his life post-The Magazine when he arrives at a nugget of wisdom that he will try to impart upon his future college students while teaching them the ins and outs of writing:

He will mold and guide and show the way forward into promising careers, careers with a promise that his career once had, careers that he will not envy. No, he's now, at least on some days, accepted his fate, accepted the fact that sometimes in life you need to take a break, sometimes it's okay to take a nap.

Since I've never worked in a journalism-related organization (or for--semi spoiler alert!--Newsweek magazine), the "insider" activities of trying to guess who Nishant Patel, Sanders Berman or Peoria were supposed to be in real life (Fareed Zakaria, Jon Meacham and Adam Piore, respectively) or what website represented (Gawker) were not as appreciated as the novel's general goal of conveying the demise of the magazine format in today's media circles. I remember buying my personal copy of the last print edition of Newsweek back in December 2012 (although they recently reverted to producing a physical edition again after being purchased by IBT Media in August 2013) and my eyes roll at the exorbitant prices on the special editions published by their rival, Time. Branded as a "hardcover" by Amazon and Barnes and Noble, a recent one about the life of former "fill-in-the-blank"--and possibly future president--Hillary Clinton retails for $13.99 for only 112 pages of content.

When $14 "hardcovers" start appearing on store shelves and magazine racks, that's when it's time to reevaluate my purchasing options.

While easily adaptable to a tablet computer format, it's their once per week/month release schedule  that puts them well behind the relevancy "curve" when discussing current news and events in a 24/7 connected world. Constantly updated websites do help but relying upon them simply transforms that enterprise into a website with a legacy product to periodically peddle to a dwindling demographic that is already aware of what they are going to be reading when they buy it at a store or when it arrives in their--shudder!--mailbox.


Here are the previous postings in this series:

1. The Al Jazeera Reporters
2. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
3. News Glance with Genevieve Vavance
4. CNN's The Sixties

Coming up next...Egypt wasn't the only place where governments were cracking down on journalists and their profession.

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