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Michael Hastings' Dangerous Mind: Journalistic Star Was Loved, Feared and Haunted 

Thursday, Aug 22 2013
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"They were gray and red-rimmed; they were wary, they were intense, they were haunted, they were ineffably sad even when he laughed," Goldman wrote.

In 2009, Hastings attended the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, where he hung out with David J. Morris. A former Marine and a war journalist himself, Morris would later write that Hastings "exuded the sort of undiluted hypervigilance that I have always associated with people who have untreated PTSD." (Morris, who is now at work on a book about PTSD, said recently that Hastings may only have been nervous.)

"Whatever was going on with Hastings," says Dr. Ginger Rhodes, a psychologist in San Francisco who works with trauma survivors, "it would be unusual if he wasn't psychologically impacted by his repeated experiences of covering these events."

click to flip through (4) Michael Hastings' publicity photo shows him as a battle-hardened war correspondent.
  • Michael Hastings' publicity photo shows him as a battle-hardened war correspondent.
     
 

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Michael Ware did not know Hastings in Baghdad but argues the effects of covering a war should not be underestimated.

"There's gonna be no one answer (to his death), but it would have to have been a massive contributing factor," Ware says. "That could have been me in that car crash at another part of my life."

The car Hastings was driving the night he was killed, a Mercedes-Benz C250, retails for $37,800 — not the kind of car the average journalist would own. But Hastings was not the average journalist. After his initial stint in Iraq, he catapulted to success, which often put him on the receiving end of nasty barbs from green-eyed colleagues.

He got a reported $500,000 deal for his memoir. The book proposal leaked just two months after his fiancée's death, drawing mockery on Gawker.

He would remain angry about the leak for years afterward. Referencing that episode, he liked to quote Wallace Stegner: "If you spill your guts on the floor, don't be surprised if people step on them."

Hastings offered a multilayered defense of the book in an effort to ward off accusations of exploitation. He wanted to make sure that Parhamovich was not forgotten. The book deal would help establish a foundation. Her family supported the book and, he said, she would have supported it, too.

Though the book got mixed reviews, it helped Hastings to establish his voice and his brand. Feeling stifled at Newsweek, he quit and started to freelance, earning big assignments for GQ. Now, when he called bullshit on the wars, there was emotional authority behind it. He pitched a story to GQ in which he would "embed" with a general — Stanley McChrystal. GQ turned it down, so he took the idea to Rolling Stone.

Even with a presidential campaign and a book under his belt, Hastings worried about his future in journalism. As late as April 2010 — when he was in the middle of reporting the McChrystal story — Hastings wrote a blog post in which he mulled whether the decline in media would force him to find another line of work.

With the McChrystal story, however, Hastings became an overnight sensation. McChrystal and his aides were quoted bad-mouthing top civilian leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke. President Obama summoned McChrystal back to Washington and fired him. In the book This Town, author Mark Leibovich calls it "the most consequential political story of 2010 — maybe all of Obama's first term."

Hastings quickly turned the story into another book deal, also for a reported high six figures. (The book, The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan, was optioned by Brad Pitt.) By any measure, he was a star.

Yet he paid a high price for the story. The military canceled his embeds, making it much harder for him to report from war zones. And Hastings took tremendous flack from his fellow foreign correspondents, who accused him of bringing down McChrystal by breaking the unwritten rules of access.

The criticism fortified Hastings' image as a gate-crashing rebel with no greater loyalty than to the truth.

"Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising," he told Huffington Post.

Hastings was finding his voice, and it made some people nervous. The first draft of The Operators was rejected by the publisher. "They didn't like my tone and my attitude," Hastings told LitReactor.com. The publisher sent "a 16-page email telling me what a jerk I was, that I was a disgrace to the profession."

The book was dropped but later picked up by David Rosenthal, an editor who had worked with Hunter Thompson. He saw Hastings as an exciting young talent who just needed a little editing.

"Michael certainly had an extremely strong voice," Rosenthal says. "It would be stupid to try to alter that voice. Tame it a bit? Sure."

The book, which came out in January 2012, was a best-seller. What made it work, Rosenthal says, was the combination of humor with serious, behind-the-scenes investigative journalism. Rosenthal described it as "Dispatches meets Catch-22."

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