Michael Hastings' Dangerous Mind: Journalistic Star Was Loved, Feared and Haunted | Features | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

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

Thursday, Aug 22 2013
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"There was something sweet and mischievous about Michael," Rosenthal says. "There was a certain high-fun factor in kicking certain people in the balls."

Hastings had been politely turning down drinks for 10 years — even refusing a shot before going on The Colbert Report. But in 2010, he started to relapse. In The Operators, he tells of getting drunk at the Dubai airport in April 2010 while awaiting a flight to Kabul. He also wrote about getting drunk and taking Adderall to get through the 2012 presidential campaign — what he called a "campaign-induced relapse."

Though his disdain for the campaign trail was well-documented, he'd signed on to cover the race for BuzzFeed. The upstart website, best known for viral lists of animal pictures, was looking to add gravitas, and nabbing Hastings was a coup. For his part, Hastings missed covering the wars; he quipped that the campaign was "a kind of methadone, a weak substitute."

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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He also signed up to do an e-book — Panic 2012 — which was being sold as an homage to Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972.

Hastings had wanted to write in a more provocative voice, and now he had the chance, though often he just sounded like a jerk. For instance, he wrote about chewing out a volunteer who was trying to prevent him from eating food he had not paid for.

"I was struck by his eagerness to portray himself as an asshole," says Olivier Knox, who covered the 2012 race for Yahoo News. "I always found him to be warm and effusive. ... I don't remember him sullenly smoldering in a bar while the rest of us were hobnobbing with the shiny Obama people."

He did have his moments. Hastings got into an obscenity-laced email battle with Hillary Clinton's spokesman over Benghazi, then published the exchange. He also got in trouble when he reported on an off-the-record drinks session between Obama and campaign reporters. Hastings argued that the reception was fair game and that only the president's remarks were off the record. That's not how the Obama campaign saw it, nor many in the press. The resulting furor came to be called, jokingly, "The Battle of Hastings."

While he was filing regularly, Hastings wrote, he also had "a few days of getting completely blitzed." He mentioned one particularly out-of-control evening in Las Vegas, during which he insulted a Wall Street Journal reporter "in the most offensive terms possible, bringing shame to my family."

This was not some bit of gonzo exaggeration.

"He wasn't ranting and raving, but he definitely had a few too many drinks. And he definitely insulted the Wall Street Journal reporter," Knox says.

Jordanna Thigpen says that Hastings "scared himself" that night, and vowed to stop drinking. When he got to L.A., she says, he got a prescription for medical marijuana and smoked regularly. Other friends say he continued to drink occasionally but not to excess.

In November, he went on CNN and insulted its Pentagon correspondent, calling her a "spokeswoman" for the military. He later explained that he might have been hungover that day.

In February he moved to Los Angeles, where he joined BuzzFeed's new bureau. For recreation, he took up skateboarding and boxing. Friends noticed he had lost weight.

Though he was officially in town to cover Hollywood, he did relatively little of that. As ever, he remained focused on national security.

He found a legion of admirers in L.A.'s progressive media world. He was invited to attend panels and share his views on drones, Afghanistan and presidential politics.

"He was definitely an iconic figure here," says Linsey Pecikonis of Brave New Films, a documentary company.

Hastings was a regular guest on Current TV's The Young Turks and Huffpost Live, making friends on the staffs of both shows.

"He was one of us," says Cenk Uygur, host of The Young Turks. "There just aren't very many really aggressive journalists challenging the Pentagon."

Hastings hung out with The Nation's Jeremy Scahill when the reporter was in town promoting his documentary Dirty Wars. In May, Hastings was invited to a salon at director Oliver Stone's house, along with a guest list of progressive stars like Sean Penn, Glenn Greenwald, writer David Sirota and economist Dean Baker.

"He seemed a little stressed," Stone says by email, "but nothing out of the ordinary in our culture."

A certain level of lighthearted paranoia would be unremarkable in such company.

Uygur says, "We joked that night that, if Scahill was there, we would have definitely had a drone strike on the house."

The Boston Marathon bombing in April brought new attention to government surveillance. Soon thereafter, a retired FBI agent said on CNN that the government would be able to go back and listen to the suspects' phone calls from before the bombing.

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