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A Media Critique In 'The Last Magazine'

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: And back when the U.S. was preparing to invade Iraq in 2003, a young reporter was getting his start in the world of magazines. Michael Hastings went on to report from the war in Iraq and became best known for a 2010 Rolling Stone profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was then head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The article ultimately ended Gen. McChrystal's military career.

Michael Hastings died in a car accident last year, but a book he wrote years before is just now being published. It's a novel called "The Last Magazine." And it seems to be about his time at Newsweek. When Rachel Martin spoke with his wife Elise Jordan, she told Rachael that the book is a tough critique of modern journalism.

ELISE JORDAN: This book, I think, it's more of kind of the dirty underbelly of journalism and also really taking on the establishment elites who Michael saw as falling too quickly in with the status quo when it came to reporting on critical issues of national importance in, specifically, the buildup to the war in Iraq.


It's clear that Michael wants to be part of this world - the media elite as he describes it. But at the same time, he's rather disdainful of the whole enterprise.

JORDAN: And I think that was - this book was written at such a pivotal time in his own life when he decided that, you know, he wasn't going to play the game, that he wasn't beholden to anyone but his readers. And, you know, he got a lot of pushback for a lot of his reporting from his own colleagues. And I think that he understood what it took to produce the kind of reporting he wanted to do with the level of honesty that he felt was essential. And I think that he paid a personal price for it.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, he is one of two main characters in the book. The other is a guy named A.E. Peoria. Can you describe this person?

JORDAN: A.E. Peoria is a kind of salty war correspondent. You know, he's in Africa covering genocide. He's trying to do these really important stories, but unfortunately, the kind of stories that are hard to get into publication because it might not be a trend story or the sexy story of the day involving a Kim Kardashian-type. And so he is just overseas, working incredibly hard, goes to Iraq, covers the war. And then, you know, the book charts his disillusionment, you know, with the constraints of the magazine.

MARTIN: And Michael is trying to help him. He's the ambitious intern who looks at Peoria as somewhat of a role model but a questionable one.

JORDAN: Definitely. I think that as a young intern, Michael sees what a difficult world it is to navigate if you actually do want to go against the entrenched establishment at the magazine.

MARTIN: There are several of these kind of asides in the book where Michael steps out of the story and directly addresses the reader in his own voice. And there's an interesting one on page 82 where he issues a flat-out apology to his colleagues because while he never says so directly, the story is about his time at Newsweek, even though the book is just called "The Last Magazine." Would you mind reading a little bit of that interlude?

JORDAN: Oh, sure. (Reading). I'm sorry. There. That's out of the way. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I'm a guy at heart. And I have to say it weighs on me whether or not to write about everything that happened at the magazine. Thomas Jefferson said something once - don't mistake the facts for true. Actually, I said that, not Jefferson. But attributing my thoughts to him gave it more authority for a second. It's true that without the magazine, I'd never gotten a platform. The magazine gave me my start, biting the hand that feeds and the like.

MARTIN: But he was nervous about writing this kind of tell-all. He suspected it was going to make some people upset.

JORDAN: I think that he always was nervous before a big story. And he always braced himself for the personal blowback that he might get. You know, just recently, with the news that POW Bowe Bergdahl was released, Michael wrote, two years ago, basically the definitive story that everyone is using to refer back to in their reporting. And with that story, he agonized and agonized because the stakes were so high. And you don't know if the captors - any one detail could set them off. And they might behead Bowe Bergdahl. And so he agonized so much over what the response of his story would be.

MARTIN: We are approaching the anniversary of Michael's death. I wonder if, when you reread this book, as I'm sure you are right now, what do you take away from it? Did you learn anything about him that you didn't know?

JORDAN: I don't know that I learned anything about Michael that I didn't know. It just reinforced some of his most powerful themes, you know, of not getting too beholden to the establishment elite and forgetting what your real service is as a journalist and that's to serve your readers. Also, not to get so caught up in cynicism that you miss the story, not to be so careerist that you cut other people's throats in your journey for something that really, probably isn't worth it at the end of the day. And also, his thoughts on the Iraq war. He felt that the media had such an important role in the drumbeat for war because so many were champions and cheerleaders. And he felt that the American public had been given more accurate and probing reporting in the run-up to the war, perhaps, there would have been a different outcome.

MARTIN: Elise Jordan. We've been talking about a new novel written by her late husband, the journalist Michael Hastings. It's called "The Last Magazine." And it is on bookshelves Tuesday. Elise, thanks so much for talking with us.

JORDAN: Thanks so much for having me, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.