The Young Turks
Published on Aug 20, 2013
“Journalist Michael Hastings, who was killed in a fiery Los Angeles crash in June, died of “traumatic injuries” as a result of the accident and had traces of drugs in his system, Los Angeles coroner’s officials said Tuesday.
Hastings, 33, died June 18 in a single-vehicle accident. His car burst into flames and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Coroner’s officials said Hastings had traces of amphetamine in his system, consistent with possible intake of methamphetamine many hours before death, as well as marijuana. Neither were considered a factor in the crash, according to toxicology reports.”* The Young Turks hosts Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian break it down.
Coroner, family link Michael Hastings to drug use at time of death
LAPD officers examine the scene of a car crash that killed journalist Michael Hastings, shown at right. (Los Angeles Times / Associated Press / June 17, 2013)
Journalist Michael Hastings, who was killed in a fiery Los Angeles crash in June, died of “traumatic injuries” as a result of the accident and had traces of drugs in his system, Los Angeles coroner’s officials said Tuesday.
Hastings, 33, died June 18 in a single-vehicle accident. His car burst into flames and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Coroner’s officials said Hastings had traces of amphetamine in his system, consistent with possible intake of methamphetamine many hours before death, as well as marijuana. Neither were considered a factor in the crash, according to toxicology reports.
DOCUMENT: Read the autopsy report
The cause of death was massive blunt force trauma consistent with a high-speed crash. He likely died within seconds, the report said.
Hastings had arrived in Los Angeles from New York the day before the accident, with his brother scheduled to arrive later the day of the crash “as his family was attempting to get [Hastings] to go to detox,” the report stated.
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In April, a man named Erin Walker Markland drove off a mountain road near Santa Cruz and was killed. The woman who had planned to marry him, Jordanna Thigpen, was devastated. For comfort, she turned to a man who had taken up residence next door. He had been through something similar — years before, his fiancée had been killed.
Michael Hastings’ publicity photo shows him as a battle-hardened war correspondent.
Hastings recently had lost weight and went clean-shaven. In March, he donned a hoodie for an appearance on Current TV.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Memorial on Highland Avenue for Michael Hastings.
PHOTO BY TED SOQUI
Hastings’ legacy has been hotly contested. This sign was removed several times.
“He was the only person in my life who understood what I was going through,” she says.
The landlord they both rented from had encouraged her to meet him, saying he was a writer. In their initial conversations, he was unusually modest. It was only when she Googled his name — Michael Hastings — that she learned he was a famous war correspondent.
In February, Hastings had rented a one-bedroom apartment with a gorgeous view overlooking Hollywood. The landlord allowed him to use another unit, the one below Thigpen’s, to write.
Often, when Hastings was done for the day, he would visit Thigpen. He would talk passionately about the stories he was working on. They talked about other things in the news, about stories she thought he should pursue, and about their shared sense of grief.
“We both suffered the same thing, which was depression,” she says.
Hastings was intensely interested in government surveillance of journalists. In May, the story broke about the Department of Justice obtaining the phone records of Associated Press reporters. A couple weeks later, Edward Snowden‘s revelations about the National Security Agency‘s massive surveillance program became public. Hastings was convinced he was a target.
His behavior grew increasingly erratic. Helicopters often circle over the hills, but Hastings believed there were more of them around whenever he was at home, keeping an eye on him. He came to believe his Mercedes was being tampered with. “Nothing I could say could console him,” Thigpen says.
One night in June, he came to Thigpen’s apartment after midnight and urgently asked to borrow her Volvo. He said he was afraid to drive his own car. She declined, telling him her car was having mechanical problems.
“He was scared, and he wanted to leave town,” she says.
The next day, around 11:15 a.m., she got a call from her landlord, who told her Hastings had died early that morning. His car had crashed into a palm tree at 75 mph and exploded in a ball of fire.
“I burst into tears,” Thigpen says. “I couldn’t believe it had happened again.”
See also: New Surveillance Video Shows Fiery Crash
Michael Hastings was just 33 when he died, but he left behind a remarkable legacy. In tributes across the Internet, he was remembered as one of the best journalists of his generation.
He was most famous for “The Runaway General,” the Rolling Stone piece that ended the career of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the Afghanistan war. Hastings had built a reputation as a fearless disrupter of the cozy ways of Washington, gleefully calling bullshit on government hacks and colleagues alike. He was loved and admired, hated and feared.
The day before he died, he’d warned colleagues in an email that he was being investigated by the FBI. He also said he was onto a “big story,” and would be going off the radar. Almost inevitably, his death — in a fiery, single-car crash, at 4:20 a.m. on June 18 — resulted in a swarm of conspiracy theories.
Amateur forensic examinations have proliferated online. A common refrain is, “A car just doesn’t blow up like that.” Some argue that he was murdered by the CIA, or the NSA, or the Pentagon.
Hastings’ family and the Los Angeles Police Department both have dismissed the conspiracies. LAPD also has ruled out suicide. “My gut is that this was really a tragic accident,” his widow, Elise Jordan, told CNN.
Interviews with friends as well as the coroner’s report suggest that Hastings’ mental health was deteriorating. As a young man, he’d abused drugs and alcohol and received a possible diagnosis of manic depression. Now, after a long period of sobriety, he had recently begun smoking pot to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder — the product of years of covering combat.
His family was concerned. In the days leading up to his death, one of his brothers visited L.A. in an attempt to get Hastings into rehab; he later told investigators he feared more serious drug use.
Hastings had long been both brilliant and troubled. Friends recall him as a captivating storyteller. “It was thrilling to have a conversation, because you never knew where it might end up,” says Alyona Minkovski, a close friend. “Everybody was drawn to him.”
He was charming; he also could be an asshole. That was all part of his public persona. But he also had a darker side, which he tended to keep hidden.
“[S]elf-destruction does haunt me,” he wrote, on the road to Baghdad. “[T]here was a long time in my life where I thought the only thing to do with myself was to destroy it.”
Hastings was born in Malone, N.Y., in 1980. The family moved to Montreal when he was 11. As a teenager at Lower Canada College, a private prep school, Hastings got hooked on the gonzo writings of Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote a column for his school paper, called “Fear and Loathing at L.C.C.”
Hastings emulated Thompson’s penchant for aggravating authority. After a move to Vermont, he and his brother Jeff were enrolled at Rice Memorial High School, a Catholic school, where they showed up the first day with hair dyed red and green.
“That lasted for a day,” says Mike Pearo, Hastings’ history teacher there. “Rice stresses its dress code, and ‘oddball’ behavior isn’t tolerated.”
Hastings had a sharp tongue, and was constantly asking questions in class. “He would say what he was thinking,” Pearo says, “sometimes not always a good thing.”
In the school paper, Hastings compared the principal to Jabba the Hut. He ran for class president on an anti-administration platform. (He won.) And he was suspended and removed from the student council when he used the word “shagadelic” in the morning announcements.
As he dug into the work of Hunter Thompson and the Beat writers, he nurtured an appetite for drugs.
“I brilliantly deduced that to be a great writer, you had to ingest great amounts of illegal substances,” he told True/Slant many years later.
His earliest reported drug use was at the age of 15 — two tabs of acid and a bag of mushrooms at a warehouse in Montreal. By 19, when he was a freshman at Connecticut College, he had a serious problem.
“When I was a teenager, I used to snort cocaine and smoke crack and party all night and booze for months, because I wanted to know what it was like to hit those highs and to feel those highs when they all came crashing down,” he wrote in his memoir, I Lost My Love in Baghdad.
Though he alluded to this period in his life several times in his writing, he never told the full story from beginning to end. In various places, Hastings referred to a drunken car wreck, suspension from college, a few days in jail, a restraining order, an aborted enlistment in the Marines and, finally, rehab.
See also: Michael Hastings’ Coroner’s Report Reveals Likely Meth, Marijuana Use
The underlying reasons for Hastings’ behavior aren’t entirely clear. His family told investigators that, at one point, he was thought to suffer from bipolar disorder, or manic depression. However, they later concluded that his behavioral issues stemmed not from a mood disorder but from misuse of Ritalin. He also seems to have been prescribed the antidepressant Prozac. (He complained that it caused mania.)
In general, he resisted psychiatric explanations. “He didn’t understand how much of his problems were real, and how much were attributed by adults who say, ‘This is the problem with you,’ ” Thigpen says.
Chastened and clean, Hastings enrolled at NYU in 2000 and graduated in 2002. An unpaid summer internship at Newsweek set him on the path to a writing career.
If he never wrote fully about his drug experience, it may have been because he was still trying to get perspective on it.
“It took me years of sobriety before I had a clue of what actually happened while I was all messed up,” he wrote in True/Slant, “and before I could truly empathize with my family for all the shit I had [put] them through.”
In his 20s, Hastings stayed clean and channeled his manic energies into journalism. Writer Rachel Sklar met him, and dated him for a few months, when he was living in New York and working for Newsweek. She remembers his apartment overflowing with books — Hemingway, Mailer, Roth, A.J. Liebling and many volumes on war.
“He was voraciously learning the craft,” Sklar says. “He was ambitious. He was eager. He was really just 100 percent into it.”
Two war books were especially influential: Michael Herr‘s Dispatches and Chris Hedges‘ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The latter famously equates war with a highly addictive drug — and Hastings felt himself getting sucked in.
In 2005, he prevailed on his editors to send him to Iraq. At 25, he was one of the youngest foreign correspondents in Baghdad. He would spend much of the next five years in war zones.
According to Lucian Read, the photographer who partnered with Hastings for much of that time, the writer brought an unusual affinity for troops. His brother was in the Army, and Hastings was close in age to most of the soldiers. He tended to adopt a soldier’s-eye view of authority.
“His skepticism ran a lot deeper,” Read says. “He was skeptical of the generals, the plans, the pronouncements, spokespeople — all the happy talk.”
Hastings lived in the Green Zone, went on embeds and broke stories. His routine was shaped by the constant threat of violence. And though he knew better than to admit it too openly, it was thrilling. He came to think of himself in the tradition of war correspondents hooked on the adrenaline of battle.
“If I’m going to be completely honest,” he wrote in his memoir, “I have to admit that the empty prestige and the stupid glory — yes, the horrible rush, the deadly sense of importance that war brings to life — are hard illusions to shake off. Look at me, a war correspondent. … ”
The memoir centers on his relationship with Andi Parhamovich, an Air America spokeswoman whom he met shortly before going abroad. For the first year, it was a long-distance relationship. But in the fall of 2006, she got a job with a non-governmental organization that allowed her to follow him to Baghdad.
She was killed when her convoy was ambushed in January 2007.
“It’s a horrible situation, mind-numbingly horrible,” Hastings wrote. “But you try to do what you can.”
What he could do was write. He returned home to Vermont and wrote the first draft of his memoir in three weeks. It was his way of processing the trauma. “It was either write or die for me,” he wrote.
In April, he returned to Baghdad — and had to confront his reasons for doing so.
“Was part of me looking to get killed, too?”
In recent years, psychiatrists have begun to examine the emotional toll of reporting on war, recasting its romantic aura with terms like “anxiety disorders” and “post-traumatic stress.”
In 2002, Canadian psychiatrist Dr. Anthony Feinstein surveyed war correspondents and found that 29 percent developed PTSD after exposure to combat — similar to rates among service members. Another 21 percent suffered from depression, and 14 percent reported substance abuse.
“Lots of journalists are affected, both from being bystanders to grief and from being in harm’s way,” says Dr. Elana Newman, a psychologist at the University of Tulsa, who has studied the subject. “And the more you see, the worse it is.”
War journalists have begun to try to raise awareness by speaking out about their own mental health. Perhaps the most high-profile example is Michael Ware, a CNN and Time correspondent who spent six straight years in Baghdad.
Ware, who was nearly killed several times over, has been open about his own addiction to combat. In his time in Iraq, he was shot at, kidnapped three times and twice nearly executed.
“I’ve been through the wringer,” he says by Skype from his home in Australia. Now retired from combat coverage, he says it took years to get over his experience.
“I had a very dark few years coming out of Iraq,” he says. For a while, he was suicidal. “I know what it’s like to battle these things on your own. I went very close to topping myself.”
Phillip Robertson, a freelance correspondent who covered the war for Salon.com, also has spoken about the psychological toll.
“Repeated exposure to combat has the weird side effect of taking any fissure in your mind already and widening it,” Robertson says, speaking via Skype from the Syrian border. “You subject yourself to things that are not right. There is no mechanism to support people who do the work we do. … War draws fucked-up people to it, and it doesn’t make them get better.”
Hastings never identified himself in his writing as someone suffering from PTSD. The closest he came to such an admission was in May, when he retweeted an article about using pot to treat PTSD. In fact, according to the coroner’s report, that is exactly what he was doing.
Still, PTSD was not something he discussed even with his close friends. Matt Farwell, a freelance writer and Army veteran, worked with Hastings on two stories for Rolling Stone. The second involved a CIA station chief with PTSD, but even then Hastings did not open up on the subject, Farwell says.
The death of Hastings’ fiancée clearly had a traumatic effect on him. When asked a few years later on C-SPAN what it was like writing the memoir, he answered, “I wrote it in — I was so screwed up when I wrote that book.”
About six months after his fiancée was killed, Hastings was assigned to cover the 2008 presidential election. Peter Goldman, the senior Newsweek editor heading up the project, wrote in a tribute about meeting his eyes for the first time.
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