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Cover Story

Crash & Burn

War journalist Michael Hastings' unexpected death was preceded by depression, drugs—and the fear that the government was out to get him

By Gene Maddaus
Posted // September 4,2013 -

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 fiancee had been killed.

“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 of 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.

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.

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Posted // September 4,2013 at 07:25

Maddaus’ portrays Hastings as a journalist who was “both brilliant and troubled,” who had relapsed into drug use and suffered from PTSD and paranoia.  As a man struggling with his demons, with his mental health deteriorating in the weeks leading up to his death.    For example, Maddaus wrote:

“Interviews with friends as well as the coroner's report suggest that Hastings' mental health was deteriorating. … 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 … "He seemed a little stressed …"  A certain level of lighthearted paranoia would be unremarkable in such company [Cenk] Uygur says, "We joked that night that, if Scahill was there, we would have definitely had a drone strike on the house. " 

Maddaus’ piece is well-written, emotionally compelling and persuasive (and even had me convinced for about a day). However, after taking a closer look at the LAPD reports and his profile, I feel a bit suckered.  I now think his portrait of Hastings as a “haunted soul” was too speculative, too thinly sourced, and “cherry-picked” quotes that supported his narrative (and omitted those that did not).  

I haven’t yet had time to analyze the piece in detail [see draft analysis in Appendix “I”  of the post “More Lies Borne Out by Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog].  But, I found what appears to be an egregious example of his omitting Jeremy Scahills’ impressions of Hastings shortly before his death because they didn’t fit into his narrative.


From the chronology of the above quote, a reader would assume that Hastings hung out with Jeremy Scahill sometime before the May salon at Oliver Stones’ house.  However, they got together after the Oliver Stone salon, on JUNE 12, 2013 (just five days before Hastings’ death).   Hasting spent that evening attending Scahills’ LA film premiere, the Q & A session, and then they hung out watching Scahill’s appearance on “The Tonight Show. “ It was probably his last public appearance (and was the last time he tweeted).

So, did Scahill’s recollection of that evening suggest that “Hastings' mental health was deteriorating”?  No.  In his June 19th Hastings’ eulogy, “Michael Hastings Popped The Press Bubble, From The Campaign Trail To The Front Lines,” Michael Caledrone wrote that Scahill described Hasting’s as “totally full of life” that night:

“Nearly one week ago [June 12, 2013], Jeremy Scahill and several friends were hanging out in a Los Angeles hotel room to watch his taped appearance on the “The Tonight Show. ” One of those friends was Michael Hastings … Scahill chatted with Jay Leno that night about “Dirty Wars,” his revealing new documentary … ‘He was so warm and effusive and excited, as if we'd just won the Super Bowl … was giddy that someone from our tribe had made it on one of those shows. ’ … Scahill recalled Hastings talking excitedly last week about stories he was working on, including ones about the NSA. Hastings also spoke about the property he wanted to buy in Vermont.  ‘Totally full of life,’ he said. ”

Just five nights later, Hasting’s died in a fiery car crash.  Why did Maddaus merely mention and then quickly pass over Scahill’s night in LA?  (and place his passing reference to it so the reader would get the impression it took place before May, long before his death).  Was he unaware of Caledrones’ eulogy (although the use of the similar phrases “hung out” and “hanging out” suggests that he had read it)?  Or, did he decide to omit Scahill’s “totally full of life” remarks since they didn’t fit into his narrative of a “haunted soul”?

Either way, Scahill’s account calls into question Maddaus’ speculation that Hasting’s mental health was deteriorating in the weeks leading up to his death, and the accuracy of his profile.   Ultimately, perhaps Maddaus’  the broad-strokes of his “haunted” portrait might be found accurate, but we’ll need to read accounts by Hastings' close family, friends, colleagues, and Elise Jordan before reaching conclusions about his mental state in the days preceding his death.

. . .

For more details, see the chapter, “The Character Assassination of Michael Hastings,” in the post “More Lies Borne Out By Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog.  


Posted // September 17,2013 at 12:32 - Cliffs? Didnotread. jpg