Michael Hastings & Andrea Brunais: Journalism is murder

Two novelists delve into the cutthroat machinations of the news biz.

Posted by Mitch Perry on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 3:11 AM

Andrea Brunais
  • Andrea Brunais
After a 45-year-career in local journalism, longtime Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto penned his last regular column for the local daily last Sunday. Trib officials say he’s not fading away, as he’ll still appear as often as twice a week in a freelance role. But for Tribune readers, his departure means that another familiar byline will now go missing from what the venerable columnist labeled the “type and gripe” factory on South Parker Street.

As you’re no doubt aware, print journalism has experienced a major shakeup over the past decade or so. Some of our biggest establishment titles (like Newsweek) have bitten the dust. The Internet is usually described as the X-factor leading to such instability, as advertising — the bread and butter of media companies — began drying up when the Web began to expand. But the Internet has given as much as it’s taken away, with a slew of new publications (Politico, Grantland, Buzzfeed) that are as exciting as anything coming out of Conde Nast or Time-Life.


Digital journalism has taken over. Though you may be reading this article in its “hard copy” form, the fact is most articles written by this reporter and the CL staff appear exclusively online.

Just look at the Tampa Bay Times. Although a solid nucleus of veteran reporters is still producing quality reporting, there are more younger journalists plying their craft at the paper than at any time in recent vintage. Whereas a reporting job at the paper might have been seen in the past as a stepping stone to bigger dailies, now the more frequent next stop is a job in public relations, where pay is more generous and job security more attainable.

Against this backdrop, two new novels were published in the last month that look at the changing scope of print journalism — one with a national focus, the other concentrated on Florida and Tampa Bay politics.
Michael Hastings' The Last Magazine
  • Michael Hastings' The Last Magazine
Michael Hastings’ The Last Magazine is set mostly during a five-year period of the new millennium (2002-2007) and offers a satiric look at an old-school newsmagazine (considered to be largely based on Newsweek). It features two protagonists — an earnest, idealistic fact-checker who shares the author’s name, Michael Hastings, and the magazine’s war correspondent, A. E. Peoria.

The first part of the novel features several laugh-out-loud hilarious scenes, as Hastings goes full gonzo in depicting what goes on behind the scenes of a Manhattan-based national newsmagazine. Multiple egos compete for prestige and attention, and Hastings masterfully depicts a duel between the magazine’s two megastars, Nishant Patel (alleged to be Fareed Zakaria) and his bête noire, Sanders Berman (alleged to be Newsweek’s former editor Jon Meacham), who vie with each other for television appearances and cover stories.

Early on, Hastings’ alter ego breaks up the narrative to talk directly to the reader, defending himself for writing this “memoir” about The Magazine.

“In my defense, I’d like to point out that we at The Magazine are always doing unseemly things, always taking other people’s experiences and actions and desires and totally mangling them for our purposes. An intellectual journalist once wrote a book about it… She said that what we do is morally indefensible. Yeah, probably, but who does anything that’s really morally defensible these days? Politicians? Lawyers? Janitors maybe? Should we all be janitors? Construction workers? Cops? EMTs? Teachers?

“Okay, maybe they are doing morally defensible things. Regardless, other people’s experiences sell ads, make good copy, the usual. We’re always sticking the long knife into someone’s back, and with the right editing, we always manage to give that knife a little twist — we’re professionals, after all.”

The novel starts to lose its energy toward the end and turns into something quite different. It feels like it needs more editing, but there’s a good reason for that. Before he could complete the novel, Hastings died tragically in a car accident in Los Angeles last year at the age of 33. His wife discovered the manuscript and shaped it into a publishable novel this year. It’s a fine coda to the career of a dynamic reporter who had so much more to give.

Florida political journalism is the fulcrum of Andrea Brunais’ Mercedes Wore Black. Brunais served for a year as editor of CL’s Sarasota edition, and before that worked at the Tallahassee Democrat and Tampa Tribune, writing editorial columns and straight news stories. For the past five years she’s served as communications director for outreach and international affairs at Virginia Tech University.

In the novel, Brunais’ protagonist is Janice Pearl Hawk (named after Janis Joplin), whose tough environmental reporting for the fictional Bradenton Sun has gotten her sacked. But before long she’s hired by a liberal Sarasota-based benefactor who is willing to bankroll her as a blogger on environmental and political issues.

The novel enters murder-mystery territory when Hawk travels to Tallahassee and meets up with her pal Mercedes, who’s working on the political campaign of a little-known but up-and-coming Democratic gubernatorial candidate named Brad McIntyre. Mercedes is found dead at Wakulla Springs, and no one knows a thing about who the culprit might be.

Soon Janis herself is being threatened, but by whom? And for what? She’s working on several different stories that could alienate the powers that be, including the gaming industry and developers upset about her stories on a proposed dredging project in Manatee County.

But the plot is also a mechanism to allow Brunais to depict a variety of colorful characters that she undoubtedly came across in her years of reporting — as well as to display her ardor for the natural environment of the Sunshine State.

“She’s going through what thousands of journalists are going through across the country over the last 10 years or more,” Brunais told CL last week in an interview from her home in Virginia, referring to her protagonist’s move from reporting for a daily to becoming a blogger, or “backpack journalist.”

She calls the upheaval in print journalism a conundrum that society hasn’t solved yet.

“How are we going to function and go on ahead without newspapers?” she asks. “And some of the lucky ones who maybe were in journalism long enough to build up a following might have a shot at doing what my main character did, which is go off and become an independent blogger. Of course she was lucky enough to have a wealthy philanthropist foundation back her, but I really am concerned about the ones just coming out of journalism school, because who’s going to pay their bills or rent for five to six years until they build up that following where they can make something on their own? The other thing we don’t know yet is, how is society going to change as a result of this? When you have aggressive newsgathering, the governments are less corrupt and state agencies are less corrupt because someone’s watching, so now what’s going to happen when so many of the watchers are gone?”

Brunais left the journalism world in 2001. She was public information officer at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute from 2002-2006, before moving to Virginia to do media relations, first at the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center at the University of West Virginia and then at Virginia Tech.

She says there’s been such an exodus from print media to communication jobs in recent years that it’s now tough to get a gig in PR.

“There’s way more qualified journalists running around looking for employment than communication jobs that are open,” she says. Staying in touch with old friends at the Tampa Tribune through social media, she knows her former paper has seen major layoffs in recent years, “and all those journalists are out there looking for jobs, and a lot of them don’t have the skills, they only know how to write or they only know how to edit,” which she says may not be well-rounded enough when there are also demands for skills in video as well.

The many subplots in Mercedes Wore Black include a contemporary race for governor, but while Rick Scott and Charlie Crist are in the narrative, the two dominant candidates are the fictional Republican Chance Bloodworth and dreamy idealistic Democrat, Brad McIntyre.

Bill McBride, the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is also mentioned a few times, prompting the question of whether he is a political candidate Brunais admires. She says she did a brief freelance job for him during the campaign, and grew to revere the man after learning about his tour of duty in Vietnam.

“He showed amazing bravery, and he wouldn’t let me write about it. He said, ‘No, that’s not going in there, I’m not going to talk about that.’ He didn’t want anything made of himself as a war hero, and I noticed later in the campaign the St. Pete Times did a story where they went back and talked with some of the men who were with him, and they brought that battle to life. But he was a genuine war hero, he was a man of superb stature and integrity and generosity. I mean, he and Alex Sink gave a tremendous amount to the United Way, and back to the community, so I really thought he would have made a really great governor.”

She believes one reason Florida hasn’t had a Democrat running the state since Lawton Chiles in 1998 is that the party’s candidates don’t do what it takes to capture the public’s imagination. Hence the novel’s over-the-top finale, which uses elements of Chiles’s “walkin’ Lawton” journey across the state: a “Path to Triumph” in which a caravan of Democratic Party supporters in Harleys, beat-up vans and other vehicles travels with Brad McIntyre up the state, giving him prime-time cable news coverage.

“It’s not just enough to stand up and be a good guy and say it’s my turn and I have values, you have to do something like this ‘Path to Triumph’ — something that’s so outrageous, so outlandish, that everybody has to pay attention to you — and none of these Democratic candidates are willing to do that now,” she says with disappointment in her voice.

And some of the other over-the-top scenarios, like the lobbyist whose lavish parties top anything ever seen at the governor’s mansion? All true, based on her experiences in Tallahassee. “A lot of the humor writers in Florida will say ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up,’ and it’s absolutely true. So the stuff about what the lobbyists do and the stuff about the scientists being intimidated, the stuff about the gaming companies, the corrupt influence they have on state government and the way they spread money around — all that stuff is true.”

Mercedes Wore Black and The Last Magazine are available at bookstores and at Amazon.com. 

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