Memo To: Website Fans, Clients, Browsers
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Gonzo Gone
I was genuinely saddened to read of the death of Hunter S. Thompson two weeks ago. I'd never met the fellow, but back in 1965 when I worked as a reporter for the old National Observer, Hunter was a free-lancer who wrote occasional pieces out of South America for the Dow Jones weekly. I wound up talking to him by phone a number of times when he was working on his first book about the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, and I vaguely recall him mentioning something I'd written about the gang after a shoot-out that summer in Laconia, N.H. I'd followed his checkered career as a political journalist in the years that followed and came to admire what came to be called "gonzo" journalism. It was wildly entertaining, I thought at the time, and showed a recklessness rare among newsies then or now in his distinctive, idiosyncratic view of the political universe.
I wasn't going to write about him, having noted the myriad remembrances of him by working journalists. But a column by William F. Buckley Jr. earlier this week was so furious at the nice things being said about Hunter and his influence on journalism that Buckley himself approached "gonzo," letting it all hang out, practically doing a jig on Hunter's grave. Then a more balanced view showed up yesterday, with an advance publication of Frank Rich's weekly commentary in the Sunday New York Times "Arts & Leisure" section: "Gonzo Gone, Rather Going, Watergate Still Here." In looking at the flaccid performance of the Washington press corps in recent years, rolling over and playing dead during the government's march to war in Iraq, it's easy to see how Rich could celebrate a journalism that would "savage" today's "news-free world."
Here are excerpts from Rich's lengthy commentary:
Two weeks ago Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Next week Dan Rather commits ritual suicide, leaving the anchor chair at CBS prematurely as penance for his toxic National Guard story. The two journalists shared little but an abiding distaste - make that hatred in Thompson's case - for the Great Satan of 20th-century American politics, Richard Nixon. The best work of both was long behind them. Yet memories of that best work - not to mention the coincidental timing of their departures - only accentuate the vacuum in that cultural category we stubbornly insist on calling News.
What's missing from News is the news. On ABC, Peter Jennings devotes two hours of prime time to playing peek-a-boo with U.F.O. fanatics, a whorish stunt crafted to deliver ratings, not information. On NBC, Brian Williams is busy as all get-out, as every promo reminds us, "Reporting America's Story." That story just happens to be the relentless branding of Brian Williams as America's anchorman - a guy just too in love with Folks Like Us to waste his time looking closely at, say, anything happening in Washington.
In this environment, it's hard to know whom to root for. After the "60 Minutes" fiasco, Mr. Williams's boss, the NBC president Jeff Zucker, piously derided CBS for its screw-up, bragging of the reforms NBC News instituted after a producer staged a truck explosion for a "Dateline NBC" segment in 1992. "Nothing like that could have gotten through, at any level," Mr. Zucker said of the CBS National Guard story, "because of the safeguards we instituted more than a decade ago." Good for him, but it's not as if a lot else has gotten through either. When was the last time Stone Phillips delivered a scoop, with real or even fake documents, on "Dateline"? Or that NBC News pulled off an investigative coup as stunning as the "60 Minutes II" report on Abu Ghraib? That, poignantly enough, was Mr. Rather's last hurrah before he, too, and through every fault of his own, became a neutered newsman.
Hunter Thompson did not do investigative reporting, but he would have had a savage take on our news-free world - not least because it resembles his own during the Nixon era, before he had calcified into the self-parodistic pop culture cartoon immortalized by Garry Trudeau, Bill Murray, Johnny Depp and most of his eulogists. Read "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" - the chronicle of his Rolling Stone election coverage - and you find that his diagnosis of journalistic dysfunction hasn't aged a day: "The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists." He cites as a classic example the breathless but belated revelations of the mental history of George McGovern's putative running mate, the Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton - a story that had long been known by "half of the political journalists in St. Louis and at least a dozen in the Washington press corps." This same clubby pack would be even tardier on Watergate, a distasteful assignment left to a pair of lowly police-beat hacks at The Washington Post.
Thompson was out to break the mainstream media's rules. His unruly mix of fact, opinion and masturbatory self-regard may have made him a blogger before there was an Internet, but he was a blogger who had the zeal to leave home and report firsthand and who could write great sentences that made you want to savor what he found out rather than just scroll quickly through screen after screen of minutiae and rant. When almost all "the Wizards, Gurus and Gentlemen Journalists in Washington" were predicting an unimpeded victory march for Edmund Muskie to the Democratic presidential nomination, it was Thompson who sniffed out the Muskie campaign's "smell of death" and made it stick. The purported front-runner, he wrote, "talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop."
But even Thompson might have been shocked by what's going on now. "The death of Thompson represents the passing from the Age of Gonzo to the Age of Gannon," wrote Russell Cobb in a column in The Daily Texan at the University of Texas. As he argues, today's White House press corps is less likely to be invaded by maverick talents like a drug-addled reporter from a renegade start-up magazine than by a paid propagandist like Jeff Gannon, a fake reporter for a fake news organization (Talon News) run by a bona fide Texas Republican operative who was a delegate to the 2000 Bush convention…
Today you can't tell the phonies without a scorecard. Besides the six "journalists" we know to have been paid by the administration or its backers, bloggers were on the campaign payrolls of both a Republican office-seeker (South Dakota's Senator John Thune) and a Democrat (Howard Dean) during last year's campaign. This week The Los Angeles Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, "taking a cue from President Bush's administration," had distributed fake news videos starring a former TV reporter to extol the governor's slant on a legislative proposal. Back in Washington, the Social Security Administration is refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for information about its use of public relations firms - such as those that funneled taxpayers' money to the likes of Armstrong Williams. Don't expect news organizations dedicated to easy-listening news to get to the bottom of it.
"Reporting America's Story," NBC's slogan, is what Hunter Thompson actually did before the phrase was downsized into a vacuous marketing strategy. As for Mr. Rather, he gave a valedictory interview to Ken Auletta of The New Yorker in which he said, "The one thing I hope, and I believe, is that even my enemies think that I am authentic." The bar is so low these days that authenticity may well constitute a major journalistic accomplishment in itself.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company