Frank Rich Remembers Hunter Thompson

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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.

March
5, 2005

Jude
Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service Wanniski.com.

Jude
Wanniski Archives

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