'Much madness is divinest sense' 

Goodbye to Hunter Thompson

Hunter Thompson, the original "gonzo" journalist, died last week at 67. The gun-loving writer shot himself in the head. With his death, it might be argued, the most indefatigable voice of the '60s was silenced.

Thompson, along with Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese, created a style of reporting called New Journalism. They argued that objectivity was a myth, so that revealing one's bias up front was more honest than trying to cloak it in claims of objectivity. Thompson's famous way of doing this, which was nicknamed "gonzo," was to become a character in his own story. In narrative style, New Journalism had more in common with fiction than the usual reporting.

Those of us who came of age during the '60s and '70s read Thompson's work principally in Rolling Stone, where Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his best known book, first appeared in serial form in 1972. Prior to that, he spent a year riding with bikers and published 1967's Hell's Angels.

Thompson's hyper-subjective reporting was immensely inspiring to my generation of journalists. Although his "character" - in real life and in his work - consumed prodigious amounts of drugs, his reporting on politics, especially in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 was unprecedented in its stark clarity and advocacy of the truth. Much of what he wrote about Nixon in Rolling Stone was considered over-the-top at the time - and most of it turned out to be true.

Reflection on Thompson's oeuvre throws into high contrast the decadent state of media today. Thompson understood that the relationship between media and politicians, especially those in office, should usually be skeptical and adversarial. But today's reporters are mainly the opposite. A good recent example is Judith Miller, whose reporting in The New York Times on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction turned out to be little more than repetition of claims by the ambitious exile and Bush butt-licker Ahmad Chalabi. Miller didn't bother to corroborate his claims and editors at The Times, which published an apology last year, never bothered to question Miller's source. Thus The Times acted as cheerleader for the Bush administration's Iraq policies. Dan Rather similarly compromised CBS by failing to authenticate documents that incriminated Bush but turned out to be phony. Lazy reporting.

More recent examples of the loss of integrity in journalism, which I wrote about last week, include pundits accepting cash to promote Bush administration policies, as well as TV stations airing phony news features - propaganda films made and disseminated by the White House. And there's the surreal case of a phony reporter, "Jeff Gannon," polluting White House press briefings with softball questions that took the heat off Bush and press secretary Scott McClellan. It turns out many reporters knew "Gannon" was a phony, but nobody bothered to question his participation.

Initially inspired by Thompson's radical devotion to the truth, I eventually gave up journalism as a full-time career precisely because it became so degraded. I bounced back and forth as a writer and editor between mainstream and alternative media, editing both Creative Loafing and its more politically radical former competitor, the Atlanta Gazette. But the line between mainstream and alternative media blurred long ago, with both sides co-opting features of the other.

When I worked for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution's Sunday magazine and Texas Monthly - both mainstream publications - it was not unusual for me to file 5,000-word stories, often in "gonzo" first-person voice. When mainstream media ceased publishing features of such depth, alternative media took up the slack, but now both strive to run the shortest stories possible. I don't care how the argument goes. You can't communicate in 1,200 words what you can in 5,000. Glibness necessarily becomes more important than analysis. And yes, I know, readers prefer to be entertained, because, as Thompson said in a 2003 interview, most people happily trade freedom for an illusion of security.

So, where have all the muckrakers gone? To the Internet, each and every one. (It's no surprise that Thompson's last regular gig was an online sports column for ESPN.) Matt Drudge's site was implemental in the Clinton investigation, and bloggers were responsible for exposing Judith Miller's and Dan Rather's slothful, dishonest reporting.While reporters have abandoned their role as government watchdogs, Internet bloggers have become watchdogs of the fallen watchdogs. One of my favorite instances of the mainstream media's dishonesty was the constantly broadcast film of Iraqis overturning a statue of Saddam while a joyous throng cheered them on. It was only when you got on the Internet that you saw, in long shots of the event, that the "throng" was a gaggle of media people huddled at one end of the square, attending a scripted event in front of their hotel.

Doubtless, I'll be accused of pointless nostalgia in celebrating what Thompson stood for. In many ways, he was a madman, but, as Emily Dickinson wrote: "Much madness is divinest sense/To a discerning eye;/Much sense the starkest madness./'Tis the majority/In this, as all, prevails./Assent, and you are sane;/Demur, - you're straightway dangerous,/And handled with a chain."

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.comCliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.


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