"What's missing from News in the United States is the news" (Another HST post)
"What's missing from News in the United States is the news."
In Need of Thompson's Savage Take
By Frank Rich
The International Herald Tribune
Saturday 05 March 2005
New York - Two weeks ago Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. This 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 in the United States is the news. On ABC, Peter
Jennings devotes two hours of prime time to playing peek-a-boo with UFO
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.
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
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.
Though a few remain on the case - Eric Boehlert of Salon,
mediamatters.org, Joe Strupp of Editor and Publisher - the Gannon story
is fast receding. In some major news venues, including ABC and CBS, it
never surfaced at all. Yet even as Gannon has quit his "job" as a
reporter and his "news organization" has closed up shop, the plot
thickens. His own Web site - which only recently shut down with the
self-martyring message "The voice goes silent" - has now restarted as a
blog with Gonzo pretensions. The title alone of his first entry, "Fear
and Loathing in the Press Room," would send Thompson spinning in his
grave had he not asked that his remains be shot out of a cannon.
As a blogger, Gannon's new tactic is to encourage fellow rightist
bloggers to portray him as the victim of a homophobic leftist witch hunt
that destroyed his privacy. Given that it was Gannon himself who
voluntarily exhibited his own private life by appearing on Web sites
advertising his services as a $200-an-hour escort, that's a hard case to
make. But it is a clever way to deflect attention from an actual sexual
witch hunt conducted by his own fake news organization in early 2004.
It was none other than Talon News that advanced the fictional story that
a young woman "taped an interview with one of the major television
networks" substantiating a rumor on the Drudge Report that John Kerry
had had an extramarital affair with an intern. (Kerry had to publicly
deny the story.) This is the kind of dirty trick only G. Gordon Liddy of
Watergate fame could dream up. Or maybe did. Gannon's Texan boss, Bobby
Eberle, posted effusive thanks (for "their assistance, guidance and
friendship") to both Liddy and Karl Rove on Talon News's sister site,
GOPUSA, in December.
Gannon may well be a pawn of larger forces as the vainglorious Liddy
once was. But to what end? A close reading of the transcripts of
televised White House press conferences reveals that at uncannily
crucial moments he was called on by the White House press secretary,
Scott McClellan, to stanch tough questioning on such topics as Abu
Ghraib and Rove's possible involvement in the outing of the CIA agent
We still don't know how this Zelig, using a false name, was given a
daily White House pass every day for two years. Last weekend, Jim
Pinkerton, a former official in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses, said
on "Fox News Watch," no less, that such a feat "takes an incredible
amount of intervention from somebody high up in the White House" and
that "some investigation should proceed and they should find that out."
Given an all-Republican government, the only investigation possible will
have to come from the press. Which takes us back to 1972, the year of
Thompson's fear and loathing on the campaign trail. That was no golden
age for news either. As Thompson's Rolling Stone colleague, Timothy
Crouse, wrote in his own chronicle of that year, "The Boys on the Bus,"
months of stories by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein failed to "sink in"
and only 48 percent of those polled by Gallup had heard of Watergate by
Some news organizations had simply ignored The Post's scoops "out of
petty rivalry," Crouse wrote. Others did so because they "feared the
administration or favored Nixon in the presidential race." Others didn't
initially recognize the story's importance. (The New York Times played
the Watergate break-in on page 30.) According to a superb new history of
the Washington press corps, "Reporting from Washington," by Donald
Ritchie, even Rather, then CBS's combative man in the Nixon White House,
"left the Watergate story alone at first, sure that it would fade like
'a puff of talcum powder."'
For similar if not identical reasons, journalistic investigations into
the current administration rarely "sink in" either. Early stories in The
Boston Globe and Washington Post on what Jeff Gannon himself (on his
blog) now calls "Gannongate" faded like that puff of powder. But we've
now entered a new twilight zone: In 1972, at least, the press may have
been stacked with jokers but not with counterfeit newsmen.
"Reporting America's Story," NBC's slogan, is what Thompson actually did
before the phrase was downsized into a vacuous marketing strategy. As
for 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.
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