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Hunter Thompson: 1937 - 2005
I lectured today in my column-writing class about Hunter Thompson and the influence of his writing. I found that several of my students had never read him, several were fans, and one young man had a Thompson quote tattooed on his arm... Here's a roundup of stories remembering the good doctor.
The Good Doctor Remembered
Taken from an essay I wrote in 1997 in appreciation of Hunter S. Thompson:
If any [contemporary Western author] could be considered Mark Twain's heir, it would have to be Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson writes stories that are true, but not necessarily accurate. He tells us stories that blend fact and fiction to make a point about the nature of reality that neither can do on its own.
My first exposure to Thompson came with his commentary on horse racing "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," which was anthologized in Tom Wolfe's book on literary non fiction, The New Journalism. In it, he tells the story of the Kentucky Derby through the eyes of himself, an experienced race goer, and his artist sidekick Ralph Steadman, who had never seen such a horrible, drunken occasion.
In the same anthology was a brief excerpt from Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Several years later, when I was a doctoral student, I read the entire book to learn more about the nature of participant-observation research. Thompson rode with the Hell's Angels for more than a year to research the book, to show the Angels from the inside, as they saw themselves, instead of looking from the outside through the eyes of the law enforcement community. Hell's Angels is in many ways different from all of Thompson's subsequent writings because it is far less self indulgent, and it does not make Thompson the centerpiece of the story.
This is completely different from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the book that really put the good doctor on the map. Fear and Loathing is a wild account of a wild visit to world of Las Vegas in the 1960s. It is a drunken and drugged out account of Thompson and his attorney searching for truth and the American Dream. It is billed as non-fiction, but its connection with reality is both solid and tenuous. Solid, because there is no better picture presented of the period by any other author. Tenuous, because the factuality of the piece strains the reader's acceptance. His attorney, with whom he makes this "savage journey," is Chicano, even though the character in the book is Samoan; the events of a weekend are condensed from a several week period, none of which detract from the basic truth Thompson is presenting.
Thompson still had at least one solid book in him following these two early works: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1972 is commonly considered to be one of the great books about the McGovern presidential campaign. Since then, however, he work has been considerably more erratic, fueled as much by his drugs and drinking as by his considerable writing talent.
Most recently we can see a portrait of the developing writer through his collection of letters that came out this last spring, The Proud Highway. (Modern Note: This is a brilliant collection of his letters starting from about age 19. Thompson kept carbons of all of the thousands upon thousands of letters he wrote. Thompson was a writer because he wrote. Incesently.)
The one real spot of sanity between 1972 and his collection of letters is a series of columns he wrote for the San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s, which showed that he was still capable of rational thought and clear writing under deadline on a regular basis. He also had a well-regarded article published within the last several years in Cycle World magazine discussing the finer points of riding bright red, terribly fast Italian motorcycles.
NOTE: The Oscar's get awarded on Sunday night, so all this week we'll be featuring items dealing with the big movie awards, along with the usual range of topics.
Media News From Slate
Who is Jeff Gannon and Why Are People Saying Such Terrible Things About Him?
I've deliberately avoided writing about the Jeff Gannon story here because quite frankly I find the whole case more than a little annoying. But if you push beyond the partisan bickering, spin control and posturing by journalists, there are actually a number of interesting questions raised here.
(BTW, students take note: Lots of highly partisan links in this entry. Pay attention to the sources of information here.)
First of all: Who is Jeff Gannon? This is a multi-layered question. On the surface, he was a reporter for the Talon News, a conservative news web site. He had White House press credentials, and he was frequently called on during press conferences by White House spokesman Scott McClellan . Gannon was known for asking soft questions that played to White House talking points, and he was accused of doing little more than recycling White House press releases in his stories.
So that was his surface identity.
But it still doesn't answer the question of who Jeff Gannon is. Because it was well known that Gannon was a pseudonym. As it turns out, Gannon is really James D. Guckert.
Why is Guckert so controversial?
Again, there are several reasons. There are only a limited number of slots for questions during a press conference, and reporters for the major media resent when one of those slots is given to someone they view as non-journalist. Second, although Guckert / Gannon was working for a conservative news outlet, he had ties to web sites that distributed military and gay pornography. Finally it appears (and much here is not clear) that Guckert / Gannon had little or no journalistic background. Following these revelations, Guckert / Gannon stepped down from Talon News
So what are the big issues?
1) How did Guckert / Gannon get White House press credentials?
2) Why did he get called on so often, given his status?
3) Why did Guckert / Gannon get so deeply under the skin of mainstream journalists?
4) And here is the biggie: Who is a journalist? This goes back to issues we've talked about here repeatedly. Are bloggers journalists? Why or why not? Do online journalists have to live up to the same standards as mainstream media journalists? Should preference be given to members of the mainstream media? Does it matter if a reporter/journalist/writer uses an assumed name/identity?
The Guckert / Gannon case will quickly play out its 15 minutes, but these four issues will remain.
Paging Mr. Warhol Dept. - Podcasting Hits the Bigtime
Podcasting got its 15 minutes today, snagging two major articles in USA Today on Wednesday. What is podcasting? It's taking digital audio programming off the Internet and stuffing it into your iPod or other MP3 player so that you can listen to it at the time of your choice. It's capturing streaming audio, storing it, and taking it with you. Jennicam established that an ordinary woman could turn her life into a nationwide soap opera by surrounding herself with web cameras. Now podcasting is letting anyone who wants to become an audio star.
Ossie Davis Remembered
Actor and activist Ossie Davis died Friday at the age of 87. He was making a movie called Retirement at the time of his death. Davis, and his wife Ruby Dee, were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.
How Are the Media Reacting to Iraq's Elections?
In addition to all the stories looking at the results and impact of the Iraqi elections last Sunday, there are a host of stories from around the world looking at how the media have portrayed the elections. Here's a sampling:
Do You Think They're Going to Ask Janet and Justin Back as Guest Announcers? Dept.
Many of you are under the mistaken impression that the Super Bowl has something to do with football. I suppose that's a small part of it, but the big point of football's biggest day is to get folks to sit down in front of their television sets and watch commercials. Fox is reportedly selling spots during the game for $2.4 mil per 30 seconds.
Blogging and Identity - A Response
The author of Shock and Blog took exception to my comments in a recent entry about blogging, money, and ethics. Here is his response:
I think you misunderstand my position on Ana Marie Cox and Wonkette. On January 18th, you wrote:
"...Shock and Blog claims that Wonkette is a phony blogger because she works on a for-profit blog published by Gawker Media. I don't know that the fact that she is employed by Gawker has ever been a secret. But if that makes her a phony blogger..."
No, simply being paid to blog in and of itself does not make her a phony blogger. I never said that, nor did I say that her employment by Gawker was a secret. The latter was Ms. Cox's fabrication. Consider what I stated in my updates for my post. She wasn't paid to simply just sit down and start blogging as herself. There was a period where she had to refine the "style" and "feel" of Wonkette. She is playing a role that is appealling to a certain group of "clientele" in order to increase revenue flowing into Gawker.
Thanks for you attention.
Hmmm... Wonkette is an artificial construction of an author on the Internet and not an authentic person. Can't argue with that much. Supect that most bloggers construct something of an alternative identity for themselves on the Web. Reminds me of what Western author Edward Abbey had to say on the subject:
"I'm dimly aware of some sort of mythical Edward Abbey, but I don't take him seriously, don't attempt to live up to it. I'm surprised that anyone would ever want to meet me because I don't live up to the characters in my books, don't try to. It sometimes seems to me that the Edward Abbey who writes these articles and books and so on is just another fictional creation, not much resemblance to the real one, to the one I think I know. The real Edward Abbey -- whoever the hell that is -- is a real shy, timid fellow, but the character I create in my journalism is perhaps a person I would like to be: bold, brash, daring. I created this character, and I gave him my name. I guess some people mistake the creation for the author, but that's their problem (The Poetry Center Interview, by James Hepworth, p. 42, in Resist Much, Obey Little, edited by James Hepworth and Gregory McNamee, 1985)."
But did that make Abbey an inauthentic voice?
BTW, if you are interested in Abbey, you might take a look at my Journalistic Construction of the American West site. It's in pretty bad shape right now as it hasn't been updated for too long, but you might find something of interest there. (UPDATE: Since this was written, I've started back work on the site, updating - for obvious reasons - the Hunter S. Thompson page. I hope to put some attention back on the rest of the pages before long.)