Fear, loathing and the first “new” media

1. Got home. 2. Unloaded the car. 3. Flipped on the computer and started checking my favorite blogs after two days without internet access. Step 3 always used to be to check the headlines from the accumulated newspapers, but it’s a new era. Couldn’t have missed much, it’s only two days, right?

Whoa – Hunter S. Thompson shot himself to death! I was surprised, but not shocked, I guess. (And why isn’t there a punctuation mark that indicates suprise but not shock? I mean if we can have a colon and a semi-colon, can’t we have a semi-exclamation?) Not that I’d ever given it a lot of thought, but I just figured that when he died he’d go out like a kamikaze moth, wings flaming, spiraling down into the fire – and filing one last report. Or that maybe he’d just disappear. Mysterious circumstances would be cited.

I turned to my bookcases, looking for my well-thumbed paperback collection of Thompson’s best, The Great Shark Hunt. Gone, dammit, when did that happen? I’d picked up the book shortly after I got out of college, a journalism degree stuffed in the bottom of my luggage while I wondered why I’d ever pursued such a thing. By that time Thompson had already created his “brand” (a novel concept at that time) and was well on his way to becoming a caricature of himself. But when I read him I again felt the surge and the spark to wield words to bring a reader into a different light, especially such classics as his early reporting on the Hell’s Angels and the L.A. “Brown Power” movement. It was so energizing after dealing with all the Woodward and Bernstein wannabees (or “Woodsteins” as one of my profs called them). I’d return to the book often over the years when I had trouble remembering what good writing looked like.

Thompson brought a subjective, experiential voice to stories that was brand new. I suppose there had always been a “you are there” aspect to the best reporting up until that time, but he took it to the “I am here, you are here, and man, what a rush!” level. He was referred to by some as “the new media” and credited with creating “gonzo” journalism, though in my mind the term came to be associated more with a way of living than a way of writing. Nevertheless, I think he put the first emphatic boot into the door that eventually opened the way to the blogosphere. Some may see that as a reach, or as trivializing his talent, but his voice – or at least the space his voice carved out – is very much a part of many of the best “citizen journalist” efforts. Of course, the subjectiveness he offered also lead to many of the abuses in the now mainstream media that also helped lead to the blogosphere.

Not all will agree, of course (Mitch Berg), and I certainly don’t hold up Thompson’s excesses and decline as models. In his latter years he became, perhaps inescapably, a parody of himself, but I’d check in from time to time with his “Hey, Rube” columns for ESPN.com. But I couldn’t read him, however, without picturing Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury character, Duke (I suppose Thompson’s death means Trudeau gets to keep his lungs in his chest after all). And as much as I think he contributed to our current communications culture I acknowledge that his example has unfortunately also spawned those who think that attitude and over-medication alone are sufficient to pass for genius.

They miss the point. And I miss my copy of “The Great Shark Hunt.”

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