Hunter S. Thompson, Woodward and Bernstein: the mixed legacy of boomer journalism's icons.

Hunter S. Thompson killed himself President's Day weekend, and rumors are that Deep Throat, the legendary source that was immortalized by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their epochal investigation of the Watergate scandal, isn't feeling well himself. We don't know who Deep Throat is, but his demise is eagerly awaited, because it will clear up one of Watergate's lingering mysteries; W&B have pledged to reveal his identity when he enters that underground parking garage in the sky.

Journalists are on deathwatch overdrive because Throat's passing will also permit a new round of analysis and second-guessing about Watergate reporting. And, like with Thompson's death, baby boomer journalists will be able to reflect on the major journalistic influences of our generation.

It is hard to overestimate the impact that Thompson and Woodward and Bernstein have had. As a teenager, when my own interest in journalism was budding, I browsed the shelves at Shorey's Bookstore looking for stuff about the business. Not books of good journalism, but books about journalists. Most of what I found was either memoirs of the Front Page era, recounting the rough-and-tumble days at big-city dailies in the 1930s, when editors wore green eyeshades, or the genteel memoirs of various New Yorker writers and editors. There were also the big bios of giants like William Randolph Hearst and Henry Luce. While there was some romance there, the books seemed mostly dusty, bygone.

In high school at Lakeside, I was lured into working on the student paper— The Tatler—not because it reported news but because it didn't. It was an irreverent collection of satire, reporting, fiction, and nonsense—part underground paper, part National Lampoon. I found writing for it completely invigorating (unlike the rest of my schoolwork), in part because there were few rules, there was little supervision, and the upperclassmen editors were fast and funny. (Headline for story about a school track meet: "Itchy Track Nuts.") It was gonzo before we knew about gonzo.

When I discovered Thompson in the pages of Rolling Stone with his "fear and loathing" reporting on Richard Nixon, I was completely blown away by how his anarchic-seeming approach produced such profoundly readable journalism. It was like Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey doing nonfiction, wading into the dark heart of America—Las Vegas, the Super Bowl—and bringing back truths channeled through drug-and-alcohol-induced trances.

Thompson was a poser for stoners. He became an icon for his bad habits, even as they warped and eroded his talents. In recent years, his lingering journalistic presence—a Web sports column for ESPN—had descended into self-parody. But in his prime, he was an archetype that infused many of my contemporaries. They wanted to be Hunter Thompson—or "Uncle" Duke, Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury knockoff. At Evergreen's Cooper Point Journal, the college paper whose alums include Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, I worked with at least one editor who was openly Thompsonian in his posturing. He purportedly packed a gun and kept Wild Turkey in his desk. As young college writer/reporters, we palled around with odd, violent, and very stoned characters, not unlike Thompson's 300-pound Samoan attorney. Having such a sidekick seemed as essential as carrying a notepad.

One of the things that Thompson inspired—as did Tom Wolfe—was the idea that the journey to get the story was the story. I emulated this when I hit the road with some buddies in 1973 for a trip across America. My companions tolerantly allowed me to make room in the van for my massive 1939 Royal manual typewriter, which I used to file occasional dispatches for the school paper. My best piece was an account of getting an interview with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. True to form, my interview had lasted a mere five minutes, but the story ran a couple thousand words, and I wrote it as a saga.

The journalism climate changed with Watergate. In my mind, I split my contemporaries into two groups: those who were into the student paper before All the President's Men and the dilettantes who came after. Before the book, we were begging people to write for the paper; afterward, we were flooded with wanna-be Woodwards and Bernsteins. Most were students without any reporting experience, but suddenly, being an ink-stained wretch was cool and sexy. And just as suddenly, every story had the potential for scandal, everyone in authority was stonewalling, everything we didn't know was part of some vast conspiracy. Thompson- and Watergate-induced paranoia fueled the newsroom.

It possessed me, too, and I had enough skills to be dangerous, mostly to myself (I was not exactly well schooled in libel law at the time). I was ready to rip off the mask of The Man. It wasn't that we looked for exposés—it was that every story was an exposé. This lingering bias, that everything in America is corrupt at heart, has helped to undermine the credibility of the journalism profession generally, and it has made it harder to out real corruption. And the self-righteous, overinflated self-importance that grew out of it has been one of the media's long-festering, self-inflicted wounds.

The book All the President's Men and the movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford also reinforced the "gonzo" idea that the act of reporting was integral to the story itself. Indeed, most of us remember Watergate not through the stories W&B reported, but through the story they told about their dogged quest. Suddenly, getting the news and finding the facts weren't enough; the truth could only be told through the self-revelatory experiences of the journalist in a hostile world. This might be tolerable when reading the outlaw writings of Hunter S. Thompson in his prime, but for the industry as a whole, it spawned a kind of self-infatuation that has helped turn much of the media's work into an ego trip.


comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow