Hunter S. Thompson, Online Columnist
by Matt Welch
Note: This article first appeared in the Online Journalism Review.
In the spring of 2000, if you had to bet on which publication would be running a new Hunter S. Thompson column by year's end, the choice would be easy: Ted Fang's new San Francisco Examiner.
After all, the legendary journalist had spent the latter half of the 1980s writing weekly political sermons and sex dramas for the then-resurgent afternoon daily, and now Thompson's favorite "conceptual editor" -- Warren Hinckle, of Ramparts and Scanlan's Monthly fame -- was being brought on as Fang's "director of hijinx and surprises." When Suck's Tim Cavanaugh asked Hinckle in March whether HST would be one of the Fangxaminer's regular columnists, the eyepatch-wearing editor replied: "Absolutely."
But just two weeks before the Hearst Corp.'s historic newspaper swap in Thompson's beloved San Francisco, a familiar bald-headed photo byline could be found throwing a football under the title "Hey Rube!" in a splashy new online publication from ESPN called "Page 2."
"All base-runners may run to any base (but not backward) -- First to Third, Second to Home, etc.," came the immediately familiar prose, in a laugh-out-loud column about how to "fix" baseball.
It was as good an indicator as any that the new Examiner would be a disappointment to those very few people -- mostly online columnists -- who had hoped it would provide a jolt of energy to the listless newspaper business. But it also illustrated the terrific pull of ESPN Executive Editor John Walsh, a highly regarded journalist whose resume includes being the founding editor of Inside Sports and ESPN Magazine, managing editor of both Rolling Stone and U.S. News & World Report, sports editor at Newsday and the Columbia Missourian, and an editor for both the New York Times and Washington Post.
Walsh is widely credited, by most everyone except his ex-anchor Keith Olbermann (who has clashed with his former boss for three years), with transforming ESPN's SportsCenter from a goofy cable teevee show into a powerful cultural phenomenon. With ESPN Magazine on its feet, Walsh turned his attention to the Bristol, Conn. empire's Internet holdings, which, he concluded, "needed a complete change-up" -- a new site-within-a-site that "would be fun and different ... serious sometimear and Loathing at the Super Bowl" (which Walsh assigned, incidentally), and "The Great Shark Hunt," both of which played into the self-caricature that has dogged the writer ever since.
For ESPN, Thompson has been concentrating mostly on football and politics, both of which he approaches with a gambler's sensibility. His greatest contribution is as a humorist and in the way he rips through the facade of seriousness that brings down even the best of sportswriters and publications.
His vivid language and nightmarish speculation -- about how the Raiders of yesteryear "strangled cops and ate their own babies," for instance -- have become overnight fodder for the identical page-two humor columns found in nearly every major U.S. daily sports section. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Portland Oregonian, San Diego Union-Tribune, Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Spokane Spokesman-Review and Rocky Mountain News have all quoted his one-liners, and several other papers have run mini-features on the funny new sports columnist, complete with fatalistic speculation about Thompson's famous deadline problems.
Though he's nine for nine in meeting ESPN.com's Monday deadline, Thompson hasn't earned his editor-destroying reputation for nothing. In fact, according to Robert Draper's enlightening book-length history "Rolling Stone Magazine," Walsh's inability to coax a Richard Nixon-resignation cover story out of Thompson got him fired. It was on Walsh's watch that the newly crowned "Prince of Gonzo" became a drug-culture celebrity, while simultaneously developing a very related, career-threatening case of Writer's Block that wreaked havoc on many a magazine editor and book publisher.
The ESPN editor, who is otherwise eloquent and enthusiastic in conversation, and has a long track record of working with high-voltage talent like Jimmy Breslin, sputtered to a near-halt when asked about massaging Thompson's notorious deadline troubles.
"I think with, you know, there are going to be, ah, as there are in any creative venture, you know, ah, potential bumps in the road that are only -- to me, having been in various media businesses for almost 35 years -- I certainly regard them as part of the experience," he said. "I don't think that I'm naive about the fact that at some point, uh, there might be some, ah, ah, dispute or disagreement or debate about, uh, you know, uh, this or that, and that's only natural, it's part of the process and I think if the personalities involved understand the goal of what we're doing is, and are intelligent people, that we can, you know, make decisions in a way that, um, uh, allows everybody to understand that it's, you know, that it's the right decision, or it's the best decision at the time."
Walsh has assigned two heavies to Thompson detail: Former Life magazine managing editor Jay Lovinger, and ESPN.com Page 2 editor Kevin Jackson. "I took both out to Colorado to sit and meet with him, and we had a nice meeting," Walsh said. "I think that they understand where his head is at with these things."
"Like pimps and real estate agents"
Thompson does not have many kind words for his new colleagues on the nation's sports desks.
"The incredible dumbness of Sportswriters is a subject I thought I'd exhausted a long time ago -- but let's hit it one more time, just for the fun of it," he wrote Dec. 11. "I have described them as 'a rude & brainless subculture of fascist drunks' and 'more disgusting by nature than maggots oozing out of the carcass of a dead animal.'
"But they keep coming back for more, like pimps & real-estate agents, & on days like this I run out of patience. ... I have explained many times that I am, by Profession, a Gambler -- not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be your average career sportswriter -- and, more specifically, a full-time Baseball writer."
Actually, many of the same sportswriters he insults grew up hanging on his every word, and welcome his abuse.
The L.A. Times' Mike Penner wrote on Nov. 27 that Thompson's old "fascist drunks" line "is as accurate today as it was then, nearly 30 years ago," and that he "can't wait to read" every Monday. "Hey, rube, it's a cushy gig, it helps pay the Chivas bills, and it's a real-life application of the Good Doctor's old Gonzo work ethic: 'When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.'"
It's not just the sports section. This year's presidential campaign, like the six before it, brought forth a new volley of references and homages to Thompson's remarkable Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72. (An aside: this year, I covered the Ralph Nader campaign for two months, after which I re-read the Campaign Trail for perhaps the 11th time, and was positively startled by the number of new dead-on insights I was able to enjoy). Any random Lexis-Nexis search will reveal examples, from just about every newspaper, of writers trying to bite Thompson's rhymes. Like his precursor Ernest Hemingway, his style is absurdly easy to imitate ... and nearly impossible to pull off.
"We were somewhere north of Barstow in the middle of the desert when the tech really took effect," began a Nov. 16 L.A. Times article about the Comdex trade show, of all things.
Because Thompson has a new book of letters out (Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976), there has been a new round of reviews, excerpts, and pilgrimages to his "fortified compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado for the obligatory attempt at an interview (inevitably involving illegal drugs, firearms, and oral recitation of Thompson's works by the interviewer). Maybe the most surprising revelation this time around is the high percentage of Thompson interlocutors -- most of them at least one generation younger -- who confess openly to being borderline groupies.
"The reasonable reader concludes that Thompson's reportage has an impressionistic side -- for which his fans, including this one, are profoundly grateful," Christopher Buckley wrote in his New York Times book review Dec. 10. "These untidy letters are welcome, showing us as they do a great American original in his lair."
Seth Mnookin, in the January issue of Brill's Content, went much further. "It was Thompson -- not Woodward and Bernstein, not Ben Bradlee, not James 'Scotty' Reston nor Jimmy Breslin nor Mike Royko -- who fueled my dreams of becoming a journalist," he wrote, in a perceptive article and interview. Mnookin was 16 when he first read the 1974 Playboy article "The Great Shark Hunt," and he has "returned to it -- as a way of recharging my professional batteries -- at least two dozen times since then."
The entertaining rock-and-culture writer Cintra Wilson has written that after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "I was permanently changed, and carried a copy around like a horrible dog-eared bible for years. I have read and re-read and chewed and digested and stolen from and memorized it more than any book in the world. In other words, I worship 'Fear and Loathing' with all my blood and soul and knotted little tendons."
Understandably, Thompson seems ambivalent and conflicted about his "influence" on American journalism. In Australia and the United Kingdom, he is seen more as he would like to be seen -- as a Writer and Critic, in the tradition of H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain and Jack London. In the U.S., most discussions of Thompson include academic debates over whether his work is "journalism" or "fiction," accompanied by discussions about about how his larger-than-life drug appetite probably "destroyed" his talent and rendered him a relic from a (thankfully) bygone era.
Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Thompson's income is still derived from his rock-star status among the college-age frat boy crowd -- including, once upon a time, George W. Bush -- and the author's abysmal track record with finances means that he has kept mining that distracting vein year after year.
Thompson's influence on journalism is more extensive and nuanced than is normally credited. Before the Campaign Trail book -- and Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus, which Thompson also helped conceive -- it was simply not fashionable to describe the story-behind-the-story conditions of journalists covering a presidential election. Now it is routine. The first several chapters of Hell's Angels is actually a very thorough -- and for its time, groundbreaking -- deconstruction of error-wracked media coverage, followed by correctives gleaned through personal participation.
Among journalists there is a fairly clear division among Thompson fans -- between Establishment types for whom he constitutes a guilty, mold-breaking pleasure; and the once and future amateurs who see his example as perhaps the only convincing blueprint for storming the walls.
In the introduction to the new letters book, straight-journalism legend David Halberstam pleads: "His voice is sui generis. It is not to be imitated, and I can't think of anything worse than for any young journalist to try to imitate Hunter."
In Mnookin's article, you can almost hear Time Magazine honcho Walter Isaacson titter like a schoolgirl when describing his one successful attempt to get Thompson to write something for the Luce empire. "I think he's a very dangerous man. We're all afraid of him. He's irresponsible and reckless as a human being, and so we all live in fear," Isaacson says. "He showed up with the piece and with Johnny Depp and with a bottle of whiskey, and perhaps some other substances that I made clear weren't appropriate for my office. Soon there was a crowd, and Johnny Depp was reading the piece out loud while a dozen staffers crowded around and the good Doctor was playing air drums to accent the rhthym of his writing as Depp was reading it. And then Lyle Lovett somehow showed up because he was part of the good Doctor's entourage, and it was a totally surreal closing night."
Contrast that with the type of message you can find on any of the dozens of Gonzo-related message boards on the Internet:
Name: redshark (Owlfarm@msn.com)
Subject: "just another Friday night..............."
Message: "This Friday evening seemed to be another typical boring night of senseless madness; at least until I got the call. A previous contact of mine informed me of an event I could not miss. An indoor bike rally with more than the eye can see of bikes and bike parts, accessories, the biker element of course, and live music. Southern Rock to be exact; so hell this I might as well check out. My first priority was supplies for the trip of course. XTC, PCP, THC, whatever was available...."
Thompson's published comments about the Internet have been cautionary at best.
"It seems to me like more of a -- and this is simplistic -- but more of a 'me, me, me, me' thing," he told Mnookin. "Like a teenager, you know, self-centered. And you don't really learn much about the subject. ... I'm sure people got tired of some of the 'me, me' in my campaign coverage, but it was important. It was a building block of the story."
There can be a world of difference between encouraging amateurs and inspiring brilliant craftsmanship, and perhaps it is Thompson's achievement that, like Hemingway, his example has always done both. "What I learned from Hemingway mainly," Thompson told Charlie Rose in 1997, "was that you can want to be a writer and get away with it. ... And, uh, that was very important at the time."
In a 1997 interview with Atlantic Unbound, before Matt Drudge was a household name, Thompson was asked whether the Internet "might democratize journalism," and if he sees "a future for the Internet as a journalistic medium."
"Well, I don't know," he answered. "There is a line somewhere between democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting.
"You can get on (the Internet) and all of a sudden you can write a story about me, or you can put it on top of my name. You can have your picture on there too. I don't know the percentage of the Internet that's valid, do you? Jesus, it's scary. I don't surf the Internet. I did for a while. I thought I'd have a little fun and learn something. I have an e-mail address. No one knows it. But I wouldn't check it anyway, because it's just too fucking much."
Thompson seemed to have endorsed a short-lived site at Aspen Online until around the time of this quote, after which it was abandoned. He has reserved drhuntersthompson.com, though nothing's posted there. Hunterthompson.com is owned by an apparent Australian named Neil Anderson; the site says merely: "Hi, I'm Jaymz Thompson and I Hunt Snakes Primarily. I live in Australia, and it is almost a life in hell. Stay tuned, and come back soon. I've gotta put up some pictures of my hunting expedition. -Jaymz"
Hunter Thompson's lawyers have already contacted the owner of huntersthompson.com -- gonzo fan and expatriate Japan resident Mitchell Moore, who has published anything on the site.
"I was stunned when I found out it was available about 2 yrs. ago," Moore said in an e-mail. "I feel bad just letting it sit. I think in the end I'll offer it back to HST for a hard cover first edition of 'Fear and Loathing,' with a note from HST on the frontispiece saying something like 'Thanks for nothing, you sad bastard! Why don't you get your own fucking life so someone else can rip YOU off! Yours in hell, Hunter S. Thompson.'"
Thompson is the subject of considerably more Internet attention than, say, Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer. The best and most useful site, by far, is The Great Thompson Hunt, maintained at gonzo.org by a Canadian library technician/HTML programmer named Christine Othitis, who contributes a dozen or so essays in addition to the most comprehensive set of HST-related links on the Web.
Time's Walter Isaacson, a rising star in the AOL galaxy, told Mnookin that the Internet would be a natural home for Thompson: "I'd love to see what happened if he dove into the Net," he said, before the ESPN column was announced. "He writes off the top of his head in a sort of electric way, and the best dose of Doctor Thompson is unfiltered, which is what the Web is all about."
There are many who have lost their lunches this past year trying to teach people "what the Web is all about," and there are a select few -- Isaacson chief among them -- who have watched their share of the New Establishment grow with the each new millenial media merger. And for every one of these, there are legions of Thompson-fueled anarchists, like Cintra Wilson, Brock Meeks, or the Online Journalism Review's Ken Layne, throwing bricks and trying to write well.
"Hunter Thompson is a great writer. His rhythm is incredible, and his voice is just one of the better American literary voices," Ken Layne (my colleague, good friend and former employer) wrote to me recently. "He's still a far better writer than any American calling themselves a journalist, and his literary voice is so unique that even his bad stuff is worth reading."
Ken, like myself and probably thousands of other young journalists, spent one terrific and formative teenage afternoon with the man who has launched more journalism careers than David Halberstam and Walter Isaacson combined.
"It was nice," he wrote. "We sat by the pool and talked about politics and Israel and Ollie North and AIDS and Bruce Springsteen and all the various crap going down in the mid-eighties. Talked a lot about writing, Fitzgerald and Nelson Algren and Hemingway. He's a great proponent of American literature."
I actually have possession of the tape from that encounter, and it's hilarious ... but that's a story for another time.
For now, ESPN's John Walsh is crossing his fingers, counting his blessings, and raking in the page views.
"He did the Examiner for quite a while," Walsh said optimistically, "and he did a couple (book) collections, so ... if Hunter writes this for six years or even three years, I'd be a happy guy."
And, as Layne says, "Maybe some jackass kid out there is looking at ESPN's site right now, looking for Tiger Woods news. And maybe that kid will click on Thompson's column and realize the magical, hilarious power of the English language. That'd be good, wouldn't it?"