A couple of weeks ago, I attended a conference of non-fiction television and filmmakers. Network executives in attendance repeatedly used the phrases, “We're reinvigorating our identity,” and, “We're changing our DNA.” Oh, brother. It sounded to me like euphemistic high talk for, “Our new shows are even more idiotic than our old ones!”
I thought of the words of gonzo reporter Hunter S. Thompson: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
And now Hunter Thompson's dead; the author of “Hell's Angels” and the “Fear and Loathing” books, the good doctor, the drug and booze-inhaling, freewheeling id of journalism, has taken his own life.
The timing stinks. We need his grasp of the ill-mannered rant more than ever.
Thompson wrote, "The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage and whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy - then go back to the office and sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece."
That kind of talk doesn't go down well in today's White House. They don't believe in free speech. They pay for it, or try to squelch it.
Late last week, the head of the Government Accountability Office put out a letter to all agency heads warning them to stop manufacturing fake newscasts, as the government did to promote the new Medicare bill and anti-drug abuse programs.
The warning comes on the heels of revelations that the Bush administration had hired black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams to talk up the No Child Left Behind education program and two other conservative writers to work on programs promoting the president's marriage initiative. Since President Bush came into office, a quarter of a billion dollars have been given to outside public relations companies just to cook up this kind of stuff.
What's more, the White House continues to throw staged “town meetings” around the country to promote itself. Last year, it was for the President's re-election; now it's for his Social Security agenda.
Even though Bush press secretary Scott McClellan says, “The President is reaching out to all Americans,” as with the pre-election meetings, audiences are vetted and potential naysayers kept out, even if it means empty seats. At least the re-election rallies were paid for with campaign funds -- the dough for these Social Security meetings, eight so far, is coming out of taxpayer pockets.
When not trying to buy media coverage, the government is busy muzzling it. Last week, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would raise the fine for indecent material on broadcast radio or TV from $32,500 to $500,000 per infraction. Then there's the censorship of PBS' Buster the Bunny, for goodness sake, and a federal agency's “suggestion” that the words gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender be removed from the program of a federally funded suicide prevention conference in Oregon.
And don't forget the federal appeals court ruling that two reporters are in contempt of court and could be imprisoned for up to 18 months if they refuse to tell a grand jury who in the government told them that Valerie Plame, wife of Joe Wilson of Niger yellowcake fame, was a CIA agent. More than eight pages of the ruling were kept from the public, allegedly for reasons of security. As ABC News President David Westin wrote in the February 18 Wall Street Journal:
“What makes this particular case bizarre is that the underlying crime was committed, if at all, by an official of the very government that is trying to punish the reporters who allegedly witnessed it. This appears to be a case of a government unable or unwilling to take the steps it needs to police its own senior officials and, when caught, taking it out on innocent journalists simply trying to do their job."
Hunter Thompson famously said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Friday night in Washington, the Conservative Political Action Conference honored the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for their success in slurring John Kerry's military record. And of course, there's James D. Guckert, aka Jeff Gannon, phony boy toy reporter fobbing soft ball questions to the president and his press secretary. As one blogger noted, “Pay no attention to the gay conservative male prostitute sitting in the middle of the family values White House living room.”
“Big Darkness Soon Come. Take my word for it,” Hunter Thompson warned. Too late, Doc. It's already here.
Michael Winship (BartlebyMW@aol.com) , Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
© 2005 Messenger Post Newspapers