Two weeks ago Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide. Next week Dan Rather commits ritual suicide, leaving the anchor chair at CBS prematurely as penance for his toxic National Guard story. The two journalists shared little but an abiding distaste - make that hatred in Thompson's case - for the Great Satan of 20th-century American politics, Richard Nixon. The best work of both was long behind them. Yet memories of that best work - not to mention the coincidental timing of their departures - only accentuate the vacuum in that cultural category we stubbornly insist on calling News.
What's missing from News is the news. On ABC, Peter Jennings devotes two hours of prime time to playing peek-a-boo with U.F.O. fanatics, a whorish stunt crafted to deliver ratings, not information. On NBC, Brian Williams is busy as all get-out, as every promo reminds us, "Reporting America's Story." That story just happens to be the relentless branding of Brian Williams as America's anchorman - a guy just too in love with Folks Like Us to waste his time looking closely at, say, anything happening in Washington.
In this environment, it's hard to know whom to root for. After the "60 Minutes" fiasco, Mr. Williams's boss, the NBC president Jeff Zucker, piously derided CBS for its screw-up, bragging of the reforms NBC News instituted after a producer staged a truck explosion for a "Dateline NBC" segment in 1992. "Nothing like that could have gotten through, at any level," Mr. Zucker said of the CBS National Guard story, "because of the safeguards we instituted more than a decade ago." Good for him, but it's not as if a lot else has gotten through either. When was the last time Stone Phillips delivered a scoop, with real or even fake documents, on "Dateline"? Or that NBC News pulled off an investigative coup as stunning as the "60 Minutes II" report on Abu Ghraib? That, poignantly enough, was Mr. Rather's last hurrah before he, too, and through every fault of his own, became a neutered newsman.
Hunter Thompson did not do investigative reporting, but he would have had a savage take on our news-free world - not least because it resembles his own during the Nixon era, before he had calcified into the self-parodistic pop culture cartoon immortalized by Garry Trudeau, Bill Murray, Johnny Depp and most of his eulogists. Read "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" - the chronicle of his Rolling Stone election coverage - and you find that his diagnosis of journalistic dysfunction hasn't aged a day: "The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists." He cites as a classic example the breathless but belated revelations of the mental history of George McGovern's putative running mate, the Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton - a story that had long been known by "half of the political journalists in St. Louis and at least a dozen in the Washington press corps." This same clubby pack would be even tardier on Watergate, a distasteful assignment left to a pair of lowly police-beat hacks at The Washington Post.
Thompson was out to break the mainstream media's rules. His unruly mix of fact, opinion and masturbatory self-regard may have made him a blogger before there was an Internet, but he was a blogger who had the zeal to leave home and report firsthand and who could write great sentences that made you want to savor what he found out rather than just scroll quickly through screen after screen of minutiae and rant. When almost all "the Wizards, Gurus and Gentlemen Journalists in Washington" were predicting an unimpeded victory march for Edmund Muskie to the Democratic presidential nomination, it was Thompson who sniffed out the Muskie campaign's "smell of death" and made it stick. The purported front-runner, he wrote, "talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year's crop."
But even Thompson might have been shocked by what's going on now. "The death of Thompson represents the passing from the Age of Gonzo to the Age of Gannon," wrote Russell Cobb in a column in The Daily Texan at the University of Texas. As he argues, today's White House press corps is less likely to be invaded by maverick talents like a drug-addled reporter from a renegade start-up magazine than by a paid propagandist like Jeff Gannon, a fake reporter for a fake news organization (Talon News) run by a bona fide Texas Republican operative who was a delegate to the 2000 Bush convention.
Though a few remain on the case - Eric Boehlert of Salon, mediamatters.org, Joe Strupp of Editor and Publisher - the Gannon story is fast receding. In some major news venues, including ABC and CBS, it never surfaced at all. Yet even as Mr. Gannon has quit his "job" as a reporter and his "news organization" has closed up shop, the plot thickens. His own Web site - which only recently shut down with the self-martyring message "The voice goes silent" - has now restarted as a blog with Gonzo pretensions. The title alone of his first entry, "Fear and Loathing in the Press Room," would send Thompson spinning in his grave had he not asked that his remains be shot out of a cannon.
As a blogger, Mr. Gannon's new tactic is to encourage fellow right-wing bloggers to portray him as the victim of a homophobic left-wing witch hunt that destroyed his privacy. Given that it was Mr. Gannon himself who voluntarily exhibited his own private life by appearing on Web sites advertising his services as a $200-per-hour escort, that's a hard case to make. But it is a clever way to deflect attention from an actual sexual witch hunt conducted by his own fake news organization in early 2004. It was none other than Talon News that advanced the fictional story that a young woman "taped an interview with one of the major television networks" substantiating a rumor on the Drudge Report that John F. Kerry had had an extramarital affair with an intern. (Mr. Kerry had to publicly deny the story just as his campaign came out of the gate.) This is the kind of dirty trick only G. Gordon Liddy could dream up. Or maybe did. Mr. Gannon's Texan boss, Bobby Eberle, posted effusive thanks (for "their assistance, guidance and friendship") to both Mr. Liddy and Karl Rove on Talon News's sister site, GOPUSA, last Christmas.
Mr. Gannon, a self-promoting airhead, may well be a pawn of larger forces as the vainglorious Mr. Liddy once was. But to what end? That Kerry "intern" wasn't the only "news" Mr. Gannon helped stuff in the pipeline during an election year. A close reading of the transcripts of televised White House press conferences reveals that at uncannily crucial moments he was called on by the White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, to stanch tough questioning on such topics as Abu Ghraib and Mr. Rove's possible involvement in the outing of the C.I.A. spy Valerie Plame. We still don't know how this Zelig, using a false name, was given a daily White House pass every day for two years. Last weekend, Jim Pinkerton, a former official in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses, said on "Fox News Watch," no less, that such a feat "takes an incredible amount of intervention from somebody high up in the White House," that it had to be "conscious" and that "some investigation should proceed and they should find that out."
Given an all-Republican government, the only investigation possible will have to come from the press. Which takes us back to 1972, the year of Thompson's fear and loathing on the campaign trail. That was no golden age for news either. As Thompson's Rolling Stone colleague, Timothy Crouse, wrote in his own chronicle of that year, "The Boys on the Bus," months of stories by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein failed to "sink in" and only 48 percent of those polled by Gallup had heard of Watergate by Election Day.
Some news organizations had simply ignored The Post's scoops "out of petty rivalry," wrote Mr. Crouse. Others did so because they "feared the administration or favored Nixon in the presidential race." Others didn't initially recognize the story's importance. (The New York Times played the Watergate break-in on page 30.) The White House's pathological secrecy and penchant for threatening to use the Federal Communications Commission as a battering ram on its broadcast critics took care of the rest. According to a superb new history of the Washington press corps, "Reporting from Washington," by Donald A. Ritchie, even Mr. Rather, then CBS's combative man in the Nixon White House, "left the Watergate story alone at first, sure that it would fade like 'a puff of talcum powder.' "
For similar if not identical reasons, journalistic investigations into the current administration rarely "sink in" either. Early stories in The Boston Globe and Washington Post on what Jeff Gannon himself (on his blog) now calls "Gannongate" faded like that puff of powder. So did Eric Lichtblau's recent Times report on the White House's suppression of the 9/11 commission finding that federal aviation officials ignored dozens of advance warnings of Al Qaeda airline hijackings and suicide missions. But we've now entered a new twilight zone: in 1972, at least, the press may have been stacked with jokers but not with counterfeit newsmen.
Today you can't tell the phonies without a scorecard. Besides the six "journalists" we know to have been paid by the administration or its backers, bloggers were on the campaign payrolls of both a Republican office-seeker (South Dakota's Senator John Thune) and a Democrat (Howard Dean) during last year's campaign. This week The Los Angeles Times reported that Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, "taking a cue from President Bush's administration," had distributed fake news videos starring a former TV reporter to extol the governor's slant on a legislative proposal. Back in Washington, the Social Security Administration is refusing to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests for information about its use of public relations firms - such as those that funneled taxpayers' money to the likes of Armstrong Williams. Don't expect news organizations dedicated to easy-listening news to get to the bottom of it.
"Reporting America's Story," NBC's slogan, is what Hunter Thompson actually did before the phrase was downsized into a vacuous marketing strategy. As for Mr. Rather, he gave a valedictory interview to Ken Auletta of The New Yorker in which he said, "The one thing I hope, and I believe, is that even my enemies think that I am authentic." The bar is so low these days that authenticity may well constitute a major journalistic accomplishment in itself.
© 2005 New York Times, Co.