Thursday, October 8, 2009

To the Editor: Journalism's 'Wretched Failure' vs. a 'Damn You Kind of Style'

A prophetic letter destined to be ignored:
Dear Sir:
Two articles in your October 12 issue on “The Americas” deserve a bit of comment. Probably others do, too, but be that as it may, I refer here to “News and Latin America,” by Bernard Collier, and What’s Happening to Journalism Education?” by John Tebbel.
The two are related, in that current journalism education is at least vaguely linked to our news coverage of Latin America. The subject interests me because I recently returned from a year and a half of traveling all over the South American continent as a free-lance journalist. . . .
The fact that Collier did his research in Buenos Aires – which most of the foreign-based U.S. correspondents deserted years ago – is a good indication of just how far behind the times he is. . . .
Collier says the Latin American press is guilty of “a dismal lack of analytical reporting on government affairs, both in time of crisis and during relative peace.” . . .
This is pure balderdash, and one of the best examples of what happens when a “Latin American correspondent” tries to cover his beat from New York. . . . And if he had ever been in Rio, did he ever get far enough away from the Hotel Excelsior Bar to lay hands on a copy of the afternoon O Globo and read some of their brutally anti-government editorials? . . .
Which brings us now to Tebbel’s lament that “research” is strangling the hopes for “professional training” in our schools of journalism. Perhaps your linking of the two articles was intentional – because Collier’s wretched failure to deal with his theme would appear to be proof of Tebbel’s thesis that journalism needs people who can cut the ever-toughening mustard. . . .
Tebbel might consider a few other problem areas before he takes up the standard of “professionally oriented programs” as the panacea for better and more meaningful journalism in our time. He should consider the case of the Herald Tribune, for instance, which only this year decided Latin America was important enough to give one of its staffers the title of “Latin American correspondent.” The man chosen to carry that ball was Bernard Collier – but thus far it appears the Tribune would have been better of sticking with the wire services, who at least have men on the scene who read the local papers.
Or consider the case of Ralph McGill, who regularly bemoans our serious lack of news from Latin America, but who cannot for some reason see his way clear to hire a man to cover that mysterious continent. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution even turns down freelancers who offer to send as many stories as the papers can use. . . .
Let Mr. Tebbel consider the broader possibilities for a moment, and postpone for a while his academic resentment of research in journalism schools. And let Mr. Collier, in reporting on a continent bogged down in misery and further from hope than most people in this country can possibly understand, at least give credit where credit is due, and not condemn out of ignorance a Brazilian journalist – putting faith in his fellow man to speak his own truth in a Damn You kind of style that “trained professionals” and “technicians” and “specialists” have just about killed in this country.
Hunter S. Thompson
Woody Creek, Colorado
Oct. 14, 1963
Excerpted from a letter to the editor of the Saturday Review, written when Thompson was 26, broke and unemployed. This letter was first published in a 1997 collection of Thompson’s early correspondence, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-67, edited by historian Douglas Brinkley.

The Review never published this letter – or anything else Thompson ever wrote. Founded in 1924 as the Saturday Review of Literature, the magazine was sold to the publisher of McCall’s in 1961 and resold several times during the next quarter-century. The magazine declined steadily until it ceased publication 1986; rights to the name were purchased by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione.

Within a decade of writing this 1963 letter to the Review, Thompson had published three classic books – Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 (1973) – becoming one of America’s most famous journalists.

He was subsequently portrayed in two feature motion pictures Where the Buffalo Roam (1980, starring Bill Murray) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998, starring Johnny Depp), and was the subject of the 2008 documentary Gonzo (see my review for The American Spectator). In 2007, I became friends with Thompson’s widow, Anita, whom I met after publication of her book, The Gonzo Way.

UPDATE: An interview with Mrs. Thompson, whose sense of humor sometimes causes problems.

1 comment:

  1. With that list of portrayals, how could you leave out Doonesbury? I don't know if Garry Trudeau ever explicitly said this, but his "Uncle Duke" character in that comic strip is widely believed to be based on Hunter S. Thompson.