On this date 13 years ago, renowned writer and creator of “Gonzo” journalism, Hunter S. Thompson shot himself in the head because football season was over, he couldn’t walk or swim, he was always “bitchy” and had lived 17 more years than he needed or wanted to. His succinct suicide note was in keeping with Hunter’s writing style. He made dents, not first impressions.
The one thing Hunter could do in his old age was fire guns, and boy did he love his guns. Apparently not enough to continue living, though. He would probably have a lot to say about our constant debate on gun control in this country. Or maybe he’d have little to say, like “You can control my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
I know the man a little better than that, though. In fact, I think the only fact he accepted while alive was “the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism.” While I never met him, I spent roughly four years of my life researching his life and works, which culminated in a Master’s professional paper entitled “How Hunter S. Thompson Built Fox News and What We Can Do About It.”
Hunter was my hero going into that research, but my opinion of him changed dramatically as I began to realize how much he influenced journalism of today and made it more acceptable for journalists to insert themselves as the heroes of their stories, but more importantly, editorialize the news. Journalists are telling us how to feel about the news instead of simply reporting it, and Hunter’s success is a big reason for that.
Hunter’s blending of fact and fiction to convey deep meaning through news is a triumphant failure with unintended, lasting effects. Hunter’s most read work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was what Hunter called “a failed experiment in Gonzo journalism” because his intent was to send his publisher his notes as his final copy -- without editing. That’s what he saw as Gonzo journalism.
“True Gonzo reporting needs the talents of a master journalist, the eye of an artist/photographer and the heavy balls of an actor. Because the writer must be a participant in the scene, while he’s writing it—or at least taping it, or even sketching it. Or all three. Probably the closest analogy to the ideal would be a film director/producer who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work and somehow manages to film himself in action, as the protagonist or at least a main character.”
Now we have journalists live on the scene reacting to the news as it occurs thanks to mobile phones and the Internet -- and a lot of those journalists are really just actors. Hunter didn’t need to act. He was simply a character. The man was even more interesting than his greatest creation. He reportedly nearly drowned Bill Murray in his pool when they first met prior to Murray portraying Hunter on screen in Where the Buffalo Roam. The story goes that Hunter tied Murray to a chair and told him, “If you can get out of this, I can trust you,” and kicked the chair and actor into the pool. They became fast friends.
Hunter also left the heart of an elk on his neighbor’s doorstep as a birthday gift. In the morning, Jack Nicholson awoke to an entryway covered in blood.
By the time I finished writing my paper, Hunter was more a villain than a hero to me, and I set out to become a journalist and attempt to do the boring, objective journalism of my new hero, Edward R. Murrow, better than anyone ever had, citing vast amounts of reputable sources and changing minds with facts instead of feelings. My attempts lasted six years, and I still wrote a weekly column in the vein of Gonzo journalism, connecting sports and politics like Hunter did for ESPN’s “Page 2” -- some of my favorite work of Hunter’s. I still can’t escape that theme it seems. It’s become an addiction of mine.
I lived my life for a long time based on how I thought Hunter would. “What would Hunter do,” I often asked myself. “Indulge,” was most often the answer. I found myself asking the same question with regard to the gun control debate, but the answer is more complicated.
I don’t own a gun. I never have. I grew up firing guns, though. My grandfather on my mother’s side taught me to shoot a BB gun growing up, and he taught me well. I was one of the best shots in my hunter education class, and the first deer I shot I hit through the neck as it was running away from me. I have a pretty poor sense of distance, but I’d say the shot was between 50 and 100 yards. I haven’t hunted since that season. It’s just not for me. I didn’t feel like I was playing fair. I still enjoy a little target practice, though, which is why when I wrote about what I thought reasonable, sensible gun control looks like I didn’t include a ban on assault rifles.
I watched a man, teary-eyed, saw an assault rifle in half on social media yesterday because he never wants to worry about his gun taking a life, even in the hands of another gun owner. He reminded me that all these mass murderers were simply legal gun owners prior to becoming mass murderers, but I still don’t think banning assault rifles is necessary. Hunter wouldn’t either. That would surely get his blood boiling.
I’m sure Hunter would agree that the mentally ill shouldn’t be allowed to own guns, and while he would likely hate it, he would have a mental health evaluation conducted in order to own a gun if it was required. I’m sure he’d agree that every aspiring gun owner should have to pass a criminal background check, too. And I’m sure he’d agree that taxpayers should never have to pay the emergency room bill of an uninsured gun owner who shoots him- or herself. I’m sure he’d have no problem waiting 10 days or so to buy a gun, but he might take issue with my recommendation of raising the minimum age to own a gun to 21. He probably thinks the drinking age should be 18 again. I can see him saying, “If you're old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to drink.” If that’s the only issue that brilliant gun nut takes with my attempt at adopting reasonable, sensible gun control policies, I’d say they should be agreeable to most every gun nut.
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