What journalism needs? The spirit of Thompson; the courage of Lawrence; the money of Al-Jazeera

Thompson of Arabia

My last column, "Smiling Through the Apocalypse," split its popularity strictly along age lines: Seniors like me, and mature women, thought it was funny in a sardonic way; young dudes (like the Broward-Palm Beach NT calendar editor Dan Sweeney) took offense, feelings hurt at being indirectly called "slackers" for not renting Tec-9s and shooting up their offices whenever their sclerotic old bosses -- in Sweeney's case the venerable Chuck Strouse -- dripped damply on good ideas & inspired pieces . . . "The problem is not a lack of young writers sitting in their cubicles with fire in their bellies and rock and roll in their hearts," quoth Sween. "The problem is the [old] guys in the offices telling them to turn the music down."Hunter Thompson, the subject of "Smiling," had a lot of trouble with sclerotic bosses, too. That's why he quit so many journalism jobs, starting with sportswriting gigs in Louisville, Kentucky, and moving south to Puerto Rico, Colombia, Brazil etc.; and that's why Art Kunkin started the Los Angeles Free Press, and Dan Wolf, Ed Fancher and Norman Mailer founded the Village Voice in New York. In fact, you could say the whole Sixties underground press movement was a kind of muscular belch (and in some cases, as with Ed Sanders' and Tuli Kupferberg's inspired Fuck You, A Magazine of the Arts), a rancid upchuck onto the desks of the reactionary old fart editors of those times . . .

What's different now is that writers like Sweeney admit they have "already abandoned all hope of doing Serious Journalism" (he trivializes the very idea by capitalizing the words), preferring to write fluff but "good fluff, don't get me wrong" . . . But hell, from what I can tell, Sweeney's about 26. Why not quit and head for Israel, Iraq, Pakistan (he might find bin Laden!), while his blood pressure is still 130 over 70? Why hang on to a fluffy calendar job? "I cannot think of a single editor in the business now who would let me get away with one-third of what Thompson did," he complains. "Let me" and "get away with" are the crucial phrases: Baby Boomers may treat him as "lazy" and "apathetic" (his words), because of his permission-begging vocabulary. Thompson didn't ask Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner's permission to write about Kierkegaard while snorting coke in a white Caddy convertible going 90 mph in the desert outside Barstow . . .

The co-opting of the "underground" tradition of journalism into the more socially responsible and sales-friendly "alternative" press is now virtually complete. Here in Miami, the Knight-Ridder chain has hired Village Voice and New Times staffers, and is putting out a shrink-wrapped ad-scam product called Street, utterly devoid of literate content but art-directed in a suitably jejeune style so that its sales force can rep it as "youth market." Meanwhile the alternative press is sounding more and more like the big dailies and monolithic weeklies (Time, Newsweek), in language (and Time regularly describes international terrorists as the "bad guys" as opposed to the "good guys" -- Bush, Jr., Cheney, Rumsfeld -- to show how hip they are). Completing the absorption, the alternatives' sober young staffers produce dense, institutional reporting (like Time and Newsweek did before they got hip!) that mostly seems derived from databases, and appears to have been written in smokeless rooms with PC flags fluttering in the recycled air conditioning. While talking all of this over a week ago, one of our stalwarts admitted he had no commitment to alternative journalism -- he just wanted a job. And given the Great Print Slide over the last 20 years, and the fear of God that corrupto Wall Street has put into everyone in the last 12 months, maybe that's not so remarkable . . .

The loser, though, is the reader. The non-debate over the Bush administration's decision to bomb Afghanistan back into the Pliocene Era a year ago got the hearty endorsement of 98 percent of American media (see "1984 and Counting," New Times, September 27, 2001); the decision this year to "sell" Bush's brain trust's plan for a "pre-emptive" war against Saddam Hussein, starting next Tuesday if possible, has gotten a little more chatter from the highly paid policy wonks who pass for thoughtful commentators on evening and Sunday-morning TV shows. But real discussion of such subjects as consumer passivity conditioning (Sweeney Syndrome?), or VP Cheney's defense industry buddies, or serious Democratic opposition (!), academic left criticism, a youthful uprising from those who would actually have to go to Iraq -- or any sustained opposition from the "alternative" press at all, never got off the ground. We'd rather imitate "the big boys," and, here in town, for example, print news about our endemic municipal corruption, the sludge that Miami swims in, for readers who've long since grown inured, and even brutalized. It's become a harmless sport of sorts, like watching wrestling.

What the country and the city really need is something like Al-Jazeera, a Qatar-based independent news operation (in this case TV), beholden to no political/business pressure groups, right or left. Jazeera, originally a 1995 BBC concept partly financed by the Saudi government, was dumped in 1996 because of its fierce independence (it criticized the Saud royal family for allowing public beheadings by actually showing one), but was quickly picked up and lavishly bankrolled by the rich and eccentric Hammad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the young Emir of Qatar.

Complaints about Al-Jazeera programming have been steady and across-the-board. In its first year the Qatar government logged over 500: Libyan dictator Col. Gadhafi withdrew his ambassador after the station gave air-time to rebel leaders; Iraq complained when a report revealed the princely sum spent on Saddam's birthday celebration at a time when his people were starving; Algeria's "people's revolution" cut off electricity in several cities to protect its citizens from Jazeera "propaganda," accusing the Algerian army of butchering Algerians; Arafat was outraged by interviews with his Hamas foes, and Hamas was piqued by interviews with Israelis; Jews were mad because Arafat was always on camera, and Americans got upset when Danny Pearl's throat was cut on rolling tape . . . Saudi Arabia became Al-Jazeera's main critic, though, because it had spent hundreds of millions trying to keep all Arab broadcasting media "on-side," and the little Qatari operation was showing how the royal family had sold out interests to the U.S. while trying to pacify its increasingly militant working class with anti-American spin . . .

We haven't had journalism like that around here since Ramparts magazine, underground newspapers, and the old Public Broadcast Lab experiment on Public Television, the predecessor to the McNeil-Lehrer Snoozehour. Or since Hunter Thompson published a screed detailing how Rolling Stone, the paper that made him, had cashed in its credibility and begun devolving into what would one day become Wenner Media's Maxim.


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