December 21, 2000
Hunter Thompson, Online Columnist
How the man who launched a thousand newspaper careers
ended up at ESPN.com
By Matt Welch, OJR Staff Writer and Columnist
In the spring of 2000, if you had to bet on which publication would be
running a new Hunter S. Thompson column by year's end, the choice would be
easy: Ted Fang's new San Francisco Examiner.
After all, the legendary New Journalist had spent the latter half of the
1980s writing weekly political sermons and sex dramas for the
then-resurgent afternoon daily, and now Thompson's favorite "conceptual
editor" Warren Hinckle, of Ramparts and Scanlan's Monthly fame, was being
brought on as Fang's "director of hijinx and surprises." When Suck's Tim
Cavanaugh asked Hinckle in March whether HST would be one of the
Fangxaminer's regular columnists, the eyepatch-wearing editor replied:
But just two weeks before the Hearst Corp.'s historic newspaper-swap in
Thompson's beloved San Francisco, a familiar bald-headed photo byline could
be found throwing a football under the title "Hey Rube!" in a splashy new
online publication from ESPN called "Page 2."
"ALL BASE-RUNNERS MAY RUN TO ANY BASE (but not backward) -- First to Third,
Second to Home, etc.," came the immediately familiar prose, in a
laugh-out-loud column about how to "fix" baseball. "And with NO PITCHER in
the game, this frantic scrambling across the infield will be Feasible and
It was as good an indicator as any that the new Examiner would be a
disappointment to those very few people, mostly online columnists, who had
hoped it would provide a jolt of energy to the listless newspaper business.
But it also illustrated the terrific pull of ESPN Executive Editor John
Walsh, a highly regarded journalist whose resume includes being the
founding editor of Inside Sports and ESPN Magazine, managing editor of both
Rolling Stone and U.S. News & World Report, sports editor at Newsday and
the Columbia Missourian, and an editor for both the New York Times and
Walsh is widely credited, by most everyone except his ex-anchor Keith
Olbermann (who has clashed with his former boss for three years), with
transforming ESPN's SportsCenter from a goofy cable teevee show into a
powerful cultural phenomenon. With ESPN Magazine on its feet, Walsh has
turned his attention to the Bristol, Conn. empire's Internet holdings,
which, he concluded, "needed a complete change-up"a new site-within-a-site
that "would be fun and different ... serious sometimes, and maybe more
often ... not so serious at all."
So Walsh called his old pal Hunter Thompson, who got his start in
journalism as a sportswriter for the Command Courier on Eglin Air Force
Base, and has a history of transforming obscure sports assignments into
classic "gonzo" works like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and "The
Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved."
"I'll take all the blame," Walsh said with a laugh from ESPN headquarters
on Nov. 30. "Since I was at Rolling Stone in 1973-74, Hunter and I bonded
and have remained friends throughout the last 25 years, and have gotten
together a lot, and enjoy each other's company immensely. And one of our
biggest bonds, if not our biggest bond, is our mutual sports fandom.
Hunter's always been a big sports guy."
Page 2, Walsh explained, was conceived in part as a showcase for "unique
voices who weren't necessarily associated with sports on an ongoing basis
today, but who knew sports well enough or were fans of sports." So, "I
approached Hunter, and he thought it was just a capital idea in terms of
something that he could write about and would enjoy, and I think so far
that's been the experience."
Joining Thompson has been fellow politics/sports junkie (and Joe DiMaggio
biographer) Richard Ben Cramer, respected former Sports Illustrated writer
Ralph Wiley and even, for one football article, at least, Ken Kesey.
"We were actually looking for someone to do something on Oregon-Oregon
State, and one of the editors said 'the only guy I can remember from Oregon
is Ken Kesey,'" Walsh explained. "So I had some friends who knew the phone
number ... we called him up, and he said, 'Sure, I'd love to write that, it
was one of my passions as a kid with my Dad, going to the Oregon games.'"
In tone and especially design, Page 2 feels more like a spirited tabloid
newspaper than a standard-issue online version of a corporate news network
even one as self-consciously flippant as ESPN. Response has been "pretty
good," Walsh said. "Yesterday we had 435,000 page views, which is
significant ... we're probably averaging 250-300,000 a day," compared to "a
million and a half unique visitors a day" for ESPN.com.
A "signifcant amount" of the traffic has been generated by the Hey
Rube! column, Walsh said. "I mean, people are interested in him."
Thompson, who has built an enormous fan base writing about the Hell's
Angels, presidential politics and hotel-room traumas, has free reign to
pursue whatever tangents come to mind. In his second column, for instance,
he ended a discussion of the Oakland Raiders by observing: "And the whole
Bush family, from Texas, should be boiled in poison oil." His third column
was almost entirely about the post-election crisis. ("Get familiar with
Cannibalism," he advised.)
"The Drudge Report gave us a link when he wrote his political column, and
that got us ... 80,000 more people coming to our site, which was great,"
Thompson's vivid language and nightmarish speculation, about how the
Raiders of yesteryear " strangled cops and ate their own babies," for
instance, have become overnight fodder for the identical page-two humor
columns found in nearly every major U.S. daily sports section. The St.
Louis Post-Dispatch, Portland Oregonian, San Diego Union-Tribune, Los
Angeles Times, St. Petersburg Times, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Spokane
Spokesman-Review and Rocky Mountain News have all quoted his one-liners,
and several other papers have run mini-features on the funny new sports
columnist, complete with fatalistic speculation about Thompson's famous
Though he's seven for seven in meeting ESPN.com's Monday deadline, Thompson
hasn't earned his editor-destroying reputation for nothing. In fact,
according to Robert Draper's enlightening book-length history "Rolling
Stone Magazine," Walsh's inability to coax a Richard Nixon-resignation
cover story out of Thompson got him fired. It was on Walsh's watch that the
newly crowned "Prince of Gonzo" became a drug-culture celebrity, while
simultaneously developing a very related, career-threatening case of
Writer's Block that wreaked havoc on many a magazine editor and book
The ESPN editor, who is otherwise eloquent and enthusiastic in
conversation, and has a long track record of working with high-voltage
talent like Jimmy Breslin, sputtered to a near-halt when asked about
massaging Thompson's notorious deadline troubles.
"I think with, you know, there are going to be, ah, as there are in any
creative venture, you know, ah, potential bumps in the road that are only,
to me, having been in various media businesses for almost 35 years, I
certainly regard them as part of the experience," he said. "I don't think
that I'm naive about the fact that at some point, uh, there might be some,
ah, ah, dispute or disagreement or debate about, uh, you know, uh, this or
that, and that's only natural, it's part of the process and I think if the
personalities involved understand the goal of what we're doing is, and are
intelligent people, that we can, you know, make decisions in a way that,
um, uh, allows everybody to understand that it's, you know, that it's the
right decision, or it's the best decision at the time."
Walsh has assigned two heavies to Thompson detail: Former Life magazine
managing editor Jay Lovinger, and ESPN.com Page 2 editor Kevin Jackson. "I
took both out to Colorado to sit and meet with him, and we had a nice
meeting," Walsh said. "I think that they understand where his head is at
with these things."
Meanwhile, over at the Examiner, Fang has already replaced his first editor
with none other than David Burgin, the man who brought Thompson back to San
Francisco in 1985. From all appearances, Burgin will have his hands full
trying to yank the Ex back up to basic respectability, and certainly
doesn't have the money to out-bid ESPN for a man who cost him $1,200 a
colum, nand most likely, his job -- 15 years ago.
"Frankly, the whole thing with Hunter probably cost me pretty dearly," he
told E. Jean Carroll in her 1993 biography "Hunter." "Here I was, The
Editor, and I was in the office at four o'clock in the morning, trying to
get Hunter's column in, and I should have been home sleeping so I could get
back in and run the paper. ... But I loved it. ... Looking back, I wouldn't
trade it for anything."
'LIKE PIMPS & REAL ESTATE AGENTS'
Thompson does not have many kind words for his new colleagues on the
nation's sports desks.
"The incredible dumbness of Sportswriters is a subject I thought I'd
exhausted a long time ago, but let's hit it one more time, just for the fun
of it," he wrote Dec. 11. "I have described them as 'a rude & brainless
subculture of fascist drunks' and 'more disgusting by nature than maggots
oozing out of the carcass of a dead animal.'
"But they keep coming back for more, like pimps & real-estate agents, & on
days like this I run out of patience. ... I have explained many times that
I am, by Profession, a Gambler, not some jock-sniffing nerd or a hired
human squawk-box with the brain of a one-cell animal. No. That would be
your average career sportswriter, and, more specifically, a full-time
Actually, many of the same sportswriters he insults grew up hanging on his
every word, and welcome his abuse.
The L.A. Times' Mike Penner, one of that paper's few decent sportswriters
wrote on Nov. 27 that Thompson's old "fascist drunks" line "is as as
accurate today as it was then, nearly 30 years ago," and that he "can't
wait to read" every Monday. "Hey, rube, it's a cushy gig, it helps pay the
Chivas bills, and it's a real-life application of the Good Doctor's old
Gonzo work ethic: 'When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.'"
It's not just the sports section. This year's presidential campaign, like
the six before it, brought forth a new volley of references and homages to
Thompson's remarkable "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72." (An
aside: this year, I covered the Ralph Nader campaign for two months, after
which I re-read the Campaign Trail for perhaps the 11th time, and was
positively startled by the number of new dead-on insights I was able to
enjoy). Any random Lexis-Nexis search will reveal examples, from just about
every newspaper, of writers trying to bite Thompson's rhymes. Like his
precursor Ernest Hemingway, his style is absurdly easy to imitate ... and
nearly impossible to pull off.
"We were somewhere north of Barstow in the middle of the desert when the
tech really took effect," began a Nov. 16 L.A. Times article about the
Comdex trade show, of all things.
Because Thompson has a new book of letters out ("Fear and Loathing in
America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist 1968-1976"), there has
been a new round of reviews, excerpts, and pilgrimages to his "fortified
compound" in Woody Creek, Colorado for the obligatory attempt at an
interview (inevitably involving illegal drugs, firearms, and oral
recitation of Thompson's works by the interviewer). Maybe the most
surprising revelation this time around is the high percentage of Thompson
interlocutors, most of them at least one generation younger, who confess
openly to being borderline groupies.
"The reasonable reader concludes that Thompson's reportage has an
impressionistic side, for which his fans, including this one, are
profoundly grateful," Christopher Buckley wrote in his New York Times book
review Dec. 10. "These untidy letters are welcome, showing us as they do a
great American original in his lair."
Seth Mnookin, in the January issue of Brill's Content, went much further.
"It was Thompson, not Woodward and Bernstein, not Ben Bradlee, not James
'Scotty' Reston nor Jimmy Breslin nor Mike Royko, who fueled my dreams of
becoming a journalist," he wrote, in a perceptive article and interview.
Mnookin was 16 when he first read the 1974 Playboy article "The Great Shark
Hunt," and he has "returned to it, as a way of recharging my professional
batteries, at least two dozen times since then."
The entertaining rock-and-culture writer Cintra Wilson, whose weekly advice
column in the Hearst Examiner was dropped by the new Hearst Chronicle,
thereby leaving Salon.com as her only regular Bay Area gig, has written
that after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, "I was permanently
changed, and carried a copy around like a horrible dogeared bible for
years. I have read and re-read and chewed and digested and stolen from and
memorized it more than any book in the world. In other words, I worship
'Fear and Loathing' with all my blood and soul and knotted little tendons."
Understandably, Thompson seems ambivalent and conflicted about his
"influence" on American journalism. In Australia and the United Kingdom, he
is seen more as he would like to be seen, as a Writer and Critic, in the
tradition of H.L. Mencken, Mark Twain and Jack London. In the U.S., most
discussions of Thompson include academic debates over whether his work is
"journalism" or "fiction," accompanied by discussions about how his
larger-than-life drug appetite probably "destroyed" his talent and rendered
him a relic from a (thankfully) bygone era.
Meanwhile, a significant percentage of Thompson's income is still derived
from his rock-star status among the college-age frat boy crowd, including,
once upon a time, George W. Bush, and the author's abysmal track record
with finances means that he has kept mining that distracting vein year
Thompson's influence on journalism is more extensive and nuanced than is
normally credited. Before the Campaign Trail book, and Timothy Crouse's
"Boys on the Bus," which Thompson also helped conceive, it was simply not
fashionable to describe the story-behind-the-story conditions of
journalists covering a presidential election. Now it is routine. The first
several chapters of Hell's Angels is actually a very thorough, and for its
time, groundbreaking deconstruction of error-wracked media coverage,
followed by correctives gleaned through personal participation.
Among journalists there is a fairly clear division among Thompson fans
between Establishment types for whom he constitutes a guilty, mold-breaking
pleasure; and the once and future amateurs who see his example as perhaps
the only convincing blueprint for storming the walls.
In the introduction to the new letters book, straight-journalism legend
David Halberstam pleads: "His voice is sui generis. It is not to be
imitated, and I can't think of anything worse than for any young journalist
to try to imitate Hunter."
In Mnookin's article, you can almost hear Time Magazine honcho Walter
Isaacson titter like a schoolgirl when describing his one successful
attempt to get Thompson to write something for the Luce empire. "I think
he's a very dangerous man. We're all afraid of him. He's irresponsible and
reckless as a human being, and so we all live in fear," Isaacson says. "He
showed up with the piece and with Johnny Depp and with a bottle of whiskey,
and perhaps some other substances that I made clear weren't appropriate for
my office. Soon there was a crowd, and Johnny Depp was reading the piece
out loud while a dozen staffers crowded around and the good Doctor was
playing air drums to accent the rhythm of his writing as Depp was reading
it. And then Lyle Lovett somehow showed up because he was part of the good
Doctor's entourage, and it was a totally surreal closing night."
Contrast that with the type of message you can find on any of the dozens of
Gonzo-related message boards on the Internet:
Name: redshark (Owlfarm@msn.com)
Subject: "just another Friday night..............."
Message: "This Friday evening seemed to be another typical boring night of
senseless madness; at least until I got the call. A previous contact of
mine informed me of an event I could not miss. An indoor bike rally with
more than the eye can see of bikes and bike parts, accessories, the biker
element of course, and live music. Southern Rock to be exact; so hell this
I might as well check out. My first priority was supplies for the trip of
course. XTC, PCP, THC, whatever was available...."
Thompson's published comments about the Internet have been cautionary at best.
"It seems to me like more of a, and this is simplistic, but more of a 'me,
me, me, me' thing," he told Mnookin. "Like a teenager, you know,
self-centered. And you don't really learn much about the subject. ... I'm
sure people got tired of some of the 'me, me' in my campaign coverage, but
it was important. It was a building block of the story."
There can be a world of difference between encouraging amateurs and
inspiring brilliant craftsmanship, and perhaps it is Thompson's achievement
that, like Hemingway, his example has always done both. "What I learned
from Hemingway mainly," Thompson told Charlie Rose in 1997, "was that you
can want to be a writer and get away with it. ... And, uh, that was very
important at the time."
In a 1997 interview with Atlantic Unbound, before Matt Drudge was a
household name, Thompson was asked whether the Internet "might democratize
journalism," and if he sees "a future for the Internet as a journalistic
"Well, I don't know," he answered. "There is a line somewhere between
democratizing journalism and every man a journalist. You can't really
believe what you read in the papers anyway, but there is at least some
spectrum of reliability. Maybe it's becoming like the TV talk shows or the
tabloids where anything's acceptable as long as it's interesting.
"You can get on [the Internet] and all of a sudden you can write a story
about me, or you can put it on top of my name. You can have your picture on
there too. I don't know the percentage of the Internet that's valid, do
you? Jesus, it's scary. I don't surf the Internet. I did for a while. I
thought I'd have a little fun and learn something. I have an e-mail
address. No one knows it. But I wouldn't check it anyway, because it's just
too f****** much."
Thompson seemed to have endorsed a short-lived site at Aspen Online until
around the time of this quote, after which it was abandoned. He has
reserved drhuntersthompson.com, though nothing's posted there.
Hunterthompson.com is owned by an apparent Australian named Neil Anderson;
the site says merely:
"Hi, I'm Jaymz Thompson and I Hunt Snakes Primarily. I live in Australia,
and it is almost a life in hell. Stay tuned, and come back soon. I've gotta
put up some pictures of my hunting expedition. -Jaymz"
Hunter Thompson's lawyers have already contacted the owner of
huntersthompson.com, gonzo fan and expatriate Japan resident Mitchell
Moore, who has not published anything on the site.
"I was stunned when I found out it was available about 2 yrs. ago," Moore
said in an e-mail. "I feel bad just letting it sit. I think in the end I'll
offer it back to HST for a hard cover first edition of 'Fear and Loathing,'
with a note from HST on the frontispiece saying something like 'Thanks for
nothing, you sad bastard! Why don't you get your own fucking life so
someone else can rip YOU off!
Yours in hell, Hunter S. Thompson.'"
Thompson is the subject of considerably more Internet attention than, say,
Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer. The best and most useful site, by far, is The
Great Thompson Hunt, maintained at gonzo.org by a Canadian library
technician/HTML programmer named Christine Othitis, who contributes a dozen
or so essays in addition to the most comprehensive set of HST-related links
on the Web. (Gonzo.com is an aggregator of porn sites, complete with Ralph
Time's Walter Isaacson, a rising star in the AOL galaxy, told Mnookin that
the Internet would be a natural home for Thompson: "I'd love to see what
happened if he dove into the Net," he said, before the ESPN column was
announced. "He writes off the top of his head in a sort of electric way,
and the best dose of Doctor Thompson is unfiltered, which is what the Web
is all about."
There are many who have lost their lunches this past year trying to teach
people "what the Web is all about," and there are a select few, Isaacson
chief among them, who have watched their share of the New Establishment
grow with each new millenial media merger. And for every one of these,
there are legions of Thompson-fueled anarchists, like Cintra Wilson, Brock
Meeks, or the OJR's own Ken Layne, throwing bricks and trying to write well.
"Hunter Thompson is a great writer. His rhythm is incredible, and his voice
is just one of the better American literary voices," Layne wrote to me,
unprovoked. "He's still a far better writer than any American calling
themselves a journalist, and his literary voice is so unique that even his
bad stuff is worth reading."
Ken, like myself and certainly hundreds of other young journalists, spent
one terrific and formative teen-aged afternoon with the man who has
launched more journalism careers than David Halberstam and Walter Isaacson
"It was nice," he wrote. "We sat by the pool and talked about politics and
Israel and Ollie North and AIDS and Bruce Springsteen and all the various
crap going down in the mid-eighties. Talked a lot about writing, Fitzgerald
and Nelson Algren and Hemingway. He's a great proponent of American
I actually have possession of the tape from that encounter, and it's
hilarious ... but that's a story for another time.
For now, ESPN's John Walsh is crossing his fingers, counting his blessings,
and raking in the page views.
"He did the Examiner for quite a while," Walsh said optimistically, "and he
did a couple [book] collections, so ... if Hunter writes this for six years
or even three years, I'd be a happy guy."
And, as Layne says, "Maybe some jackass kid out there is looking at ESPN's
site right now, searching for Tiger Woods news. And maybe that kid will
click on Thompson's column and realize the magical, hilarious power of the
English language. That'd be good, wouldn't it?"
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