Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Ft. Lauderdale

Today is the birthday of Hunter S. Thompson, one of the pioneers of a once-new journalism style, gonzo journalism.  Unlike journalists of past generations, who tried to stay neutral and uninvolved, journalists like Thompson became an integral part of the stories that they covered or uncovered.

It would be interesting to talk to journalists who came of age in the 1980's to see whether they were more influenced by the style of Thompson or by the adventures of journalists like Woodward and Bernstein who brought to light Nixon's involvement in the Watergate break-in.

When I think of Hunter S. Thompson, I think of Bill Murray's depiction of him in Where the Buffalo Roam.  I saw this film with a group of my college friends during years where we put out the college newspaper.  We had all grown up in the aftermath of Watergate, and we all dreamed of being Woodward and Bernstein--or Hunter S. Thompson. We watched All the President's Men and dreamed of all the corruption we might uncover. We watched Where the Buffalo Roam and proclaimed that life could never get weird enough for us, and tried to figure out how to get alcohol into grapefruit so we could have theatrical props. We dreamed of the great stories that existed on campus, just waiting for someone to come along and expose them.

In the end, we had a lot of space in our college newspaper and not much in the way of sensational stories of sordid greed. So, we wrote about other things. People like me, who had ideas and who could meet a deadline, could write about almost anything we wanted. Did we care if anyone read our stories? Yes, but . . . the more important issue was whether or not we could cover the amount of newsprint we were obligated to fill.

I remember writing a story about the death of Simone de Beauvoir. I wrote about every strange record album that caught my attention. I wrote about books I was reading. I'm sure I wrote about the plight of South Africa and Central America, the foreign affairs flashpoints of the 1980's, when I was in school. I'm sure I wrote fretful pieces about the nuclear war I was sure was just around the corner. I'm sure I wrote more mundane pieces about various campus happenings.

One reason that I didn't follow my passion into the grown up world of journalism is that I knew that I wouldn't be allowed the same kind of latitude I'd been given in college. I'd be given boring stories to write, and for 10-20 years, I'd write them, hoping that some day I'd be given freedom to follow my own interests.

Until recently, I felt rather brilliant for going into the education field instead of journalism as I've watched more and more newspapers collapse.  However, lately I'm realizing that my college journalism buddies missed the big story that was unfolding around us, the withdrawal of public support for higher education.  Now students fund most, if not all, of their education.  Now state schools get very little support from taxpayers; the average amount seems to be between 9 and 18 percent. 

Where does the rest come from?  Depends on the school.  Research schools get a lot of money from private industries who give out grant money.  Smaller, non-research schools might get a lot of their money from tuition.  Some schools are lucky enough to have private endowments.  I suspect that many state schools will be closing or joining forces with other state schools (and downsizing in major areas) as we go through the next several decades.

Down here in South Florida, it would be quite easy to find tales of political corruption if one wanted to be a modern day Woodward, Bernstein, or Thompson.  It's much harder to find politicians with an educational plan for taking us all into the future. 


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