Is It Gonzo — Or Is It Just So Much Gas?

We saw something on television this weekend that would likely have made George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson, up there in Gonzo Heaven, choke on their respective drinks.

Charlie LeDuff, a New York Times reporter with more celebrity cache than most good, grey Timesmen, has been given a new TV show on the Discovery Times Channel. The program’s called “Only in America,” and the idea is that the charismatic LeDuff, often as not bedecked in one of those strange ruffled white puffy pirate shirts, will infiltrate some of the more bizarre subcultures in America. We’re talking gay rodeo riders in Oklahoma City, minor league football players in Amarillo, Texas, and Civil War battle re-enactors in the South. In other words, people with lives stranger than yours.

LeDuff has lofty ambitions for the show. “We’re going across America at a time when many in this country are grappling with who we are as a people,” LeDuff is quoted in the press release announcing the show. “There are questions about race, immigration, sexuality, image, beauty. I hope by the end of this series we can answer a few of those questions.”

Really? Or is that just protective cover for one more sensationalist, no-holds-barred reality show spectacle - in this case, one masquerading as immersion journalism, a la Plimpton or Thompson?

Take this weekend’s episode, in which LeDuff joins a group of bikers called the East Bay Rats in Oakland, California. The Rats have an intense fight club culture and LeDuff (165 pounds) decides to put himself in the ring with one of them, Big Mike (310 pounds). The promise of seeing LeDuff pummeled and bloodied acts as a cheap gimmick throughout the show - and, sure enough, Big Mike clobbers him. (What might have been a new twist on this old chestnut would be watching LeDuff pummel some hapless 85-lb foe … but we digress.)

Apparently LeDuff imagines that putting himself in these situations provides a kind of service for those of us safely insulated at home, staring slack-jawed at the TV monitor as we sprawl on the sofa, chasing our Fritos with periodic slurps of Mountain Dew. Instead, “Only in America” becomes all about LeDuff. It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the overweening ego infusing every minute. “I don’t want to fight,” LeDuff rasps, looking into the camera, his facial hair perfectly grizzled, wearing a wife-beater, pumping the air with his fists. “I fight so they can know what the hell is going on in this country…”

In short, LeDuff, who’s always been something of a hotdog, ends up turning in a perfect parody of same.

Even the Times review - penned by an outsider — concurs: “Mr. LeDuff too often gets between us and the people he wants to introduce to us. He has a sense of humor, and one can appreciate the gameness of a reporter who will dress up in drag to fall off a steer, but there’s just too much of him, and he can’t seem to get over himself. His overstyled voiceovers do little to frame the action in an explanatory bigger picture, and he takes up too much screen time. He talks too much, and too often he’s talking about himself. ‘These guys respect me, like, I’m a gamer,’ he says of the East Bay Rats. Even if true, the line makes you wince.”

As the show ended with a slow-motion shot of LeDuff riding back to LA (where he works at the Times bureau) on his Harley, it was hard not to mourn the death of the brand of gonzo journalism that Thompson and Plimpton practiced — the kind that didn’t seem rooted in self-absorption but was actually the result of research and sacrifice. Maybe it’s the medium, TV, that makes LeDuff’s imitation seem so cheap. To write well about a subculture that one has immersed oneself in, — as Plimpton did in “Paper Lions,” or as Thompson did in “Hell’s Angels” - requires not only losing yourself in that weird world (and becoming that proxy that LeDuff wants to be) but simultaneously distancing oneself enough in order to describe this unfamiliar universe with clarity and insight. With TV, all LeDuff seems to do is stuff his face into the camera as often as possible.

Which brings us to Anderson Cooper, the white-haired wonder boy of CNN, who has been getting extraordinary press lately. A highly laudatory Times article yesterday, headlined, “An Anchor Who Reports Disaster News With a Heart on His Sleeve,” quoted Jon Klein, CNN honcho, dubbing Cooper “the anchorperson of the future,” and proposing that Cooper’s success could be chalked up to the fact that, “he’s all human, He isn’t putting it on.” Interview magazine chimes in, oozing, “Anderson Cooper is rewriting the rules of news anchoring.”

Much of this praise for the one-time host of the reality show, “The Mole,” has to do with his coverage of Hurricane Katrina and particularly his testy and now much-quoted exchange with Louisiana state Senator, Mary Landrieu.

We’re pleased that reporters are getting in some faces on our behalf. But, as we said last week, let’s not blow this thing out of proportion. Fortunately, Franklin Foer of The New Republic, doesn’t. He wrote yesterday, online, that “while [Cooper] has garnered a reputation as the heir to Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings, his work doesn’t justify that talk. He is a Yale-educated Geraldo Rivera.”

Foer’s complaint: “He injects himself into the story, reacting with outrage, holding babies, helping survivors sift through the ruins, and showing viewers his tears.” And this emotionalism is dangerous. “The suits at TV networks swoon for tears and outrage because they draw larger audiences. (It’s the reason that Geraldo keeps getting hired.) But melodrama and sputtering outrage aren’t precisely the same as truth telling. In fact, they are often the enemies of it. (See Fox News for the obvious case in point.)”

Cooper (son of socialite Gloria Vanderbilt) blurs that line between entertainment and news - he’s in the pages of Maxim modeling suits this month and, lest we forget, he took two years off to host that lame reality show. So Foer seems justified in concluding that, “[a] cosmopolitan upbringing, a sophisticated wardrobe, and a few moments of genuine outrage aren’t the same things as analytical heft and moral seriousness.”

Cooper and LeDuff do have a knack for arresting attention, and it’s true enough that gaining eyeballs is the name of the game. But can we stop confusing these exercises in contrived drama and self-promotion with journalism? And stop suggesting that the practitioners of this strange hybrid of schlock and inquiry represent either our best, or our brightest?

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.