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The Message

Fred Harper

In an essay in the hagiographic March 24 issue of Rolling Stone devoted to Hunter S. Thompson, director Bob Rafelson wrote of seeing Thompson's body before it was removed from the author's Woody Creek home following his February 20 suicide. Afterward, Rafelson's wife asked how Thompson looked. "Surprised," he replied.

Thompson would have been considerably less shocked by the rapturous remembrances that have flooded out since he breathed his last. A man with an ego that deserved its own zip code, he loved to burnish his image, and the moment he was no longer capable of doing so personally, his carefully cultivated gaggle of renowned pals and acquaintances picked up the mantle. The group that provided salutes to Rolling Stone included Johnny Depp, Jack Nicholson, Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Manson, and several of its members extended their praise to the way he ended his life. "How great, in a sense, that he did it his way," said actress Anjelica Huston.

The possible repercussions of such sentiments worry Brenda Gierczak, coordinator for the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado. She's closely followed how news organizations have handled the Thompson story and says that it's "disconcerting how his suicide has been glorified." In an attempt to stem the tide, Gierczak and Carol Breslau, who helps oversee a suicide-prevention initiative for the Colorado Trust, contacted major news purveyors in the region to express their concerns and to ask that journalists bear in mind advice offered in "Reporting on Suicide: Recommendations for the Media," issued by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2001. The document is filled with common-sense guidelines that precious few Thompson chroniclers have followed.

At one point, the report states that "celebrity deaths by suicide are more likely than non-celebrity deaths to produce imitation" -- a theory supported by this case, since Thompson idolized and emulated Ernest Hemingway, who also ended his life with a gun. Later, it cautions that "although suicides by celebrities will receive prominent coverage, it is important not to let the glamour of the individual obscure any mental health problems or use of drugs." Reporter John Aguilar struck this balance in a February 21 Rocky Mountain News roundup that leavened compliments with comments from "a source close to the family," who called Thompson "a raging addict and an abusive man." But a February 22 Denver Post piece about Aspenites' reaction to Thompson's demise was far more typical. Under the heading "Guns, Gonzo and Whiskey," scribes Nancy Lofholm and Troy Hooper made passing reference to suggestions that Thompson had been "mentally struggling" with health-related matters in recent years, devoting far more space to wacky tales of firearms-fueled silliness recounted by bar patrons swilling "Molson and Chivas." And, obviously, no in-depth discussion of suicide found its way into a March 19 Rocky account of a plan to build "an upside-down, sculpted mushroom perched on a 150-foot-high, double-thumbed fist" capable of firing Thompson's ashes into the Woody Creek breeze. The article, which read almost like a reprint from The Onion, was nearly as funny as arguments that Thompson was a towering prose giant rather than an entertaining character who played the same literary note for over three decades.

In more solemn narratives, Thompson's friends and relatives frequently justified his final action -- a natural inclination among those touched by suicide, since they're left to make sense of what's often inexplicable. For instance, Juan Thompson, Hunter's son, told the Rocky his father was "a warrior, and he went out like a warrior," and Juan's wife, Jennifer Winkel Thompson, added, "He had a lot of courage, and he wasn't afraid to direct his life." Even Gierczak doesn't blame the media for including these opinions, since they're undeniably newsworthy.

Reports on the March 15 suicide of Brandenn Bremmer, a fourteen-year-old prodigy who was a favorite of the Denver media, contained similar rationalizations. The Rocky quoted one of Bremmer's sisters saying, "We do not believe Brandenn was suffering from mental illness or that he was depressedŠ. His mind was too powerful for the limitations of the physical world." In the Post, meanwhile, the boy's mother declared that "what he did was not an act of selfishness, depression or anger." But while the Rocky tacked only a quickie suicide stat to the bottom of its article, Post reporter Kevin Simpson also offered some perspective on teen suicide from Shannon Breitzman, with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Channel 9's Paul Johnson took much the same tack, including interview footage of Jacy Conradt, community-relations coordinator for the Mental Health Association of Colorado, in a package prompted by Bremmer's death. Conradt describes Johnson's approach as "very respectful. It showed an awareness and responsibility in the reporting."

Gierczak hopes other news-gatherers will take a page from Channel 9's book. "This is a serious issue in the mountain states," she says. "We have the seventh-highest suicide rate in the nation here, and that's huge -- absolutely huge. It's something we need to work really hard to bring down." But she fears such efforts may be undermined by reports like those in which Thompson's suicide was portrayed as a bold act of self-control. After all, she says, when famous people die by their own hand, "it's brought out in the largest way, because it's interesting to everybody."

No surprise there.

Back to school: Another person who died by suicide -- Jeff Weise -- would have remained unknown to the country at large if he hadn't slain nine people, including seven at Minnesota's Red Lake High School, before shooting himself on March 21. Yet even though Weise's rampage was the deadliest school shooting since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, the horrific incident hardly dominated national newscasts. The next morning, in an appearance on Fox News, Darrell Scott, whose daughter, Rachel, was killed at Columbine, observed with alarm that the killings were the "third or fourth story" at most outlets, and things didn't change much as the week wore on. The network morning news programs were dominated by Columbine for weeks, but on March 24, near the start of the shows' second hour, Red Lake was ignored in favor of a gardening segment on CBS's Early Show, an interview with the wives of sports stars on Good Morning America, and a Today exposé about "teens and tanning."

There's no single reason that Weise's crimes played third fiddle on many newscasts to debates about Terri Schiavo and Michael Jackson's bad back and taste in pajamas. Red Lake is a remote location, and because it's on a closed Indian reservation whose leaders are doing their best to restrict unfettered access to journalists, getting the story isn't as easy as it was in Littleton. The fact that the Red Lake body count was lower than Columbine's comes into play as well, absurdly enough. It's also possible that many news executives deploying resources feel their audiences will be less interested in the misery of impoverished Native Americans than they were in middle-class Caucasians of the sort who dominated the Columbine casualty list.

The Denver dailies have bucked this trend. The Post dispatched the aforementioned Kevin Simpson to Minnesota, while the Rocky sent three staffers, including columnist Mike Littwin. Granted, the Rocky, which was often guilty of Columbine overdose back in the day, has overplayed its hand at times; "Boy Admired Hitler," the New York Post-style headline that shrieked from the top of its March 23 front page, springs to mind. Still, earnestly focusing on the Red Lake tragedy is far preferable to treating it like an also-ran.


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