The great Hunter S. Thompson is probably rolling in his grave, as SF Weekly editor Mark Segal Kemp has defended the controversial San Francisco Examiner/SF Weekly decision to hire Jay Mariotti as sports director as “in the spirit of gonzo.” That’s highly problematic, but it’s not even the worst part of Segal Kemp’s piece. That would be his attempt to downplay the domestic violence accusations against Mariotti and say they’re unrelated to sports:
Here’s the deal: Of course we know about Mariotti’s troubled legal history. We know he was accused of domestic violence and that he pleaded “no contest” and got probation for it. But we didn’t bring Mariotti here to write about domestic violence. We brought him here to write about sports. And he’s a terrific sports writer.
The details of the charges brought against Mariotti and his no-contest plea have been covered here before, and they’ll spark their own debate about if he should have been hired at all (something that’s also come up before), but Segal Kemp’s claim that “We didn’t bring Mariotti here to write about domestic violence. We brought him here to write about sports.” is incredibly dumb in 2015. Domestic violence is an important issue facing sports in 2015, and perhaps particularly so in San Francisco, where former 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald has been at the center of a domestic violence controversy this past year. McDonald was arrested and charged with felony domestic violence last August, and unlike other players suspended for their off-field incidents (Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson in particular), he was allowed to keep playing despite substantial protests. The charges were eventually dropped thanks to “insufficient evidence,” which isn’t uncommon in domestic violence cases, but the team released him in December thanks to a “pattern of poor decision making” after he was accused of sexual assault in a different incident. He’s since signed in Mariotti’s old city, Chicago, and the Bears are taking a lot of heat over that.
McDonald’s case is just one of many similar ones in pro sports these days, and it’s an issue that can’t be ignored. Saying that “we didn’t bring Mariotti here to write about domestic violence” downplays how significant domestic violence is in sports, and it raises the question of what will happen if there’s another incident involving a San Francisco athlete. How can Mariotti cover that with any credibility given his own history? Domestic violence is a major issue in the world, and ignoring it by saying “he’s just here to write about sports” is exceptionally problematic.
That’s not the only troubling thing in this piece, though. Consider Segal Kemp’s claim that Mariotti’s “bringing his own special kind of sports gonzo,” a direct comparison to the legendary Thompson and one that’s way off base. Segal Kemp worked with Thompson at Rolling Stone in the 1990s, and he ties Mariotti’s hire into larger thoughts about what he plans to do with SF Weekly:
Let me back up and introduce myself: I’m the new editor of SF Weekly. I’ve been here a couple of months already, but I wanted to take this time to say hello and offer some of my thoughts on journalism and writers and papers and websites. We’re going to be doing bold things here. We’re going to be doing things you may like, things you may hate, and things you may be neutral about. Frankly, we’d rather you like them or hate them.
I told the story about Thompson not because we plan to return to some old ideas about gonzo journalism, but because we’re going to try to dust off the spirit of gonzo now and then and do things that haven’t been done in a while — maybe never. Because if there was one thing about gonzo journalism in its prime, it’s that it was never boring. Thompson was a mess, but he was never dull.
Which leads me to the guy on the cover of this issue: sports writer Jay Mariotti. He’s a friggin’ lightning rod, hated by some, loved by others. He’s become a pariah in some quarters, and a cause célèbre to those who think he’s been treated unfairly.
Beginning this week, Mariotti will be bringing his own special kind of sports gonzo to SF Weekly occasionally, and to our sister publication, the Examiner, more than occasionally.
We think you’re going to read him, whether you like him or not.
Hiring Mariotti is definitely unconventional, but presenting it as in “the spirit of gonzo” is a bit much. For all as Mariotti likes to set himself up as the last incorruptible man and the only one speaking truth to power about ESPN, sports owners and more (his introductory SF Weekly column that went up Wednesday is full of that, when it’s not spouting San Francisco clichés, calling himself “Diddy by the Bay” or downplaying his legal issues), he doesn’t have much in common with Thompson and other famed gonzo journalism practitioners. Mariotti is largely famed as a hot-take artist, part of what made him a key Around The Horn contributor and a prominent columnist at both newspapers and AOL FanHouse (may it rest in peace). He’s not really breaking new sports ground (as Thompson did with pieces like 1974’s “Fear And Loathing At The Super Bowl“, a scathing indictment of how the NFL was covered and one that still rings true today), and he’s not really doing the unconventional and detailed reporting Thompson did for some of his best work (such as Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail, his incredible 12 months of coverage of the 1972 election).
Indeed, Segal Kemp’s piece seems more like a defense of clickbait than a defense of gonzo. He’s not talking about writing pieces from new angles or doing different kinds of reporting; he’s talking about having Mariotti be a “lightning rod” and do what he can to attract hate-clicks as well as fans. That shouldn’t be a problem (except perhaps over the long term; there’s only so much outrage the internet can spend on Mariotti, of course), so this might help draw attention to SF Weekly and the Examiner. Whether that will be worth the substantial $150,000 salary they’re reportedly paying Mariotti is an open quesiton, but it also shows the issues with a click-based advertising paradigm. Branding this as “gonzo” is highly problematic, though, and that’s just one of the many issues with bringing in Mariotti. SF Weekly can try all they want to justify his hire, but they haven’t done a particularly good job so far.