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Fear and Loathing in Modern Media: Hunter S. Thompson on Journalism, Politics, and the Subjective

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“There is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

An iconoclastic hero of the written word, Hunter S. Thompson (July 18, 1937–February 20, 2005) endures as the godfather of “gonzo journalism” — that once-radical, now-ubiquitous style of New Journalism that does away with claims of capital-O objectivity and instead inserts the author into the story as an active first-person narrator. Thompson, in fact, was characteristically unafraid of vocalizing his opinions as a keen observer of and lively, if not hedonistic, participant in culture. But his opinions of journalism in particular he held and proselytized with especial zest — what it is and what it ought to be, what pretensions it could use to divest and what moral obligations it should at all costs uphold. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (public library), the fourth volume of his Gonzo Papers originally published in 1994, Thompson admonishes:

There are a lot of ways to practice the art of journalism, and one of them is to use your art like a hammer to destroy the right people — who are almost always your enemies, for one reason or another, and who usually deserve to be crippled, because they are wrong. This is a dangerous notion, and very few professional journalists will endorse it — calling it “vengeful” and “primitive” and “perverse” regardless of how often they might do the same thing themselves. “That kind of stuff is opinion,” they say, “and the reader is cheated if it’s not labelled as opinion.” Well, maybe so. Maybe Tom Paine cheated his readers and Mark Twain was a devious fraud with no morals at all who used journalism for his own foul ends. And maybe H. L. Mencken should have been locked up for trying to pass off his opinions on gullible readers and normal “objective journalism.” Mencken understood that politics — as used in journalism — was the art of controlling his environment, and he made no apologies for it. In my case, using what politely might be called “advocacy journalism,” I’ve used reporting as a weapon to affect political situations that bear down on my environment.

Page from 'Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson.' Click image for details.

But it took Thompson decades to develop his stance, the germ of which can even be felt a 1958 letter to Jerome H. Walker — long before the term “gonzo” was even coined in reference to a 1970 article of Thompson’s — found in the anthology The Proud Highway: The Fear and Loathing Letters Volume I (public library). In the letter, he addresses the subject more obliquely but with the same unequivocal intimation:

Sacrificing good men to journalism is like sending William Faulkner to work for TIME magazine.

In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (public library), published in 1973, he returns to the subject:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here — not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button form the 'Gonzo fist,' which originated in Hunter S. Thompson's 1970 campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado and went on to become an iconic symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

In a 1997 interview for The Atlantic, Thompson reiterates his conviction, but adds a necessary distinction:

If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

Flat-out lying, in fact, is something Thompson attributes to politicians whose profession he likens to a deadly addiction. In Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie, the very title of which speaks to the analogy, he writes:

Not everybody is comfortable with the idea that politics is a guilty addiction. But it is. They are addicts, and they are guilty and they do lie and cheat and steal — like all junkies. And when they get in a frenzy, they will sacrifice anything and anybody to feed their cruel and stupid habit, and there is no cure for it. That is addictive thinking. That is politics — especially in presidential campaigns. That is when the addicts seize the high ground. They care about nothing else. They are salmon, and they must spawn. They are addicts.

Later, he resurrects the junkie analogy in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 and ties it back to journalism:

Anything that gets the adrenalin moving like a 440 volt blast in a copper bathtub is good for the reflexes and keeps the veins free of cholesterol… but too many adrenaline rushes in any given time span has the same effect on the nervous system as too many electro-shock treatments are said to have on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. When a jackrabbit gets addicted to road-running, its only a matter of time before he gets smashed — and when a journalist turns into a politics junkie he will sooner or later start raving and babbling in print about things that only a person who has Been There can possibly understand.

Complement with this fantastic animation of Thompson on the burden of the living and his graphic biography, which was among the best graphic novels and graphic nonfiction of 2012.

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