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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

18 JULY, 2013

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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21 MAY, 2013

Editorial Manners 101: Raymond Chandler Tells The Atlantic Off

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“Editors do not make enemies by rejecting manuscripts, but by the way they do it.”

“Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards,” Bill Watterson admonished in his timeless 1990 speech on creative integrity — but how can you be certain of when you’re slipping into that dangerous territory, and what can you do to reclaim your own creative integrity?

The storm of rejection is a common trope in the life of the aspiring writer approaching magazines for publication, but it takes a special kind of creative courage for an author to reject, or at least tell off, a magazine, and to do so out of principle — especially when that principle prioritizes purpose over prestige and meaning over money. From the 1981 anthology Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler (public library) — which gave us Chandler’s collected insights on writing, an invaluable addition to famous writers’ advice on the craft — comes a delightfully eloquent literary put-down from celebrated novelist and cat-lover Raymond Chandler. On January 21, 1945, Chandler penned this irate and somewhat ambivalent letter to Charles Morton, his editor at The Atlantic Monthly, articulating his indignation over certain editorial manners and his frustration of having his profound desire to write for love rather than money abused:

Dear Charles,

I have one complain to make, and it is an old one — the cold silence and the stalling that goes on when something comes in that is not right or is not timely. This I resent and always shall. It does not take weeks to tell a man (by pony express) that his piece is wrong when he can be told in a matter of days that it is right. Editors do not make enemies by rejecting manuscripts, but by the way they do it, by the change of atmosphere, the delay, the impersonal note that creeps in. I am a hater of power and of trading, and yet I live in a world where I have to trade brutally and exploit every item of power I may possess. But in dealing with the Atlantic, there is none of this. I do not write for you for money or for prestige, but for love, the strange lingering love of a world wherein men may think in cool subtleties and talk in the language of almost forgotten cultures. … I like that world and I would on occasion sacrifice my sleep and my rest and quite a bit of money to enter it gracefully. That is not appreciated. It is something you cannot buy. It is something which, even when the gesture is imperfect, deserves respect. I can make $5000 in two days (sometimes), but I spend weeks trying to please the Atlantic for $250 or whatever it is. Do you think I want money? As for prestige, what is it? What greater prestige can a man like me, (not too greatly gifted but understanding) have than to have taken a cheap, shoddy, and utterly lost kind of writing and have made of it something that intellectuals claw each other about? What more could I ask except the leisure and skill to write a couple of novels of the sort I want to write and to have waiting for them a public I have made myself? Certainly, the Atlantic cannot give that to me.

All the best,

Ray

And yet Chandler apparently gets over his gripes as he sticks with the Atlantic — but he remains scrumptiously crabby with the whole operation and grumbles about his copy-editor at the magazine in another letter to editor Edward Weeks two years later, on January 18, 1947:

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.

Pair with Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling’s rants against the popular press.

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17 MAY, 2013

Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling Critique the Press

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“There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.”

Modern history is peppered with public intellectuals speaking up against the follies of popular media, including E. B. White, Einstein, and David Foster Wallace. But among the most articulate critics of the press are Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling, who famously met in 1889.

On March 31, 1873, Twain — adviser of little girls, recipient of audacious requests, cat-hater — gave a talk before the Monday Evening Club at Hartford, titled “License of the Press” and critiquing the state of the popular press. It was later included in the altogether indispensable volume The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain (public library). Though his admonitions target the newspaper as the archetypal press, it’s remarkable to consider how prescient his remarks are in the context of today’s online media. Twain writes:

[The press] has scoffed at religion till it has made scoffing popular. It has defended official criminals, on party pretexts, until it has created a United States Senate whose members are incapable of determining what crime against law and the dignity of their own body is, they are so morally blind, and it has made light of dishonesty till we have as a result a Congress which contracts to work for a certain sum and then deliberately steals additional wages out of the public pocket and is pained and surprised that anybody should worry about a little thing like that.

I am putting all this odious state of things upon the newspaper, and I believe it belongs there — chiefly, at any rate. It is a free press — a press that is more than free — a press which is licensed to say any infamous thing it chooses about a private or a public man, or advocate any outrageous doctrine it pleases. It is tied in no way. The public opinion which should hold it in bounds it has itself degraded to its own level.

There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’s speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.

[…]

It seems to me that just in the ratio that our newspapers increase, our morals decay. The more newspapers the worse morals. Where we have one newspaper that does good, I think we have fifty that do harm. We ought to look upon the establishment of a newspaper of the average pattern in a virtuous village as a calamity.

After bemoaning the downward spiral of newspaper integrity over the previous 30 years, Twain takes Raymond Chandler’s belief that “the reading public is intellectually adolescent at best” to an even more unforgiving degree:

It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people — who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations — do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.

Among us, the newspaper is a tremendous power. It can make or mar any man’s reputation. It has perfect freedom to call the best man in the land a fraud and a thief, and he is destroyed beyond help.

He then foretells with astounding, uncompromising accuracy the “sponsored content” and “native advertising” debates of today and laments:

In the newspapers of the West you can use the editorial voice in the editorial columns to defend any wretched and injurious dogma you please by paying a dollar a line for it.

He ends with his signature package of keen cultural observation tied with a bow of irreverent satire:

I have a sort of vague general idea that there is too much liberty of the press in this country, and that through the absence of all wholesome restraint the newspaper has become in a large degree a national curse, and will probably damn the Republic yet. There are some excellent virtues in newspapers, some powers that wield vast influences for good; and I could have told all about these things, and glorified them exhaustively — but that would have left you gentlemen nothing to say.

More than a quarter century later, in September of 1899 — a decade after he had met Twain and had his fanboy moment — Kipling penned a poem of similar sentiment. Titled “The Press”, it is one of fifty newly discovered Kipling poems found in the recently released hardback set The Cambridge Edition of the Poems of Rudyard Kipling, Volume 3 (public library). It echoes the heart of Twain’s concerns with a satirical tone, perhaps ironically, more typical of Twain and his own little-known verses:

The Press

Why don’t you write a play –
Why don’t you cut your hair?
Do you trim your toe-nails round
Or do you trim them square?
Tell it to the papers,
Tell it every day.
But, en passant, may I ask
Why don’t you write a play?

What’s your last religion?
Have you got a creed?
Do you dress in Jaeger-wool
Sackcloth, silk or tweed?
Name the books that helped you
On the path you’ve trod.
Do you use a little g
When you write of God?

Do you hope to enter
Fame’s immortal dome?
Do you put the washing out
Or have it done at home?
Have you any morals?
Does your genius burn?
Was you wife a what’s its name?
How much did she earn?

Had your friend a secret
Sorrow, shame or vice –
Have you promised not to tell
What’s your lowest price?
All the housemaid fancied
All the butler guessed
Tell it to the public press
And we will do the rest.

Why don’t you write a play?

Whether or not Twain’s essay was a direct influence on Kipling’s poem, of course, will never be known, for the anatomy of influence is a complicated matter. But what we do know is that all great art builds on what came before, every “new” idea a combination of past fragments, and creativity is a slot-machine of knowledge end experience. After all, it was Twain himself who told Helen Keller that “all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.”

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