An Idiot’s Guide to Gonzo Journalism

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Image from Liberty Maniacs

For centuries, we have relied on journalists to report the truth, to inform us of what was going on, to treat us like intelligent people and trust that we can handle the information given to us and make an informed decision on where we stand. In World War I, journalism became a weapon for each side to use, in an attempt to control the global narrative of both print and television. Figures such as Edward R. Murrow became instrumental in standing up to corruption (as with the Senator McCarthy) and the global community’s dependence on them continued to increase.

One of the tenants of journalism until the late 1960s was the idea of objectivity. Journalists were required to extricate themselves from the topic covered, remove all personal feelings and opinions, and report information in the most fair and impartial manner possible in order to allow readers to reach their own conclusions.

In 1970, that changed drastically as the hippie culture of the 1960s began to fade. Hunter S. Thompson, a young man from Kentucky, wrote an article for a short-lived monthly magazine called the Scanlan’s Monthly. The article, titled “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” was the first of its kind in the world of journalism; later referenced as the first instance of Gonzo journalism, a genre now credited to Thompson.

Image from Paris Review

In Gonzo journalism, the point of the article is not impartiality; quite the contrary. This new movement saw the reporter becoming a central character in his/her work, through the use of a first person narrative and an obvious stating of opinions. The genre had broken all existing forms and become something completely new; a reactionary movement to the disillusionment with the love and peace movement of the 1960s.

The power of Gonzo comes from a combination of things, namely a social critique and a level of self-satire. Often the articles would be riddled with sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and even profanity.

The concern with this kind of journalism involved a similar approach to accuracy as normal journalism, although the concern was more to do with personal experiences and emotions. The personality of an article, which ultimately means the personality of the author, was as crucial as the actual subject being discussed.

Thompson based much of his work in Gonzo journalism on a quote by William Faulkner in which he stated that “fiction is often the best fact.” In 1965 (before the appearance of the term Gonzo), Thompson was hired by ‘The Nation,’ one of America’s oldest periodically published weekly magazines, to write a story about the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, which the United States Department of Justice classified as an organized crime syndicate. As a result of this article, Thompson got several book deals and ended up living with the Hell’s Angels for a year.

Image from The Bubble

Unfortunately the relationship between him and the Hell’s Angels disintegrated quickly when they discovered what he was doing and demanded a share in the profits. The relationship ended with Thompson receiving a savage beating from several members with whom he’d spent the year with.

Gonzo journalism would go on to grow, and so would Thompson’s association with it as its pioneer. He wrote many articles and books in the same manner, with several of the books eventually turned into movies. His works include “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “The Rum Diary,” which are both books based on actual experiences; the former about a trip to Las Vegas and how it was turning into a decadent city, and the latter about Thompson’s time in Puerto Rico.

It is true that Gonzo journalism cannot replace traditional journalism. This school of journalism has also been influenced by the school of New Journalism and has paved the way for the Gonzo style to be used in film and art and many other fields. The reason Thompson was drawn to this style was because he believed that objectivity in journalism was a myth, that every writer (even if inadvertently) will leave an indelible mark on their work. Whether one agrees with that or not, it must be admitted that Hunter S. Thompson left his mark on the global industry.

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