What are the crises of journalism? How do they emerge? And what can we learn from Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo response to his era’s journalistic crisis?
The Perpetual Crisis of Journalism
Journalism is the cornerstone of Occidental societies, but it remains imperfect. Interplay between these two attributes creates a constant state of tension; journalists are depended upon to portray societal phenomena in an accurate and truthful manner, but inherent limitations of the trade – conflicts of interest, economic considerations, variation among opinion, and a general limit on the degree of ‘truth’ that can be achieved – push the people to question journalistic integrity and reliability. It would not be unreasonable for a casual observer to conclude that journalism is in a state of perpetual crisis.
Crises of journalism have varying causes and manifest themselves in diverse ways, but certain pervasive elements can be identified. Importantly, most crises occur during times of rapid structural evolution of media systems and communication methods, which create asymmetry between journalistic institutions and media systems.
Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director of the Reuters Institute of Journalism at the University of Oxford, has created a tripartite typology of crises in journalism. (1) Economic crises, where the mere existence of the mass media industry undermines journalism as an essential and viable occupation; (2) Professional crises, concerning the very essence of journalism. What exactly is it? And how does it differ from other professions? And lastly, (3) Crises of confidence, where the mutually interdependent relationship between journalists and the public is called into question. An important omission from Dr. Kleis Nielsen’s typology is a crisis of demand. Historical precedent andthe current state of journalism strongly indicate an unwavering public desire for professional and institutionalized news reporting.
Unprecedented in Proportion, not in Nature
Today’s crisis in journalism is primarily a result of rapid technological advance, which has made the dissemination of information (and disinformation) easier than ever before by giving every voice a global platform. A 2017 study by the Institute for Public Relations found that migration towards digital and social media, paired with slow adoption of cross-platform communication by large news outlets, resulted in an informant vacuum. Independent social media influencers, unbounded by standard procedure, were quick to fill this gap.
The dynamic and unregulated nature of digital media has forced journalists into an informational free-for-all, where they must compete with media personalities and small independent news sources for an audience. This competition is not only fueled by the journalist’s mission to interpret and transmit information to the public, but also because in this new medium, news outlets are financially dependent on digital viewership to generate advertisement revenue.
Journalists and media personalities are two groups whose methods and goals should ideally remain distinct. Competition for the same audience is slowly blurring the line by pitching journalist’s incentives towards those of influencers. Professional and financial dependence on mass-media viewership has compelled journalists to pursue unnecessarily hyperbolic narratives, use emotionally charged language, and take extreme positions. Ultimately, we are left with terrific stories, little regard for facts, and an unnavigable jungle of information.
The recent decline of trust towards the news industry is not, however, without a silver lining. Our crisis may be of unprecedented proportion, but it is not unprecedented in nature. Similar trends can be observed in the late 20s and 30s during the “golden age of radio,” and in the late 50s and 60s during the “golden age of television.” During these periods, the more daring writers overcame journalistic inertia and pushed the profession’s boundaries outward.
When the Going Gets Weird, the Weird Turn Pro!
Considering the current dialogue regarding the importance of entertainment value in journalism, we can draw multiple parallels with the popularization television news and the reactionary emergence of New Journalism, and perhaps its most unique, albeit short-lived subgenre, Gonzo Journalism.
Hoping to make news reporting more engaging, writers of New Journalism rejected the foundational dictum of Traditional Journalism that “the journalist should be invisible.” They abandoned ‘appropriate’ literary techniques in favor of subjective journalism, and adopted a doctrine of intense reporting, whereby journalists immersed themselves in the events they sought to write about, often becoming part of the story and even experimenting with first-person reportage.
Faced with a professional crisis, journalist (or fiction writer depending on who you ask) Hunter S. Thompson switched from a highly procedural definition of journalism, to one that focused on a goal, leaving procedure to each individual journalist. Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism had one goal, the attainment of “absolute truth,” which he himself described as a “rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” Inspired by Faulkner’s idea that “fiction is often the best fact,” Thompsonchallenged the false equivalence between ‘truth-seeking’ and ‘objectivity-seeking;’ and called out the view that objectivity is the solekey to unlocking ‘the truth.’ For him, purely factual and objective accounts were detrimental to conveying messages – the business of reporters, not of ‘real’ journalists – and strict objectivity was ultima Thule, a pipedream.
While Gonzo Journalism has its limitations, Thompson showed its potential by successfully capturing the essence of various matters of considerable public interest. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 is a hallmark of campaign journalism. Thompson reports on Richard Nixon re-election campaign, from forgettable rallies to national conventions, all in blazing fashion. Hell’s Angels is a deep dive into America’s largest motorcycle gang and crime syndicate. The novel is an account of Thompson’s first-hand experiences living and riding with the gang. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s most famous work, is a brilliantly outrageous exposé of the 60s youth counterculture and the collapsed American Dream.
Being captivated by the idea of explaining the world beyond what the eye can see, Thompson found an inherent conflict between remaining objective and being truthful. Most things are more complicated than they appear, complicated in ways that do not allow for a simple binary judgement. By incorporating experiences from his and his acquaintances’ lives, Thompson was able to explore the world from a more ‘human’ point of view and offered a deeper understanding of the hidden emotions and interaction behind ‘the news.’ Responding to a crisis of confidence by directly placing yourself within the story is rather dangerous but proved an efficient solution. By abandoning the safety of his desk and removing the veil of anonymity that often delegitimizes journalist’s accounts, Thompson forged personal bonds with his audience, reminiscent of today’s bonds between social media personalities and their ‘followers.’ Hari Kunzru aptly describes Thompson as a “moralist…one who often makes himself ugly to expose the ugliness he sees around him.”
Solving the economic crisis of journalism is perhaps where Gonzo Journalism was most successful. By abandoning the limitations of Traditional Journalism, Thompson and his contemporaries were able to craft enthralling stories which captivated wider audiences, all of this without sacrificing the pursuit of ‘absolute truth.’ Tom Wolfe, another prominent journalist of the time, described Fear and Loathing as a “scorching epochal sensation,” which is “dead serious at its core.” A stark contrast with the mild entertainment value of today’s journalism. And a more fruitful solution than resorting to alarmism for the sake of viewership.
Hunter S. Thompson approach – comprising of humorous exaggeration, vulgar imagery, and first-hand experiences, intended to pull back the curtain on the hidden realities of society – reveals how much room remains for uniqueness in journalism. Thompson showed that, on certain topics, unorthodox approaches to journalism can communicate as much meaning as the objective ‘traditional’ approach. Call it fiction, if you want, but acknowledge that his avant-garde style never failed to capture the essence of things, and after all, is that not what journalism is about?
The cover picture was taken by Don Sniegowski and is available under the CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic).