Whiskey Business: The (un)Professional Life of Hunter S. Thompson

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson was sent by Sports Illustrated to cover the fourth annual Mint 400 race in Nevada, resulting in what is often considered to be his most prominent work, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Here are its iconic opening lines:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like ‘I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive…’ and suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: ‘Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?’” (p. 3)

At this point in his career, Thompson was already known for a style that was far from traditional. He coined the term “gonzo” journalism, where one would become so immersed in covering a story that one would have to be a primary figure in the story itself.

Thompson is praised as a “counterculture icon,” a “cult hero,” a “giant of the written word,” and his work has inspired countless others. He will forever go down in history as the father of gonzo journalism. However, if it were in today’s market environment, Thompson’s career as a professional journalist might have been over before it even began.

“He was not afraid to rock the boat, and to challenge the establishment, and to express himself in unique and radical and sometimes shocking ways.” – Former president Jimmy Carter on Hunter S. Thompson

In 1955, before his career in writing took off, and after “a long string of brushes with the law over incidents of underage drinking, theft, and vandalism,” Thompson was sentenced to sixty days in prison for a mugging. While today, most establishments would be hesitant to even consider hiring someone with that kind of rap sheet, after a brief stint in the Navy, Thompson was able to find work as a journalist.

Over the next couple of years, Thompson developed a “casual, subjective, often comic style that tended to blur the line between fiction and fact.” His breakthrough happened in 1965, when The Nation hired him to write an article on the California biker gang Hell’s Angels. He spent a year “riding, drinking, and partying,” with the Angels before being violently thrown from the group. In the end, Thompson was unsure if he “was doing research on the Hell’s Angels or being slowly absorbed by them.” The resulting novel, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, earned Thompson widespread renown. However, in today’s world of journalism, the fact that Thompson was practically a member of Hell’s Angels and the idea that he was “absorbed by them,” from a journalistic point of view might be considered a tremendous conflict of interest.

According to the Society of Professional Journalists, journalists should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” Among other things, this means one should never use a friend as a source for a news story. Credibility is vital in media, and by undermining the credibility of a source, one also undermines the credibility of oneself and one’s employer.

“Editors generally agree reporters should not hold public office, either elected or appointed. Most editors also agree reporters do not serve as party officials or help with anyone’s election campaign.” – Reporting for the Media, pg. 161.

Consequently, editors would agree that Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, as well as his open support of George McGovern in the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections constituted inappropriate behavior for a journalist.

On the other hand, gonzo journalism claims no objectivity, since it relies heavily on the perceptions of the author. Thompson did not believe in complete objectivity in the media. Instead, he believed that “objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long.” However, objectivity remains to this day one of the backbones of news coverage. Often people don’t trust news organizations that they believe might have a hidden agenda.

Likewise, the public might not trust a reporter whose perception of reality had been altered in some way. Thompson was known for his love of liquor and drugs, from marijuana to LSD to Budweiser. It is apparent in Fear and Loathing that Thompson preferred to work under the influence.

“I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Of course, the drug-induced escapades such as described in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Thompson’s particular style of gonzo journalism just would not be the same without the effects of substance abuse. However, does this not jeopardize his integrity as a reporter? Thompson himself admitted to finding the book to be “a failed experiment in gonzo journalism.” He had set out to record events exactly as they happened, but ended up with something that tiptoed on the border between fact and fiction. His work as a whole, according to Tim Crouse, was “a very particular hybrid of very clear-minded, accurate, straight reportage, and then sometimes flat-out fantasy. It was all run together, and some people found it hard to tell the fantasy from the other stuff.”

Perhaps this is where gonzo journalism draws its strength. Distorted facts and a lack of objectivity allow the author to portray his or her message in a more straightforward fashion.

“These characteristics ultimately amalgamate into a journalistic piece that can tout not only honesty and fairness–both of which are critical parts of the fundamental journalistic purpose–but also a deep, gritty authenticity often lacking in other journalistic pieces. Gonzo journalism is not only the most effective method of coverage in certain circumstances, but indeed sometimes the only possible method of information collection and dissemination.” – “When the Going Gets Weird” p. 5

On the other hand, one cannot quite call this “journalism,” since the basic principle of all journalism is accuracy, and while it may have been honest and fair, Thompson’s work was often far from accurate and far from responsible.

“Being a journalist is a privilege and a responsibility. Journalists exercise social responsibility if they want the industry to thrive. […] you must be accountable for the choices you make because journalists tell people the news and information they need to make decisions about their lives.” – Reporting for the Media pg. 4

Responsible journalists adhere to a code of ethics. For example, they know it is wrong to plagiarize or fabricate information. Today, plagiarism or fabrication is more than enough to get one fired, and might be enough to earn one a lawsuit. Journalists who do such things are “lying to the public […] they are stealing the public’s trust and the newspaper’s credibility.” (Reporting for the Media pg. 157)

Thus, it is remarkable that Thompson was able to uphold his status as a groundbreaking journalist after the presidential election campaign of 1972, during which he falsely implied in a story for Rolling Stone that vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie was addicted to an exotic hallucinogenic drug called ibogaine.

“I couldn’t believe people took this stuff seriously. People really believed that Muskie was eating ibogaine. I never said he was. I said there was a rumor in Miluakee that he was, which was true. I started the rumor in Miluakee.” – Hunter S. Thompson

While it may be true that today’s journalists “act more ethically and professionally than their predecessors,” the fact that Thompson mislead the public in such a way should have shattered the public’s trust in him and destroyed his reputation as a credible journalist.

However, despite his blatant lack of professionalism, Thompson was able to still find work as a journalist. In 1974, three years after the publication of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson was sent to cover a boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Instead of covering the fight, Thompson decided to give away his tickets and spend the afternoon drinking and smoking by the hotel pool.

“This was called the biggest fucked-up journalistic story in the history of journalism, that we really didn’t get a story,” said Ralph Steadman, who illustrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and accompanied Thompson to Zaire. At this point in his career, Thompson’s fame had begun to get the better of him. He was no longer able to simply observe a story or participate in it. As a celebrity, he was often the center of attention; he often was the story.

“I used to be able to stand in the back and observe stories and absorb them. Now the minute I appear at a story, then I become a part of it. First time I went to a press conference with Jimmy Carter, I had to sign more autographs than Carter signed.”

– Hunter S. Thompson

In the end, it was Thompson’s virtue that became his downfall. By participating in his stories, which is one of the main principles of gonzo journalism, he became a part of them. He became the news he was meant to report, destroying the boundaries between narrator and narrative that exist in journalism for a reason – to ensure fairness and accuracy. While some people, including Thompson, may ultimately believe that fiction often holds more truth than non-fiction, fiction and fabrication have no place in today’s world of journalism. Thus, the gonzo style of reporting that Thompson pioneered should not be considered a legitimate style of journalism, but instead should constitute a genre in and of itself, somewhere between fact and fiction. Likewise, by today’s standards, Hunter S. Thompson might not be considered a professional journalist, but rather an idealistic outlaw.

“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

-Dr. Johnson (opening quote from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

Sources:

http://www.anb.org/articles/16/16-03546.html

https://www.academia.edu/2640684/When_the_Going_Gets_Weird_Gonzo_Journalism_as_an_Effective_Journalistic_Style_in_Comics_and_Otherwise

http://www.beatdom.com/?p=2779

http://www.biography.com/people/hunter-s-thompson-9506260

http://www.biography.com/people/hunter-s-thompson-9506260/videos/hunter-s-thompson-full-episode-2073248652

Bender, John R., Lucinda D. Davenport, Michael W. Drager, and Fred Fedler. Reporting for the Media. 10th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Dir. Alex Gibney. Perf. Hunter S. Thompson. Magnolia Films, 2008. Netflix.

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. New York: Vintage books, 1998.

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3 thoughts on “Whiskey Business: The (un)Professional Life of Hunter S. Thompson

  1. Hi Ari, we went to the same high school and had oodles of fun together. Do you think as a journalist that it is easy to fall into the trap of gonzo journalism? I know personally I find myself often becoming very personally invested in a story and needing to remind myself that I am an impartial third-party. I’d be curious to learn about your experience with that.
    -Daniel Anton

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    1. Sometimes it can be difficult to keep yourself out of the story (and in my view, sometimes you shouldn’t). Here’s a story where I think me editors erred by making me take it out of first person. But I was not high when I worked on the story. 🙂

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  2. Do you think it could be possible that in the near/far future gonzo journalism could actually become more popular? Reality television is popular enough (though I myself hate it) and it takes a personal look into people’s lives much like gonzo journalism allows a journalist to give the audience a personal “culture” experience, through that journalist’s own personal experiences.

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