UMass Boston's independent, student-run newspaper

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ask Bobby #12
September 25, 2023

The Legacy of Gonzo

The Legacy of Gonzo
Courtesy of HST Archives

Four years ago I took a journalism class at a community college, out of disgust for the white bread private school my parents had shelled out thirty grand to send me to.

Indifferent to the class, it’s content; the professor assigned us a book report, yes a college-level book report, on anything we could relate back to journalism.

I chose Fear and Loathing: The Strange and Terrible Saga of Hunter S. Thompson by Paul Perry.

I picked it because the cover looked odd and I had some dim recollection of Johnny Depp and hallucinogenic drugs, two things that happened to intrigue me -at the time.

Half way into the book I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

Before that, journalists were the idiots on TV with fake smiles and equally fake hair. They had suits and ties and boring faces. They wrote about the budget deficit and chased ambulances and kittens trapped in trees.

Thompson changed my mind. He roared out of Louisville, a prep school castoff and attended Colombia University, the holy grail of j-school.

He was a reporter for the likes of Rolling Stone, The Nation, and The National Observer, to name a few.

He could eat some mescaline, cover a presidential election or a sporting event, and still have time to drink the Hell’s Angels under the table.

His style, dubbed “Gonzo Journalism” for his overt infusion of himself into the story, flipped the traditional role of the journalist from observer to active participant and sometimes even saboteur.

He was the closest thing to Kurt Cobain or [insert tragic rock icon here] that journalism has seen or will ever see.

If Walter Cronkite was the newsman of the greatest generation, Thompson’s voice represented the subsequent counterculture that rebelled against that generation.

Hunter S. Thompson died Sunday of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on his Colorado compound, living well past the life expectancy of anyone who did as many drugs, lived or worked as hard.

Today, as the objectivity and ethical practices of the media often come into question, maybe we should look to Thompson for respite.

Rather than agonize over ideological slants and objectivity, why not embrace them? Why not err on the side of the human experience? Why devote so much time to pretenses of objectivity and professionalism, two often-elusive ideals?

I’m not saying that the whole idea of separation of journalist and subject should be tossed aside. I’m not saying anyone ought to abandon The AP stylebook, or that they ought to hold hands with their corporate advertisers or move in to the Lincoln bedroom.

What I am saying is that these two entities do not always have to be mutually exclusive.

I’d rather take the word of a journalist embedded in the trenches of war, than one strapped to his desk in a high-rise.

I’d rather read a story about the Hell’s Angels written by Thompson who got tanked in the bar stool next to them, than from some stuffed shirt reporter afraid to cross some self-imposed line.

Scott Martelle of the Los Angeles Times wrote of Thompson’s campaign coverage during the 1970s, “It was a lesson for me, with its indictment of pack journalism and the sense of the presumption that can sometimes skew journalists’ vision. And it was a lesson that the mainstream sometimes gets it wrong, the fringe sometimes gets it right, and that the only proper course – in journalism and life – is to question yourself and authority.”

Journalism at it’s best is story telling, and who better to tell a story than someone who lived it and shaped it, and just happens to write it.

I understand the importance of an unachievable goal for objectivity, but the value of having a legitimate voice and a compelling story should not be over-shadowed by the rules that guide it’s composition.

Hunter Thompson wrote with such passion for his subjects, because he became them and had a vested interest in understanding them. That passion manifested into a brutally honest, raw, and comedic style that, for both information’s and entertainment’s sake, could blow the doors off of any straight-laced news story.

Let’s hope that in the wake of recent controversies within the media that an adherence to standards doesn’t smother the kind of innovative and compelling journalistic writing that Thompson pioneered.