“Donald Trump is an idiot”. “The Cleveland Cavaliers are just too arrogant to admit they made a mistake”. “Madonna is not a queen of pop, she ruined it”. These and similar headlines have become the norm in journalism nowadays.
“Just the facts”, and “facts are sacred” is no longer a norm associated with journalism. Some 40 or 50 years ago, it was unthinkable for a journalist to write an article based on opinions. He or she had to have some hard-core facts to back up his/hers story. Nowadays, not so much. Gonzo journalism has taken over the media world.
The style was popularized in the 1970s by Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist who once famously said “If I’d written the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people, including me, would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism”. So, what is Gonzo journalism and how it is affecting the media nowadays?
Two aspects are key in Gonzo journalism. The two postulates are “becoming part of the story” and “exposing the truth by lying”. Gonzo made not telling the truth an acceptable norm in journalism. The style has been used to validate “assumptions” and prove greater points.
In its purest form, gonzo journalism is a style where the journalists writes without claims of objectivity, and does so in a first-person narrative. The reporter writes from personal experience, personal emotions and is the total opposite of traditional journalism. Gonzo strives for personal approach to the story and throws the facts and objectivity through the windows. A gonzo written article is rich with humor, sarcasm, profanity, and exaggeration.
The best way to describe the style is by going back to Thompson and his writing in his “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” book. In it, he describes an event, writing “But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in LasVegas”. Traditional journalists wouldn’t even dare to write a claim like that, not without facts verified by a third party. But Thompson did it, and journalism is richer because of that.
Let’s take a look at a headline form the World War II, a period when Gonzo was not known to the media. Back in those days of traditional journalism, a headline in the American newspapers read “Japanese surrender: World War II ends”. Can you imagine how would the headline read in gonzo style?
As we saw, Thompson rightfully said that he might have ended in prison. The reason was simple, telling the world “someone was a drug addict”, without any harsh facts, calls for vilification prosecution. But thanks to several international laws, freedom of speech is essential human right.
Freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, and many regional laws that countries enforce to be in line with the Universal declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration was proclaimed on 10 December 1948, and in the preamble, it states “human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people”. Later, in Article 2, it states “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.
We mentioned that gonzo journalism has helped newspapers and media today to get the truth out. Sometimes, the truth is more than the facts that are presented to us, and an example of Thompson’s is again “spot on”.
During the 1971 Republican National Convention, Thompson became a full participator in the event, not just observer. He was attending the convention with his friend and fellow journalist Ron Rosenbaum, but threw him under the bus the first chance he got. The people at the convention, during a Nixon Youth riot were yellowing “No press”. Thompson also said “no press, get that bastard out of here, no press allowed”, referring clearly to Rosenbaum. He explained that he explained that he was a political observer more than he was a journalist. It was those lengths that define gonzo journalism. Had Thompson stayed with his friend, and out of the convention, he would never be able to get the inside information he needed to make his story work, gonzo style.
The biggest risk with gonzo journalism is speculation. Once you throw away the facts in the story, it becomes pure speculation and a subjective view on the matter. But in an era where protests, wars, riots, and tensions are becoming part of the everyday life, we need exactly gonzo journalism to get the story out.
Why? Because writing about a protest, a war, a tension, a riot or similar situation is just impossible without being part of it. And gonzo stimulates and encourages exactly that, becoming part of the problem and the solution, becoming an active participant in the event, not just a passive viewer and observer.
Understanding the nuances of the tension, the protest, and the crisis is crucial to the success of the story, and it requires patience. The best university research, as every professor will tell you is rooted in participation. Journalists have become participants, not just observers, and that is a good thing.
Of course, as long as the story doesn’t exaggerate everything to the point it becomes a Hollywood movie. Gonzo style tends to favor exaggeration, and there is a thin line, one that journalists are walking every day. But there is a reason why BBC, CNN and other mayor networks are sending journalists in the midst of the action, to report from the scene.