I was going to write about how Batman is a crazy person who attempted to change the world around him through some pretty extreme measures, but in light of recent events, decided to change the focus of conversation. We don’t need to change the topic much, though.
Thompson’s birthday was this past Wednesday — he would’ve been 75. He was known as the founder of Gonzo Journalism, a style in which he relayed his own personal experiences within a story to create the setting on which he would be reporting.
It was revolutionary because, until that point, journalism was all straight facts and passive observation. One of the first commandments of being a reporter — even today — is never to influence the outcome. Thompson threw himself into the mix to an extent that his participation provided the catalyst, occurrence and outcome of the stories he often reported.
Sometimes he walked a dangerous line. Reporters, especially the younger crowd, often lean towards more liberal stances on a lot of issues. Thompson was a New Journalist who took a suitcase full of drugs into the middle of the desert to cover a race. This is an extreme we can talk about now, laugh about and say, “Haha, that guy was crazy, eh?” but few would want to replicate.
"We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers...and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.
Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can." — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
For his time, Thompson did everything right to shake things up and break down some of the slow-moving, backwards-thinking restrictions standing in the way of a good story, but no one had ever done it before. Today, Thompson’s actions would cause a lot of modern journalists to lose credibility. No one wants to see Anderson Cooper take a fistful of unlabeled uppers and downers and try to cover a political debate.
Part of his charm, however, was that Thompson was often full of it while telling his stories. He was an unreliable narrator, someone who could give you fact mixed with fiction and someone who could tell a great story. But his stories were allowed to breathe. Today, the atmosphere in journalism is stifling. Everyone knew to take his stories with a grain of salt. Here, instant access to information and a billion watchful eyes online are all just waiting to instantly rip apart anything you might say that’s even slightly incorrect. There’s no appreciation for spinning a good yarn.
Thompson was a great journalist. Anyone who read Hell's Angels knows the extent to which Thompson would involve himself with nefarious types, but he always managed to live to tell about it later. That style probably wouldn’t work today. Not because it wasn’t the right way, but because the climate for journalism has changed and anyone else who tried to replicate it would just feel like they were copying.
Sure, we’ve got media outlets today who freely make up facts, change the news to suit their opinions, literally pull facts and figures out of midair. But they do it to sway the minds of the undereducated or the unquestioning. Thompson spun tales in an attempt to make you more closely examine life.
He was one-of-a-kind. Happy birthday, Gonzo.