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On the influence of Hunter S. Thompson and the nature of objectivity

Kevin Woster Blog 12-1-22.jpg
Kevin Woster

If my memory is correct, I've never read a Hunter S. Thompson book.

I don’t recall reading him in Rolling Stone, either.

I recently read the scathing “He Was a Crook“ obituary for Richard Nixon that Thompson wrote after the former president died in 1994, because somebody posted it for me on social media.

It’s creatively written and entertaining. It’s also sad. I tend not to admire hateful grudges long held. And Thompson held his hate for Nixon well beyond the disgraced president’s serious illnesses and eventually passage into the Great Beyond. Knowing that hasn’t made me want to read him more.

I’ve read some excerpts from Thompson books here and there, although nothing stands out except a few things from the '72 election night and George McGovern in Sioux Falls.

But maybe those fragments of recollection are left from conversations with friends who are big Thompson fans. I’m not sure. But I freshened up those fragments recently by reading an essay called Fear and Loathing: McGovern '72 by Daniel Gerling.

The nicely constructed essay is included in the City of Hustle anthology about Sioux Falls. And a couple of weeks back Gerling, an English professor at Augustana University, discussed the essay and Hunter S. Thompson on In the Moment with Lori Walsh on South Dakota Public Radio.

It was a good discussion, as usual on Lori’s program. And it reflected Gerling’s obvious admiration for Thompson, his writing and the changes his style brought to American journalism. Or at least to some of it.

Many agree with Gerling on Thompson and the effects his “gonzo” style had on journalism, at least as in the way it has been practiced on some news platforms, certain long-form magazines in particular.

I doubt Thompson had much effect on more traditional news outlets, such as the Associated Press or many newspapers. And, off hand, I can’t think of a way Thompson influenced my journalism.

Is objectivity in journalism really an artifice?

Influenced or not, there was something in Gerling’s essay about Thompson that really intrigued me. When he was young, Gerling became a fan of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 and of the “New Journalism for its rejection of the artifice of objectivity in journalism …”

That line stopped me when I read it. The “artifice of objectivity in journalism”? Is objectivity really an artifice in journalism? My knee-jerk reaction was: Of course not. But I want to consider it more in detail in this column.

First, more on New Journalism and perhaps its main creator and purveyor, Hunter S. Thompson. If New Journalism is putting more imagery and emotion into news writing, I certainly have tried to do that. I don’t think I did it because of Thompson, since I didn’t read him.

But maybe he affected the writing of other journalists I did read, and so I might have been influenced indirectly. I was certainly aware of Thompson and had a general understanding of his “gonzo journalism” style, a more personalized style that sometimes took troubling — to me, at least — liberties with fundamental rules of journalism.

Thompson was a highly creative and often-outrageous part of the stories he wrote. And the readers who admire him say that along with fine writing and crazy humor he offered great insights into subjects like the 1972 presidential campaign, life of Hells Angels and the world of Las Vegas and larger truths about America.

Which didn’t mean it was always factual. Or as one of my friend said: “Did everything he wrote actually happen the way he said it did? Probably not. But he was a great writer and he as funny as hell.”

I get that. But the parts that weren’t factual trouble me, even if they were entertaining. And apparently Thompson was willing to record people without telling them and quote people without asking them. Sometimes he might report on a rumor that he started himself. And he was willing to bend the facts to create what he considered to be a larger truth.

So there’s a lot to think about in Thompson’s style. I just never spent much time thinking about it, however, until now.

Trying not to confuse Hunter with Hunter

Wait, that’s not entirely true. I did spend some time thinking about Thompson back in the late 80s and early ‘90s. Actually, I worried about him. Or about his name, at least.

That’s because I was writing news stories and columns for the Rapid City Journal that involved a guy named Hunter Swanson, who was trying to develop a massive garbage dump near Edgemont just off the southern Black Hills.

Hunter Swanson would hate that I used the term “massive garbage dump.” He much preferred “large-scale landfill.” The planned Lonetree Landfill would have shipped trainloads of baled municipal solid waste — garbage — to a disposal site near Edgemont just off the southern edge of the Black Hills.

Swanson, a former oil-company executive and teacher at the Colorado School of Mines, argued that the landfill would be much more carefully designed and managed and safer for the environment than a typical old garbage dump. And I think it would have been, had it ever been built.

It’s just that the idea of burying trainload after trainload of trash from other states didn’t particularly appeal to many South Dakotans, whatever the potential economic benefits it might have brought to the southern Black Hills.

Lonetree was big news for years. There were state hearings and legislative votes and lawsuits and public ballot issues. On this ballot issues, voters in the city of Edgemont and surrounding Fall River County overwhelmingly supported the project. But it was rejected in the statewide vote.

Eventually the proposal for the landfill faltered and died.

Along the way, every time I wrote about Hunter Swanson, I fretted that I would make a mistake and call him Hunter Thompson. A few times I did call him Hunter Thompson in my writing. But it wasn’t a mistake. Not a real mistake, anyway.

As my journalist brother, Terry, liked to point out about brain cramps that end up in a reporter’s copy: “They’re only mistakes if they get in the paper.”

And that’s the truth. It’s the published version that really matters, not the drafts. I’m almost certain that I wrote “Hunter Thompson” several times when I meant “Hunter Swanson.”

Why a reporter can be biased and still be fair

But as far as I can recall, my brain cramps never made it into the Rapid City Journal. Either I caught them as I edited my stories or they were spotted by Managing Editor Steve Miller or night editor Ron Bender or one of the eagle-eyed copy editors overseen by Phyllis Person on the Journal copy desk.

Whichever, my brain cramps on Hunter never got published. That was a good thing, although I think Hunter Swanson would have laughed at such a mistake.

Before we leave the subject of that Hunter, let’s consider objectivity again. I liked Hunter Swanson. I couldn’t help myself. He was smart and witty, with a creatively entrepreneurial brain and pretty astute instincts on the ways of bureaucrats and politicians.

And I was fascinated by his Lonetree proposal. Which didn’t mean I liked it. I didn’t. I couldn’t help myself. Just because we have plenty of wide-open spaces, low rainfall and relatively impermeable soil, didn’t mean I thought we should become a dumping ground for other people’s trash.

So, if I liked Swanson but didn’t like his plan, could I be objective in reporting on the Lonetree proposal? Of course I could. That was my job. And I think Hunter Swanson would tell you I did it fairly.

Reporters can be objective in their reporting without being objective in their thinking. A personal bias doesn’t have to become a reporting bias. And it shouldn’t.

Human beings have biases. So reporters have biases. And we get paid to set those biases aside when they involve a story we’re reporting and writing.

It’s really not that difficult, most of the time, on most stories.

First, some stories don’t have a clearly defined pro and con to begin with. Many do, of course, and many have more than two sides. They have multiple sides.

During my many years as a professional reporter, I didn’t have a strong feeling one way or the other about a lot of the stories I covered. I really didn’t. I could see both sides or multiple sides, and often wasn’t sure which side was the best.

So I could be pretty objective going into many stories, which made it easier to be objective, or fair, in writing those stories.

It’s trickier when you have a bias, of course. But good reporters are aware enough to know when they’re not objective on a person or issue, and they take care to make sure that bias doesn’t affect their larger responsibility of being fair in the story.

It’s not rocket science; it’s being a professional journalist

In some cases, a reporter might be so close to a person or an issue in the story that it’s wise to have another reporter handle it. That’s often more about appearances than it is about whether the reporter can actually be fair. Because he or she probably can be.

I’ve written some pretty tough stories about people I liked and had known well for many years. Those stories were hard to write and hard to live with after they were published. But I think they were fair, or objective.

It’s the story, after all, that matters most to a professional journalist. Or it should be.

I’ve said before that if you find yourself believing that the issue or person you’re covering is more important than the integrity of the story you’re writing, you might be in the wrong business.

That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. I certainly haven’t been.

I failed sometimes to be fair in stories I wrote. That happened more often early in my journalism career, when I felt passionately about issues, thought I knew more than I actually did and wasn’t as concerned as I should have been about being fair.

I wish I could go back and fix some of those stories. They deserved better. They deserved fairness. They deserved objectivity.

So is objectivity an artifice of journalism? It shouldn’t be. And, mostly, I don’t think it is. At least not with people who are truly committed to the journalism profession.

These days I’m more of an opinion writer than a news reporter, so I play by different rules. I don’t have to worry so much about being objective or fair. But old habits die hard.

After one of my recent blog columns was published on the South Dakota Public Broadcasting website, I got an email from one of my sources for the column. He said the column was “much kinder” to one of the politicians mentioned than I was when I was interviewing him about that person.

That made me smile. I can be ]pretty aggressive in interviews, especially with or about politicians. But sitting down in front of the keyboard still brings a sense of responsibility beyond my own feelings.

Words matter. They matter supremely. And words are regularly degraded and misused in our society these days. On social media especially, words are often wielded like blunt instruments to wound and destroy rather than to communicate and inform.

So when I send words out for public consumption, I still feel an obligation to grind down some of the sharp edges of my biases and try to be reasonably fair and objective, even in expressing my opinions.

That’s not just the remnants of a commitment to objectivity and fairness left from a long journalism career. It’s also a nod to simple human decency.

And I’m sure that’s not an artifice.

Click here to access the archive of Woster's past work for SDPB.