Famous author Hunter S. Thompson would not only write himself into the history books for his coverage of politics and media, but he would be at the forefront of a new movement in the 1970s.
While journalists working for broadsheet newspapers studied their craft and calculated their career trajectory to a meticulous level, Thompson found himself sentenced to 60 days jail for accessory to robbery a couple of weeks before his high school graduation. It was an event that illustrated a carefree attitude that threatened to derail his life and his work before it even started.
What made Hunter S. Thompson a unique character in this conformed and conservative environment was his ability to break the paradigm through “gonzo” journalism. This was a style that placed the writer as a protagonist in a first-person format, mixing in profanity, sarcasm and extreme levels of exaggeration that played with the truth.
His compatriot Bill Cardoso would coin the “gonzo” phrase to symbolize his off-the-wall approach to writing, creating a philosophy that would remain for decades to follow. Many have tried to imitate and emulate the legend, but there is only one original.
One of the outstanding characteristics that separated Hunter S. Thompson from his other counterparts in the media landscape is that he was sent on assignment somewhat reluctantly from time to time. Working for Rolling Stone among other publishers during his career, there was a strong cynicism and reticence to follow the press pack and be part of that conventional group of writers who made a career working the political beat.
That lack of fear about becoming the story is where Hunter S. Thompson really did forge his own career path. Such was his self-confidence and swagger, the infamous writer would unsuccessfully run for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970.
What he witnessed was a broken system with a lack of genuine community representation with elected officials. He would use that example among many others to carry a torch through his writing, laughing in the face of the powerful and pulling no punches in an environment that rarely strayed outside of traditional behaviors and expectations.
99% of writers who cover the political beat have to build close associations and relationships with key figures to remain viable. This is where they are fed talking points and insights, allowing them to publish exclusives and enjoy access that their compatriots struggle to receive for the same level of work.
Hunter S. Thompson did not come from that school of thought, using his fearless reporting style to critique and analyze the performance of congressmen, governors, presidents and other elected officials. His book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 would be emblematic of this style, covering the Democratic Primary with George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie with a mixture of curiosity, derision and humor.
By keeping a distance figuratively and literally from the inner circle of the Republican Party and Democratic Party respectively, there was no fear of favor. His writing would be bold, brash and wildly unconventional, bringing in a movement of new readers who developed an appetite for his unapologetic style. Given the nature of the relationships and the stakes involved with national politics, there has never been another media identity who has managed to break the mold like this before or since.
Media personalities in the 21st century have since come to respect, idolize, ridicule and scorn the work of Hunter S. Thompson since his passing in 2005. He has become a loved and hated figure depending on the individual, but his intervention during the 1960s, 70s and 80s in particular forced reporters, writers and broadcasters to question their craft and motivate them to push the boundaries.