Archive for July, 2009

Hunter S. Thompson and the Death of Objectivity

Monday, July 20th, 2009

David Weinberger writes on “Joho the Blog” that “transparency is the new objectivity“. In the post, he explains how journalists have traditionally strived to appear objective, but today’s bloggers typically go down a different path and aim for transparency. That is to say, a journalist will not openly reveal their biases (which sometimes grow into hidden agendas) but many bloggers will happily wear their allegiances on their sleeve.

The Gonzo Fist

It’s common knowledge that media outlets typically favour certain strains of politics over others, for example Fox News is famously Republican and were arguably responsible for perpetuating falsehoods about the Iraq war. In the UK, the Daily Mail leans heavily towards the right and publishes very questionable stuff about immigration, whilst the Guardian leans towards the left (and at least attempts to confine its political rants to the editorials).

However, none of these outlets openly say this. The Guardian claims to live by the words “A newspaper’s primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted.” I couldn’t find an equivalent statement on the Daily Mail’s website, but AND, their parent company (how much did that address cost?!), claims “Our mission is to be the most trusted and relevant focal point in every community we serve, ensuring the best outcomes for people when making the important decisions in their lives.” (Although this arguably makes no claims to objectivity assuming it doesn’t affect their trust or relevance).

In contrast, the blogger Michelle Malkin openly declares her conserative allegiances and there’s no doubting LiberalOasis‘s politics with the tag-line “where the Left is right and the Right is wrong”. For a British example, see Iain Dale, who actually stood as a conservative candidate and whose banner quotes are mildly amusing and sometimes reveal more about the person being quoted:

“Political intelligence in every sense” – Roland White, The Sunday Times
“Much wittier than your average Tory” – Lance Price, Former Labour Communications Director.
“I read it every day” – Adam Boulton, Sky News

The thing is, none of this is exactly new. Hunter S. Thompson pioneered Gonzo journalism which Wikipedia currently defines as “a style of journalism which is written subjectively, often including the reporter as part of the story”. Sound familiar? Throughout Thompson’s writing, he was often part of the story, as much making the news as writing about it (he didn’t go to the library to write his book on the Hell’s Angels – he spent a year living with them). Hunter managed to write a pretty definitive account of the 1972 presidential race, which reads with a refreshing honesty despite containing completely fictional elements (such as alleging Ed Muskie was addicted to the drug Abogaine and his advisers had flown in a Brazilian doctor to treat him, but how the hell did anyone not realise he was extracting the proverbial urine there?). My point being that Hunter forsook objectivity, yet still managed to deliver in authoritativeness through his “transparency” – there was never any doubt where Hunter’s allegiances lay. According to Wikipedia, Thompson said in an interview “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long. You can’t be objective about Nixon.” Of course, I’m not saying all bloggers can or should write with the vitriol of Thompson, but they should aim to be open about to which side they lean and how they came to be in possession of the facts – this way people know to check the opposing argument for themselves.

Weinberger is right – only with transparency can we ever hope to arrive somewhere close to the ever unobtainable “objective truth”.


A commenter on Hacker News pointed out that blogs are normally more analagous to editorials than news stories, and editorials are usually clear in their political bias.

I would still argue that for a newspaper to claim objectivity they should attempt much greater transparency. Some papers now allow comments on stories, which is good move in this direction (but who stops them deleting comments they disagree with?).