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Rogue writers: The unnecessary burden of fact

Traditionally, the mainstay reporter is behold­en to the golden rules of factual journalism. The writer remains ‘invisible’ behind a screen of reported facts presented as objec­tively as possible.

By David Jacklin

Saturday 15 June 2019, 03:00PM

Photo: Patrick Fore / Unsplash

Photo: Patrick Fore / Unsplash

It would seem the cardinal sin of a cred­ible journalist not to fully cross-check the facts and present a non-biased and absolutely accurate account within their work.

These principles are very understood for the reporting of the daily news, but are they essential prerequisites for editorial review and broader in­vestigative articles? Should the value of a published report rely on the reader’s belief that it’s brimming with bullet-proof facts, rather than expressing an emotive evaluation that explores truths and meaning?

Arguably there have been a number of journalistic cases where unconven­tional literary techniques have been employed to focus on the ‘experience’ of the investigation, rather than the need to ‘inform’ on all the detail. But none more so than the New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

New Journalism was coined after a series of subjective writers in this peri­od such as Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Terry Southern, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. Wolfe codified the movement with his 1973 collection of articles including works from all of the above and more, definitively titled The New Journalism.

It was a trend at this time for articles in this style to appear as editorials in magazines rather than newspapers, in­cluding Harper’s, Esquire, The New York­er, Rolling Stone and Scanlan’s Monthly.

Wolfe experimented with a variety of literary techniques, mixing them with the traditional ideal of dispas­sionate, even-handed reporting. In­stead of investigative reporting, Wolfe advocated what he called “saturation reporting”, an experiential approach in which the journalist “shadows” and observes the subject over an extended period of time. “To pull it off,” said Wolfe, “you casually have to stay with the people you are writing about for long stretches… long enough so that you are actually there when revealing scenes take place in their lives.”

The result was that the journalist was no longer distanced and detached from the people and events that they re­ported on. The work embraced both fic­tional and non-fictional styles of writing.

Most notably of Wolfe’s work, and one of the period-defining pieces of the 1960s, is his The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a first-hand account of Ken Kesey’s famous sixties counter-culture group The Merry Pranksters. Wolfe employed eccentric punctuation and free association within the text to con­vey the manic ideas and personalities within the scene.

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Saturation reporting became a ma­jor hallmark of the new journalist. In 1965 Truman Capote released In Cold Blood. Often cited as the original non-fiction novel, Capote learned of a quad­ruple murder in a small farming com­munity in Kansas and travelled there with Harper Lee to conduct a series of interviews and observational writings before the killers were captured.

Perhaps the most extreme exam­ple, and certainly the most compelling in my eyes, is Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson was the originator of Gonzo Journalism, where the protagonist’s subjective reporting is combined with social critique and self-satire, often with the use of sarcasm, humour, exag­geration and profanity to emphasise a point. Or, more likely in Thompson’s case, its pointlessness.

Thompson first came to light with his publication of Hell’s Angels (1967) in which he spent over a year living and riding with the notorious motorcy­cle gang to scribe his brutal, shocking but ultimately compelling first-hand account of the gang members and their activities. His other famous works in­clude The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved, a seminal sports article written on the 1970 Kentucky Derby, and the counterculture classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which ex­plicitly depicts the failings of the 1960s counterculture movement.

Thompson’s extreme antics and un­constrained journalistic liberties to get an alternative angle on events have of­ten been cited for the wane and death of New Journalism in the 1970s.

In true fashion, he cared little. In a 1973 article for Rolling Stone maga­zine, Thompson stated, “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.”

For me, the best editorial journal­ism is subjective reportage and sociol­ogy combined. The writer’s viewpoint and experience surrounding the events make the subject matter compelling and worth exploring, even at the ex­pense of objective fact. Most essential­ly, it makes it both a pleasure to read and a memorable account.

As the author David Wallace wrote in his novel and subsequent Tim Bur­ton film Big Fish, which beautifully covers the onus on ‘fact’ in telling an honest and lasting tale: “You’re not necessarily supposed to believe it… You’re just supposed to believe in it.”

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