Hunter S. Thompson: The Father of Fake News, Part 4James J. O'Meara
4. Father of Fake News – or OT (Original Troll)? . . . The Myth of the Golfing Douchebag
I have discovered the secret of writing fiction, calling it impressionistic journalism, and selling it to people who want “something fresh.” — Hunter S. Thompson
Any man who still has a residue of honor will be very careful not to become a journalist. — Dr. Josef Goebbels
Thompson’s failure as a writer and a human being may be his own problem; his failure to develop his obvious talents into a great American writer is a misfortune for the rest of us. But the worst legacy of Gonzo is its role in the legitimizing of what we now call “Fake News.”
You must give Thompson credit for good, old-fashioned American gumption, cranky tinkering, and make-do. He failed as a novelist due to his inability to create believable characters; he failed as a journalist because — as we’ll see — he had no interest in mere reporting of bare facts. Yet he combined both negative capabilities into a new, one-man genre, Gonzo, which snagged a place in the American literary pantheon.
Discussing what would become the proto-Gonzo Hell’s Angels, Thompson “set forth his ideas on fact and fiction in clearer terms than anywhere else”:
Fiction is a bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach. Facts are lies when they are added up, and the only kind of journalism I can pay much attention to is something like [Orwell or Tom Wolfe]. But in order to write that kind of punch-out stuff [viz., “High White Notes”] you have to add up the facts in your own fuzzy way, and to hell with the hired swine who use adding machines. 
Just as Fitzgerald was Thompson’s literary model, Hemingway would be his journalistic mentor. As we saw earlier, Hemingway showed how one could move from the one to the other, “us[ing] his journalism experience to create the plot and characters of a viable novel.” Conversely, Hemingway also provided Thompson with the notion that journalists could use fictional techniques to get across “truths” that they lacked the facts — the famous “who, what, when, where, and how” — to actually establish; the writer’s “invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be. . . . This was virtually the guiding philosophy of Hunter S. Thompson’s writing career.”
A talented journalist, Thompson felt, could take something real and write about it in a way that was as important and as artistic as any novelist working on a story formed purely from his imagination.
Thompson liked to present stories like a novelist, setting the scene and giving some background in a process he called “The Fuse,” before having people talk through the issues as he stands by and watches, then gives his own commentary — “the wisdom” as people would later refer to it.
Less idealistically, it also solved a pesky problem: “he was beginning to find that when he made grand pronouncements, people could disagree with him by picking apart his evidence.” No sociopath would stand for that! But although Thompson’s characters were two dimensional at best, they could be pressed into service:
“You say, for instance, that Spain will undoubtedly go Communist and you will get a lot of noisy shit, perhaps even from the editor you send it to. [Imagine that!] If, on the other hand, you tell exactly how one frustrated Spaniard spends his waking hours, damn few people are going to be in a position to say you’re wrong.”
In the coming years, he would attempt to approach the biggest questions and issues of the era not by explaining them and exploring them through objective facts and his own analysis, but rather through the words and stories [often invented] of individual people [also often invented]. This was going to be Thompson’s approach to journalism.
As we say today, “The Narrative.”
Whether the “frustrated Spaniard” or the “individual people” existed outside his head or his convenience was of no concern, at least to Thompson; luckily for him, it was, for a time, something his employers were willing to overlook.
At the National Observer, he found editors willing to respect conversational, rambling prose, happy to let a writer use as many or as few words as he wanted, and — importantly — lacking the resources to fact-check stories.
They were sure that he was presenting things in a somewhat dramatic way but, like millions of readers in the coming decades, they weren’t certain how much was real and how much was imagined.
Wills highlights an example from one of his National Observer pieces from Latin America, “Why Anti-Gringo Winds Often Blow South of the Border”; what I like to call the Golfing Douchebag:
One of my most vivid memories [sic!] of South America is that of a man with a golf club — a five-iron, if memory serves [!] — driving golf balls off a penthouse terrace in Cali, Colombia . . . Beside him on a small patio table was a long gin-and-tonic, which he refilled from time to time at the nearby bar.
In line with his concept of The Fuse, “this image prefaces his description of the political situation in Cali, where an anti-gringo politician has risen to prominence,” but “it seems a little too perfect and his editors wondered whether or not he had just invented the scene in order to present an image of a detestable colonial type.”
Other features here exemplify the Thompson Touch:
Whether he did in fact watch a British businessman whacking golf balls into a slum, the highly specific details — the five iron and a gin and tonic — lent his story a visual quality that made his readers want badly to believe it was all real.
Throughout the rest of his story, he quotes various people that also seem to say things that were extremely convenient. These sources are more like crudely drawn characters than actual people.
He had either created or invented his own Gatsby — one of many to grace the pages of his fiction-infused reportage.
So, was it true? He admitted only that it “smacked of authenticity,” which would seem “a tacit admission that the story had been invented but that the fiction was true due to its author’s knowledge, just as Hemingway had once claimed”:
“A good journalist hears a lot of things. Maybe I heard some of these stories and didn’t see them. But they sure as hell happened.”
Such colorful, “fiction-infused reportage” made Thompson a hit with his editors, who assuaged their doubts with the sense that “it would be career suicide for a young journalist to just make things up and try to pass them off as real.” Eventually, too many doubts, including accusations of outright plagiarism, led to his firing. This would be a common occurrence.
Fast-forward to his second report on the 1972 campaign for Rolling Stone, and Thompson — in another typical tangent — informs the reader that
[o]bjective journalism is a hard thing to come by these days. We all yearn for it, but who can point the way? The only man who comes to mind, right offhand, is my good friend and colleague on the Sports Desk, Raoul Duke. Most journalists only talk about objectivity, but Dr. Duke grabs it straight by the fucking throat. You will be hard pressed to find any argument, among professionals, on the question of Dr. Duke’s Objectivity.
This is classic Gonzo: the tangent itself; the idiosyncratic Capitalization; the parody of “serious” writing of the high school valediction genre (“we all yearn for it, but who can point the way?”); the doppelgänger, Raoul Duke, now a Sports Editor at Rolling Stone and a Doctor (presumably of Journalism); the violence and casual obscenity.
And appropriately, it provides “one of his stranger comments on the idea of objectivity . . . perhaps . . . implying that Duke was so upfront and open that his reporting could be viewed as objective.”
He felt empowered to insult candidates, spread rumors, and even give his press credentials to lunatics because the whole system for reporting on politics was deeply flawed in his mind, skewing the odds against the most decent candidates.
In his mind, Gonzo political reporting leveled the playing field. It was more honest than regular reporting because it aimed to report truths creatively rather than repeat propaganda in plain language.
Though he advocated and practiced ethically dubious methods of reporting, he believed these to be morally superior to the usual press practices.
So, to sum up, the System is rigged in favor of the bad hombres, so it’s only fair that Thompson come along and make shit up to help the Good Guys. Their lies are propaganda (bad); our lies are creative and life-affirming. Who decides who the Good Guys are? Thompson, of course; besides, people are stupid anyway, so fuck ’em if they can’t tell the difference.
Here we see the essence, the veritable founding document, of Fake News. If Thompson were alive today, he’d have a high-paying job at CNN; hell, he’d probably have Brian Selter’s job, if not Jeff Zucker’s. 
The “Russian pee-tape” is exactly the sort of prank Thompson would have dreamed up — like spreading the rumor of Sen. Ed Muskie’s supposed addiction to ibogaine as an explanation for his erratic behavior — or even would set in motion, like giving his press credentials to a drunken friend so that he could create a scene on Muskie’s campaign train:
After the campaign, he would admit that he had started the rumor, but that he had reported it in such a way that he assumed no one would take him seriously. “I didn’t realize until about halfway through the campaign that people believed this stuff,” he said much later, explaining that he thought people went to the “traditional media” for information and read his work for fun. . . . “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke,” he said.
He claimed that everything he wrote about Muskie that was untrue had been “worded as a fantasy,” and therefore he was still writing the truth because he said there was a rumor — and this was true; it just conveniently omitted the part about him starting the rumor.
Wills notes with deadpan unconcern:
The Muskie’s train story was Thompson’s first really exciting report from the campaign trail. . . . Sure, there had been flights of fancy throughout his articles, but [this was the first time that he appeared to intervene, quite possibly affecting the success of Ed Muskie’s campaign. It was not, however, the last.]
Indeed; “election interference” would be a journalistic specialty in years to come. The Wall Street Journal recently described Russiagate in almost the same words: “In short, the Clinton campaign created the Trump-Alfa allegation, fed it to a credulous press that failed to confirm the allegations but ran with them anyway, then promoted the story as if it was legitimate news.”
The Z-man recently provided a nice precis of the “everybody lies already” excuse and the just response:
Putting that aside, the media has become a torrent of lies. Since the very beginning, the media has been partisan. In colonial times, newspapers were known to be advocates for one faction or another. This is what you should get in a society with a free press, free speech and a culture of debate. The partisans in the media make their case for their cause, often cherry picking the facts that work best for them. This is no different from what happens in a courtroom or a business meeting.
That is a vastly different thing than what we see today. Only a complete idiot trusts anything he reads or hears in the media. The starting assumption is not only that the facts are wrong, but the people behind them know they are wrong. It is not partisan zeal or human error, but a deliberate effort to deceive. The people endlessly going on about disinformation are the primary source of disinformation. They either promote the lies of government or they create their own lies.
The point is, they know they are lying, they know we know they are lying, we know they know we know they are lying, but they are still lying. No wonder trust has dropped to zero.
To continue Z-man’s point about rival media, imagine if, rather than filing newspaper stories, two partisans held a debate. You would not be surprised, you would expect, the two to offer contrasting views and hand-picked evidence: It’s a debate, that’s what happens. What you would not expect, and what would be grounds for forfeit, is if one of them tried to make his case by outright lying.
Even Thompson saw, as early at as 1975, what we can call the “Boy who Cries Wolf” effect:
I did all that craziness because I thought it was funny. But I think a lot of it was definitely harmful. [Because it created the idea of Fake News? No.] It hurt my effectiveness. [As always, the sociopath cries out] Like when I was denouncing Nixon in the terms that I did. That image took the edge off some of the fairly acute judgments that I made. People had the tendency to say, “Oh, it’s just that Thompson raving again.”
Then Wills offers another example of how Thompson “makes the campaign trail seem exciting”:
In describing the shady backroom dealings that occur throughout the political world, he descends into a sick fantasy in which a politician is drugged and forced to rape a child so that he can be blackmailed.
Two years before The Godfather, Part II had a similar scene, this might count as fantasy. However, in the wake of the convictions of Dennis Hastert (former Speaker of the House and serial pedophile) and the ongoing Epstein-Maxwell situation, the idea of politicians being systematically blackmailed through evidence of child sexual abuse is sick, but hardly a fantasy, and one can see how journalistic buffoonery like “Pizzagate” serves to “blackwash” any hints of it as “conspiracy talk.”
Thompson’s contempt for traditional journalism, as mere stenographers regurgitating whatever bullshit was handed out by government or business, was well taken. His solution — giving journalists carte blanche to just make shit up, in the name of some “higher truth” that they “just know” without doing any legwork — is arguably worse than the disease. And even Thompson could never imagine the next turn of the screw, with journalists actively collaborating with the government in manufacturing bullshit: cutting out the middleman, as it were.
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Perhaps the kindest way of viewing Thompson’s Gonzo journalism, and the best way to make him relevant and even squeeze him into the category of Man of the Right, is to see him not as the progenitor of fake news but as the first troll. At the very beginning of Wills’ account of Thompson’s childhood, former classmates recall Thompson not as a class clown but as able to be hilariously funny without ever telling a joke; sarcastic and outrageous, and never worried about offending others or getting in trouble with parents and teachers.
For Hunter the greatest form of entertainment was doing something shocking and watching people’s reactions to it. It was even better if he could convince someone else to take all the risk while he just looked on.
Indeed, Wills describes the introduction to an otherwise excellent late Thompson piece as sounding “more like the unwanted ramblings of an incoherent, semi-literate Twitter troll than published writing from a literary giant.” Thompson, who preferred to cover events from home while watching TV, would likely envy “reporters” who now manufacture stories by scrolling through Twitter to find some “trend” or “outrage.” And Thompson’s personae are recognizable precursors of today’s “sock puppets.”
In a final, perverse kind of triumph of influence, even the government hacks Thompson despises have taken on his colors. This Homeland Security alert, only theoretically about domestic terrorists, sounds like Nixon complaining about Hunter Thompson’s Gonzo campaign reports; this press release is the sort of thing Thompson made a specialty of mocking:
The United States remains in a heightened threat environment fueled by several factors, including an online environment filled with false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information (MDM) introduced and/or amplified by foreign and domestic threat actors. These threat actors seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.
Compare the paranoid tone with the “Know Your Junkie” parody above, and especially compare the sinister bureaucratic redundancy — “threat . . . threat . . . threat” — with the Grantland Rice pastiche below. The only things missing are talk about “waterheads” or gimps, .44 magnums, or Biden sitting in a lawn chair naked except for a pair of jackboots.
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 Fake news was indeed a leitmotif of Thompson’s entire career. When discharged in 1957, he submitted a “fake news release” to the AP and UPI newswires, “an absurd story about a riot on base that resulted in planes being burned and women being raped.” In the 1994 collection Better Than Sex: Gonzo Papers Vol. 4, which Wills describes as “abysmal,” Raoul Duke, Thompson’s frequent alias or imaginary travelling companion, appears as “the author of a fake news story about the assassination of Ross Perot.”
 George Carlin defined capitalism thus: “You can take and nail two sticks together like they’ve never been nailed together before and some fool will buy it.” (Watch My Language, Hyperion, 2007)
 Just as Thompson’s personae and fantasies resemble Burroughs’ “routines,” they shared a black sense of humor as well as an American do-it-yourself spirit. Burroughs liked to casually allude to his somewhat threadbare connection to the Burroughs Adding Machine company and titled a collection of essays The Adding Machine. For more on Burroughs’ tinkering and crankiness, see “Curses, Cut-Ups, & Contraptions: The ‘Disastrous Success’ of William Burroughs’ Magick,” reprinted in my Mysticism After Modernism: Crowley, Evola, Neville, Watts, Colin Wilson, and Other Populist Gurus (Colac, Victoria, Australia: Manticore Press, 2020). As noted above, Wills is the author of a book on Burroughs and the Scientology cult founded by that great American crank, L. Ron Hubbard. The preference of “quality” of insight rather than “quantity” of facts may be a twisted kind of Rightist perspective, a topic we will soon address.
 Wills quoting Hemingway’s Men at War.
 Thompson started early: Wills note earlier that in one of his Air Force stories, “He clearly inserted at least a few made-up quotes, including an obvious joke about golf that he passed off as a real news story.”
 Thompson fanboy Johnny Depp learned that this is called “hearsay.” Wills describes how “Thompson uses stories that appear apocryphal and quotes that are almost certainly made up to represent things he may have heard, but which primarily serve the purpose of propelling his narrative and supporting his views.”
 The decided that “that many of his articles now had a ‘fairy-story aura’ and that he was ‘unreliable’ as a reporter.”
 That, and outrageous “expense” reports; see the “Dr. Slow” fiasco, below.
 In a contemporary letter to Jann Wenner, Thompson humble-brags “I want to draw a very hard line between the inevitable reality of ‘subjective journalism’ and the idea that any honestly subjective journalist might feel free to estimate a crowd at a rally for some candidate the journalist happens to like personally at 2000 instead of 612.” How Thompson would make that distinction is never made clear, and of course exactly this kind of bullshit with crowd “statistics” has been par for the mainstream media’s course at least since Trump came down the escalator, if not before.
 Again, typical sociopathy: “Also, it took me until part VII of The Vow to see it, but watch the intro to each part, the opening montage with the song. Notice that you are underwater the whole time. You will say, ‘Yeah, so, what does it mean?’ Being underwater is a metaphor for being lied to or being in a con. They are admitting they are doing this to you while they do it. They think this absolves them of guilt for their actions, since if you were smart you wouldn’t fall for it. They think it is OK to fool the foolish.” Miles Mathis, “NXIVM Is a Total Fraud.”
 He kinda looks like them: another smug, bald bastard who can’t keep his hands to himself around the staff.
 Meanwhile, in the real world, his doppelgänger, Hunter Biden, was using payoffs from Ukraine and elsewhere to fuel a crack-and-hookers lifestyle straight out of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Thompson’s second report from the ’72 campaign trail, “The Million Pound Shithammer,” ends with this Bidenesque moment: “I feel the Fear coming on, and the only cure for that is to chew up a fat black wad of blood-opium and get locking into serious pornography.”
 Thompson was already affecting peoples’ lives with his bullshit in the Hell’s Angels book. Club President Sonny Barger was incensed: “It was junk . . . There was a lot of writer’s exaggeration along with a writer’s dream-and-drug-induced commentary, like when he talked about members pissing on their patches or having to wear pants dipped in oil or piss. . . . The cops claimed that for years after. That kind of stupid mythology came right out of Hunter’s book.” Ironically, Thompson had intended the book to refute what he saw as biased, hysterical reporting on the Angels, and the initial article for The Nation had met with the club’s approval.
 Thompson – and Wills – seem to think otherwise: “By ‘exploding’ the truth into something even more horrendous, Thompson feels that the reality is more visible.”
 From Watergate to Russiagate. That Rolling Stone is one of the most notorious practitioners is the icing on the cake.
 Another Spencerian trait shared with many “Alt Right leaders.” At a protest in Washington, DC, Thompson reports that “a march leader shouting ‘Peace!’ into his bullhorn was attacked by a freak wearing a Prussian helmet”; déjà vu all over again!
 Regarding 1994’s “abysmal” Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Gonzo Papers, vol. 4), Wills observes that “[i]t was another political book, but as he was no longer capable of going on the campaign trail, he just sat at home watching it on TV and noting his reactions.” The publisher’s desperate spin tells us that “Thompson hits the dusty trail again — without leaving home — yet manages to deliver a mind-bending view of the 1992 presidential campaign — -in all of its horror, sacrifice, lust, and dubious glory.”