The 2016 U.S. presidential elections showed how easily a real estate hustler can hijack the public’s attention with the help of all major news corporations.
Not only did Donald Trump receive two billion dollars of free media over the course of his presidential campaign, but he was wrongly accused for colluding with Russia for the next three years — a turn of events that justified the “fake news” narrative he skillfully exploited, brought his approval ratings to an all-time high, and provided him with a huge gift going into the 2020 elections.
Although it would’ve been helpful to reflect on why the most unpopular political candidate in the history of opinion polls won against the well-funded and connected Clinton empire, the technicalities behind Trump’s ascendancy were overshadowed in the mainstream by the now-debunked conspiracy that Trump colluded with Russia — a narrative that completely engulfed the D.C. media establishment for most of Donald’s presidency.
It wasn’t the Trump campaign’s skyrocketing ad spending and close partnership with Facebook which interested pundits, but how Russia’s Internet Research Agency “influenced the elections” in his favor via Facebook memes. Corporate news channels didn’t care much for Donald’s 2019 veto on U.S. involvement in the war in Yemen, or his 2017 tax giveaway to the very rich, but pundits buzzed with excitement to the slightest hint that there’s a Trump “pee tape.”
By focusing on Reality Trump TV and incessantly claiming that Trump is “Putin’s puppet” with no solid evidence — while ignoring his militarist, climate change-denying, and anti-worker policies — NBC’s coverage of “the Russians” started to mirror Fox News’s usual hate fest on immigrants and refugees. All of the sudden, “Russia” became responsible not only for Trump’s win, but for “fueling racial tensions” in the U.S. through Pokémon Go and “hacking” the U.S. electrical grid—stories that were spread to large media outlets because of their sensationalist value, only to be discarded in the growing pile of Russiagate propaganda.
Despite yearlong efforts from investigative journalists, such as Matt Taibbi, Aaron Maté, and Glenn Greenwald, to point out the lack of evidence in popular Russiagate conspiracies — and to infuse nuance in blatantly xenophobic content — it became common for the liberal press to blame Russia, the Russians, communists, Marxists, and other ambiguously defined scapegoats for America’s problems.
To get a sense of the disconnect between corporate media’s obsession with Russia after the 2016 elections and what everyday Americans deemed important at the time, consider a July, 2018 Gallup survey on the “nation’s top problem” which found that the “situation with Russia” did not even account for one percent of responses. The top answers were immigration, dissatisfaction with government, and race relations/racism — some of the ingredients that brought Trump to power in the first place.
The Russiagate narrative allowed liberals and right-wingers to resurrect xenophobic hysteria in two distinct ways — right-wingers use it on ideological grounds, triggering their viewers with scary tales of “communism in the Soviet Union” and how all democrats are agents of Russia and Venezuela, while liberals use “Russia” to discredit Trump and any progressive who is to the left of Nancy Pelosi. The common enemy in both of those scenarios is the growing progressive movement, which threatens both out of touch Democrats and the Trump regime.
Similarly to the lead up to the Iraq War, journalists who questioned the official Russiagate narrative were ignored by the so-called liberal establishment, while government officials and millionaire talking heads were given air time to explain to millions of Americans why they should be afraid of Russia.
“The Iraq war faceplant damaged the reputation of the press. Russiagate just destroyed it,” Matt Taibbi wrote in his in-depth analysis of how the pundit class mishandled the “Trump-Russia” fiasco.
The decay of the U.S. news industry — a symptom of the overall erosion of our democratic institutions — has been in progress for some time. In his letters from 1955 to 1967, published in The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, the legendary journalistic fictionist Hunter S. Thompson (1937–2005), often discussed what he called the “dry rot in the American press.”
In the summer of 1959, Hunter (22 at the time) wrote a letter to William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ironweed, with whom he developed a friendship that continued throughout their careers:
At the moment I am unemployed, and will continue to be until I locate a worthwhile job, having been a sportswriter, sports editor, editorial trainee, and reporter — in that order — I have given up on American journalism. The decline of the American press has long been obvious, and my time is too valuable to waste in an effort to supply the ‘man in the street’ with his daily quota of clichés, gossip, and erotic tripe. There is another concept of journalism, which you may or may not be familiar with. It’s engraved on a bronze plaque on the southeast corner of the Times Tower in New York City.
Hunter was referencing Joseph Pulitzer’s “concept of journalism,” defined in an 1883 editorial that Pulitzer drafted for the New York World. Thompson and Kennedy agreed with Pulitzer’s contention that the journalist should “always be drastically independent” and that journalism should “always fight for progress and reform,” which meant “opposing privileged classes and public plunderers.”
“One constant theme of The Proud Highway is Thompson’s contempt for the mainstream press,” writes Douglas Brinkley, the book’s editor. “He saw its members as sycophantic mouthpieces for the Rotary Club, the U.S. government, and the Eastern establishment. He preferred the subjective journalism of H. L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, John Reed, and I. F. Stone over all The New York Times’s supposedly objective journalists combined.”
Long before the false narratives of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Russian collusion took over the U.S. airwaves and minds, Thompson watched traditional journalism fail to properly cover the Nixon-Kennedy debates, JFK’s assassination, LBJ’s Vietnam escalation, and Nixon’s political comeback, Brinkley points out. Unsatisfied with the complacency of “elite” writers, the Kentuckian aimed to stand above literary movements — much like the writers he admired in his twenties — George Orwell, Earnest Hemingway, Jack London, and Henry Miller.
In 1965, Hunter wrote in a letter that he prefers to work in the realm of fiction, since that’s the only way “I can live with my imagination, point of view, instincts, and all those other intangibles that make people nervous in my journalism.” These insights, reached through years of unemployment, extreme poverty, debauchery and rejections from various editors inspired Hunter S. Thompson to create a style of writing that was unmistakably and unquestionably his. That was the point.
His books Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), which Tom Wolfe defined as “a scorching, epochal sensation,” and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, described by The New York Times as the “best account yet published of what it feels like to be out there in the middle of the American political process” — exemplify Thompson’s ability to use the English language “as both a musical instrument and a political weapon,” which is how Hunter himself described his writing style to a Vietnamese colonel in 1975.
“It was sweetly naive of him to imagine that military despots value such credentials; nevertheless, his self-assessment was just,” Peter Conrad wrote in The Guardian regarding Hunter’s comment. “The music made by the language, in his use of it, resembles the percussive iteration of gunfire, or the fulmination of an exploding grenade. From inside his fortified bunker in Colorado, with his pet Dobermans slavering at the perimeter, he fires off missives as if they were missiles.”
Thompson’s use of fiction in expressing his unique perspective on current events has been perfected by the media establishment and channeled into fake news, post-truth culture, and AI-driven news cycles that can popularize a fictitious narrative and polarize the electorate with a single headline — only to denounce the whole story a day, week, year, or three years down the line.
The difference between Hunter’s vision and what we have in 2019 is that instead of “opposing privileged classes and public plunderers,” journalists utilize fiction to serve the privileged. The events and personalities that inspired HST to hammer on his red IBM Selectric typewriter late into the night, denouncing corrupt politicians and the overindulgent consumer culture, are now projected on the small, medium, and large screens of millions of Americans all of the time.
The comparisons with today get bleaker when we take into account the seismic shifts in technology and economic policy that have made the existence of HST-type characters even less probable in the 21st century. Over the past ten years, the internet has significantly undercut the value of print advertising; newsroom employees have dropped by 45%, from about 71,000 workers in 2008 to 39,000 in 2017. Most people today get their news from YouTube, a video sharing website, while major news outlets devise ways to transition their “brand” onto the internet, where stuffy, green-screened pundits are replaced by authentic, freedom-loving “rebels,” ready to fight for the free market.
The endgame wasn’t lost on Hunter. In a 1997 interview for The Atlantic, eight years before he committed suicide, Thompson described how the convergence of right-wing and liberal interests have pushed writers like him to the margins, much like those who dared to criticize the official weapons of mass destruction and Russiagate narratives:
The press has been taken in by Clinton. And by the amalgamation of politics. Nobody denies that the parties are more alike than they are different. No, the press has failed, failed utterly — they’ve turned into slovenly rotters. Particularly The New York Times, which has come to be a bastion of political correctness. I think my place in history as defined by the PC people would be pretty radically wrong. Maybe I could be set up as a target at the other end of the spectrum. I feel more out of place now than I did under Nixon.
Imagine how Thompson would feel today, when the U.S. has slipped to number 48 in press freedom — below Botswana, Chile, and Romania. The kind of heavy hitting commentary that defined the Gonzo author — such as his scathing obituary of Richard Nixon (originally published in Rolling Stone on June 16, 1994), wouldn’t be welcomed by most media corporations who hide behind their own version of “objectivity”:
Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful …
He has poisoned our water forever. Nixon will be remembered as a classic case of a smart man shitting in his own nest. But he also shit in our nests, and that was the crime that history will burn on his memory like a brand. By disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American Dream.
The passage above exemplifies why Hunter’s writing continues to resonate — the reader always knew where HST stood, a privilege that we often don’t have these days, when adversarial opinions are intentionally weeded out from the dominant discourse and replaced with partisan hackery.
Some of those who advanced the narrative of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in 2003 are the same ones who pushed conspiracy theories about Russia after the 2016 elections — they showed they can be trusted to disseminate the desired narrative and were rewarded accordingly. The results are evident — a 16-year military conflict based on false pretenses, and a three-year media time warp in which Russia (and Trump) occupied much of mainstream media’s attention.
Social media companies adapted well to this arrangement — Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have embraced the symbiotic and overwhelming relationship between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government. By addicting us to privately-owned “public forums,” tech entrepreneurs have substituted corporate TV programming with highly-individualized feeds, where market-approved talking points are slipped through paid ads and “recommended content.” These platforms’ targeting mechanisms allow the corporations and individuals with the highest marketing budgets to get their stories in front of the most eye balls — no Russian passport required.
The dry rot in American journalism has never been about stylistic decisions or matters of presentation. It is about corrupt and greedy journalists who, like any corporate ladder climber, are willing to give up their independence to parrot their network’s talking points of the day.
Hunter S. Thompson transcended traditional journalism by mixing reportage with fiction, which he described as a “bridge to the truth that journalism can’t reach.” The events that transpired during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential elections illustrated that fiction can also create its own truth, through a repeated assertion of talking points and rejection of factual rebuttals. To finish Nixon’s job, the right-wing movement embraced someone who is not just as vile as the 37th U.S. president, but “better” on network TV, where Trump and his handlers perfected the persona that would eventually cause the biggest upset in U.S. political history.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Similarly to how kindred spirits in the publishing world helped package and promote Hunter’s work in the 70’s and beyond, prominent lefty magazines such as Jacobin and Current Affairs have attracted sizable audiences through addressing taboos, stereotypes, and lies regarding socialism, healthcare, wage stagnation, militarism, and other topics people actually want to hear and read about. A number of progressive, member-funded shows that provide an alternative to centrist and right-wing media empires are attracting a good number of readers, watchers, and listeners.
Mainstream journalists, however, are showing no signs of remorse after peddling corporate state propaganda for decades. Quite the opposite — the pundits seem determined to double down on anyone who doesn’t conform to the narrow standards and topics that are entertained on corporate news. I imagine Hunter’s contemporaries felt the same as he outmaneuvered them with his fiction-based, razor sharp political commentary that hit harder than any pre-approved, strategically placed hack job from the D.C. commentariat.