top of page
  • Kuyper

Gonzo Journalism in the Modern Era

Hunter S. Thompson posing for a Rolling Stone cover
Hunter S. Thompson

When Hunter S. Thompson published the first gonzo article “The Kentucky Derby is Decedent and Depraved” in 1970, he flipped the way that journalism can function. Thompson brazenly rejected foundational principles of modern journalism such as the erasure of the author and claimed objectivity in favor of a literary, personal accounting of events to create a novel lens that lets the reader understand and interpret niche communities. Despite gonzo journalism’s lack of claimed objectivity and lack of newsworthiness, gonzo continues to manifest itself in new ways in the 21st century. The lineage of gonzo journalism is messy and inconsistent, with the gonzo label being attached to most anything that’s simply countercultural, focuses on a subjective story, includes drug use, or when the reporter is a participant. However, when defining the content through the history of gonzo journalism, it isn’t just the presence of one of these traits that renders something as gonzo - instead, it needs to have all of the following attributes working in tandem: a countercultural or subcultural focus, a lack of claimed objectivity, a fast-paced approach, an emphasis on social critique, using the reporter as a participant in the story, and satire. Traditionally, gonzo also includes drug or alcohol use, however, this was less of a feature of gonzo journalism itself and more of a way for Thompson to cope with and critique the world in a colorful, countercultural, and entertaining way. In looking back at the development of gonzo journalism, we might be better to evaluate and understand the work of niche TV and YouTube journalists and how they both embrace and upend some of its basic principles.

Writing for Scanlan’s Monthly, Hunter S. Thompson wrote the first gonzo article, "The Kentucky Derby is Decedent and Depraved,” a first-person account of Thompson struggling to write a story at the 1970 Kentucky Derby which ultimately became a rushed diary. As the story goes, the due date for the article was rapidly approaching and Thompson hadn’t written any of it yet. Rushed for time, Thompson began tearing pages from his handwritten notebook, numbering them, and giving them to his clerk. As he sent his clerk away with the first few pages, Thompson sat in his room in dismay, sure that he’d be fired. When the clerk came back to get the rest of Thompson’s pages, Thompson was flabbergasted. “The Kentucky Derby” was published as a first draft, accompanied by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s sketches. When the article was released, the editor of The Boston Globe magazine, Bill Cardoso, wrote to Thompson coining the phrase gonzo, saying, “This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling."

As the prime example of gonzo, Thompson’s “Kentucky Derby” presents all the aforementioned signature gonzo attributes. Thompson focused on his subjective experience at the Kentucky Derby, rather than reporting about the Derby races. He focused on the people and vibe of the Derby, taking an autoethnographic approach to illuminate what it was like to be there. Rife with satire, drinking, drug references, literary merit, and pure mania “The Kentucky Derby is Decedent and Depraved” has an undeniably fast-paced cadence and a completely novel voice. After his success with “The Kentucky Derby,” Thompson went on to write “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “The Great Shark Hunt” and “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail” along with a handful of other articles and books that solidified the gonzo legacy and clarified how gonzo journalism functions.

Thomas Wolfe, a friend of Thompson, also contributed to setting gonzo journalism’s legacy in concrete. In 1973 Wolfe established an unconventional type of journalism focusing on literary attributes and a lack of objectivity called New Journalism. He included gonzo as an example of a sub-genre of New Journalism, solidifying gonzo as a genre within New Journalism present in academia. Wolfe asserts that Thompson’s gonzo is similar to the styles of Mark Twain and Artemis Ward as they depicted the American Story, “in a form that was part journalism and part personal memoir admixed with powers of wild invention, and wilder rhetoric inspired by the bizarre exuberance of a young civilization.” Wolfe acted to both legitimize and foreground the importance of gonzo journalism in the modern age.

With the unquestionable popularity of gonzo journalism, it was only a matter of time before the genre was pushed into new mediums. In the late ’90s and early 2000s, British journalist and documentarian Louis Theroux continued the gonzo tradition through TV. In Theroux’s BBC-produced show, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends, Theroux interviewed American survivalists, Black nationalists, prostitutes, porn stars, and countless other subcultural groups to create an entertaining program, putting himself in the frame of the story all the while. Throughout the episodes of this show, Theroux shared asides with the audience, focusing on his personal perspective. While his deadpan British attitude constantly creates cringe-based satire, Theroux has an undeniably empathetic and genuine quality that lets him get personally involved with his subjects. Despite substance use not being present, Theroux does seem to cope with harsh realities by becoming pals with his subjects throughout his travels. In the episode “Louis and the Brothel,” for example, Theroux lives on a bordello for about a week, involving himself personally with the johns and ladies, influencing their lives as they seemingly influence his own. These experiences enable Theroux to naturally create a lens through the audience to explore hidden corners of the real world, as both the audience and Theroux himself create a personal social critique of the subject matter.

While Theroux may have brought gonzo to our televisions, YouTubers are creating content that propels the gonzo journalism genre in novel forms online. Notably, a handful of early Vice videos visibly nod toward gonzo journalism. Amira Asad wrote an article for VICE in 2013 called “The Kentucky Derby… On Acid” which is in dialogue with Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decedent and Depraved” and his signature gonzo style. Following in the footsteps of Thompson, this article heavily editorializes Asad’s experience at the Derby with insane comparisons that create social commentary, “I knew the acid was starting to kick in when she compared this routine checkpoint to being a Jew in Hitler’s Germany: ‘I swear we are in a concentration camp. Look at how they are herding everyone.’ Is this how Alex Jones fans are made?” While it seems like the satirical aspects of this article intend to be self-directed, Asad certainly uses a poetic license to record her experience. Following the gonzo tradition, rather than focusing on a claimed objectivity, Asad leans into subjectivity and association to create social commentary.

Soon after this article, VICE began creating videos like “The Westminster Dog Show… On Acid!” and “Monster Truck Rally… On Acid!” soon after. Both of these videos function by shifting the gonzo lineage to an online video medium on YouTube. Around this same time, VICE also released “Hunting the Radioactive Beasts of Chernobyl” and “The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia” which are perfect examples of VICE producing unique and forward-looking gonzo journalism, rather than just repurposing Thompson’s original gonzo article at the Westminster Dog Show. Despite the silly, clickbait-inspired title of “Hunting the Radioactive Beasts of Chernobyl,” this video explores what gonzo can look like in the modern age. It opens with VICE reporter and current VICE executive chairman Shane Smith briefly discussing the history of Chernobyl through a first-person voiceover, as he begins exploring a town near Chernobyl with a guide, getting drunk throughout, and providing social commentary about environmental, nuclear destruction. Elements of satire and a lack of objectivity are present in the ridiculous title alone, but they also rear their head throughout the 9-minute YouTube documentary. Further still, it presents Smith as the subject of the story and explores the fallout of a nuclear disaster, with Smith delving into his own fears and ‘coping skills’ (namely, drinking and distracting himself with firearms) throughout the video. Similarly, Shane Smith also stars in the 53-minute long “The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia,” presenting a personal accounting of the history of Liberia and an autoethnographic, colonial focus on the people of Liberia complete with drinking, social commentary, voiceovers, and plenty of first-person perspectives.

In 2016, VICE continued pushing the bounds of the gonzo tradition with a new TV and YouTube series, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia. This show follows Hamilton Morris, a chemistry and anthropology graduate, who explores the history, culture, chemistry, and biology of drugs throughout the world. In Season 3, Episode 5, “Bufotenine: In Search of Hataj” Morris travels to Argentina to explore the psychedelic chemical bufotenine (5-HO-DMT). While Morris does reference scientific literature and experts as a jumping-off point for much of his understanding of the history and culture of this substance, he also takes into account plenty of interpersonal interviews, his own experience, and embraces a lack of objective truth about bufotenine in the scientific literature throughout the documentary, in favor of a cultural, subjective truth. In this episode, Morris tries some Anadenanthera (which has the active ingredient bufotenine) with a shaman, and we see the experience through his eyes. This exposition is complete with a personal account of Morris’s experience through a voiceover behind bird’s eye view images of Argentinian forests added in post to make the experience more entertaining and understandable. The episode ends with Hamilton’s uncertain critique of the ceremony, allowing further social commentary to bleed through the show.

Another YouTuber that’s pushing the boundaries of gonzo journalism is Benjamin Rich from the channel Bald and Bankrupt. Rich employs a vlog style of video making, without a traditional camera crew, enabling him to embed himself in the culture around him as he takes a personal approach to each of his destinations. Throughout Rich’s series, we see an unfiltered view of mostly Eastern Europe as he tours countries like Ukraine, Romania, and Russia while talking to the camera (and viewer) directly. Rich focuses on showcasing cities from the inside out, interacting with local residents in their language throughout his videos. This lens creates a boots-on-the-ground approach that isn’t often seen presented by journalists as he exposes the subcultural, everyday people living in these countries. In his 2022 video, “This Video Caused An International Incident! (Spaceship Discovery)” Rich travels with a Russian local, Alinchik, through war-time Russia to discover the Buran spaceship in a restricted Russian military base. During this trip, Rich takes an autoethnographic focus, interviewing Russian citizens throughout his journey toward the military base, asking them about the town he’s passing through and what they think of the Buran. His subcultural focus emphasizes the culture and everyday lives of Russians on the ground, rather than traditional journalist critiques about the war and overarching social structures. Due to the vlog style, Rich inherently is in focus in every scene with voice-over and light social commentary present throughout. This mode of journalism leaves more room for personalization and real accounts from the people on the ground because the politics of traditional news outlets are largely left out of the process. A lack of objectivity is also present due to this vlog-style reporting, as Rich simply documents and critiques what he sees and hears throughout the journey rather than focusing on experts, state actors, or empirical research, complete with plenty of voice-overs and talking directly to the camera. While there are no mind-altering substances present in this episode, the journey takes a mental and physical toll on Rich as he hikes for more than 30 kilometers through the Kazakhstan desert to reach the Cosmodrome, where the Buran is held. Complete with exhaustion and paranoia, there is a sense of danger as Rich could be arrested at any moment for trespassing on a former USSR military base. In his video series, Rich employs the camera as a coping mechanism rather than drugs or alcohol. His camera helps him push through exhaustion and illegality as he pushes to impress his audience. At the end of the video, Rich does in fact end up getting arrested for a few hours, until Alinchik and he ends up bribing the guards. The unfiltered, boots-on-the-ground approach that Rich takes serves to push gonzo journalism to new bounds, to vlog-style reporting.

Andrew Callaghan is another notable gonzo-style Youtuber who reports for Channel 5 News, a YouTube channel with the slogan “not fake news.” Callaghan pushes forward the gonzo lineage with a deadpan approach present in his interview style reminiscent of Theroux. Callaghan is an interviewer who primarily covers subcultures within the United States, with a focus on parody and absurdity, keeping a straight face throughout. His videos have a unique DIY approach that feels reminiscent of The Eric Andre Show, bringing journalistic integrity to over-the-top edits. Callaghan brings his viewers into the fold of a unique, niche world perspective. One example of this is in one of Channel 5’s most popular videos, “LA Punk Show” where Callaghan covers a gritty punk show in Los Angeles. In this video, Callaghan interviews balloon heads, punks, psychonauts, and skinheads revealing a disjointed tapestry of the LA punk scene. This video is rife with gonzo elements between the emphasis on social critique, a subcultural focus, using Callaghan as a participant in the story, and a lack of claimed objectivity. Rather than focusing on traditional news, Callaghan takes an autoethnographic approach to explore an LA punk show in its rawest form. Callaghan also created a true gonzo video called “People’s Convoy” which follows the Freedom Convoy from Elk City, Oklahoma to Washington, DC. The Freedom Convoy was an unorganized protest of the rising fuel prices and vaccine mandates. This video is a perfect example of modern gonzo journalism as Callaghan incorporates himself in the frame of the video throughout, complete with asides, interactions, monologues, and voice-overs. Callaghan also references other news outlets and what they’re reporting throughout the video adding to his overall level of satire and political commentary. As Callaghan and his team follow the trucker’s convoy across the country, he has trouble tracking the convoy which highlights a classically gonzo element: a story about getting a story.

It's clear that Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism has laid down the foundations for a new way to blend news and social commentary, influencing many niches within the media landscape from popular TV hosts, media outlets, and YouTube channels. Gonzo’s person-to-person, autoethnographic focus has the potential to show us a true version of events on the ground, despite the lack of claimed objectivity present. As the world struggles to grapple with fake news stories, gonzo offers a new alternative: create your own perspective from interpersonal accounts. Gonzo offers a way to suspend disbelief about the hyperbolic happenstances to gather a greater truth about the world. In fact, gonzo directly pushes against misinformation and disinformation because the occurrences presented in the story ultimately don’t matter; it’s what you get out of the story and how that shapes your worldview. While many think true gonzo journalism died with Thompson, his legacy lives on with the gonzo style in a novel form.

62 views0 comments
bottom of page