Living Large in Carson City: The Truth Is Out There Edition

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An interview with Jeremy Scahill on YouTube titled, Fear and Loathing in Trump’s America: A Deep Well of Anger, the moderator  makes a great point about journalism and the responsibility to tell the truth by quoting a 1997 article from The Atlantic. The interview was with Hunter S. Thompson where he presented his view on the state of American journalism. Thompson stated,

If you consider the great journalists in history, you don’t see too many objective journalists on that list. H. L. Mencken was not objective. Mike Royko, who just died. I. F. Stone was not objective. Mark Twain was not objective. I don’t quite understand this worship of objectivity in journalism. Now, just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.

When teaching English composition to college students, the formal essay is sold as depending on objective analysis of the material, especially the argumentative essay, the Cadillac of college English writing. The use of first person (I, me, mine, my) and second person (you, you, you) are discouraged. The first can give the impression of an ego driven screed and the second simply offensive (i.e. You will agree abortion should be banned.) The latter is fine if you are writing to the moral majority audience, not so much to supporters of Planned Parenthood. These two approaches are seen as subjective and not proper for professional writing.

But that is academia. Composition, especially in the freshman and sophomore years, is more about teaching recalcitrant young people how not to make fools of themselves in their future work environments. Objective analysis is rooted in what is observable, fact- based and measurable. In the quasi-empirical world of academia, this is understandable. When most freshman and sophomores approach a topic, first person is the order of the day. Their sense of self-worth is at once endearing as they struggle to find their voices, yet decidedly disturbing in the manner in which they think their ideas are unassailable   . . . facts, observation and measurable data be damned.

It is the college professor’s task of harnessing that youthful zeal and mold it into a work of composition that takes into account that there are a multitude of opinions afoot in the world, and the only way to get their message across without alienating a huge swath of the population is through objective analysis of the topic. Tell the reader what you can prove. Keep the tone one of enlightenment, rather than adversarial. And always remember, academic argumentation is never about winning. It is about sharing one’s ideas with the opposition, if not convince them, to make them understand the writer values their stance, while effectively communicating their own diametrically opposite position.

Facts, measurable data, and observation art the roots of objectivity. In journalism the objective approach was the tender of the realm for years until the 1960s when writers like Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe (among others) arrived on the scene and changed the course of journalism forever. No longer was non-fiction mired in unassailable dry facts, measured data and observation. It was still those things with the added element of the writer becoming a distinct part of the story itself. Here is the final page of Thompson’s wicked little book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga:

With the throttle screwed on, there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are the wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers. You watch the white line and try to lean with it… howling through a turn to the right, then to the left, and down the long hill to Pacifica… letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge… The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others- the living- are those who pushed their luck as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still Out there. Or maybe it’s In. The association of motorcycles with LSD is no accident of publicity. They are both a means to an end, to the place of definitions.

This is vintage Thompson. The facts are there. The observable is there. The measure of the experience is there, yet, Thompson has become a part of the storyline. Does truth suffer for his presence? Is the objectivity of the experience in some way sullied by placing himself in the narrative? Not really, the key is keeping subjectivity in line with the factual, observable and measurable. In other words no matter how a writer approaches a topic, the truth is always the foundation of the narrative.

Getting back to the objective versus subjective approach to writing, subjective writing can no longer be seen as not being a valid approach to journalistic writing. Certainly, subjectivity is dependent on one’s personal feelings, sensitivities, and interpretation of the situation being observed, measured or the facts that surround the topic. However, as Thompson states above “just flat-out lying is different from being subjective.”  This one truism is what differentiates subjective writing from conservative outlets that skew their content, if not to lie outright, but present the facts in a way that might be misleading or slanted. Think Trump’s tweets.

So, why does this matter? First, many people digest the information thrown at them simply out of lack of motivation to question their beliefs. For example, if a person has always listened to Fox News because their immediate family or co-workers do, they are prone to continue doing so. This is not just a conservative malady, but one that liberals also suffer from in their choice of news outlets. Both objective and subjective writing suffers when people accept without questioning if the truth is being represented fairly. Not to single out Fox News as the only culprit, but when commentators spew hate, misinformation and subjective viewpoints not based in reality, how can a huge swatch of the public not come away without being adversely influenced?

Second, in the world that Trump created, journalists cannot help but write in a subjective voice. The crisis that our democracy faces is not one that can be approached strictly through objective analysis. Truth, in this case, is hard not to filter through a subjective perspective. What Trump has done is demean the reality of American democracy to an Us and Them class warfare. America is no longer a place where equality is the prism to view the hopes and dreams of the lower class, or increasingly, the lower and middle-class citizens. What is in place now is the wealthy ruling 1 percent of Americans control the lives, future and happiness of the rest of the country.

Facts, observations, and measurable incidents are important, however, how those objective elements subjectively change the American Democracy is what is important.