Published on December 9th, 2013 | by Thompson0
Hell’s Angels an Objective Condemnation of the Press
Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966) is, by far, the most objective journalism Thompson was ever responsible for, and perhaps some of the most objective journalism in the history of the craft. It was also the last time Thompson flirted with objectivity – and for good reason.
Thompson’s account of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang in California came at a time when the Angels were “making it big, as the showbiz people say” (13). Despite headlines reading “Hell’s Angels Gang Rape” across the country and a damning report released by the office of Attorney General Thomas C. Lynch, Thompson undertook what many thought to be some of the most dangerous investigative reporting on U.S. soil. He was the perfect man for the job.
The Angels took to Hunter almost immediately. His party first/work second attitude was a perfect fit for the Angels, even if Thompson’s choice of motorcycle was not. There may not have been another journalist on the planet they would have let into their ranks, and Thompson repaid them in kind.
Thompson did his damnedest to make this book, originally slated as an article for The Nation, a condemnation of the press. The Angel’s were getting enough flak as it was and were in need of a proper public relations defense.
The papers and magazines insinuated four Angels were guilty of raping 14- and 15-year-old girls, who were eventually found to be lying through either a lie detector test or medical tests – a perfect example of conglomerate media chasing headlines for higher circulation.
“They would owe most of their success to a curious rape mania that rides on the shoulder of American journalism like some jeering, masturbating raven. Nothing grabs an editor’s eye like a good rape” (13).
Thompson then recalls the major press releases by Time, Newsweek, and California newspapers quoting the Lynch Report word for word, despite the report being incredibly erroneous and downright fictitious – a perfect example of politicians shaping the news in their own favor.
Halfway through the third chapter, after offering some facts to refute the fictions peddled by the mainstream media, Thompson’s journalistic approach takes a turn. Though he writes in first-person from the beginning, the book takes an obvious turn towards a novelistic approach. The facts Thompson now offers are primary facts – those he acquired himself.
“At times the whole street seemed alive with Hell’s Angels. It was more than any taxpaying property owner should have to bear. Actually, their visits were marked by nothing more sinister than loud music, a few bikes on the sidewalk, and an occasional shot out the back window. Most of the bad action came on nights when there was no Angels around: one of my most respectable visitors, an advertising executive from New York, became hungry after a long night of drink and stole a ham from the refrigerator in a nearby apartment; another guest set my mattress afire with a flare and we had to throw it out the back window…” (47).
This continues until Thompson is evicted and the property owner is surprised to find no damage to the apartment. This three-chapter introduction to the Hell’s Angels is necessary for just one reason – Thompson’s subjects (or secondary protagonists; he is the primary) must be seen by the audience in at least a neutral light. Thompson cannot expect the reader to continue reading if his secondary protagonists are simply animals like the papers say. The reader must identify with the Angels – or better yet – empathize with them – and at the very least – not hate them. Thompson successfully accomplishes this before going into the story of his year with the Hell’s Angels.
Without giving too much away, Thompson’s year with the Angels is mild compared to the accounts written in the Lynch Report, newspapers, and magazines, but Thompson does liken the Angel’s to outlaws of the Old West, especially after a beating he took for confronting an Angel. The book propelled Thompson’s career and the nonfiction novel (or memoir), now the world’s best-selling genre.
It’s difficult to discern why Hell’s Angels was Thompson’s last attempt at objective journalism, but I suspect there were many reasons. One reason may be that the Angels beat the last ounce of objectivity out of him after he said “only a punk beats his wife” to an Angel beating his wife. It had to have been difficult to take such a beating despite standing up for the animals that delivered it.
A better reason for Thompson’s divergence from objectivity is his presence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which he later wrote had a great effect on his political views.
I believe the Convention gave Thompson his voice. The world couldn’t afford for Thompson to be objective any longer. The American Dream was dead, yet fraudulent politicians were still selling snake’s oil to their constituents. It was time to be militant. It was time the pen became mightier, but also, more like a sword, spilling the guts of the swine responsible for the death of the American Dream. It was time to go Gonzo.
“The daily press is the evil principle of the modern world, and time will only serve to disclose this fact with greater and greater clearness. The capacity of the newspaper for degeneration is sophistically without limit, since it can always sink lower and lower in its choice of readers. At last it will stir up all those dregs of humanity which no state or government can control. – Soren Kierkegaard, The Last Years: Journals 1853-55” (21).