I started thinking about the subject of journalism this morning, via a tweet from the always excellent Rob Manuel. As often happens with what he sends round the ether, you smile, learn and continue to think once his thought passes you by. This was the tweet in question:
Jon Snow has started doing gonzo journalism. http://blogs.channel4.com/snowblog/people-gaza-gracious-hospitable-condemned/24236 …
And this was the Jon Snow post he linked to.
And this is what he meant (I assume) by “gonzo journalism”:
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word “gonzo” is believed to be first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of both social critique and self-satire. It has since been applied to other subjective artistic endeavors.
Gonzo journalism involves an approach to accuracy through the reporting of personal experiences and emotions, as compared to traditional journalism, which favors a detached style and relies on facts or quotations that can be verified by third parties. Gonzo journalism disregards the strictly edited product favored by newspaper media and strives for a more personal approach; the personality of a piece is equally as important as the event the piece is on. Use of sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, and profanity is common.
I was reminded at the time, and thought this post was going to be mainly about that experience, of something that happened to me when I applied to go on the El País journalism course over a decade ago. I passed the first stage, but failed on writing about how I saw journalism developing, feeling as I did that opinion needed to come in from the cold. Later, on these pages, instead of demanding more hollowed-out opinion, I called it a need for more voices.
And so, as a result of Rob’s gonzo comment, I thought I might write something discursive and uncontroversial.
However, this afternoon – in the hervidor that is the self-same Twitter – a battle over journalistic probity between Owen Jones and James Bloodworth produced along the way this tweet from Max Shanly:
@J_Bloodworth @OwenJones84 Because all too often James you focus on the negative and ignore the positive.
Now whilst I’m pretty sure that at the moment of its sending, James’ tweeted reply suggested that journalism’s job consisted in focussing on the negative, as anything which focussed on the positive was the activity of the propagandist (ie Owen Jones), I’m darned if I can now find the phrase I’m sure he tweeted (and which I’m equally sure I also favourited). And, to be honest, I can’t see any reason for him to be ashamed of the idea – certainly not enough to delete it from the web (if, indeed, that is what he did – in a world of subtle censorship and filtering, one can now never be sure exactly what one did see). In part, I didn’t get onto the El País journalism course precisely because I wasn’t as rigorous as James clearly prefers to be. Rigour of such a kind, even if unpopular, is hardly something to make one feel professionally disgraced.
Yet the position and its counterpoint are both worth pursuing. Where we find ourselves in conditions as extreme as Gaza, perhaps gonzo journalism – the journalism of emotion, I mean – is the only reasonable, that is to say, the only moderately democratic, reaction and way forward. The carefully weighed-up, predigested and moderated journalism of traditional media contains within itself a lot of information which is not communicated. As a result, a journalistic elite, a hierarchy of power and centralised command and control, is inevitably erected over the readerships and viewers various – precisely because only the negative is worthy of being told. The shit is encouraged to hit the fan – and so the journalists themselves become the fans of the shit.
It may be, then, that to focus on the positive could be the job of some propagandists, but to wallow in the negative as James (I think) seemed to want to – apart from anything else, in order to avoid any accusations of propagandism – is equally extreme; equally self-interested; equally falsifying of the reality we all experience.
The alternative could be the multiple voices of direct emotion that traditional journalism forcefully resists like a schizophrenic’s medication similarly aims to. Voices which may multiply uncontrollably – but which may also serve to understand a mad world better.
For as I said a couple of years ago in my piece linked to above:
By allowing those most knowledgeable about such corrupting influences to speak from the heart instead of the pocket, from their own most private voices instead of their borrowed and acquired public positions, the darkness that has fallen over one of the pillars of our democracy may ultimately be cast aside.