Where Thompson and the mainstream diverge most glaringly is over the question of objectivity. Of course even the most rigid journalistic purist would agree that, strictly speaking, there can be no such thing: what the word really means is a good-faith effort to be fair and (though the expression has become miserably discredited) balanced. But Thompson’s sense of morality overrode any impulse he might have had to place himself at a remove and see both sides of a story. “Objective journalism is one of the main reasons American politics has been allowed to be so corrupt for so long,” he told Matthew Hahn in a 1997 interview with Atlantic Online. “You can’t be objective about Nixon.” In Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, his account of the 1972 presidential race originally published in Rolling Stone, Thompson’s liberation from the constraints of objectivity produces both a flow of ecstatic invective—Hubert Humphrey, he writes, is “a treacherous, gutless old ward-heeler”—and such novelistic insights as Edmund Muskie’s talking “like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop.” Some reporters from the mainstream press had contempt for this flouting of professionalism. Others, according to his Rolling Stone colleague Timothy Crouse, got “a vicarious, Mittyesque thrill” from reading what they secretly thought but were forbidden to say. Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s chief political adviser, called Thompson’s dispatches “the most accurate and the least factual” reporting on the campaign.
In some moods, Thompson denied he was a reporter at all. “I’m a writer,” he told Playboy. “Nobody gives Norman Mailer this kind of shit. I’ve never tried to pose as a goddamn reporter. I don’t defend what I do in the context of straight journalism.” But he never denied he was some kind of journalist; it was just that he was ambivalent about the whole enterprise. “The best people in journalism”—David Halberstam and Harrison Salisbury were two he always praised—“I’ve never had a quarrel with. I am a journalist, and I’ve never met, as a group, any tribe I’d rather be a part of or that are more fun to be with.” Or so he told McKeen in 1990. Two years earlier, in his introduction to A Generation of Swine, he’d written that “I have spent half my life trying to get away from journalism, but I am still mired in it—a low trade and a habit worse than heroin, a strange seedy world of misfits and drunkards and failures.” (Gee, Hunter, you say it like it’s a bad thing.) Thompson was hardly the consummate professional: editors often had to piece together and sequence the fragments he turned in for publication. On the other hand, he was a meticulous stylist, seldom if ever guilty of grammatical lapses, and his reputation—richly deserved—as a drug-crazed Lord of Misrule obscured a more-than-Protestant work ethic. He often started writing after everyone else had turned in or passed out, but he knew “you’ve got to have pages in the morning. I measure my life in pages. If I have pages at dawn, it’s been a good night.”