Philosophy Weekend: Matt Taibbi Has Nothing To Say

This is journalism?

I’m disgusted by Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone piece on Tea Party politician and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, and not because I like Michele Bachmann any more than Matt Taibbi does. I think she’d be a disastrous President, as bad as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or Rick Perry and maybe even worse, and I think there will be a lot at stake in the 2012 Presidential election.

A debate is raging in the United States of America about the nature of government itself, and significant intellectual challenges are arising from all sides. At times of heightened controversy like these, good journalism becomes absolutely essential. Here’s what Taibbi, a supposedly serious and reputable liberal political critic, has to say about the latest rigid conservative to make waves as a Presidential contender:

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government.

Then, a little further on:

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Funny that Taibbi should compare ultra-rightist Michele Bachmann to ultra-leftist Kim John-Il of Korea, because I’ve already expressed my disgust with lazy journalists whose analysis of this North Korean stops dead at the observation that “Kim Jong-Il is crazy“. In fact, Kim Jong-Il is a lot of terrible things, but crazy isn’t one of them. Here’s what I wrote last November:

This material can make good comedy — and, listen, I don’t understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks “Kim Jong-Il is a loon” can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il’s actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.

The more I think about this, the more this kind of empty commentary irks me. By telling us that Michele Bachmann, who appeals strongly to many Americans, is simply “crazy”, Matt Taibbi is actually telling us a few different things at once, none of them reflecting the message he wants to transmit.

First, he’s letting us know that he doesn’t have an even basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular, and why some smart people in this country take her seriously.

Second, he’s letting us know that he doesn’t think it’s important to have a basic understanding of why Michele Bachmann is popular. She’s beyond discussion. To any Rolling Stone reader who might have ever found Michele Bachmann appealing in any way, Matt Taibbi has nothing to say but “talk to the hand”. These readers, presumably, are beyond discussion as well.

This is journalism?

Any loudmouth balook on a city bus can proclaim that a politician they don’t understand is “crazy”. It’s a journalist’s job to do better than this. I expect a serious political writer to show a grasp of both sides of a story and then come down on the better side. That’s the kind of political writing that can have the power to change people’s minds.

Taibbi-style hyperbole has only one possible goal: to hit an opponent so hard that the opponent crumbles. This is journalism aiming not to explain or illuminate, but to embarrass, exclude and vanquish. Both sides practice this type of journalism, of course. I’m more critical when I see my fellow liberals do it than when I see Fox News do it (Fox News, of course, does it 24 hours a day) because I think we liberals should do better than our opposition.

At least I’m not all alone here. Just as I was stewing over Matt Taibbi’s useless piece (which, ironically, got a lot of positive attention among my tweeps and friends), I read an unusual, perceptive Huffington Post piece by the great hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons.

Simmons, apparently, is as sick of the low-quality liberal response to conservative challenges as I am. Pondering his passionate disagreements with Fox News figurehead Sean Hannity about foreign policy, he comes to a surprising realization:

[Hannity] lives by his book and for that I have to respect him… but I don’t believe that everyone else has to be made to live by HIS book. People really believe in a strike-first foreign policy… it protects our country, so they say. They bully us and push us around, so we bomb the shit out of them and wipe their country off the map. They really believe that.

And while they believe all of this, they stomp on us. And while they are stomping, they smile as we just get angrier, with them and with ourselves. So, we turn them off, tune them out and call them evil. That is where they win and we lose. We play on their battlefields, in their costumes and in their language.

“We turn them off and call them evil”. Right, and there are two other variations: we call them stupid, or we call them crazy. Three different ways of telling people we disagree with that we don’t think their opinions are even worth talking about: call them evil, call them stupid, call them crazy.

Here’s Russell Simmons’s closing paragraph, which I agree with completely. Simmons was a smart guy in the 70s and 80s when he put Queens hip-hop on the map, and he’s apparently a smart guy still today:

As progressives, one of the things it means is that we are open-minded. One of the things we stand for is a lack of rigidness. We have always led with compassion, while conservatives lead with values and safety. But if we don’t listen then we are no better than they are. We will end up walking out of meetings with the vice president just like them. Cause at the end of the day Sean Hannity and his boys think they are right. And we think we are right too. All patriots want this country to be more perfect. We all believe in our hearts that our way is right. I didn’t say turn on Fox News, as you know my politics are to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but when it’s on and you walk by and you hear their rhetoric, don’t assume they’re wrong. A great yogic teacher said, “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” You don’t have to agree with them, you just have to listen.

27 Responses

  1. “Some people will say that
    “Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.” Hunter S. Thompson

    There are flaws to that logic, but I still see a place for it and I still think it’s journalism. Taibbi isn’t the journalist Thompson was but I think his attack-dog style serves a definite purpose.

  2. I wouldnt concern myself too
    I wouldnt concern myself too much with Taibbi’s “journalism”. It’s the sort of anti-Republican, mindlessly pro-Democratic rhetoric that Weinner and his ilk have been cramming into this dubious Music Criticism rag since its inception.

    The democratic equivalent of Fox News.

    The man’s doing bad Hunter Thompson, or at least an obvious casualty of HST’s gonzo alliterative propaganda. Mind you, it was incredible, beautiful work. When he can make Nixon supporters like Pat Buchanan laugh, that speaks volumes to the quality of the commentary.

    Re: Taibbi, this an opinion piece and not journalism. And if you cant be informative, you got to be funny. To an editor, this would only be only funny if you’re preaching to to the converted. And as Levi notes (as a believer), it’s not funny. It’s nothing.

  3. On a microscopic level,
    On a microscopic level, scientists have found plankton in the North Atlantic where it had not existed for at least 800,000 years.

    “The implications are enormous. It’s a threshold that has been crossed,” said Philip C. Reid, of the Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth, England.

    I’ll support the presidential candidates and high-profile journalists that focus on the imminent eco-collapse far more than the minute differences in the two-party (sic) rhetoric.

    Oops…that’s right, there are no presidential candidates or high-profile journalists doing that.

    Never mind, let’s just watch “Dancing with the Stars” till its time to proudly exercise our democratic freedoms again in Nov. 2012.

  4. Progressives (or fake ones)
    Progressives (or fake ones) are by far the most closed minded hate mongering group in this country.

    A few years ago when I ran across Ed Schultz on the radio, I could not believe what I was hearing him say — not about politicians but just conservative people. I don’t say this lightly, but it was reaching Goebbels levels in terms of the dehumanization and instillment of hatred and fear of the other.

    “Both sides practice this type of journalism, of course”

    I really don’t see this to the extreme that conservatives, especially women, are. You can see it in posters to web sites, but not in writers or journalists at the level of this Rolling Stone writer.

    Can anyone produce an example of anything similar from the other side?

    Levi, you are to be commended for noticing these things and caring.

  5. It’s the sort of
    It’s the sort of anti-Republican, mindlessly pro-Democratic rhetoric that Weinner and his ilk have been cramming into this dubious Music Criticism rag since its inception.

    Yes. Excellent perfect point. And the point about poor HST imitation.

    Maybe that explains why there’s more of this on the left — more really bad Thompson imitations.

  6. but if the shoe fits . .
    but if the shoe fits . . .

    and . . . “anti-republican, mindlessly pro-democratic . . .”

    wow. shaking my head at that comment…

  7. Thanks for the responses so
    Thanks for the responses so far. I think several of you make a good point (I didn’t consider this myself) that Matt Taibbi is trying to write like Hunter S. Thompson. Well, I have nothing against the style of writing — it’s just the underlying message I object to.

    Mickey Z., you know I love arguing with you. Well, I agree that when it comes to foreign policy or the environment, there is sadly not much difference between the Democratic and Republican parties today. But I wish you would agree with me that when it comes to certain other issues — tax policy, a woman’s right to choose, gay marriage, health care reform — there are significant differences. Can’t we meet halfway here?

    TKG, I have to wonder what you’re thinking of when you say that only the liberal outlets, not the conservative ones, practice this type of biased journalism. Can I name an example? Hell yeah. Every show on Fox News. Rush Limbaugh. Mark Levin. I could go on and on. I think it’s hilarious that Bill O’Reilly’s news show is still called the “No Spin Zone”. That show spins so much it’s dizzy.

  8. . . .”A few years ago when I
    . . .”A few years ago when I ran across Ed Schultz on the radio, I could not believe what I was hearing him say — not about politicians but just conservative people. I don’t say this lightly, but it was reaching Goebbels levels in terms of the dehumanization and instillment of hatred and fear of the other.”

    “I really don’t see this to the extreme that conservatives, especially women, are. You can see it in posters to web sites, but not in writers or journalists at the level of this Rolling Stone writer.”— TKG

    not sure what you mean by this. first off, schultz is not a “writer or journalist” per se, but a radio (and tv?) pundit. and matt taibbi is not strictly an “impartial journalist” either, but doing his gonzo act. he probably forced the issue too often in this article, but he fired off some on-target salvos on his scathing indictment of goldman-sachs in my opinion. so i mean, what are we expecting from these folks to begin with?

    but if you’re saying only “lefty” pundits “dehumanize” and play the hate card, to this i’d say: you . . . cannot . . . be . . .serious! . . . wow.

    something else to consider: “wacko” is not affiliated with any particular party. i should think this is self-evident. as gump would say, it is as it does.

  9. I have heard Limbaugh and
    I have heard Limbaugh and Levin and others and they do not reach this level of personal attack.

    Seriously, provide examples equivalent to this Rolling Stone article.

    Weird is that the attacks on Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman are the strongest from both sides. The conservative press has slammed Palin just as much as the dominant left wing writers.

    In fact the crazy Fox News asked Michelle Bachman if she is a flake.

    Karl Rove, Charles Krautheimer and George Will have been incredibly insulting to Palin and other women Republican candidates.

  10. Yeah, TKG, I’m going to agree
    Yeah, TKG, I’m going to agree with mnaz that I don’t understand how you can seriously deny that popular conservative commentators also resort to this kind of attack journalism. You say you have heard Mark Levin? Nasty attack journalism makes up his entire radio show. I submit a link to his website as evidence. Listen to any show in his archives, please, and let me know what you find.

    I do agree with you, though, that female presidential candidates are often criticized more harshly than males. This works both ways too — Hillary Clinton has taken a whole lot of personal abuse.

  11. None of this really matters.
    None of this really matters. ALL journalists in this country are distracting people from what is really happening. And that is: The president no longer runs the country, the banks and corporations run the country, point blank period. The emperor wears no clothes, people.

  12. another comment. most of the
    another comment. most of the conservative types who mentored me when i was growing up would be appalled at what passes for “conservative” commentary these days, at least on these various major media circuses. same with policy. in recent years, when i’ve had a chance to discuss some of the cornerstone policies of right-wing policy with them, particularly the runaway spend-and-not-tax red ink (kick-started by reagan but propelled to new absurd heights by bush) and bush’s iraq policy, they express no solidarity with such “conservatism.” on the contrary.

  13. I have listened and read and
    I have listened and read and do not hear and read the same type of personal insults.

    Like I said, find an example comparable to this article in Rolling Stone or to Ed Schultz calling Sarah Palin a slut or him saying that conservative people literally hate “you” (his audience) and literally want to see you dead.

    Levin does start to shout and calls callers idiots. I’m sure there are conservative radio hosts who do go to the personal insults, but I don’t listen to them.

    There is a movie out about Sarah Palin that apparently has 15 minutes of very mainstream celebrities saying the most nasty vile things possible about her.

    I don’t think there could be the same sort of thing found about Obama.

    And, the odd thing is that the women conservatives also get it from the right side.

    Again, in general the left are nastier more personally vitriolic in their attacks.

  14. Interesting thing about
    Interesting thing about Simmons is I am not sure he really understands who he is or what he has done.

    First, though, I a agree with his point of course and it is good to see him making it. People have their opinions and they are sincere for the most part.

    I don’t understand his example about “first strikes” though, given Libya. There always seems to be an odd double standard on the peacenik side.

    Now, concerning Simmons being a progressive, to the left of Kucinich, well that’s kind of funny.

    Simmons is a corporate mogul who oversees a multibillion dollar corporate empire. He’s the most capitalistic exploitive businessman as exists.

    I submit that the appeal to the progressivism and the political aspect he shows reflects more on maintaining his empire. His empire contains plenty of acts that many people wouldn’t appreciate and would discourage subjecting oneself to. The conservative/right opinion is a threat to his bottom line.

  15. One last thing, re

    One last thing, re

    “Any loudmouth balook on a city bus can proclaim that a politician they don’t understand is “crazy”. It’s a journalist’s job to do better than this”

    You are 100% right on and so intellectually honest and perceptive to see this and say.

    I also believe it needs to be the case on both sides and conservatives should not do this either.

    I know you are incredulous, but I do not observe the same sort of thing on the legitimate right.

    So, here is my challenge, find any article from the last five years in the Weekly Standard, National Review or American Spectator that even comes close to this piece in Rolling Stone. Not in disagreement or attack on a position or viewpoint – but in lack of substance for the argument on the differing opinion and gratuitous personal abuse of the subject. (Maybe Emmett Tyrell may come close, I don’t know).

    Or, it could be that Rolling Stone simply isn’t to be taken seriously.

    A fun recommendation — look up an old conversation between Camille Paglia and Rush Limbaugh and also read what she’s written about Limbaugh.

  16. — “The president no longer
    — “The president no longer runs the country, the banks and corporations run the country” . . .

    glad someone brought that up. and not “small-business” types either, but the megabucks behemoths . . . big oil, big pharma, big defense (many sizes and flavors of “defense,” actually), big banking, big insurance, big agribusiness, big big big. (as opposed to we, the “big us”).

    if you vote republican, this is what you vote to be represented. it’s always been like this to a degree, but . . . seems it’s out of control like never before. i swear, some of these folks would trash every single labor organization and social safety net if they could and privatize absolutely everything. unacceptable in my view. a fundamentally flawed p.o.v. a deal-breaking ideological bust.

    and democrats? seems the only difference is, they make some weak token effort every so often to appease their base, or what’s left of it. anyone who thinks obama is too much of a “socialist liberal”… please.

  17. The article was published in
    The article was published in Rolling Stone. The magazine that published much of Hunter S Thompson’s (enjoyable) work. If you expect objective journalism in Rolling Stone (or any other music magazine) then I suggest you are going to be disappointed.

    It’s a bit like expecting fine dining in a fast food joint. It ain’t going to happen.

  18. It’s sad, because it used to
    It’s sad, because it used to be a great music and culture rag at one point, allowing some interesting progressive voices a huge platform, but these days I take Rolling Stone’s stance on politics exactly as seriously as I take their stance on music:

    Anyone remember Taibbi’s hatchet-job on Goldman-Sachs in RS a couple years ago? I had approximately 100 people forward it to me, and it was immensely frustrating. I kept replying to everyone, “look, Goldman-Sachs IS evil, and they DID destroy the global economy, but this article is total bullshit.”

  19. i thought that article was
    i thought that article was spot-on. about time someone tried to roust us out of a deep, pathetic slumber . . .

  20. Michelle Bachman has left
    Michelle Bachman has left herself open to both “nane” and inane criticism by her vapid remarks which make Sarah Palin look like an intellectual. I have no sympathy with Bachman, nor with other ultra-right tea party types. Oxy-Rush Limbaugh (sic) has been no kinder in his criticism. I am sorry that there is no decorum in today’s commentary, but that is “the way of word” nowadays. Emotions rule some commentators and they are lead around by their noses by various sidelined issues, such as “abortion”, “family values”, & “gayness”.

    Values cannot be legislated and I think these issues detract from more core issues such as the economy, national security, jobs, & national health care. We are an increasingly polyglot society and are squabbling over “penny annie” stuff instead of looking at the larger issue as to
    who is most fit to run for president. Do we want some vapid, dingbat, preachy politician or do we want someone who is savvy, discerning, & pragmatic? That’s the name of this tune I am playing. The choice is ours to make.

  21. I am grieved that no one here
    I am grieved that no one here (except Taibbi) spells Michele Bachmann’s first name correctly.

  22. Hah! Good point, Josh — I
    Hah! Good point, Josh — I will fix it in the main blog post.

  23. How about Michael Savage or
    How about Michael Savage or Ane Coulter? They certainly are right-wingers who practice this type of journalism.

  24. You’re right man. That wasn’t
    You’re right man. That wasn’t journalism. That was art. Taibbi is a wordsmith. I loved that article so much.

    I guess its fair to call it a poor example of Hunter S Thompson writing but in all honesty, any imperssonation of HST is poor. Its like saying Roy Jones jr did a poor imitation of Tyson. He still got a KO.

    Also I dont think any journalist should waste their time and talent on a serious Bachmann piece because she is in fact a joke. Spend 4 pages in a magazine making fun of her. Its what I would do.

  25. This article and most
    This article and most responses remind me why self-styled ‘moderates’ are about the worst people in politics, ever rejecting the truth if they can say it’s on ‘one side’. About the only time they’ll ‘take a side’ might be on the issues of a round earth and gravity, and even then they’d probably criticize the style the correct side uses in claiming they’re correct.

    Taibbi is right generally, and his style is refreshing and effective at cutting through the mealy-mouthed discussion that pleases ‘centrists’ so much as saying so little softly, ‘not partisan’.

    Paul Krugman publicized henry Kissenger’s Ph.D thesis, where he wrote that ‘comfortable democracies are largely incapable of resisting radical forces’. They sit their chattering about ‘they wouldn’t do THAT and got THAT far would they’, as they do, over and over, as the society is damaged around them. They just can’t react strongly. Kissinger wrote it about historical France; Krugman applied it to the Bush administration. He’s right.

    If this was the south in 1850, these same centrists would call those who say slavery was a historic crime against people ‘radicals’, and demand that they soften the rhetoric and recognize that the slave owners, even if there are criticisms, are good people too, and they care for their slaves generally, provide for them when they’d be unable to care for themselves – they wouldn’t support a ‘radical’ attack on the institution.

    This country is facing very serious threats and challenges from the concentration of power and wealth, and those interests’ massive propaganda (‘think tanks’) and media machines are stomping all over the timid, little-read responses, while corporate journalism does ‘he said, she said’ pieces without pointing out who’s right, since that’d be ‘bias’.

    These ‘centrist’ people are not able to discuss the massive harms, even evil – a word the article attacks above – going on. And worse, they attack people who are being accurate.

    They’re enablers of the corrupt – actually, they’re obstructionists to the reformers.

    Taibbi is one of the best writers on the corruption of modern Republicans and those they serve in the world. Unfortunately, his megaphone is tiny, not funded by billionares.

    I’m not a big fan of some of his style, which can seem childish at times, but it’s a minor criticism.

    I’m just disgusted by the ‘centrists’. Taibbi can lead them to water, but he can’t make them drink.

    Maybe if they read his very informative book ‘Griftopia’, it’d sink in a little. Unlikely.

    As the poster above said, his writing isn’t just ‘journalism’. He titles a chapter ‘the biggest asshole in the universe’, about Alan Greenspan – which might sound absurdly hyperbolic, but it’s also a remarkably appropriate bit of hyperbole and it’s the best critique I’ve seen of Greenspan anywhere. It’s a lot better than a ‘blah blah errors may have been made’ piece.

    This articles title describes the article and not Taibbi. It’s quite wrong about Taibbi.

  26. This is the centrist fallacy
    This is the centrist fallacy of ‘false equivalency’.

    The amount of negative comments about Obama and Palin has nothing to do with whether they’re accurate, with whether one deserves more than the other. They have to be the same.

    This sounds idiotic when it’s pointed out, but that’s the implied rule in the post.

    Assume the left ‘is more vitriolic in their attacks’. Is it possible the right puts up far, far worse people more deserving of vitriolic attacks, and that they’re justified? Not to the ‘centrists’.

    If we’re comparing Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, any criticisms of Nixon about abuse of power have to be matched by equally strong criticisms of Carter for abuse of power.

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