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So What Do You Do, Matt Taibbi, Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone?
A writer cut from Hunter S. Thompson's mold talks about his job and his frustrations with the system- March 12, 2008
The evolution of presidential campaigns from whistle-stop tours to televised spectacle to post-modern Mobius strips of narratives and meta-narratives has forced a similar evolution in campaign reportage. Read The New York Times on any given day this primary season, and you will find (especially online), various strains of typical "horse race" reportage, boys-on-the-bus-style meta-media coverage, and even minute-by-minute bloggy coverage of debates, practically scored like a boxing match. But what you will not find is the journalism of rage.
Rage was Hunter S. Thompson's specialty, and he may have been its sole practitioner (at least in its most lyrical form.) Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 has its rightful place on the (short)list of great campaign books, but no one has ever been able to channel his bitingly funny rage, disgust, and thwarted aspirations since then. Not many have tried.
His closest heir may be Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, who has spent the last five years on the magazine's National Affairs desk -- Thompson's old beat at the magazine -- chronicling the worst aspects of American politics and having a wickedly good time doing it. When he wasn't busy skewering one candidate after another this primary season (which seems like it started sometime in 2006), Taibbi was writing his third book, due out in May. The Great Derangement is his immersion into the far-Left and far-Right wings of American politics, as makes the argument that a shared middle ground has simply fallen away.
While no one can replace Hunter Thompson, Taibbi openly aspires to one aspect of his legacy. "When the other reporters came home from the campaign trail, their wives had to ask them what it was really like out there," Taibbi says. "But Hunter Thompson's wife didn't have to ask him, because she just read his pieces."
Name: Matt Taibbi
Position: Contributing editor, Rolling Stone
Resume: Prior to Rolling Stone, he was a columnist for the New York Press and before that the founder of The Beast, a Buffalo-based alt-weekly. He spent 1991-1994 and 1995-2002 in the former Soviet Union and Mongolia, playing professional baseball in the former and basketball in the latter before resettling in Moscow to co-found an English-language newspaper, the eXile.
Birthday: Born 1970; "I'm 37."
Hometown: Hingham, Massachusetts
Education: BA, Bard College
Marital status: Single
First section of Sunday Times: "I don't read the Sunday Times."
Favorite TV shows: The Wire
Last books you read: Our Inner Ape by Frans De Waal; The Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl
Guilty pleasure: "Hours-per-day scanning of obscure sports Web sites like Baseball Prospectus."
The dominant tone or emotion in your Low Post columns -- and just about everything you write -- is disgust. With that mind, who or what disgusts you the most this primary season?
That's a tough question. I think Hillary disgusts me more than anyone else. Obviously, I wasn't a big fan of Rudy Giuliani and I'm still not a fan of John McCain, for a lot of reasons. The way he talks about the war is unbelievably irresponsible and kind of scary, but Hillary is the one who really, really gets to me. I was at an event that she did in Youngstown, Ohio the other night, and she comes in there ranting and raving and presenting herself as this great ally of the working man, and she's talking about how NAFTA has to be fixed and free trade agreements have had such a terrible effect on communities like yours, but she supported every free trade agreement that ever crossed her desk.
Three months ago, she voted to expand NAFTA to Peru, and she's got one of the biggest union busters in the country, Mark Penn, working as her chief campaign strategist. She's sat on the board of directors of Wal-Mart for years while they crushed unions, one after the other, and without skipping a beat, she presents herself as a modern day Samuel Gompers. All politicians do that -- I get that -- but there is something about the way Hillary Clinton presents herself as a critic of the war even after she voted for it. People forget before the war that she was one of the first people to talk about how Saddam Hussein was harboring Al Qaeda. I guess it's normal political behavior, but there is something about the way she does it that really, really gets me.
Are there any actual heroes in this campaign? Barack Obama has been cast in that role by the press, but does he deserve the tongue bath he's gotten from the media?
He's running an unbelievably cautious campaign and has really worked hard to not say a thing. I think there's deliberately a lack of substance in a lot of his policy proposals, and it's hard to say what he's all about on the issues. My sense of him -- and this comes from talking to people in Congress -- is that he's real on enough issues to take him seriously when he talks about change. I know people in the campaign finance reform community, for instance, who think he is the best in Congress on the issues. When they want to get something done, they go to his office. I genuinely believe that his feelings about the war were more critical from the beginning, and I think he's probably more in line with most progressives about the war than Hillary is. I think Hillary, deep in her heart, believes the Democratic party needs to be more aggressive and militarist to survive politically.
If there is a hero, I really like how John Edwards ran his campaign. The thing that bothers me about American politics, more than anything else, is that these guys know what goes on behind the scenes. They know how legislation gets passed, they know how the money works, and they never, ever educate us about any of this stuff. They just get up there and pander to us -- they talk about themes they think we're going to respond to -- and Edwards didn't do it this time. In the Iowa campaign I watched, he was very explicit about how the money game works in Washington, and how companies pour cash into both parties and to obtain very specific results. In one speech I watched, he pointed out that when the pharmaceutical industry was heavily supporting the Democratic Party, they convinced the Democrats to slow down legislation that would have sped up the production of generic prescription drugs. He was giving specific examples that were really teaching people about what was happening, and regardless of the fact he didn't win, it was a public service.
And yet that message didn't resonate enough with Iowa voters -- maybe Edwards' most natural constituency out of any state. So whose fault is that? The electorate? The candidates? The press?
It's all three. For the candidates, the easiest route for them to win an election is to identify through polls what voters respond to, and just hammer them again and again. That comes down to the specific words like "values" and "security" and "strength," and saying those words over and over again is soothing to a lot of voters. They try very hard to do that, because they know they can be criticized by taking specific positions on things. On the flip side, the mainstream media doesn't really have a strong interest in covering heavy issues, because for the most part it's boring and it's much harder to sell tabloid newspapers or to keep the 24-hour cable news cycle buzzing. If you just watch television, you'll notice that you never see poor people on TV unless they are being chased by cops, and that's because poverty is depressing. And depressing things don't sell advertising.
So there's never any overt commands from the editors to the writers, but it's built into how reporters perceive reality. They can tell what's a juicy "news" story and what isn't. So when, for instance, Hillary takes a shot at Obama that's a little bit personal, the media immediately gravitate to that moment because they know it's going to be the headline. It's not because they're consciously trying to hide the truth -- that's just the way the business works. And it is a business.
|We have the license to talk about things that other people won't because we're a music magazine and we don't have to worry about access.|
And so is Rolling Stone. With that mind, who are your editors there, why did their hire you, and what are your marching orders on the campaign trail?
I have three editors I deal with. At the top is [editor-in-chief] Jann Wenner. [Managing editor] Will Dana and [executive editor] Eric Bates are the two I deal with on a day-to-day basis, mostly Eric this week.
I think they hired me because they were familiar with my writing and because I have the same sensibility as these people. They said, "go call it as you see it," and it just so happens that I happen to see it in line with their point-of-view. There's an argument that Rolling Stone isn't counter-cultural anymore, and that we're a part of the mainstream now, but I think we are trying to provide something that other publications and news organizations can't. We have the license to talk about things that other people won't because we're a music magazine and we don't have to worry about access for anything. The Washington Post can't be completely over the top about how it covers the Bush administration because they need to be traveling with Bush all the time. We don't have to, so we don't worry about it. We say whatever we want, and the best thing about the American media is that if there's a market for something, it'll exist. People still apparently want this, so we get to give it to them.
So what kind of access do you have? The inevitable fallout from taking a hot poker to seemingly everyone in the political establishment must mean that a lot people won't return your calls. How does trafficking in angry journalism affect your ability to do day-to-day reporting?
Obviously it's hard on that front, because some politicians don't want to deal with me, or anyone like me. But there are some who will. There are a lot of guys in politics who are really mad and really committed, and they're primarily motivated by disgust over what's happening. [U.S. Senator] Bernie Sanders [D.-Vermont] is a great example of a guy I can talk to as a person because we mostly feel the same way about things. He's a guy I really admire, and he's given me a lot.
Hillary Clinton is not going to tell me anything I don't know already. When I'm talking to politicians, I'm trying to learn something. And if I can't do that, I don't see the point. There are people out there who have got a hold of an issue they think they're on the right side of, and they are more than happy to talk to me. And that's refreshing.
Is writing with anger and scorn and disgust really the best way to connect with readers? Or is the problem with American journalism the absence of that?
It's funny; I lived in Russia for 10 years, and there reporters are given license to editorialize as much as they want in their stories, even the investigative reporters. They're allowed to write with style and a point of view. I don't think it adversely affected the product at all, and in fact it enhanced it, and people become attached to their favorite writers, who they responded to as they would to a character they could trust.
I haven't really tried to consciously imitate someone like Hunter Thompson, but I do remember one line from the Boys On The Bus, that when the other reporters came home from the campaign trail, their wives had to ask them what it was really like out there. But Hunter Thompson's wife didn't have to ask him, because she just read his pieces. That's the way I'd like to do it. If we're presenting a version of reality that's different from what we actually experience, then what are we doing out there? If we're adding an element that isn't really there, then there is some kind of deception going on.
It's better to show it the way it really is. And the way I perceive it is that there's always a lot of fakery and falseness, and it's kind of disgusting and offensive. I'm not trying to make people angry, I'm just trying to show them the way I see it, and I think most readers appreciate that. I think some people find the style abrasive, or disrespectful, but those people have plenty of other coverage they can read.
I take it that's your approach in The Great Derangement as well. What was the genesis of your and how much (if at all) will it reflect your early coverage of this campaign?
It's not really a campaign book, and it's not a collection of pieces; it's all original. Basically, while covering Congress and Washington politics, I noticed the book's basic theme, which is that Washington doesn't really work for the voters at all. It's a very closed, money-driven dynamic that's been described as "politicians get elected and serve their financial masters the entire time, and as a result you get a dysfunctional situation where the voters want one thing and get something completely different."
What's happened on both the Left and the Right is that people feel alienated and distrustful of mainstream politics, and they're gravitating towards extreme and paranoid politics instead. On the Left you have the 9/11 Truth movement, which has developed tremendous momentum, and a lot of that is driven by the fact they feel sold out by the Democrats. On the Right, you have the Christian conservatives and these apocalyptic cults that have popped up, because a lot of these Christian conservatives elected the Republicans to cut spending and have small government along with enacting conservative social policies and they got none of that. So they gravitated towards something more extreme. I did some undercover stuff on both sides, and talked about Washington dynamics at the same time, how laws get passed and how the money thing works.
Is it still possible to even write a classic campaign narrative at this point? As The New York Times Magazine's Matt Bai put it in January: "I don't feel like reading the vast majority of political books that are being written right now, and if I don't feel like reading them, then no ordinary voter will feel like reading them." Is it still possible to write such a book that anyone would want to read?
I'm primarily a comic. I was away from the United States for so long, I thought I would love to go home and cover a presidential campaign because it looks like such a disgusting black comedy from the distance. But one of the things that I've found is that since Joe McGinnis or Hunter Thompson or Tim Crouse were covering them, is that people are aware of the other story out there -- the behind-the-scenes thing. Everyone is so much more tight-lipped, because everything is in play now. It's much more antiseptic on the bus, and the whole atmosphere of the aides and the reporters is not a whole lot more interesting than what you're seeing on television actually.
You have to go a bit further to find out what the story is, and what's funny about. The real story on the campaign trail is unfortunately not the candidates, because what's really happening is these politicians are taking an enormous amount of money behind the scenes, and four years down the road, after they get elected, they have to start delivering on those favors. And we don't see that dynamic. That's the real story, if you could cover it. In the meantime, you have to try to find on the surface whatever evidence you can, and whenever you get a chance to talk about it, you take it. But it's mostly hidden from view, and you're deducing it, as opposed to covering it. It's definitely harder than it used to be, that's for sure.
Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to mediabistro.com. He's currently working on his first book.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
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