“But isn’t it very confusing if we all send different news,” he asks a veteran correspondent.
“It gives them a choice,” the colleague says of British editors. “They all have different policies so of course they have to give different news.”
I was reminded of “give different news” while reading Matt Taibbi’s “Hate Inc.,” which is also a book about journalists but with a much darker subtitle: “Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another.” Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, writes that “Scoop” is one of a handful of books he carries whenever he travels, and traces of its comic cynicism animate his prose. But where Waugh brilliantly satirized, Taibbi aims a cannon, blasting an American media industry he accuses of taking sides and manipulating the audience for profit — “different news” elevated to a business model.
“The subject here is the phasing out of independent journalism, replacing it with deeply politicized programming on both ‘sides,’ ” he writes. “Which ‘side’ is better is immaterial: neither approach is journalism. Fox may have more noxious politics, but MSNBC has become the same kind of consumer product, a political safe space for viewers in ironclad alignment with a political party.”
“Hate Inc.” began as a series of online installments, each coursing with an angry energy and a sense of loss for the journalism Taibbi learned from his father. Mike Taibbi reported for a network affiliate in Massachusetts, and the son’s affectionate recollections of his father working the rotary phone at night, randomly pulling names from his Rolodex and checking in with sources, provide a sort of Rosebud touchstone for the indictment that follows. Few are spared, including the author, who admits to a reporting career catering to liberal readers and the “self-loathing that came with knowing I’d tossed so much red meat to political audiences.”
Taibbi’s equal-opportunity enmity is announced by his book cover, a red-and-blue diptych featuring photographs of cable gladiators Sean Hannity of Fox News and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. Maddow suffers an especially rough critique for her persistent focus on the Russian collusion story, an approach Taibbi believes was excessive, built not on fact but on innuendo fashioned for liberal viewers, and worthy of Hannity-level shaming. “The two characters do exactly the same work,” he writes. “They make their money using exactly the same commercial formula. And though they emphasize different political ideas, the effect they have on audiences is much the same.”
Hate, the author argues, has been promoted by news outlets that cater to “distinct audiences of party zealots” fed a diet of information intended to demonize political opponents — and increase viewership. It’s a model with benign consequences when applied to coverage of rival sports teams, but otherwise corrosive. “In 2016 especially, news reporters began to consciously divide and radicalize audiences,” he writes. “. . . As Trump rode to the White House, we rode to massive profits. The only losers were the American people, who were now more steeped in hate than ever.”
Taibbi is right to sound the alarm about the temptations that have tarnished news reports since Donald Trump’s election, resulting in more programming that appears designed to ratify an audience’s political beliefs. But he overreaches when he claims that “the bulk of reporters today are soldiers for one or the other group of long-entrenched political interests in Washington.” And saddling journalism with blame for the nation’s current state of animus lets an awful lot of suspects walk free. Taibbi, an experienced campaign reporter, is more effective in his autopsy of the conventional wisdom that plagued coverage of the 2016 election. His sharp analysis of the media obsession with “electability” — a maxim Trump’s victory should have vanquished but that persists “as journalism’s version of junk forensics” — sounds an important and worrisome note for 2020.
In ways that reading Taibbi’s work in occasional digital installments might not, the book format exposes a wearying repetition. The problem is more than aesthetic. Whether Taibbi is examining botched coverage of the Russia investigation or a straightforward column on media habits in suburban New York, everything withers under his microscope. There’s an honest moment early in the book when Taibbi acknowledges that “a lot of us are quietly struggling” to find the balance between traditional journalism standards and the pressure to politicize content. I’ve heard this from many journalists and wished for more exploration of this tension, but it’s not the book on offer.
In one section about journalistic “expeditions into flyover country,” the author criticizes Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan for a 2017 story on mistrust of the media. Responding to a reader’s challenge, Sullivan decamps to Angola, N.Y., a village on the shores of Lake Erie, where she lives and reports for six weeks. Taibbi demeans the decision, calling Angola “a DC reporter’s perfect conception of an undesirable/nowhere-ish hole” and claiming that Sullivan needed “an invitation and a map to find an ‘ordinary person.’ ” His most generous note: “The awesome humor of a national news reporter needing to organize such an anthropological expedition to her own country to prove a connection to ‘real’ people was clearly lost on Sullivan, but she at least tried.”
Nowhere does Taibbi tell you that Sullivan grew up in nearby Lackawanna, N.Y.; that she had spent most of her career as a reporter and then the top editor at the local Buffalo News; that the “nowhere-ish hole” was part of a region she knew well. Taibbi favors a cynical style evenly applied across the universe of real and perceived journalistic trespasses, challenging a reader to sort mortal from venial.
The author laments a growing elitism in journalism and the loss of blue-collar voices like that of Mike Royko, the late Chicago newspaper columnist. I wish he had remembered Royko’s famous admonition against peeling a grape with an ax.
Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another
By Matt Taibbi
304 pp. $24.95