The deep rot of American journalism w/Matt Taibbi
Chris Hedges discusses the deep rot that infects American journalism with reporter Matt Taibbi.
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CH: Welcome to On Contact. Today in the first of two episodes, we will talk about how the American media has become a purveyor of hate with journalist and author, Matt Taibbi.
MT: And Fox did it first and they did it well. And they started to make money and they were number one for a long time. But this started to bleed into the rest of the business. Pretty soon, everybody was doing the same thing. And it didn't matter whether you were the Food Channel that was tailoring content for people who like food, or it was ultimately MSNBC that was tailoring content for people who leaned in a certain political direction. Just you are giving people stuff that they wanted to hear.
CH: In "Manufacturing Consent" published in 1988, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky exposed the techniques the commercial media use to promote and defend the economic social and political agendas of the ruling elites. These techniques include worthy versus unworthy victims, the artificial narrowing of the parameters of debate to buttress the elite consensus and the refusal by those timid liberals permitted to express mild critiques of power to challenge the virtues of the nation's leaders or the actual structures of power and oppression. "Manufacturing Consent" was published, however, on the eve of three massive revolutions that have dramatically transformed the news industry, the rise of right-wing radio and Fox-style news that abandoned the media's faux objectivity, the introduction of 24-hour cable news stations and digital platforms owned by a handful of corporations on the internet that control the distribution of news and information and mine our personal data on behalf of advertisers, political campaigns, and the government. Joining me in the studio to discuss the deep rot that infects American journalism is Matt Taibbi, author of "Hate Inc." How and Why the Media Makes us Hate One Another." It's a really important book.
MT: It is.
CH: But let's begin with the old media.
CH: We're both old enough to remember.
MT: We are. Yeah.
CH: Because it's--I think you hit on something in this book that's extremely important and that all the old rules don't apply anymore. But let's look at what was there and how it changed. And in the second segment, we're going to talk about focus on the media landscape today. So, you actually begin by talking about your father who was--he was a TV newsperson.
MT: He was, uh-hmm.
CH: …an ABC affiliate.
MT: After he worked for a CBS affiliate as well. He worked for the network in London. Yeah.
CH: It was a very different job then. And it was about sources as relationships. And just explain a little bit about--because you grew up watching it.
MT: Yeah. My father was very old school. He started working in newspapers when he was 17 as a student at Rutgers University and that's how he supported our family when I was born a few years later. And I watched him growing up and my father was a born reporter. He was born for the business. And he had--he had these amazing techniques that I--that I worshipped growing up as a kid. He had this thing he called the phone attack that I--that I fell in love with. He would come home from work. And every night, he would take out his rolodex which, for people in the digital age, was a big card file that had telephone numbers. And he would just sort of randomly pick out numbers and call people in his big book of sources just to talk, right? And the idea was he was looking for a story, didn't have anything to ask. He just wanted to touch base. And this was how the job used to work. The whole idea was you were constantly tending to this big network of sources and they told you what the story was. And often you're surprised at what you heard. And the whole idea was being open to hearing things as opposed to just clicking on a link to…
CH: But it was also trust.
MT: Uh-hmm, right.
CH: So, I mean, they knew they could trust your father.
CH: They knew that there was a real relationship. I mean, the sources, I don't even particularly like the term, but all of those people within your orbit, you care about.
MT: Uh-hmm, absolutely. And the care--the relationship is incredibly important. And it's also incredibly important for audiences, too, because the trust is an important component of the trustworthiness of the reporting, right? The idea that your sources will not burn you because you have an existing relationship is an important reason to trust certain kinds of reporting. So, you know, this is--it's an important thing to develop sources and to develop relationships and to have a sense of who these people are, that they're not just somebody who's sending you an email. You have to know what their families are about, what their lives are like.
CH: And they--and they often have--I mean, I covered war, so--I covered the war in El Salvador for five years. And in order to survive, I had to have relationships with Salvadoran army Colonels who were probably war criminals. Otherwise, you don't make it. And it--they may not have always liked me, but they stopped some death squad from going and killing me.
MT: Right. Yeah. And, you know, I haven't exactly been in that position, but you certainly need to have relationships with all different kinds of people, you know, the people who are on the other side of the law. I mean, that's pretty common in our business. You need to have people who are stuck in institutions and perhaps informing on their superiors in a way that they shouldn't. And you have to understand the motivations of all these people even if you don't agree with what they're doing or what--or what their positions are.
CH: Yeah. Within that structure--and let's go to Manufacturing Consent, there were parameters that you could not cross, which Chomsky and Herman I think correctly point out. You write in the book that the debate, we're talking about the national acceptable debate is choreographed. The range of argument has been artificially narrowed long before you get to hear it. Speak about how that worked.
MT: Yeah. And this is something. When I first heard Manufacturing Consent in 1989, I guess I was 19. I had grown up in the media. Everybody I knew growing up was in the media. I was not really aware of this, you know, because when--as a reporter, you're assigned to something. You just go out and you do the story that they tell--they tell you to do. You don't realize that there's a whole series of decisions that have been made long before you get to the point of assignment that have an impact on sort of the propaganda model, right? And so just to take an example that Chomsky and Herman focused on Vietnam, right, with, like, reporters were allowed to examine the idea that perhaps the war wasn't winnable, right? And they were…
CH: Later though.
CH: Not at the beginning.
MT: Not at the beginning, right. But the extreme end of the spectrum by the end was perhaps we can't win this war. Yeah.
CH: But also, as Chomsky points out, we meant well.
MT: Right. We meant well.
CH: We meant well.
MT: That's an unquestioned assumption. Yes. And that--and that goes into almost any kind of reporting we do about our behaviors abroad. And so, you know, things like the fact that millions of civilians were killed in Indochina, that we were wantonly bombing countries illegally, that, you know, this was completely left out of reporting. And if it was reported on, it was always, you know, a mistake. It was--it was--it was a well-meaning effort. We were trying to help these people, et cetera, et cetera. You couldn't report it from any other angle.
CH: And as Chomsky and Herman point out, when you cross the line and question the motives and say we went into Iraq for the oil or, you know, we're 18 years in Afghanistan because Raytheon and Halliburton are making fistfuls of money off it, then you're pushed out.
MT: Right. And you know--you know this better than I do, but…
CH: I've been pushed out.
MT: Yeah. Like the way this works--and reporters know this, is that that kind of personality just does not rise in these organizations. They have--they eventually clash with editors, news directors and, you know, corporate figures. And, you know, it's never presented directly as censorship. They don't come in and red pencil your copy and tell you you're politically wrong. But it's an interpersonal thing, you know. You're just a difficult person and you're--and you're sort of moved to the sidelines.
CH: Well, I'll pull Ray Bonner who exposes the El Mozote a massacre and the death squads in El Salvador which Reagan was backing, they transferred them to, I think, night business.
MT: Right, exactly. Yeah. It's…
CH: It's one step before obits.
MT: Right, right, right, right. It's commercial. It's--you know, industrial Siberia…
CH: Well, let--I'm going to [INDISTINCT] you here. And so who does rise within the organization? A lot of see C-minus brains. And you are exactly right. And as a young reporter, I used to wonder, why are they so mediocre? But, of course, they're mediocre by design.
MT: Right, because if you--if you have the wrong kind of mind and--which is--it's a--it's a paradox because a lot of people go into journalism just because they have the kind of personality that just questions everything, right? Like, on this--you're skeptic about everything. So, naturally, you drift towards this job because that's--it's the only thing that you're suited for. But when you get into the business, you find that that is not a desired quality at some point. Like, you--and so you get a lot of people who are sort of repeaters of ideas and are sort of willing to say what everybody else is saying.
CH: Well, there are--were reporters of The New York Times who, for 30 years, had never left their desk and either done rewrite or just written press releases and were considered titans of their profession.
MT: Oh, yeah. And that still goes on today. In fact, it's even worse today. But we'll get into that.
CH: Worthy and unworthy victims.
MT: Uh-hmm. Yeah. This is a principal tenet of Manufacturing Consent. The idea that when a US-client state does something or the United States does something and there are victims as a result, well, those are unworthy victims. We're not going to cover that. So, for instance, the victims of death squads in El Salvador as you--as you mentioned, you know, we may not necessarily cover the atrocities there. But if a Polish priest is murdered by communists during the Cold War, then oh, my God, the repression of religion and think of what they're doing to all those people. And, you know, you have an exactly analogous situation going on in Central America with the exact same institution, the Catholic Church, and we don't cover it.
CH: Right. Well, this was Abrams, until at the time, was the editor of The New York Times, and if it was Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg, victims of Communism, he couldn't express his outrage fast enough. And if it was those communists FMLN rebels or Sandinistas, they deserved what they got.
MT: Right. Yeah, exactly.
CH: All right. I'm going to talk about this idea of objectivity which you write was really less an issue of politics than tone. What was it? Because it's changed. But let's talk about what it used to be.
MT: So, well, it's a couple things. There--there's the idea, the sort of larger idea that we should, you know, look at all sides of an issue. But I--but I--when I think of objectivity, I think of it as a writer, right? And to me, objectivity was when I was told that I couldn't write with voice and that I couldn't write with a point of view and objectivity was right in a dull, flat third-person perspective and don't express yourself.
Don't be too colorful. And this was--this actually was--if you pick up The New York Times today, it's that same writing style. And the original idea behind it was you didn't want to turn off people at the start because they were trying to reach the widest possible audience.
CH: Well, newspapers used to reach a wide audience.
MT: Right, exactly.
CH: It was a commercial decision.
MT: It was a commercial [INDISTINCT]
CH: Because if we go back to the 19th century, most pamphlets or newspapers took very strong political positions. But with the rise of the Hearst Empire, he understood that if he essentially neutralized the copy or neutered it, then you could appeal to everybody within the political spectrum and attract more advertising. It was a commercial decision.
MT: Completely. And this also--and this infected radio and infected television. That's why you had the sort of Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather style delivery which was monotonal. It was flat, unopinionated. And this--it was considered--you know, a lot of people thought that this was some sort ethical decision that news organizations were making. In fact, what they were trying to do is just reach the most number of people and sell the most amount of ads. And so that's how we developed that idea.
CH: We'll come back. Let's come back though. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Matt Taibbi. Welcome back to On Contact. We continue our conversation about American Journalism with Matt Taibbi. So before the brake, we were talking about the way the old media would present the left and the right, Crossfire, you know, Bill Buckley all this, kind of stuff, Meet the Press.
MT: Here in line, yeah. Uh-hmm. Yeah, well first of all, the--they told us there were only two ideas. This was a major deception that continues to this day. The whole idea that 45% of the country doesn't vote, you know, was completely left out of newscast. We don't see that at all. So we're told there were only two types of people. There are--there are Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, and when we do see these people on TV, it's always a caricatured version of those archetypes, you know. The classic example was Crossfire, right? And Crossfire was an entertainment show, which had a couple of premises that were really interesting and had important future ramifications. One of them was that the people could never come to an accommodation. They could never agree on anything. They always had to be fighting at the end of the show.
CH: I think you wrote about, was it Buchanan and somebody. They actually started agreeing with stuff and that show's over.
MT: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, yeah, they were--I think it had to do with KA7 or something like that. Yeah. That was, like, an outlier. But the other thing is that those shows almost always present--there's from the left who turns out usually not to actually be so much from the left or progressive.
CH: But I think in the book, which I found really interesting, which I didn't know, is that what's more important is their timidity, their wimpiness, you know, it's the stereotypical "Liberal."
MT: Right, yeah, exactly. As, you know, it's Jeff Cohen who was briefly on that show and played the liberal, you know, talked about with me. You know, he said the liberal was always cast as a person who couldn't punch back, right? He was always in retreat and the--and the conservative was always in attack mode. It was a personality like Tucker Carlson who…
CH: But they were also using these bromides, why can't we just get along, consensus. I mean they were cartoon figures.
MT: Right, of course, yeah, and this was awful on, like, 19 different levels. But, you know, one of them was the idea that this is how people actually perceive politics going forward, is that it's a fight between these two ideas that are irreconcilable. And in fact, it was just an entertainment program. It's no different than watching the Patriots and the Jets.
CH: And also their differences were so narrow.
MT: Right, yeah.
CH: As to be almost indistinguishable.
MT: Right. Well, of course, we didn't talk about things like central banking policy. They were--all the--all the different areas where there was agreement, right? They know financial regulatory schemes that are, you know, none of that stuff actually ever comes up. This is another important, sort of, you know, concept in the modern media is that we just do not cover bipartisan political phenomena. So when we see the, you know, the $750,000,000,000 military budget that, you know, that's just been announced, the fact that the Democrat's counteroffer was $733,000,000,000, right?
MT: You know, we're not going to talk about that. We're not going to talk about the fact that this biggest piece of what we spend is agreed upon by these two parties that are allegedly enemies. So, it's always presented to us as two parties that are in total disagreement about everything which is not true. Yeah.
CH: So you're laying the groundwork in essence for the explosion that will transform and I would argue, virtually destroy American journalism, and I think you say it kind of begins with the OJ trial, is that right?
MT: Yeah, kind of. I mean, all this stuff obviously started--you started to see signs of it, with, you know, like, the McLaughlin Report and Crossfire and all--and all of these things. But after Manufacturing Consent was published and you had cable TV and the 24-hour news network, suddenly there's this new commercial idea that pops up, which is, you know, we don't have to go after all the audience. We can't anymore as a matter of fact. The smarter thing to do is to hunt around one demographic that we can dominate, and that's how--that's how we're going to win.
CH: But the OJ Trial was, kind of, across though, and the New York Times was covering, right?
MT: Yeah, it did.
CH: I mean everybody was covering it.
MT: That was--that was a degrade--you know, it certainly degraded journalism, right? Because…
CH: Explain why? I mean you're right, but explain why.
MT: Well, you--in the past, you would never have had the New York Times giving a front page slot, like, an A1 column to what essentially was a celebrity.
CH: Day after day, that reporter is sitting in the courtroom.
MT: Day after day. And they were--and they were worried about losing market share to the National Enquirer, which instantly was beating them on the story almost with stunning regularity.
CH: That's because they made half of it up.
MT: Well, that's true, too. Yeah. But, you know, once those world started to collide, you started to see that actually the, you know, the wanted experts that all these esteemed newspapers actually weren't so much better than the reporters that, you know, at smaller or less reputable organizations once they started covering the same stuff. But certainly, yes, the decision to start chasing stories like that, you know, by serious news organizations and "serious news organizations" was a big one because it was--it was an indication, you know, in the old days, again, the news was--it was okay for the news to be a loss leader, right? Like, it was--it was part of the deal, like, that TV stations would make their money doing sports and sitcoms and all those other stuff, but the news could lose money. That was all right.
CH: Well, that's true with The New York Times. I mean when I covered the war in Kosovo, which was late in the Yugoslav conflict, they did a readership survey and found only 10% of the people were reading those stories. But they put the resources into it anyway and covered it anyway because they knew--you made a journalistic judgment that it was important news.
MT: Right, and this gets back to old versus new. I mean you've--I'm sure you've heard all these stories. I mean I'm not old enough to remember this, but, you know, I heard stories about how the sales people weren't even allowed on the same floor.
CH: Yeah. No, they weren't.
MT: As, you know, as the editorial staff. They never mixed, right?
MT: But by the '90s, you know, this time that you're talking about with the OJ trial, suddenly the sales people were actually in the room with their news director.
CH: But there's this reason for that--which you right about in a book, because financially, these organizations began to take tremendous hits.
MT: Right, yes. Exactly. Yeah, and…
CH: Classified--40% of newspaper revenue were classified ads. It's almost 50% a revenue gone.
MT: Yeah. And newspapers derived a lot of their power from their ability to distribute, right? They had--they had distribution networks that they themselves had built up. They had their own trucks, they had their own distribution points, they had their own paper kids, everything, right? And their power came from the fact that they were the only people that could reach that many readers everywhere. Suddenly, the internet comes along and distribution is no longer irrelevant, right? Like, it's, you know, distribution is a click.
CH: And this is what began the transformation of the business.
CH: So what did we see? I mean I can--as a foreign correspondent, what I saw--and I began covering the war in Salvador in the early '80s, is that of all of these foreign bureaus, both by newspapers and by [INDISTINCT] disappeared, they vanished, they weren't there anymore.
MT: Yeah, uh-hmm.
CH: They were gone.
MT: I was in Russia at the same time. I watched the exact same process. All--when I first got there, all the networks had big offices there. ABC, CBS, NBC, you know, they had compounds. And, you know, by the time I left, you know, 10 years later, it was down to a couple of people who were--who were there. I mean the--there were a few outlets that had, let's just say presence of more than one person, right? And, you know, it was--it was usually related to a financial news service like Bloomberg or Reuters, but apart from that, you know, they just didn't exist anymore. It didn't--there was no more--no longer that investment in news for news' sake.
CH: And so what happens? Neil Postman, kind of, I think charts this and amusing our self to death, but then we begin to see a very different type of news. What do we begin to see?
MT: Well, there's a couple of things going on. Again, first there's this commercial decision to start chasing audience, right? Chasing demographic and Fox pioneers this. It's this idea, well, you know, one of the easiest ways we can--we can get ratings is just to tailor news for a certain kind of person, right? So let's look at an audience that, you know, Roger Ailes famously described as 55 to dead.
MT: Right? They're, you know, they were--they were older, white, frustrated, politically conservative audiences and, you know, you don't have to make the news up for those people. You can just pick stories that you know they're going to like, right? And so you start feeding them content that is going to ratify their belief systems and Fox did it first and they did it well and they started to make money and they were number one for a long time. But this started to bleed into the rest of the business. Pretty soon, everybody was doing the same thing and it didn't matter whether you were the Food Channel that was tailoring content for people who like food, or it was ultimately MSNBC that was tailoring content for people who leaned in a certain political direction. Just you were giving people stuff that they wanted to hear.
CH: And essentially that all left-right divide, now you have a bifurcated universe where you don't even have the foe left or the foe right. You just go straight to that media outlet that reinforces your own belief system.
CH: And yet behind it, the actual structures of power remain unexamined and untouched just as they were unexamined and untouched before.
MT: Right. It's worse now, right? Because previously, you know, you were looking at it at the illusion of debate that you actually saw, you know, like, you would see people arguing on Crossfire, you would see on the op ed pages there would be people who would disagree with you.
CH: Yeah. Although, I think as you point out, that debate was often--had no substance.
MT: Right. It was a Potemkin, you know? I mean it was--it was not real--not--but at least you saw something else, right? Like now, most people are--their news consumption experience is tailored entirely to their preferences.
CH: Although you make an important point that I think the big difference between then and now is that the--however, you know, however conformative the other--both sides were, there was a kind of mutual respect, that person had a right to their opinion. You had a right. And that--and then that's what you call the [INDISTINCT] and can you put Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow I think correctly together on the cover, that that's an important change.
MT: Right, because you couldn't have a situation where you're--you were calling people Hitler or the equivalent of them and have them actually on the set with you. I mean it just didn't work that way, right? So there was--there was at least a superficial level of difference.
CH: Well, Buckley tried it with Gore Vidal.
MT: Did he? I don't remember that, yeah.
CH: Well, he didn't call him Hitler. He called him I think a fag or something. It's a kind of famous moment, but it was a huge blowup. I mean Buckley descended to that, kind of, guttural level at that time.
MT: At that time.
CH: Of course now is--it happens.
MT: Yes. They recur now, right? Like, yeah, this is--this is the thing. If you're--if you're only reading media that tailors to your particular belief system, and within that content, you're not being exposed to any other ideas, that the progression is that it's going to become progressively more and more of [INDISTINCT] and…
CH: We're going to now--next week, talk about the media landscape today, but just quickly tell people how they can read the book because they can't get it until October if they want to read it now.
MT: Yeah. It's--you can find it at taibbi.substack.com because I've been writing this serially. It's kind of a cool thing.
CH: Right. Right. Okay. That's, Matt. That was Journalist Matt Taibbi, author of "Hate Inc.: How and Why the Media Makes Us Hate One Another."