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On Contact: Shredding journalistic credibility

On the show this week, Chris Hedges and Matt Taibbi examine how the media and the major tech platforms function as a propaganda and censorship bureau on behalf of the Democratic Party and the Biden campaign.

Author and journalist, Matt Taibbi, has been following developments since Twitter and Facebook blocked a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden's son Hunter, with Twitter locking the New York Post out of its account for over a week. The overt censorship is emblematic of the widening and dangerous partisan divide into information that hurts or promotes one political faction over another, and is now infecting nearly all news organizations.

YouTube channel: On Contact

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MT: I do believe, I mean, I have maybe a naive hope that some canny entrepreneur will realize that there's a screaming need out there for a new kind of media product.  I mean, I hear it every day from people sending emails that I just wish there was a place I could go to find out just what happened, stripped of all the editorializing, right?  Like, people want the old school, boring, you know, when, why, where, how, you know, third person dead voice that we used to get in all of these--in all the newspapers.  And they're not getting that anymore because everything is highly charged and highly politicized and tailored for a political audience.

CH: Twitter and Facebook blocked access to a New York Post story about a cache of emails reportedly belonging to Democratic nominee Joe Biden's son, Hunter, with Twitter locking the New York Post out of its own account for over a week.  This overt censorship is emblematic of a widening and dangerous partisan divide within the US media.  News and facts are no longer true or false.  They're divided into information that hurts or promotes one political faction over another.  While outlets such as Fox News have always existed as an arm of the Republican Party, this partisanship has now infected nearly all news organizations, including publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post along with the major tech platforms that disseminate news.  The division of the press into warring factions shreds journalistic credibility, creating a world where facts do not matter and where a public is encouraged to believe whatever it wants to believe.  Joining me to discuss the rapidly disintegrating media landscape and its consequences is the journalist and author, Matt Taibbi.  So Matt, you've I think written as well on this as anyone in the country and you--and I want to go all the way back to 2016 because it's not a new concern for you.  But let's begin with 2016, which was awful and--but now it's worse.  Can you talk about the progression?

MT: Sure.  I mean I think what happened in 2016, and it's kind of been a story that's assumed biblical importance for people in the news media, we had this episode where a cache of emails that had come from the Democratic National Committee and from figures like Tony Podesta came to be in the public sphere through groups like WikiLeaks.  And this material was true.  It wasn't fake.  It wasn't what we would traditionally call disinformation or misinformation but it was reported on in a small way but later blamed for helping elect Donald Trump.  And as a result, a kind of a coalition of news media, tech platforms, and politicians have since demanded that the next time a situation like this takes place, we have to make sure that nobody reports material like that.  And so we're now in an analogous situation, a semi-analogous situation where there's been an explosive report about some emails allegedly belonging to the nominee's son, Hunter Biden.  And there's been suppression and the news agencies have essentially decided we're not going to do what we did in 2016.  We're going to shut this off the completely.

CH: But this wasn't just Biden.  They will run with stuff like the Steele dossier that has no--obviously can't be fact checked.  They will trumpet that because it hurts Trump and I'm not talking about partisan news outlets like MSNBC, which is just an arm of the Democratic Party, I'm talking about these old traditional media outlets like The New York Times, the kind of language that they'll use.  One, they'll marginalize any kind of news even in this case of the--Biden--Hunter Biden's laptop, the Bidens, no one has denied its authenticity.  And yet the way they write about it will be to discredit it as black propaganda.  I mean--so what's happened within--I think there's kind of a sea change within that traditional media which I come out of, just a whole new ethic.  I mean, I find days when I read The New York Times, it's unrecognizable in terms of how it writes, the language it uses, what it's willing to say.  It has many faults which you know as well as I do.  However, it's really a completely new organization in many ways.  Can you--can you talk about that shift?  Because I find that very frightening.

MT: Sure.  And of course obviously you would know this better than I would, but I think traditionally what the New York Times would do with a story like this is they would work very hard to ascertain first whether the material was real and it would wait to come out with some kind of pronouncement about its news value until it had done that.  And that is exactly what they don't do anymore.  You know, really in the first days after the story broke, they already had a story by Kevin Roose in the paper that--the headline was something along the lines of, you know, there was a mistake in 2016 and Facebook promised to fix it.  Well, this is what the fixing looks like, you know, and then they--the lead of that…

CH: Right.  Let me--Matt, let me interrupt you because this is the headline which I take from your Substack, we'll tell people how they can get it, everyone should subscribe.  "Facebook and Twitter dodge a 2016 repeat, and ignite a 2020 firestorm.  The companies have said they would do more to stop misinformation and hacked materials from spreading.  This is what the effort looks like."  And then reading from your article, Roose, who we just mentioned, notes that, "Politicians and pundits have hope for a stronger response from tech firms ever since Russian hackers and WikiLeaks injected stolen emails from the Clinton campaign at a public discourse."  This is, again, a quote from him.  "Since 2016, lawmakers, researchers, and journalists have pressured these companies to take more and faster action to prevent false or misleading information from spreading on their services."  The Podesta emails are not false.

MT: I know.  Exactly.

CH: They're real.

MT: It's a bait and switch.  And this has been going on all across the media landscape but they're--with their doing that, they're saying in the public memory, what happened in 2016, they've used the word disinformation or misinformation so many times that people associate those emails with words like that.  And so they can get away with saying, well, we have to do something to stop this misinformation or disinformation even though, again, we're talking about things that are real and true but just happened to the public through a means that is, you know, in their minds infamous.  So, again, the traditional mission of an organization like The New York Times and they exist specifically because they have their resources and the training to hunt out whether or not stuff like this is real.  They're just skipping straight past that and going to the editorial pronouncement about how this is--this is the kind of material that should be suppressed and this is what suppression looks like and good for them.  And that's the angle that they're taking right now, which is really extraordinary.  It's an--it's an amazing change.

CH: Yeah.  No, it is.  It is seismic.  So Matt, I want to ask you about this podcast, because I don't think it's unrelated.  Caliphate, where it's a five-part series.  They interview--turns out that he's an imposter.  You call it correctly stuff of snuff films.  He's talking about stabbing.  He claims to have been an al-Qaeda murderer, and putting people up on crosses and putting daggers in their hearts.  It's quite amazing, again, coming out of the culture of the Times.  It's completely false.  It's rabidly salacious.  You know, the worst part of "of tabloid, trash television," but I think that that's a piece of what's happening here.  Can you--can you talk about that especially back up a little bit for people who aren't familiar with what happened?

MT: Sure.  Yes.  So they had--I think it was a six-part podcast series and it was--the lead reporter was a pretty celebrated figure in the organization.  It's--Rukmini Callimachi is I think her name, right?  And she's been a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer.  And they interviewed this character who's a Canadian-born or a Canadian citizen who's a Muslim who claimed to have gone over to Syria to become a soldier for ISIS.  And in the process, he accumulated all these tales of committing horrific acts of violence and the podcast was essentially based around these graphic descriptions of what he had done while he was in Syria and in other parts of the Middle East.  And then he was arrested by Canadian authorities for perpetrating a hoax under a law that I guess that we don't have an analogous law here in the States but when the--when The Times were presented with this news that their main source in this very acclaimed, you know, significantly trafficked podcast had turned out to be an imposter, their immediate reaction was to deflect and say, actually, one of the purposes of the podcast was to determine whether or not he was telling the truth, which is completely untrue.  There's, you know, as Erik Wemple of the Washington Post put it, who incidentally who's been one of the few media critics who's actually done real work on this kind of stuff lately, you know, they spent the entire podcast really bolstering the credibility of this source and not calling it into question at all.  And incidentally, what would be the worth of a podcast like that if there was any question at all about whether or not it was true?  It would be a completely--complete waste of time to do the story.  So they undermined themselves rather than do what I think a traditional news organization would do which is to say, okay, we might have a problem here, we're going to look into it.  If necessary, we'll bring in, you know, an outside auditor to see what went wrong and we'll--and we'll come out with--and with all the results of our investigation later and in the meantime, we apologize.  That's exactly what they didn't do anymore.  They've learned that audiences now forgive this kind of thing.  And if you just pretend that it didn't happen, you can move along and just go to the next thing and that's now kind of more the modus operandi which, of course, wasn't what it was when you worked there and I think when a lot of other people entered, you know,  The Times back in the day.

CH: Well, they will forgive it only if it bolsters the dominant narrative.

MT: Right.  Exactly.  Yes.

CH: If it doesn't bolster the--they won't forgive it.

MT: Right.

CH: That's why you don't--that's why they've pushed to the margins of the media landscape.

MT: Right.  And you too obviously.  Yes.

CH: Yeah.  So on the one hand, you have the Podesta emails, the Biden, which is real, being denounced as fake.  And you have a complete hoax defended with--let's call it what it is, fake news.  It's sensationalist garbage being perpetrated by The Times.  I just want to read I thought was a really great paragraph you wrote.  You said, "Now the business…" you're talking about journalism, "…has reversed course acting like a gang of college freshmen who just read Beyond Good and Evil for the first time.  Objectivity is dead.  There's no truth.  Everything is permitted.  The cardinalate has gone from pompous overconfidence in its factual rectitude to a bizarre post-modernist pose where nothing matters, man, and truth is whatever we can get away with saying."  I mean, it's funny but it's not.  That is really what we're documenting here.  What do you think the pressures were?  Is it commercial?  I think to an extent it must be commercial.  The Times has bled advertising.  It's stumbling into a new media environment that it's not familiar with.  What do you think is causing this?  Or maybe it's just moral posturing?  I don't know.

MT: I think it's a combination of all of those things.  Clearly, the commercial aspect of it is--plays a strong role because just to take an example of that Caliphate podcast, here you've got somebody giving a firsthand account of crucifying a human being and that's what you got to do is stay and, you know, to trend on Twitter for like eight seconds now.  You know, you need to come up with stuff like that just to keep getting a requisite number of clicks, just to not lose audience.  You need to come up with sensational material because everybody's hyping things left and right.  So there's enormous pressure now to stretch the envelope in--of sensationalism in ways that probably didn't exist when, you know, when I first went into the business or you did but that's only part of the picture.  The other part of the picture is there's been this segmentation of audience where, you know, the Pew Center did a study this summer where they asked people, you know, what their political affiliations were, if your primary news source was Fox, you know, 93% of those people were Republicans.  If your primary news source was MSNBC, 95% of those people were Democrats.  With The New York Times, it was 91% of those people who are Democrats.  NPR, 87%.  So all of these news outlets are talking to one audience exclusively.  And so they've learned that if they screw up and they make a mistake about the other audience, it's not going to matter.  So the--I think whether consciously or unconsciously, it sped up their fact-checking process or made it looser because they know it doesn't really matter.  You know, if we make a mistake about this, it's not going to come bounce back at us.  If we--if we predict that something is going to happen, if we say the walls are closing in and they don't, that's not going to bounce back.  So I think that's a major, major part of this picture.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about the disintegrating media landscape with journalist and author Matt Taibbi.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the disintegrating media landscape with author Matt Taibbi.  And before we go on, tell viewers how they can get your Substack columns.

MT: Sure.  Yeah, you can go to taibbi.substack.com.  And it's a--most of the material's free but there--there's extra material for subscribers so I appreciate the support in this sort of new independent media landscape.

CH: Great.  Well, we have to support the few journalists who are left.  Is this--is this the death of journalism?  I mean I expected that you had a great book "Hate INC." where you had Sean Hannity on one side of the cover and Rachel Maddow on the other.  I don't hold the commercial networks to the same kind of standards, maybe it's nostalgia that I do for The Times.  But you can't--if you can't communicate across these divides, which is essentially what's happening, then the country just bifurcates into warring antagonistic tribes, which is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia because you had competing ethnic groups seize rival media outlets, and speak only to their own and demonize the other.  But to see this happening in the New York Times and in the Washington Post, is this--is this the end of traditional media?

MT: I think temporarily.  I mean, I do believe.  I mean, I have maybe a naive hope that some canny entrepreneur will realize that there's a screaming need out there for a new kind of media product.  I mean, I hear it every day from people sending emails that I just wish there was a place I could go to find out just what happened, stripped of all the editorializing, right?  Like, people want the old school, boring, you know, when, why, where, how, you know, third person dead voice that we used to get in all of these--in all the newspapers.  And they're not getting that anymore because everything is highly charged, and highly politicized, and tailored for a political audience.  So I do believe that if somebody was smart, they would create that outlet and there is--there is some interesting stuff going on in independent media.  But for the time being, the major commercial media outlets have become completely bifurcated, as you put it, and it's literally balkanizing American society.  I think that you make a good point there.  I don't think it's an accident that we're seeing groups of people who are marching around carrying AR-15s really on both sides of the aisle, and that's because we've developed different realities for different groups of people.  And that's very dangerous.

CH: It is.  It's very dangerous.  And I will just throw in there that nobody in Yugoslavia thought they were going to have a war.  You had people dressed up in camos posturing, but once that violence starts, we saw glimpses of it in Portland.  Once people start getting killed, you open a Pandora's box that you can't control.  I want to talk about the tech platforms because they played a major role, I think very pernicious role in all of this.  You've also written about them.  Can you talk about that?

MT: Sure.  And a couple of years ago, when Alex Jones was thrown off basically all of the tech platforms in what was actually in hindsight kind of a remarkable moment because it was clearly coordinated.  All of the major platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Spotify, YouTube, they all kind of kicked off Jones at the same time, and sort of liberal America cheered.  They said, "Well, this is a noxious figure.  It's--this is a great thing, finally someone's taking action."  What they didn't realize is that we were trading an old system of speech regulation for a new one without really any public discussion.  You and I were raised in a system where you got punished for speech if you committed libel, or slander, or if there was imminent incitement to lawless action, right?  That was the standard that's in--that the Supreme Court set.  But that was done through litigation.  It was an open process where you had a chance to rebut the charges.  That is all gone now.  Now basically there's a handful of media--of these tech distribution platforms that control how people get their media, and they've been pressured by the senate which has called all of the--their CEOs in and basically ordered them, we need you to come up with a plan to prevent the sowing of discord and prevent the spreading of misinformation.  And now I think this past week is when this has finally come into fruition.  When you see a major reputable news organization like The New York Post, you know, with a 200-year history, is now locked out of its own Twitter account.  And that story, which has not been disproven, it's not disinformation or misinformation.  It's being suppressed in the manner of, you know, know the same way you--it would be suppressed in a third world country, which is--I think, I don't know what you think, I think it's a--it's in a remarkable kind of historic moment for us.

CH: No, it is.  It's a very frightening historic moment.  These tech platforms are on--they're not neutral.  They're on one side of the political divide.  And the danger, I'll get your opinion on this, in my eyes the danger is that if Trump loses the election, this platform and this old media, and however--whatever their veracity is about their critiques of Trump, will essentially be completely written off.  You won't be able to reach that segment of the population at all.

MT: Right.  Yes, exactly.  And I know some of the people who are high ranking executives at some of these companies and I've had discussions with some of them in the last year or so.  And one of the things that I've tried to communicate is there's no possible way to institute a standard of something like, you know, factual reliability that can be done in an even-handed way without an awesome amount of people going through the, you know, each and every submission.  And they're clearly not doing that.  They're clearly creating rules and selecting out some content that they don't like and allowing other content that they do like go through.  There's no possible way to do it either with AI or with manpower in any kind of even-handed way.  It's automatically either going to be a mess or a double standard, right?  Like whack-a-mole or a double standard.  And I think in a post-Trump reality, the danger is that we end up with essentially like a one-party informational system where there's going to be approved dialogue and unapproved dialogue that you can only get through certain kind of fringe avenues.  And that--that's the problem because we let these companies get this monopolistic share of the distribution system.  And now they're exercising that power.

CH: And what, you know, I know you lived in Russia.  I worked in Eastern Europe, what are the political consequences of that because you've seen it?

MT: Yeah.  I mean, I lived in kind of both versions of Russia.  I lived in the Soviet times.  I was--I was--I was a student during that time and then I was there when the media freed up.  And a lot of my former colleagues, Russian colleagues, worked under the Soviet system.  And there--the similarities are pretty striking because what ends up happening is it's really more of a psychological form of censored--censorship than it is an over top-down kind of pressure.  The reporters end up knowing ahead of time what kinds of things they can write and what kinds of things they can't write.  And if you're worried about where the edge is with Facebook or Twitter, and your career depends on not being deplatformed by those companies, you just won't go anywhere near where you think the line might be.  And already, you know, somebody like myself or, you, or Glenn Greenwald, or you know, even, you know, reputable journalists, we're already within range of, you know, a possible suppression effort, which I would have said was outlandish even six months ago.  And that's no longer the case.  So, that--that's what you worry about is where the--where it's the fear is going to take hold of the business very quickly.

CH: Well, doesn't the fear come from the fact that critics, such as you, have credibility and therefore are dangerous because as the kind of moral center erodes within journalistic organizations, critics such as yourself who point it out become--they're no longer a nuisance.  They essentially can be fatal.  And so you--the suppression becomes much heavier.

MT: Yeah.  And that's the reason why I think this censorship is so self-defeating.  It's such a mistake.  You know, normally, if you just allow this kind of speech to go to, you know, be distributed freely, it's not going to have the impact.  But what ends up happening in societies like the Soviet Union, you know, nobody would use a Russian newspaper or a Soviet newspaper for anything but, you know, lining a birdcage or anything like that, but people would treasure the Samizdat documents that would be handed from family to family because that was the actual truth.  And that's going to end up happening in this country if you have an approved dialogue that you can--you can get, you know, on Facebook and Twitter.  And then there's this other thing that's forbidden, people are going to flock to that which is why I don't understand the commercial decision that companies like The New York Times and the Washington Post are making to throw off the thing that made the most valuable, which was this institutional credibility they had for being a kind of political third party that was neutral.  That was what gave them all their value and they're throwing it away and I don't understand it.

CH: I think they're throwing away because they're bleeding money and they're frightened.

MT: Well, sure.

CH: I want to read a--I want--I mean you're right, it's not--it's ultimately self-immolation.  You write, "The people who run this country have run out of workable myths with which to distract the public, and in a moment of extreme crisis, have chosen to stoke civil war and defame the rest of us, black and white, rather than admit to a generation of corruption, betrayal, and mismanagement."  And I think part of it is that organizations such as the New York Times do not shine a light on the corruption, the betrayal, and the mismanagement.

MT: That's right.  And so they--they've had to come up with some other thing to sell to the public as the reason for all of our troubles, after the election of 2016 where internally, within The New York Times, we now know there was a tremendous kind of come to Jesus moment where they realized we didn't see this coming, how could we have possibly let that happen?  We have to hire more people like Bret Stephens because we're so out of touch with conservative America.  That's what they were saying internally but externally they spent all their energy building their newsroom around this fictitious Russiagate story rather than doing things like let's look at what's happening with poor and middleclass American and the massive amounts of insecurity that have--that led to Trump's election.  They didn't do that at all, they went with this other story.  And then later, when that story fell apart, they kind of threw their weight behind the 1619 Project and other--and other issues because that was preferable to telling dangerous truths about kind of the neoliberal economics and other issues that were really concerning the country.  So, that's the danger that you get is that when they're afraid to tell you what's actually happening, they end up coming up with alternatives that are--that are not convincing.

CH: Right.  The 1619 Project, which they then denied what they wrote, that America…

MT: Right.  Yeah.  Exactly.

CH: That was also kind of bizarre.

MT: Totally.

CH: Great.  That was…

MT: Totally.

CH: That was Matt Taibbi, one of the few real journalists left on the disintegrating media landscape in the United States.  Thanks, Matt.

MT: Thanks, Chris.

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