In “The Summer of the Shill,” a piece published in Rolling Stone this week, the journalist and author Matt Taibbi argues that most news outlets are now outwardly partisan in one manner or another, which “basically means we have no credible news media left.” And he blames this problem, in part, on the ways many in the media have reacted to Donald Trump: “He is considered so dangerous that many journalists are beginning to be concerned that admitting the truth of negative reports of any kind about the Democrats might make them complicit in the election of the American Hitler.”
I recently spoke by phone with Taibbi. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the complicated factors behind Trump’s rise, whether the media is using Democratic talking points, and the difficulty of covering a candidate who will say absolutely anything.
Isaac Chotiner: What is it specifically about Trump’s candidacy that you think has caused trouble within the journalism world?
Matt Taibbi: Let’s put it this way: Even in the best circumstances, campaign journalism tends to be pretty shallow. We tend not to get into too many very serious issues. There are a whole range of issues that we just don’t cover at all, like poverty, inequality, pollution, and things like that. Typically, what happens is the discourse in campaign journalism devolves into the fairly trivial: It’s a popularity contest, it’s discussions about electability, it’s the horse race, and so on. In this case, the entire focus of everybody who covers the election is just Trump’s antics, and the entire question of how people are going to vote in this race has been reduced to Trump is crazy, and you’re either crazy for supporting him, or you’re not crazy and you’re voting against him. You’re either for him or against him.
The counterargument is that Donald Trump is a somewhat crazy bigot who could be president, and his antics are the most important question before the country because he could really be president. His antics include insulting Muslims and Mexicans, and seeming oblivious in terms of foreign policy.
That is a counterargument. I don’t think it encompasses or answers every question, let’s put it that way. There are lots and lots of different ways to cover the fact of Donald Trump’s ascendancy, and it’s not something that’s just sprung up out of nowhere without cause. It’s a little bit analogous to the situation of where we were when 9/11 happened.
Some journalists went the route of trying desperately to understand why this had taken place, and started down the road of looking for some of the reasons for discontent in the Middle East that had given rise to this kind of homicidal cult that was al-Qaida, and reported on things like the Israeli occupation of Palestine, America’s presence in Saudi Arabia, etc., etc. But very quickly all of that kind of disappeared and there really was only one narrative, which was that al-Qaida hated us for our freedom, they’re evil, and we must destroy them by hook or crook.
We have an electorate that still to this day doesn’t really understand anything about the Middle East; that is, I think, partially responsible for some of the problems with Donald Trump, because here you have a candidate that doesn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shia, and thinks that Iran is a sponsor of ISIS, and all of that is part and parcel of this instinct we have not to investigate the cause of things.
One of the first things that bothered me when I started covering presidential campaigns a long time ago is how totally focused the press is on the candidates and not the voters. We travel tens of thousands of miles to “see” the country during campaign time, but basically the camera is always on the candidate. We don’t listen to people much, or if we do, it’s just in 10-second quotes; we don’t get to know them. And most of the stories we do are focused on the soap opera interplay between candidates, not the issues and problems that lead to those candidates getting elected or becoming contenders.
I think the causes of Trump have been fairly well analyzed by the media, though. You don’t feel like they have been covered?
I don’t think so.
There’s been some analysis of it. Obviously, some people want to ascribe the entire rise of Donald Trump 100 percent to racism, 100 percent to discontent within an aging white demographic that feels frustrated about changes in the world that they have no control over, but that’s really not entirely the story. That may be most of the story, but it’s not 100 percent of the story. As much as I can’t stand David Frum, he had a piece in the Atlantic that got into a lot of different issues that explain why Trump happened, from the failure of the Republican Party to really listen to their own base, to the abandonment of unions and working-class people by both parties, to the general disconnect between people who are out there really living their lives and the media and Washington and the donor class.
All of these things are major, major problems, and I don’t think they have been sufficiently investigated. The Trump story has really been laid out as, “He’s the bad guy, his supporters are evil, and let’s all look down on him,” and that’s that. Look, I agree that he’s awful and horrible and needs to be stopped, but we still need to understand why he’s happening, and I don’t think we’re doing a great job of that.
The media was being rightly critiqued for going too easy on Trump several months ago. What do you think changed?
Trump, just as entertainment, as a ratings magnet, as a way to make money, is pure gold for television networks and for news organizations, and everybody in this business who covers the campaign trail knows that this is really an entertainment show that we’re doing over the course of 18 months or two years and we need great characters to make it work and sell ads and do all of those things. And Trump, as Les Moonves confessed, may not be great for America, but he’s great for CBS.
They covered him in the first stage of the campaign as this crazy curiosity, and I think part of the reason that it wasn’t always as negative as it is now was because he was a little bit farther away from actually winning, and there was a significant portion of the journalistic community that thought he had no chance at the nomination. I wasn’t one of those people; I thought he was going to win very early. Now that he is the nominee, I think there’s been this kind of “Oh shit, we screwed up and got this guy nominated, and now we’ve got to act like real journalists again and stop him,” and I think that’s why they’ve been sharply negative. The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re going negative against him or just covering him as a circus act, he still fulfills the same role commercially, and he’s still great for ratings.
How do you reconcile your own partisanship as a journalist—you obviously are someone who gives his point of view very clearly—with the sort of broader call for reporters to return to being above the fray?
I’m not saying that people should be above the fray; I’m just saying they shouldn’t be doing basically the same work that political parties have to do when they are paying for ads. I think if you’ve watched Fox News over the last couple of decades, its daily news coverage has been in almost perfect sync with RNC talking points until this year. Now, things are off the rails a little bit with the Republicans, but that same phenomenon is happening now with some of the networks from the other side with Democratic Party talking points. That’s what I think we shouldn’t be doing. We have to make an effort to not be on anybody’s team.
OK, but wasn’t the complaint against Fox that they were very consciously doing RNC talking points, and that there was some sort of collusion? Are you suggesting that CNN is getting DNC talking points, or just—
I’m not saying that they’re actually getting a briefing from the DNC, but I do think that if you look at especially MSNBC lately, it’s almost exactly the same talking points that the DNC is putting out on a daily basis. There’s very little difference there, and you see very little criticism of the Democratic Party, or discussion of the role that the Democratic Party might have had in Trump happening. Think about Thomas Frank’s latest book and his whole thesis that the vision to jump with both feet into globalism is part of what’s caused the alienation of America from the political class. You’re not hearing that on blue state media. That’s not in there, because it’s not part of the platform that you hear in the mainstream Democratic Party.
I’m sure you’ve noticed on Twitter and elsewhere that a lot of straight news reporters have been being very snarky about Trump. As someone who has criticized a certain fake evenhandedness of the press before, do you think there is something positive about letting reporters draw their own conclusions?
I would feel more optimistic about it if they were free to have opinions that weren’t obvious. “Donald Trump is stupid and Donald Trump is a lunatic” is not exactly biting analysis. We’re all there, you know what I mean? If Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, who are the arch-priests of conventional wisdom, are already in that place, allowing journalists to be free to pick on Donald Trump isn’t exactly a huge advance in press freedom. It would be more interesting if they were allowed to explore lots of other ideas, and to talk about how the whole process was flawed, and why so many people are turned off by the process. That, and not Trump, should be the biggest headline of this election year—that this enormous number of people rejected the process, on both sides of the aisle.
Is there anything about Trump himself as a person and a candidate that has made you think differently about journalism and how journalism needs to stay ahead of candidates?
Yeah, there are lots of things to think about there. Trump poses a lot of problems for journalists. No. 1, he really owes his victory almost entirely to free media, at least in terms of the nomination. There’s this question we have to ask ourselves: Would we be covering this guy in the same quantity if he wasn’t such a financial boon to us? Then, there’s the whole question of what you call truthiness, because in the age of social media, somebody like Trump can say something and it will be around the world 10 times before PolitiFact gets hold of it and weighs in with their opinion that it’s not true. He gave a speech [Monday] where he again claimed that he was against the war in Iraq all along, and that’s not exactly true. He was against it early, but not before it started, and we just can’t keep up with it. Trump has proven that if you dissemble enough at a fast enough rate the press just isn’t equal to it.
He’s also very hard to cover in terms of policy because he changes positions so frequently and gives no sense of whether or not he would stick to them. It almost makes policy seem unimportant, at least vis-à-vis him.
It’s hard to cover him in terms of policy because I think one of the first observations that anybody would make about Trump is that it’s pretty clear that, even in his own mind, not a whole lot is settled. I think his personality is so mercurial and he has got so many obvious and bizarre pathologies that you’d only be guessing in the best-case scenario. The other thing to think about in terms of what you just said is, normally, back in the day, if you had a candidate who said so many things and then changed his mind so often and the press uniformly said, “Look, this is bad, this person is telling untruths, and has been caught making these statements over and over again,” that would have been a death knell for any serious presidential candidate. Why isn’t it this time? Trump is showing this total loss of confidence in the so-called mainstream media. I think that’s another thing we have to explore. Why is a significant plurality of the country tuning out the media when we’re saying the guy’s not fit? Shouldn’t we be exploring that, too?
Hopefully they’ll tune in for this interview, at least.