Matt Taibbi has a singular approach to media criticism. As a writer for the Moscow alternative weekly eXile, he once held a contest to find the worst foreign correspondent in Russia. For his Putin apologism and ignorance of Russian culture, the lucky winner, New York Times Moscow bureau chief Michael Wines, received a horse-sperm pie to the face.
If it’s possible to bring a sperm-throwing sensibility to print, Taibbi succeeds. Savaging both the left and the right, his first book, Spanking the Donkey, provides arguably the most astute, insightful coverage of the 2004 elections to be found — while still managing to include chapter titles like “One Penis Under God.”
Now a contributing editor and political correspondent at Rolling Stone, Taibbi has single-handedly brought the magazine to a place of political relevance not seen since the days of Hunter S. Thompson. His new book Smells Like Dead Elephants is a compendium of his best pieces since joining the magazine in 2005 and includes last year’s “Worst Congress Ever” — an eviscerating investigation into the orgy of corruption and laziness that was the recently deceased 109th Republican Congress. The Weekly caught up with Taibbi last month in New York to discuss the state of our nation and that cynical carnival known as the American electoral process.
L.A. WEEKLY: Do you think most Americans have any clue about the mechanics of how their government operates?
MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely not. If you go to Congress and sit there and watch it during the day it’s almost entirely empty. If you ever watch C-SPAN and see these guys — they get up and pretend they’re giving a rousing speech to a full hall, but actually, there’s nobody there. And most of the time what they’re doing is naming post offices or passing resolutions to commemorate the film work of Greta Garbo or whatever, and that’s how they take up their time. Then afterward they go to the Energy Committee or the Rules Committee and do the real work — which is secretly shoving earmarks into all the bills. Then everyone has to wait until the end of the year, when a thousand-page omnibus appropriations bill is passed, to actually see all the junk they attached. I’m sure most people don’t think that’s the way things really work. That nothing is debated, nothing is in the open and at the end of the year two and a half trillion dollars gets spent on all this mysterious stuff. I think if people knew about that they’d be a lot angrier about it.
I imagine that’s why you wrote “Worst Congress Ever,” to get people angry. Are they?
No, they’re not. That’s the frustrating thing about writing: Nobody reads. And the people who do read tend to be better informed anyway. I mean, I’m not Seymour Hersh. I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to come up with some groundbreaking exposé. But what I try to do is put available facts together and present them using language that makes people very upset. I aim for an emotional response. I think that’s a role a journalist has to play. But we have a limited impact — especially now. Unless you have a concerted effort from all the different media organs to focus on one thing, for at least a week, you’re not going to get the public to move on anything.
Even then — after Katrina there was a concerted media effort and nothing has changed. New Orleans is still a mess, and there’s no extra levee protection for the city.
That’s true. I mean, what can people do? You have to rely on your elected officials to do something, and unless they really feel like reacting to something they won’t. Look at Blackwater and the Iraqi contractor scuffle. There’s lot’s of public anger about that, but if you turn on the campaign you won’t see a single Democratic politician making a big deal about it. And I can pretty much guarantee that if one of them gets into office they won’t do a thing about any of that stuff. That’s not what politicians are there for — they’re there to do favors for people who give them campaign money.
The title of your new book is Smells Like Dead Elephants, but it seems like it’s not just the Republican Party that’s decomposing, it’s our entire nation.
There’s definitely an argument to be made that we’re nearing the end of our influence. Our institutions are almost completely corrupted by money. They’re not even self-interested enough to fix real problems. The people in our government are so corrupt and so interested in doing favors that they can’t even respond to an emergency anymore, like Katrina or like Iraq. What’s going on in Iraq, the corruption over there and the total ineffectiveness of the Army, if this were a normal country, where things worked at all, it would be an emergency. There would be work around the clock to fix it. But we’re not doing that. We have a government that’s unable to respond to serious problems anymore. When I lived in Russia in the ’90s it was a Third World country where the government would basically give handouts to rich people, and America is starting to look like that.