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.
In the past you’ve been loathe to equate American corruption with what goes on in Russia. Have we finally reached that point?
When you’re talking about sending $10 billion in cash to Iraq, ?and eight and a half billion goes missing — for the Russians it might be nine and a half — but we’re close. I once saw an interview with Ike Turner where they asked him, “People have said you’ve spent $17 million on cocaine over the years, is that true?” And Ike said, “17 million? That’s ridiculous — maybe 11 million.” It’s kind of like that.
It seems like your most ardent critics are middle-of-the-road, Clintonian-Democrat types instead of the Republicans you routinely bash. Why is that?
I definitely get more hate mail from left-wingers. Maybe 90 percent. There’s this perception from the left that if you’re on our side politically, you have to be on our side in every way. You have to adhere to all the behavioral tenets that we ascribe to the kind of people who write for The Nation or contribute to Counter Punch. I remember I was talking to [Vermont Senator] Bernie Sanders, and he was saying the thing that’s odd about the left is that its orthodoxies are all things like abortion and political correctness and social issues, but they’re willing to deviate from the norm when it comes to trade agreements or economic policies. Those things they’re willing to bend on the military budget but not on other stuff. I think the priorities are a little bit backward. Maybe that’s why we wind up getting John Kerry and Hillary Clinton instead of someone a little more genuine like Dennis Kucinich.
That’s interesting, because the labor unions seem to be willing to cave on that stuff too. You’d figure a guy like Kucinich, who’s in favor of repealing NAFTA, would be their first choice.
I think that’s part of this whole con of American politics. We’ve been convinced that it’s more important to vote against the guy on the other side than to vote for someone who supports your interests. The same reason that laid-off factory workers in the Midwest will endorse a Republican who’s in favor of trade agreements that will help companies move overseas, because they hate Hillary Clinton, is the same reason that union leaders will support a guy like John Kerry — a guy who may have very well written the WTO agreement. Or at least had a hand in it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s a fact of life in campaigning now.
You wrote in your last book, Spanking the Donkey, that you nearly had a mental breakdown covering John Kerry on the campaign trail. What happened?
Well, it was a mixed-up point in my life. Covering Kerry was my first assignment for Rolling Stone. I was broke. I had an eight-year relationship that was breaking down. I always wanted to do the campaign story because I thought it would be this kind of grotesque comedy — a great subject, very humorous. Then I get on there and it was this antiseptic fucking nightmare. There’s nothing to write about because everyone is so paranoid about being caught on the record saying anything. I mean, the lowest audio technician on the plane is keeping everything close to the vest. So it was a nightmare for me. Here I am trying to get the behind-the-scenes story and there was no behind the scenes. It was like my whole world was falling apart. My girlfriend is breaking up with me, this is my one shot at having a really good-paying job, I’m poor and I’m stuck in this miserable fucking environment where I’m listening to John Kerry babble on all day. It was way too much to take. I’m glad it’s over.
I’m pretty sure this whole thing is about to start up again. Are you worried?
[Laughs.] Well, my psychological health is a little bit improved since then. At the time I thought it was just me. I couldn’t find what the story was and it was an indictment of me as a reporter. But in retrospect there just isn’t a whole lot to get out there. Unless you go along with the horserace bullshit, you’re going to be miserable the whole time.
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What else is there to say about a broken process that doesn’t seem to have changed at all since 2004?
Here’s the interesting thing about a campaign: It’s a two-pronged process. There’s the thing that you see — the campaign trail where the candidates go out and give these ridiculous computer-generated speeches — unbelievably nonspecific with almost no discussion of any kind of issue. The other thing you don’t see is the money process that goes on behind the scenes. Candidates are getting people to bundle millions of dollars for them and organize conventions where enormous corporations throw these Caligulan parties. All that stuff is directly relevant because these people are going to be asking for something specific. For instance, Altria, the lobbying wing of Phillip Morris, threw an enormous multimillion-dollar party for Republicans last month because they wanted the Family Smoking Bill passed, which would force tobacco companies to lower nicotine levels. Phillip Morris, in opposition of the other tobacco companies, actually wants this legislation because they dominate the low-nicotine cigarette market. So they’re pouring all this money into Republican candidates and it’s quid pro quo. The same thing on the other side. Bristol-Myers Squibb is throwing a birthday party for Ted Kennedy at John Kerry’s convention. They’re hiring the Boston Pops to play. They want the Democrats to go slow on drug reimportation. So while the candidates are running around the country saying all this meaningless shit, the real stuff is going on somewhere else. I think real journalists shouldn’t be on the campaign trail. We should be hanging out at the offices of Public Citizen, trying to figure out who all these people are who are donating money. But we’re not going to get that kind of coverage, because for the most part the press organs don’t want that. The whole dog-and-pony show the campaign offers — it’s almost like a reality show. Someone gets booted off the island every week and they love it. It’s so easy — and television especially, as long as their ratings are good, there’s no reason for them to not be fully engaged in that whole process.
Is that a function of media ownership or of lazy reporters?
It’s a little of both. When you’re on the campaign trail, obviously you never go anyplace where you might actually see a real problem. If you’re following a national candidate around you’re never going to go visit some guy who just got out of jail and can’t get a job, or spend time with a whole bunch of illegals. They always go to the nicest part of town, where they have the greatest gospel choir in the area singing for you and five-star meals and all that shit. What happens with reporters is that they get lulled asleep and they start to believe in the internal logic of the campaign. That’s how you get 500 campaign reporters in the last stage of the election in 2004 talking about how John Kerry needs to go out in public in a duck-hunting costume so he can appeal to gun owners. You’re in a state that’s been hit harder by trade agreements and layoffs than any other state in the country, yet no one’s really talking about that. Because they’re not seeing it. So half of it is that reporters are not being exposed to the real problems of the country, and the other half is that news organizations don’t give a shit. They’re perfectly happy to report about the reality show because it’s good business for them. I think there are plenty of reporters on the campaign trail who have wounded consciences. Who know what they’re doing is wrong, but they don’t have any opportunity to do something about it. Once you’re on that plane, what are you going to do? Unless you get lucky enough to overhear a candidate’s conversation with a contributor, there’s nothing else, only what you’re given by handlers.