Commercial media has always been sensationalistic. We were never not encouraged to aim content at your outrage center. We were always eyeball-hunting.
I know this because I was hired to do this work, over and over. My commercial niche, in fact, was the vitriolic essay that got people spitting mad, or poked fun at someone audiences hated.
I was the Triumph the Insult Comic Dog of journalism. I actually won the National Magazine Award for commentary, the highest award you can get in the magazine business, for a Rolling Stone article about Mike Huckabee called “My Favorite Nut Job” that called the Arkansas governor a “Christian goofball of the highest order” who resembled an “oversized Muppet.” There is and was great demand in the business for “takedown artists,” provided you’re taking down the right people.
I never wanted to be a reporter. My heroes were comic novelists, and I believed what Hunter S. Thompson once said, that “the best fiction is truer than any journalism.” The career I wanted was one producing books that did nothing but provide enjoyment, books that were like close friends you could lean on — what Raymond Chandler’s books have meant to me.
But I turned out to be a terrible fiction writer, and defaulted to this work. I always had an uncomfortable relationship with the business, and at some point I made nearly all of the mistakes you’ll read about in this book.
In fact, part of what started to pour out when I wrote these chapters was the self-loathing that came with knowing I’d tossed so much red meat to political audiences. Getting plaudits from liberal audiences for writing splenetic features about Mike Huckabee or Fred Thompson or Michelle Bachmann is like a comedian doing a routine in front of a bunch of pot-smokers — you can’t tell if the laughs are real.
More to the point, after eight years of writing about the financial services industry in the wake of the 2008 crash, I was more and more tuned into the idea that partisan politics is a bit of a con. A lot of very serious social problems (like the failure to stop mass fraud in the mortgage markets) have completely bipartisan roots, but in the press we regularly sell people on a simplified image of politics, of two parties in complete conflict about everything. If one of those sides was yours, you seldom saw it besmirched by criticism.
Did I have a part in that? There was an undeniable gravitational pull toward the Red v. Blue narrative, and I wrote mainly for Blue audiences. But at the reporting level, once you got into the weeds of almost any serious issue it always seemed a lot more complicated: military contracting corruption, money laundering, campaign finance fraud, financial deregulation, torture, drone assassination, you name it.
I started to believe we keep people away from the complexities of these issues, by creating distinct audiences of party zealots who drink in more and more intense legends about one another. We started to turn the ongoing narrative of the news into something like a religious contract, in which the idea was not just to make you mad, but to keep you mad, whipped up in a state of devotional anger. Even in what conservatives would call the “liberal” media, we used blunt signals to create audience solidarity. We started to employ anti-intellectualism on a scale I’d never seen before, and it ran through much of the available content.
Once, a reporter could work his or her whole life without really being a known quantity to audiences. The rare exception was someone like Thompson, who made his darkest inner dialogues part of the story. As his Rolling Stone colleague Tim Crouse noted in the campaign diary The Boys on the Bus, Thompson was alone among reporters in not having to explain to his spouse what the trail was like when he got home. She already knew from reading his articles. Even his most private asides were in print.
But everybody else in the business got to keep his or her personal character private to a degree. Insofar as you picked a team, your team was “the press,” an entity separate from either party, with its own power and own institutional concerns.
A generation ago, you would never have seen members of the media arguing for enhanced censorship powers and media regulation, as we’ve seen in the last year or so, in the controversy surrounding “fake news.” You also wouldn’t have seen so many members of the press so openly invested in political outcomes.
Ironically, the kind of open devotion Thompson made famous in Campaign Trail: ’72 — when he pined for George McGovern and crisscrossed the country arguing for his election to the White House, like Kafka’s Land Surveyor searching for redemption in the corridors of The Castle — has now become standard in both “left” and “right” media.
The difference is Thompson was pining for a poetic idealist vision of a better world that (as it turned out) never had a chance of becoming reality. Meanwhile the bulk of reporters today are soldiers for one or the other group of long entrenched political interests in Washington. They’re not just not idealists, they’re anti-idealists.
They even have a word to describe the crime of idealism, calling it “purity” or “purity-testing.” The current party line on my side of the media wall is that “purists” helped elect Donald Trump by undercutting the campaign of Hillary Clinton, and such people are frowned upon as enemies and deviationists. We’ve even made a cottage industry out of Soviet-style words for deviationism, terms like “false-balancer,” “horseshoe theorist,” “neo-Naderite,” and the Soviet classic, “whataboutist.”
My dirty little secret is that I’ve never particularly cared about politics. My personal religion is neither right nor left but absurdist. I think the world is basically ridiculous and terrible, but also beautiful. We try our best, or sometimes we don’t, but either way, we typically fail in the end.
Humanity to me is the Three Stooges, and gets funnier the more it attempts to deny it. I don’t think this all the time, but it’s a guiding principle. I vote, and am involved in small ways with a few activist causes, but I try not to take the circus so seriously that it distracts from the more important business of being a dad, a husband, etc.
Under torture I would say one party is better than the other, and I will even give money or volunteer if asked, but this is different from energetic advocacy. I doubt this is an uncommon view. Covering campaigns, you meet a lot of people who care more about their cats than elections (they are never quoted in campaign stories, of course). Most people don’t vote, which I’ve found is most often an expression of disgust or sarcastic indifference toward the range of political choices offered. I don’t go that far, but I do try to keep enough distance from politics to keep it in perspective.
Again, this attitude, which allowed me to write with enthusiasm about the candidacy of Barack Obama but critically of his failure to enforce laws governing Wall Street crime, was once considered proper and healthy for a journalist. Today, it doesn’t fit within either of the currently allowed categories of thought in commercial media.
Worse, while the foibles of the press once mostly seemed amusing (I still chuckle with envy at New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writing a smash bestseller called The World Is Flat based upon the faulty premise that a flat world is more interconnected than a round one) I began a few years ago to be conscious of the business drifting toward something truly villainous.
In 2016 especially, news reporters began to consciously divide and radicalize audiences. The cover was that we were merely “calling out” our divisive new president, Donald Trump. But from where I sat, the press was now working in collaboration with Trump, acting in his simplistic mirror image, creating a caricatured oppositional demographic and feeding it content. As Trump rode to the White House, we rode to massive profits. The only losers were the American people, who were now more steeped in hate than ever.
I struggled with this as a citizen, but like all reporters I had the additional problem of having to maintain a public byline while working through it. My initial instinct was to hide, and maybe get myself assigned to cover something like the oil and gas beat until it all blew over. An attentive reader will notice I’ve spent the last few years trying to cover a variety of cross-partisan topics, from drones to the attempted audit of the Department of Defense, a thirty-year-old story.
In the end, though, it hasn’t worked, and one of the ways I’ve tried to work through the confusion has been writing this book. This has forced me to look back at history to see if the change in industry approach has been as dramatic as it seemed in real time. Had I imagined it?
I learned many things I never knew about the business, and interviewed col- leagues with fascinating stories of their own about the changes. It turns out a lot of us are quietly struggling with the same issues. In different ways, we’ve been unsure of how to toe the line between traditional notions of distance and the new pressures to serve up mountains of highly politicized, vituperative content.
I have, of course, worried this book will not make sense to either of our two reigning brands of political partisan. Democrats may react with more anger than Republicans. The Appendix explaining Rachel Maddow’s presence on the cover may do little to alleviate this. Comparing MSNBC to Fox in any way will be deemed unforgivable.
But it’s not a hot take. The subject here is the phasing out of independent journalism, replacing it with deeply politicized programming on both “sides.” Which “side” is better is immaterial: neither approach is journalism.
Fox may have more noxious politics, but MSNBC has become the same kind of consumer product, a political safe space for viewers in ironclad alignment with a political party. If you tune in now, you won’t see any content critical of Democrats, which is exactly the intellectual weakness we used to see and denounce in Fox viewers. There will come a time, guaranteed, when Americans pine for a powerful, neither-party-aligned news network to help make sense of things.
Conservatives meanwhile will probably hate the book for a variety of reasons, beginning with my natural antipathy for Republican politics, which is fine. To people of both persuasions, I would say, this book is intended to help start a conversation about how much of our disdain for each other is real, and how much of it is a product of the media machine.
I despair at the blame-a-thon of modern political media and wonder all the time if I didn’t help construct this new attitude with the flamboyant insults I put in print for years. Worse, today’s media debate has left its sense of humor behind, and we now argue even minor issues as life-or-death matters, despite not even knowing each other. People who would certainly engage in courteous chats at their kids’ birthday parties freely trade horrific threats on Twitter. It’s insane.
We have representative democracy precisely so we can let other people do our vitriolic arguing for us. It’s true that the system is corrupted by money, among other things, but I wonder why we don’t take more advantage of this one social service we do actually get in America. Much of it must be our fault, i.e. the media’s fault. So to conservatives and liberals both, the idea of this book is really an attempt to help you sort out how much of your anger and fear is real, and how much of the upset in your head comes from people like me, pushing your buttons for cash.
Permission to excerpt Hate Inc. was provided by OR Books, and can be purchased online from the publisher here .
Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2008 National Magazine Award for columns and commentary. His most recent book is I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street (2017), about Eric Garner’s death at the hands of New York City police officers.