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Mainstream media ‘doesn’t deserve to be trusted’: Independent journalist Matt Taibbi on the dangers of narrative-based reporting

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Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with independent journalist Matt Taibbi about the decline of trust in the mainstream media, his own shift to independent journalism, and whether Pierre Poilievre can win an election campaign while eschewing the parliamentary press gallery.

There is also bonus coverage included: Taibbi’s opening statement from the latest Munk Debate centered on the resolution: Be it resolved, don’t trust the mainstream media.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Matt Taibbi, a well-known author, journalist, and podcaster, who after several years as a mainstream reporter, including for Rolling Stone magazine, has emerged as a leading independent journalist in the age of Substack and alternative media.

He’s also one half of the debate team along with British author, Douglas Murray, in the latest Munk Debate centered on the resolution: Be it resolved, don’t trust the mainstream media. I was grateful to speak with Matt on the afternoon of the debate about some of its key topics, his views on the state of the modern news media, and if he thinks Pierre Poillievre can win an election campaign while eschewing the mainstream media. The next voice you’ll hear is mine in conversation with journalist Matt Taibbi.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Matt, thank you so much for joining us today.

MATT TAIBBI: No, thank you for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: You’re someone who spent years in the mainstream media, but at tonight’s Munk Debate, you’re arguing that people can no longer trust the mainstream media. Why? What happened?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I actually wrote a book about this called Hate Inc. I think the mainstream media— which I’m really no longer a part of, I’ve moved into, I guess, what you’d call the independent media space now at Substack—but I think there have been fundamental changes in the business model of journalism that have been really destructive. We basically don’t do traditional reporting the way, for instance, my father did it. I grew up around reporters.

Now we sell narrative and we have two basically identical products. One is for conservatives and one is for centre-left folks in America. Both are fundamentally unreliable because they are picking and choosing facts ahead of time instead of just following the story wherever it goes. They’re more worried about audience than getting things right, which is why we have so many errors lately, and so that’s what I’m going to be arguing.

SEAN SPEER: Let me take up your point about Left and Right. One of the interesting parts about tonight’s debate and our current media landscape more generally is that it’s made for strange bedfellows.

MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely.

SEAN SPEER: You’re someone who would be traditionally associated with the Left and, obviously, Douglas Murray is more on the Right. How would you describe the common thread that stitches together the growing collection of non-traditional writers and thinkers from Bari Weiss to you, Murray, even Joe Rogan, who seem to be challenging the traditional media model, narrative, and structure?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, it’s funny because Joe Rogan, actually, what he does is a lot closer to the old Charlie Rose-style version of journalism. There was a tradition of interview, which was designed just to draw people out and make them feel comfortable. You’re not supposed to pin people down or own them or score points so you could put up a little viral clip on Twitter or whatever it was. It was, “We’re trying to tell you who this person is.” It was informational.

That’s actually what Joe does. Joe, in a much longer format, he’s kind of old school. I think what’s happened is that it’s really a split between people who believe in this new narrative-driven, more activist conception of media versus the kind of media that I was raised in, which is based around the idea that you tell the audience what you see and you leave it up to them to decide how they use those facts.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned that your father was a television journalist who took pride in the fact that he didn’t editorialize. As you said, Matt, now, journalism is often an exercise in narrative building based on a set of normative values, whether it’s institutional values or the values of individual journalists. Let me just follow up on some of the things you’ve said so far. How do you think this form of narrative-building journalism has come about, and perhaps more importantly, what if anything can be done to get back to the journalism ethic of your father?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think, first of all, the commercial strategy was different in my father’s day back when there were only three news channels in America, or four if you count PBS, the strategy was always to try to capture the entire audience. A newscast was designed for the entire family, from everybody from your right-wing uncle to the lefty kid in a Che t-shirt. Everybody was supposed to be able to sit around and watch the same newscast.

That had some drawbacks, but it also had some positives because in the effort to speak to everybody in making that effort, I think the news business accrued some trust and reliability, right? People trusted what they heard. When the internet came along and there was, suddenly, this sea of new content that arrived, there were new companies that realized, “We’re not going to get the whole audience, so let’s try something different. Let’s try picking a demographic and just dominating it.”

That’s easy to do. All you have to do is identify a group and then feed them news that you know that they’re going to respond to. Now, Fox was the first channel that did this really well. What they did is they picked older, white, suburban, and rural conservatives. They just fed them a steady diet of stuff they knew would wind them up, and that works. It makes money in an environment where you have to make money, which, by the way, news companies didn’t have to do once upon a time.

Once upon a time, it was understood that CBS would make money on sports and sitcoms, but the news would lose money. They would have these huge bureaus overseas, but it was a prestige thing. Now, news has to make money and so they do it this way. They’re courting audience. Because they can’t afford to lose audience, they’re afraid to offend them. That’s incompatible with journalism.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve been talking so far about the tendency for modern news media to build and push narratives. Let’s be concrete about that. I’m still struck, Matt, by how little scrutiny there’s been about the origins of the coronavirus and the consequences of the Chinese government withholding information about the virus from about mid-November 2019 to early January 2020 that ostensibly contributed to its reach and consequences. Maybe a two-part question. First, what’s behind the general tendency toward narrative building [with respect to China]? More importantly, why has the Western media, by and large, let China off the hook for COVID-19?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think there were a number of reasons why that happened. One thing that happened early on was that Donald Trump blamed China. We had this reflexive thing in America. Whatever Trump said, the media was on the other side of it automatically. When he said he took hydroxychloroquine, instantly, that was a witch doctor’s drug. It was snake oil, right? When Trump said that he thought there was some kind of a lab leak or that it originated with the Chinese, the media took the other position on it.

Look, this is exactly what I’m talking about. A real journalist doesn’t care whether it came from a lab or whether it came from a cave with bats in it. It’s not our problem. Our job is just to figure out what happened and then tell people and let them worry about it, right? In this new environment, there was all this handwringing and fear, “Oh, we’re going to look like conspiracy theorists if we talk about that. We’re going to look like Trump supporters if we talk about that.”

I have no idea why anybody would be worried about investigating something where there’s no answer yet. That’s a perfectly natural thing we’re supposed to be doing in journalism. This is exactly what I’m talking about. We have to be freed up to go wherever the story leads us because we’re supposed to do the job of finding it out, which is tough already, and not worry about what the meaning of it is.

SEAN SPEER: One thing that makes you such an interesting thinker and writer is that in an age of what you call “labeling”, you’re a difficult person to label. At times, you’ve been characterized on the Right merely because you’ve been critical of the excesses of the Left. What does it say about the state of our current political discourse that someone with what ought to be pretty conventional, small-l, liberal views is characterized as being conservative?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I think conservative or right-wing has just become shorthand for somebody who doesn’t accept conventional narratives. There’s this growing, spiraling group of people who’ve been lumped under this one umbrella term. It doesn’t make any sense if you look at it. It’s everybody from Tulsi Gabbard to Glenn Greenwald to myself to Michael Tracey to Aaron Maté.

There’s nothing right-wing about most of these people, but it’s a pejorative term. It’s very similar to the way the word “liberal” was used in the Bush years, right? That was a word that we use to describe somebody whose loyalties were suspect, who was maybe on the wrong side of things but didn’t have any political meaning, right? That’s what, I think, right-wing is now. I’m clearly not right-wing, but people say that because.

SEAN SPEER: You spent almost a decade investigating and reporting on the global financial crisis. In hindsight, do you think that level of intensity enabled you to foresee the rise of disruptive and populist politics more than others who looked at that experience as important yet an ultimately fleeting issue?

MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely. I can remember vividly—and in fact, if you go back and look at some of the things that I wrote a long time ago, I wouldn’t say that I predicted exactly what was happening, but I could see that there was this thing that was going on. One example I would bring up: I went to a foreclosure court in Jacksonville, Florida. If you remember, there were so many people who are being foreclosed upon in America that they had to create these special high-speed courts they called rocket dockets, where they would drag judges out of retirement. These are 85-year-old people.

You would go into a conference room and they would just evict people one minute after the other, right? There was a line of people going into this little conference room. I remember being there and the people who were getting thrown out of their homes were both Democrats and Republicans. They were minorities and white, but they were all identically furious, confused, and they felt betrayed, right?

I remember having the thought, “The person who can harness this is going to become a political force in this country.” What was interesting is I covered that right after covering Occupy Wall Street, which tried to articulate the problem, but it didn’t have the right people behind it, right? It didn’t connect the critique to the victims. I think what happened with Trump, he sensed the anger out there. Whether you think he’s sincere or not, I think he wasn’t, but he harnessed it. I think that was predictable that somebody would do that.

SEAN SPEER: At the backdrop of this conversation is the rise of a set of cultural and political propositions on the Left, which get described as various things, including identity politics, woke politics, or what one even might describe as a contemporary version of political correctness. That probably started with good intentions about elevating voices that had been underrepresented to increasingly being dogmatic about what ideas are acceptable in the news media, universities, corporate culture, and so on.

The public intellectual, Tyler Cowen, has argued though that we’ve reached “peak woke”, at least in North America. He points to the election of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia. You might add Doug Ford here in the province of Ontario. These two candidates may suggest that there’s a limit to how much the general public will support these intellectual and ideological developments. What’s your take, Matt? Have we reached peak woke? If not, how do you see these trends correcting themselves?

MATT TAIBBI: I don’t know if we’ve reached peak woke yet. That term, something about it doesn’t sit right with me. I try to avoid it as much as possible, but it’s definitely a thing, right? It’s concrete.

In our business, the way I see it most vividly is the behaviour in newsrooms. When I was growing up, I grew up around newsrooms. Newsrooms were hilarious places to be. It’s like the back room of a comedy club.

Everybody was always joking, having fun with each other, picking on each other. Now, if you go into a newsroom in North America, it’s dead silent. Nobody says a thing. Everybody’s afraid of one another. If you say the wrong thing, if you tweet the wrong thing, you could end up having your newsroom make a movement against you and try to get you removed from the company.

Look at Vox. One of the founders of the company got kicked out for tweeting something. I think there’s a limit to how much of that you can have. I know for certain, it’s not going to be politically popular on a broad scale. Certainly, for journalism, it doesn’t work because journalists have to be free thinkers in order to do the job well. If you’re afraid to say something or investigate something, then you just can’t do the job.

SEAN SPEER: Let me wrap up with a question, Matt, that’s a bit close to home here in Canada. We have a new leader of our national Conservative Party, Pierre Poilievre, who seems to be pursuing a strategy of eschewing traditional media and instead is focusing his media efforts on alternative or independent media in part for some of the reasons that you’ve described in our conversation. Do you think that’s a plausible political or media strategy in 2022? Is it possible for mainstream political figures for all intents and purposes to abandon mainstream media as a means to communicate their ideas and priorities to the general public?

MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely. That’s what Trump did in 2016. I remember when he did the John McCain line about, “I like people who aren’t captured.” Everybody in the media thought, “This is the end of it because we’re going to bury him,” right? I wrote about this. I had a friend who called it the “seal of death.” When a politician makes a mistake, we pile on, they go away, that’s it.

We did it. We piled on. He didn’t go away. He went up in the polls. What Trump figured out in America was that the media is so unpopular that when you cross the mainstream media, it’s actually an issue. It’s a winning issue for you. With something like Twitter, you don’t need the media anymore. Once upon a time, a politician needed us to get the message out. Well, they don’t have to.

They can get the message out themselves. We just become another constituency and we’re not a popular one. I don’t know whether that would work here. The culture’s a little different. In America though, for sure that works. All you have to do is look at the numbers comparing somebody like Joe Rogan to whoever the most popular cable host is. He’s dwarfing those people. I definitely think that can work.

SEAN SPEER: This has been a great conversation. Matt Taibbi, thank you for joining me, and good luck in tonight’s debate.

MATT TAIBBI: Thanks so much. I appreciate it.


SEAN SPEER: Now, as I mentioned in my introduction, Matt recently participated in the Munk Debate on whether or not to trust the mainstream media. Thanks to the debate organizers, we’re pleased to bring you some bonus content: Matt’s opening statement from the debate. Enjoy.

MATT TAIBBI: Be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media. My name is Matt Taibbi. I’ve been a reporter for 30 years and I argue for the resolution. You should not trust mainstream media. I grew up in the press. My father was a reporter. My stepmother was a reporter. My godparents were reporters. Basically, every adult I knew growing up was a reporter. I actually love the news business, but I mourn for it.

It’s destroyed itself by getting away from its basic function, which is just to tell us what’s happening. My father had a saying, “The story’s the boss.” In the American context, this means that if the facts tell you the Republicans were the villains in a political disaster, then you write it that way. If the facts point more of the Democrats, you write that. If they’re both culpable as was often the case for me when I investigated Wall Street for almost 10 years after the 2008 crash, you write the story that way.

We’re not supposed to thumb the scale. Our job is just to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you. But we don’t do that now. The story is no longer the boss. Instead, we sell narrative in a dysfunctional new business model. Once the commercial strategy of the news business was to go for the whole audience. A TV news broadcast was aired at dinner time. It was designed to be watched by the entire family. Everyone from your crazy right-wing uncle to the sulking lefty teenager in the corner.

[laughter]

The system had flaws, but making an effort to talk to everybody had benefits. For one thing, it inspired trust. Gallup polls twice showed Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted person in all of America. That would never happen with a news reader today.

With the arrival of the internet, some outlets found that instead of going after the whole audience, it made more financial sense to pick one demographic and try to dominate it. How do you do that? That’s easy. You just pick an audience and feed it news you know they’ll like. Instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience and work backward to the story.

This process started with Fox, but really now everybody does it. From CNN to OAN to The Washington Post, nearly all media organizations are in the same demographic-hunting business. According to a Pew Center survey from a few years ago, 93 percent of Fox’s audience votes Republican. In an exactly mirroring phenomenon, 95 percent of the MSNBC audience votes Democratic. The New York Times readers are 91 percent Democrats.

Left or Right, most commercial audiences, in America anyway, are politically homogeneous. This bifurcated system is fundamentally untrustworthy. When you decide in advance to forego half of your potential audience to cater to the other half, you’re choosing in advance which facts to emphasize and which to downplay based on considerations other than truth or newsworthiness. This is not journalism. This is political entertainment and it’s, therefore, fundamentally unreliable.

With editors now more concerned with retaining audience than getting things right, lots of guardrails have been thrown out. Silent edits have become common. Serious accusations are made without calling people for comment. Reporters get too cozy with politicians and report things either without attribution or source the unnamed people familiar with the matter. Like scientists, journalists should be able to reproduce each other’s work in the lab.

With too many anonymous sources, this is impossible. We just get a lot of stuff wrong now. In the Trump years, an extraordinary number of “bombshells” went sideways, from the pee tape to the Alfa server story to speculation that Trump was a Russian spy recruited before disco started to false reports of Russians hacking a Vermont utility. We’ve accumulated piles of these wrong stories. Now, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. I wrote a book about the guy called Insane Clown President.

[laughter]

These stories offend me. A good journalist should always be ashamed of error, and it bothers me to see so many of my colleagues not ashamed. News media shouldn’t have a side. It should focus on getting things right, which, believe me, is a hard enough job. Until we get back to the basics, we don’t deserve to be trusted and we won’t be. Thank you very much.

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