My Interview with Matt Taibbi

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By Ben Cohen

Here's the transcript of the interview I did with Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi for the Huffington Post. We'll post the actual podcast tomorrow:

This is Ben Cohen reporting for the Huffington Post Podcast, and we are speaking with Rolling Stone journalist and author of The Great Derangement
Matt Taibbi. We'll be talking about his book, his thoughts on the
mainstream media, the Presidential election, and his spat with Erica
Jong.

Matt -- the theme of The Great Derangement is that
American society has essentially broken off into radically different
and incompatible factions. Out of all the subcultures, which did you
find the most worrying?

Well, obviously the religious right which I talk about a lot in this
book, it's a much bigger factor in real political terms than say the
9/11 truth movement. In terms of sheer voting influence, they are a
real significant factor in pretty much every election that happens in
this country. That's certainly not the case with the 9/11 truth
movement. I would have to say the religious right. They are always
going to be a big deal in National Politics, and even in regional
politics.



One of the interesting things that you wrote about in your book is the
link between the fundamentalist Christians and the Israeli Lobby AIPAC.
Can you tell us a bit more about that?

This situation is this, AIPAC sort of found a fortuitous
relationship with people like Pastor John Hagee whose Church I spent a
lot of time with over the course of the research for this book. People
like Hagee are what you call Christian Zionists and they believe that
in order to properly prepare for the upcoming end of the world, America
needs to align itself strongly with Israel in order to prepare for the
final Armageddon in which the forces of good, which is basically Israel
are going to fighting against the forces of evil, which they imagine is
going to be some combination of probably Russia and Iran. So you have
this theology that allows American evangelical Christians to support
Israel politically. And obviously this is a good thing for the Israeli
state -- it sort of solves the age-old problem of how do you get
American Christians to support Israeli foreign policy. Because you
know, for a long time, we had Republican politicians who wanted to have
a strong alliance with Israel and pursue a very aggressive foreign
policy in the Middle East, based around that relationship, but it was a
tough sell to their natural constituents, the Christian
Fundamentalists, because obviously Israel is a Jewish State. And
because of the "End Time" theology, they've solved that problem by
cloaking support of Israel under the auspices of this end time
theology. It's not something I think they thought up deliberately, but
you do have a number of these new evangelical figures like Hagee and
there are a number of authors who are writing Left Behind
type books, encouraging Americans to support Israel. And there is that
relationship with Hagee speaking at AIPAC last year, and now you have
people like John McCain pursuing close relationships with those
pastors. And McCain is a big figure in AIPAC. So it's a situation where
Israelis opportunistically capitalize on this End Time movement, and
built this relationship. It's not a small thing, I mean it's big enough
that Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at Hagee's Church last year. It's
significant.


Was this something you were aware of before you wrote the book, of a function of it?

You know, it was something I was aware of before hand, especially
covering campaign politics for the magazine, one of the things that I
noticed a lot was that when people argue about politics in this
country, they are not just arguing because they have different beliefs,
they are arguing because they have different sets of facts. For
instance, someone who supports environmentalist policies arguing with
someone on the Right about environmentalism, they are not arguing about
whether or not it is the correct policy, they are arguing over whether
global warming actually exists, or whether or not this or that threat
to our environmental well being is real or not. And the reason that
they have different sets of facts is because they are reading... they
have their own news sources now, and I think because of the internet,
and because of the loss of faith in the mainstream media, people have
retreated to their own news sources and they have been able (inaudible)
and become increasingly isolated from each other. And that's a
difficult problem to reach when you are dealing with a (inaudible)
industrialized state like ours, because when you are arguing about
national politics, it really helps when you agree on what the basic
facts about the situation are. We don't even have that any more, and
that's what I am sort of trying to get at in my book.



One of your main points in the book is that media institutions have
basically failed Americans. Why do you think they continue to get
millions of viewers and set the boundaries of debate?

Well, they are always going to have lots of viewers, but I think
their influence is slightly waning. I mean, if you go back to the 70's
when there were only three networks and a couple of major newspapers
which were setting the tone for the entire national media, that was a
situation where if you had consensus among 5 or 6 major media organs,
you had a consensus across the board. That's not the case any more,
largely because of the internet, and because of cable TV, and you know,
the fracturing of the entire media landscape. I mean, you'll see
studies that say that certain demographics are more likely to get their
news from The Daily Show, than they are from say, NBC Nightly News.
The networks are still influential, CNN, and MSNBC, and the rest of the
major news shows, they still have a lot of influence. They are only a
corner of the whole new media picture now. And the blogs, and cable TV
and all that are getting an increasing share of that media pie every
year, so they are still influential, but not quite as influential as
they used to be



You are quite scathing of the Internet culture that helped spawn the
9/11 truth movement. What are your thoughts in general about blogging
and the Internet?

Well, I think the Internet, and blogs and alternative news sites are
generally speaking positive. It's a great think that we have so many
people watching politics, following it and doing their own
investigations. If it weren't for media sites, I mean look at even
stupid things like the Lewinsky scandal, where the blogs were way out
in front of the national media, even on a dumb story like that. Also
things like the Scooter Libby story, the blogs were really far ahead of
the major newspapers. But on the other hand, there is the problem of
seeing things on blogs and internet sites that are often not fact
checked, and there is much less control over liable and inaccuracies o
internet sites. And that creates a problem because that's what's
happening now, one phenomenon that we've all started to notice is that
mainstream media organs like the New York Times and the Washington Post
are beginning to pick up news from the blogs , and if there are
inaccuracies in the blogs, then they are getting amplified in the
mainstream media. A great example of that is when, you remember that
situation in the debate four years ago when Bush had that lump under
his jacket?

Right.

Well that was mostly an Internet phenomenon, and that was all over the blogs for a couple of days. And then the New York Times
decided to put it on the front page as a story reporting on it as an
Internet phenomenon. But there was never any real source there. There
was no basis for the story that Bush was getting some sort of
communication from someone during the debate. It was pure speculation.
And that is the sort of story that would never have appeared in the New York Times
before the Internet age, but it does now. And I think that is a
negative. On the whole, there are pluses and minuses, just like
everything else. But, it certainly had an affect on journalistic
standards, but it has also increased readership and interest in
politics and general amount of information. So there are pluses and
minuses.

When you were undercover while writing your book, did you
ever question your own judgment while spending so much time with people
so radically different and certain of their own particular beliefs?

Did I ever question my judgment in terms of the ethics of what I was doing, or was I ever starting to change my beliefs?

I wouldn't say change your beliefs, but because when you are
confronted with someone so completely, radically opposed to everything
you are saying, did you ever have a moment of self doubt, and think,
well maybe I'm the crazy one?

Oh yeah, sure. Yeah, I mean I'm self-doubting like that anyway, all
the time so, I certainly had a couple of pretty scary moments during
that whole experience with Hagee. There was one day, I remember this
really clearly, that I went into church, I think it was about three
months into the experience, and I went into church and I could hear the
music starting up in the main hall, and I caught myself looking forward
to the services! And I thought that was a really bad sign! There was
some sort of transformation going on inside my head that I wasn't aware
of. I mean look, there are an awful lot of things about that community
that are very appealing, I mean you have this community, and these
people who are always there to support you and to listen to you as long
as you toed the party line obviously. And it can be a very interesting
experience, I got sucked into it a little bit sure, but at the same
time I don't think intellectually I ever started to worry that I had
been wrong all along about the overall meaning of this picture. I was
just a little bit surprised about how appealing it was on that other
level.



And what about the 9/11 Truth Movement guys?

No, I never once experienced anything like that, when it came to any of their beliefs. Not even for a second.



I've always been impressed with your reporting on economic issues,
which is something that the mainstream media doesn't really seem to
care about. Why do you think that is?

Well poverty certainly is something you don't get a whole lot of
information about, for the simple reason that poor people turn off
advertisers. That is strictly an economic decision with the media. I
know this, I cant really get into the specifics of it too much, but let
me just say that I do know a lot of TV reporters, who for instance, let
me give you an example: I knew one guy who was doing a story and it
involved a murder in a small town in Georgia, and there were a lot of
poor people involved who were characters in this story, and they were
talking a lot on camera in his version of the story. When he took it to
his editors they told him to re-cut the story, and take the poor people
out and have him do stand ups instead so that he would be on camera
more and the poor inarticulate people would be on camera less. This is
something that goes on all the time in the media, and it's not because
they have a political bias against the idea that there are lots of poor
people in this country, it is just that it is a fact of economic life
that when people see wealth on TV, they are inclined to buy more and
when they see depressing images, they are inclined to buy less. That's
why golf, for instance, is such a popular sport on television because
it is a sport where you tend to see lots of upper class people in upper
class settings in country clubs, and you'll notice that corresponding
advertisements for golf are always luxury cars and luxury perfumes and
colognes and those sorts of things. And you can't sell those things
when you have a lot of people without teeth on TV, it's just a fact of
life. That's why you have that, it's strictly an economic thing.

Do you make a conscious effort to try and include that in a lot of your reporting?

Yeah, although I have to say that I'm probably not doing a great job
of it. Just because, look, I work for a magazine that has to sell ads
too, I try to get as much of that in as possible, but it's not easy,
it's not easy to find places to write about poverty in this country, I
think it is a very difficult sell. When I was in Russia, and I had my
own newspaper, I did that an awful lot but that was of course much
easier because 98% of Russia is poor, so it was pretty hard to write
about anything else! But in this country it is not easy to get that
kind of thing. For instance, if I wanted to do... I story I always
wanted to do was to live in the ghetto for 5 months and just write a
diary of what that is like, and I think that would be a very shocking
story for a lot of people, but I would have a hard time getting that
into a magazine. I mean Morgan Spurlock did that thing where he tried
to live on the average income, and I think it was the 30 days thing he
did, and that's about the only example I can think of, of something
like that on television or a major magazine. It's just not easy to find
someone who is going to buy that kind of stuff.



Do you see any genuine differences on the campaign trail this time around?

As opposed to 2004? Yeah, sure, absolutely, in 2004, this is one of
the most disgusting things about the campaign media is that campaign
journalists, they can really feel which way the wind is blowing, and in
2004 when George Bush was popular, and the right wing talk radio, the
Rush Limbaugh contingent was still strong, they were very, very
aggressive in routing out liberalism and liberals in the campaign
trail. I mean I remember when back covering Howard Dean, and listening
to Howard Dean be asked 50 times a day whether he was too liberal to be
President. You would never see that type of thing this time around
because now George Bush is unpopular, and the questioning is all about,
do you support the war? And I think the journalists are much more
aggressive in their support of someone like Barack Obama than they
would have been four years ago. So I think that's a subtle difference,
but it's something that I can definitely see. I think the public isn't
as aware of how flighty the journalists are in terms of their support
of candidates. It's not so much of a liberal media so much that it is
group of political suck ups who happen to be following which ever way
the wind blows on that particular year. This year, the wind is blowing
the other way.

Do you think Obama vs McCain will really be any different, like the tone of the debate -- which they keep promising?

Well I think the tone of the debate is going to be very, very low.
John McCain is in the unique position of both having to run against
both George Bush and Barack Obama at the same time. And really the only
way to win is to bring Obama down to his level and do basically the
same strategy as Hillary Clinton tried in the primary season which is
to sling as much mud at him and question his patriotism, and imply that
he is a socialist and do all that kind of stuff. I mean, that's the
only thing that he can do, so we are going to see an awful lot of that.
Because when that's your only strategy, and you've got $200 million of
campaign funds to work with, you are going to see an awful lot of mud
fly.

Do you think it still possible to create a civil society out of the mess that has been created over the past 40 years?

Yeah, I mean people ask me this all the time. And my answer is, well
America is in tremendously good shape compared to a lot of other
countries. We have a functioning infrastructure, we have courts that
work, we have elections that are more or less honest and valid, and we
have a very powerful and innovative economy, I mean we have all sorts
of great, great things going for us, and you know, there aren't people
running wild in the streets and just mugging people left and right .
You know, I used to live in Russia where you had officers in the
military opening up the ware houses at night and taking weapons out and
putting them into a truck and selling the to foreign powers. That type
of stuff doesn't happen in the United States. We still have a very
functioning and relatively civil society. If we made very very small
improvements across the board, if there was a little less corruption
and a little less stealing and a little bit less greed and violence
we'd probably be fine. It's just not happening because the whole
direction of our culture is directed towards making things worse. But
is could easily be better, sure.



On another note -- what was the argument you had with Erica Jong about?
The back and forth you had on the Huffington Post made quite a buzz!

It's funny, I had somebody, one of my friends said to me, "You're
lucky the person who attacked you for being a sexist was such an idiot!
(Laughs) Because otherwise you would have had a much harder time!" I
don't know what that was about, I mean Erica Jong wrote this crazy
thing that I had some Freudian desire to sleep with my mother because I
described Hillary Clinton's arms as being flabby. If you read a lot of
the sites and the campaign coverage this year, there was an awful lot
of Hillary supporters who were really angry about what happened with
this election season, and the perceived sexist treatment of their
candidate. I think there was a lot of real anger there and I got caught
up in that, I think unfairly because I'm not a misogynist, I'm a
misanthrope! That was my point to Erica Jong. She said I was singling
out women, and in fact I probably meaner to men in my writing that I am
to women. But, there has been an awful lot of that and I think it
continues to be a sore spot, especially for older female supporters of
Hillary Clinton. They really think there was a conspiracy out to get
Hillary and that men were out to undermine her candidacy. That may on
some level be true, but I just don't whether it was true of me.

You spend a lot of time describing the physical features of the
people you attack -- is there a particular logic, or reasoning behind
this?

Um... it's funny? (Laughs) That's one thing. I remember when I was reading Spy Magazine
when I was growing up, and they managed to make local New York society
really interesting for people who didn't live in New York by kind of
cartoonizing these characters and making them accessible to people. So
even characters like Donald Trump, who were just real estate figures in
New York before Spy Magazine got hold of them. They called
him names like "Short Fingered Vulgarian," and stuff like that. And it
was kind of a short hand that allowed people to recognize these people
instantaneously and place them in a context they understood. So I try
to do the same thing. You know, I make these caricatures of people, and
a lot of it sure is gratuitous, and on some level I am trying to be
funny, but I'm also trying to make is an easier read for some of the
people who maybe aren't so interested in politics. I'm not going to
stand up and say that it is ideologically defensible, or there isn't
something that is immature about it, but it's what I do and I think on
some level it makes my article a little bit more interesting, and it's
also not the only thing that I do. I mean, I do do research and
reporting as well.



Finally, will we ever see you on as an MSNBC analyst?

(Laughs) No! No way! I had a little bit of experience in TV this
year on the Bill Maher show, and I enjoyed that, and it's fun, but I
can see how unbelievably difficult TV is as a career. I would never, I
mean I can't even believe people would do this every day for a living.
It's so hard, and so stressful. So I think I'll pass on that thing.

Matt Taibbi, Thank you very much.

Thanks a lot Ben.