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My Interview with Matt Taibbi on His Book, the Media, the Election and His Spat with Erica Jong

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Below is the transcript of my Podcast interview with Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi. I'm a big fan of Taibbi's and consider him to be one of the most important journalists in modern times. I've referred to him before as "Noam Chomsky on acid" due to his ability to make technical subjects exciting and accessible -- an important attribute in the vacuous world of ratings driven media.

The interview is based largely on his new book The Great Derangement, but also delves into his thoughts on responsible journalism, why he likes to insult the political elite, and his much discussed tiff with novelist Erica Jong.

To listen to the Podcast, click here:

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 of 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.

Ben Cohen is the editor of www.thedailybanter.com and a contributing Mixed Martial Arts writer to www.espn.com. He can be reached at thedailybanter@gmail.com