DECEMBER 12, 2019
THERE’S A SAYING at The Nation magazine: what’s bad for the nation is good for The Nation. When the right is ascendant, in other words, so are subscriptions to the left-wing magazine.
This might be called a business model, but not very convincingly. After all, left-wing magazines don’t make much money even in the worst years. (The Nation hosts, however incongruously, an annual cruise to help keep the lights on.) If their main aim was to make money fanning the flames of political division, they’d work elsewhere.
Matt Taibbi might say they’d find more lucrative work at MSNBC. In his biting new critique of partisan media, Hate Inc., he puts the progressive cable news channel in the same dishonorable category as Fox News. Despite their obvious political differences, he argues, both have made the news a consumer product designed “not just to make you mad, but keep you mad, whipped up in a state of devotional anger.”
Even if the information reported on MSNBC or Fox is factually correct, Taibbi says their work doesn’t amount to traditional journalism because their aim isn’t to inform viewers but to addict them — and addict them, particularly, to a narrative of permanent conflict where one side is always right and the other always wrong.
Taibbi is, in essence, trying to update Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent, which posited that the news media artificially narrowed the brackets of acceptable debate. Taibbi’s view is that, now, news organizations have not just accepted the limited brackets of debate, but have cultivated audiences completely loyal to only one side of it. News is like sports coverage: audiences have their teams, the Democrats and Republicans, and it’s the job of news organizations to cheer for one side or the other.
A central difference between the books is that Herman and Chomsky are scholarly and measured, whereas Taibbi — a veteran journalist who holds what might be considered the Hunter S. Thompson Chair at Rolling Stone — is often scathing and irreverent. He’s made his bones thumbing his nose at the political and media establishment, and doesn’t clear his throat in this book before he ridicules Thomas Friedman, whose main shtick is to couch the consensus in terms of the revolutionary: “Capitalism, surprisingly, works!” as Taibbi ventriloquizes. His beef is with any columnist who deals in conventional wisdom or “market-tested non-thought.” Such a person is allowed, in Taibbi’s view, to be wrong and boring and still keep his job because the wrong things he expresses “are the wrong things everyone else is expressing.” The press rewards traits that congratulate the politics of the “center.”
Much has stayed the same since Manufacturing Consent came out in 1988. Except for the matters that Taibbi thinks have gotten worse. He especially laments how the mainstream press, in his view, reconsidered its line on objectivity and “bias” after the election in 2016. It is well known that, during the campaign season, the press enjoyed a “Trump bump” in readers and ratings. But all that coverage made Trump’s campaign successful. In Taibbi’s telling, the press had a decision to make after the election: cover Trump less, or come up with an excuse to cover him more. “The rhetorical trick” that allowed them to do the latter, Taibbi writes, was to take an “openly adversarial stance” to the president. “Democracy,” as The Washington Post assured us in 2017, “dies in darkness.” So the job is to shed light on Trump’s corruption, his falsehoods, his unprecedentedness, 24/7, and keep the audience addicted to the coverage. For Taibbi, this isn’t principally a political stand, nor is it an earnest attempt to defend the credibility of the press. It’s a money-and-ratings grab.
On this point, Taibbi is convincing. He commits an entire chapter to describing how reading the news is like smoking. He’s right to assert that “you get the same rush from pulling the dense metal phone out of your jeans that a smoker gets withdrawing a softened cardboard Marlboro box.” The pull-to-refresh motion, ubiquitous in the social media feeds that now serve as everyone’s front page, is highly addictive. It offers a schedule of rewards similar to that of a slot machine: at any point you can pull-to-refresh and find a new story or hot take from your favorite news source, and if not that, a tweet from your favorite reporter. The news is now everything all the time, the air we breathe. And it’s a far cry, Taibbi points out, from the nightly news of the 1970s. When each of his broadcasts were over, Walter Cronkite would conclude by saying, “And that’s the way it is.” The reassuring finality of that sign-off gave the audience permission to return to their lives. “It was a promise,” Taibbi remembers: “click off, and the world will hold together.”
Taibbi is right, in this case, to pine for a bygone era. The news was better when it wasn’t addictive. But in other cases, his nostalgia is strange, almost surprising, as if he hasn’t totally thought through his position. It’s not clear, for instance, what precisely Taibbi’s concerned about when he complains that “we’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.” This claim is obviously unfair to a great many journalists. It also happens to be sloppy, almost incoherent. Of course, members of the press must concern themselves foremost with reporting facts. But most of them already do. The truth is that sticking to the facts in no way absolves news organizations, or even particular journalists, from having at times to “choose,” or at least run the risk of seeming to choose, a “side.”
Do certain facts announce themselves as most relevant? When presented with utmost accuracy, do facts assort and arrange themselves in a meaningful narrative? Of course not. Such work takes editorial judgment, and editorial judgment involves, necessarily, certain assumptions and allegiances, some of them political. Taibbi knows this. In fact, much of his career as a scathing and irreverent critic is testament to it. But at important moments, he fails to mention it, or fails to account for its implications.
The problem, I think, is that Taibbi initially published this book in serial form on Substack. The book is slightly unpolished, and what it gains in freewheeling critique it sometimes loses in clarity of argument. In the end, Taibbi does not adequately complete the nuanced thought of his book, which can be summarized in three geometric steps.
If, 1) in 1988, the press claimed it was objective and unbiased but in fact limited the brackets of acceptable political debate.
And if, 2) by 2019, the press had partly abandoned the objectivity ruse in favor of taking a position in that already limited debate, and did this largely to make the news a more addictive consumer product.
Then, 3) the root problem, in 2019, would be the money-and-ratings motive, the urge to make the news as addictive as a drug with all its manifest excesses — too much Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, too many CNN “breaking news” segments covering banalities, too many news cycles which move too quickly and lead to nothing at all.
In other words, the underlying problem isn’t that the news is just too partisan these days but that the politics of the major news organizations Taibbi criticizes — MSNBC and Fox News especially — are a function of their profit-and-ratings motive. This should be the refrain hammered home with vigor in each chapter, especially the later ones, but it is a point Taibbi sometimes mentions and elsewhere seems to forget.
This book could have used some careful editing and rearranging, particularly at the end. It would have been wise for Taibbi to write a conclusion that tied up, in the way I’ve endeavored to do above, some of the threads of his argument. Readers might just select this or that chapter as the “real” end of the book. They would do well to choose the chapter whose title has the right kind of finality to it: “Turn It Off.”
Turn it off, indeed. As Taibbi suggests, the mainstream press ought to reckon with the failures of its coverage of the 2016 election and the Trump presidency. But if such a reckoning happens, it will probably not be televised. At least, not on cable.