Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi: Screw the Bus

OffTheBus recently caught up with Matt Taibbi and discussed a range of issues from his new book, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire, and campaign trail journalism.
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The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus

Matt Taibbi's latest piece for Rolling Stone is Mick Huckabee, Our Favorite Right-Wing Nutjob.

He's often referred to as the next Hunter Thompson but the truth of the matter is, Matt Taibbi is unique. Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone magazine and covers national politics in columns called "Road Rage" and "The Low Post" for the magazine's online version. Taibbi has written for Rolling Stone since the 2004 election and is known for some of his outrageous antics, such as covering the John Kerry campaign in a gorilla costume, interviewing a former drug czar while tripping on acid, and working undercover as a Bush-Cheney campaign volunteer. Prior to that, Taibbi worked for ten years as a journalist in Russia, founded a satirical magazine called The eXile, played baseball for the Red Army, and professional basketball in Mongolia. Upon returning to the States, Taibbi started a Buffalo, NY alternative weekly called The Beast, and covered stories for The New York Daily News, The Nation, and other. But what Taibbi is really know for is his astute no-holds-barred writing style.

In his first book, Spanking the Donkey (The New Press), Taibbi covers the 2004 election and cuts through the dog-and-pony shows that clutter an election year: the perfect backdrops, the puffed-up speeches, and campaign journalists that constantly cover the meaningless and the absurd. Is Howard Dean too prickly to become president? Is John Kerry a good snowboarder or does his ability to speak French hurt his chances to win? Taibbi documents these offenders in a chapter called "Wimblehack," where journalists compete in a Final Four-like tournament for the worst campaign journalism of the 2004 election.

Taibbi's new book, Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (Black Cat/Grove-Atlantic Inc.) has just been released and is a compilation of Rolling Stone articles covering corruption in Washington, DC, traveling through the streets of New Orleans in a dinghy with actor Sean Penn, spending three nights in Abu Ghraib prison, and much more. In his latest Rolling Stone article, available on the web and newsstands now, Taibbi covers GOP candidate Mike Huckabee. OffTheBus caught up with Matt Taibbi and discussed a range of issues from the new book and problems surrounding campaign trail journalism.

Off the Bus: Tell us a little bit about your new book, "Smells Like Dead Elephants." What's it about and how did you come up with the title?

Matt Taibbi: When I starting working for "Rolling Stone," we had this idea I would do this roving reporter bit where I travel to remote places and do these reports that collectively put together a portrait of what George W. Bush's America looked like at the end of his presidency. "Rolling Stone" back then wanted to put this compilation together. That was part of my deal with the magazine but it didn't turn out the way we wanted it to. We ended up doing some things we didn't plan on doing, like these long, in-depth pieces on Congress, but in the end, it turned out to be this eclectic collection of stuff reporting from different corners of the American experience during the Bush years. That was the concept behind the book.

As for the title, honestly, we just couldn't fucking think of anything. In my last book I had to have a donkey in the title and this one was more about the Republicans. I tried to come with something and I think 'Elephant' did it. I guess it's also named after the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" kind of a thing. But, it's totally a non sequitur.

Off the Bus: So did you start writing for "Rolling Stone" right after you returned from Russia?

Matt Taibbi: No. When I first got back, I tried to start up a newspaper in Buffalo, NY called "The Beast" (which still exists), but I had a pretty tough time. The economic realities of running a newspaper are a lot different in America than they are in Moscow.

Off the Bus: How so?

Matt Taibbi: Well, there are a lot of things but the chief thing was that in Moscow, well, (we had a captive audience) in Moscow with the foreign ex-pat community and in Moscow, there were only two English language media outlets, us and the Moscow Times. So our advertising base was naturally very vibrant and expensive and it was pretty easy to convince people that our advertising was effective. Then when I come back to America, I immediately move stupidly to one of the poorest cities in the country - Buffalo. So obviously the economic realities here are a lot different and print advertising is rapidly becoming a dinosaur. You might notice that all the alternative weeklies are going out of business because of Craig's List, the Internet, and all that stuff. So I ran smack dab into the middle of this phenomenon, sort of this changing phase of American media when I got back, and plus, I'm a terrible businessman (laughter). I decided to make a late career change to stop running and editing newspapers and just become a reporter and I think that ended up working out better that way.

Off the Bus: I ask that because I can't imagine the culture shock of coming back to a post September 11th America and then right off the bat, cover the campaign trail for Rolling Stone. That must have been a weird adjustment.

Matt Taibbi: Yeah, it was hard for me at first. At the beginning, a lot of ex-pats will have the same experience but I was gone for a long time. I was gone for ten years and that was most of my adult life. So when I came back, I really didn't understand American politics that well. I always envisioned the presidential campaign would be great fodder for writers. It seemed like it would be appropriate for a black humorist to take on from afar, but when I got into it, it was completely antiseptic and completely content free. I mean, everybody's so paranoid on the campaign trail that no one says anything interesting. So it was very difficult for me to adjust. It wasn't until about the time I started writing about the pieces in this book and started feeling more at home.

Off the Bus: In your Rolling Stone articles, you paint a shocking portrait of the United States Government. Among the revelations you made in some of your articles -- Congressman Bernie Sanders (of Vermont) getting railroaded on his amendments, the 109th Congress being the laziest in American history, and political corruption involving Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay, and others. What would you say were some of the more shocking things you encountered that made you realize something is drastically wrong? Was there anything worse than what you didn't write in "Dead Elephants?"

Matt Taibbi:
Well, meeting Bernie Sanders gave me the opportunity to follow him around and get that glass bottom boat look at Congress. It was really educational for me. There aren't that many feature reporters out there that get a chance to spend 7,000 or 8,000 words writing about how arcane and unsexy Congress is or how these committees work and that sort of thing. So it was really a luxury to be able to do that. I think the stuff that Sanders showed me about how bills can be completely rewritten in committee in the middle of the night, how they are sent to the floor and nobody ever reads them, how they can be rewritten in conference, and how amendments can be shot down by House leaders, I think 99% of Americans don't really understand how this stuff works and it was really eye-opening for me. It was amazing how easy it is how two, three, four people strategically placed in Congress can completely dominate the whole process. I think Americans don't understand the extent of influence that a couple of people have. If you just wanted to run Congress for your financial backers, it's really easy to do. The people I talked to, especially Sanders, were very helpful in showing me exactly how that happens. It's unfortunate that I didn't get a chance to spend more time with him. It would have been really interesting to spend a year following that whole process.

Off the Bus: He's actually getting a lot of grief from Vermont constituents for not taking a tough stand on investigations into impeachment. There are 36 towns in Vermont that passed impeachment resolutions and they expect Bernie to light a match and get the ball rolling, but now it seems like Congressman Dennis Kucinich is taking care of that.

Matt Taibbi: Well, I understand where they're coming from. There's certainly an argument for impeachment. There's no question Bush committed high crimes and misdemeanors and there's certainly a legal argument to be made. But people need to remember that Bernie Sanders is a freshman Senator and politics is all about accruing political capital and using it to the your best advantage and I think that's what he cares more about than watching an unsuccessful impeachment bid. I think Sanders is the kind of guy who wants to spend his first term trying to do stuff like getting more money for the heating oil program, veterans' health care and other things. I think that's where his head is at and I also think that's smart of him to do that. I mean, look, he's the new kid on the block and even if he were all for impeachment, he wouldn't get it. It's like the old joke about the two bulls who stand up on the hill and the young one says to the old, "Let's run down and fuck all those cows," and the other one says, "No. Let's walk down and fuck them all." I think Sanders is thinking in terms of "walking down and fucking them all" (laughter).

Off the Bus: In "Dead Elephants" you covered Hurricane Katrina and the Iraqi occupation where you spent three nights in Abu Ghraib prison. Which among the two were the most harrowing to cover and why? Which experiences stand out the most?

Matt Taibbi: Well, Abu Ghraib was difficult because getting (in Iraq) was hard and getting (to Abu Ghraib) was also hard because it was dangerous. I mean there was a situation where I had to hide and if I was caught inside the little cell where I was hiding, I'd be in serious, serious trouble. It was one of those where I could disappear and not come back, you know? That was a hairy thing and I was risking a whole lot. I had to protect my source which was the guy who got me in there. But as a result of that, I wasn't able to be very specific about some the things that I saw there. So it was certainly more difficult in that respect.

Katrina was hard. It was hard to get into the city. It was difficult logistically and it was more of a traditional reporter's job than getting into Abu Ghraib. The thing about covering Iraq is, it's funny. It's like dangerous without being interesting. Most of the embedded reporters spend 23 hours a day on the base where you might as well be in Fort Sumter, Fort Bragg or something like that. I mean you got your cinnabuns and your Burger King, your DVDs, your Internet, and all that fun stuff and for an hour a day you got out on a patrol, and you can get blown up. But it's not physically all that demanding and you don't really have a whole lot of interaction with the rest of Iraq. It's really all from the inside of a Humvee for most of the reporters. I mean, I'm not saying all the reporters do it that way, but most of the embed assignments are kind of like that.

But with Katrina, if you were in the middle of Katrina, it was a pretty horrifying thing just to be experiencing on a personal level, just watching the dead bodies floating by and having to wade in all that disgusting black water, diseases, tetanus and all that shit. It was shocking to see. Whereas Iraq, unless you're in the middle of an IED attack, it isn't.

Off the Bus: I know you've covered stories on the anti-war movement in "Spanking the Donkey," and "Smells Like Dead Elephants." You point out, in my opinion, some very true and very accurate observations why the anti-war movement hasn't been effective. In your opinion, what do you think it will take for the mainstream media to take this movement seriously? Is today's anti-war movement lacking something, or do you think it's just the mainstream media (like FOX News) that continue to thumb their noses at them?

Matt Taibbi: Well, I think it's a combination of both things. I mean, I think it's great and the people who were at Camp Casey were sincere and they were there for the right reasons. But at the same time, you have to ask yourself, "Why is this not penetrating the national consciousness the way the anti-war movement did it in the Vietnam era?" and I think a lot of it has to do with some things that seem on the surface to be not all that important, but I think that they are. For instance, at Cindy Sheehan's thing, it started off as this very sincere, simple, moving and powerful message about this one woman who lost her son and she's protesting the war, and it was a very comprehensible single unified message. Then within a day or two, you've got the Free Mumia people there, you've got the Cuban Five, you've got every single left cause coming out of the closet, and everybody's piling on to this media event. Then suddenly, like every other protest event, it's all these people expressing their commitment to diversity and I think detracted from the message. What ended up happening (and you hate to blame the protesters for the behavior of the media) is that you got all of these mainstream media folks focusing on people who look the weirdest or who had the most irrelevant messages out there who were dancing, or walking around on stilts, or doing whatever you see at marches all the time. As a result, I think the message got diluted a little bit. Look, I like the diversity and all. But I think it would be much more powerful if you had something like the Berkeley free speech movement where you had people dressed in khakis, button down shirts, and everybody looked alike and subverted their individuality for a message. Again, I think it shouldn't have to be like that. But we have an antagonistic media that is going to do whatever it can to make these movements look bad so you have to work extra hard to make sure the message gets across. Unfortunately I just don't think they're going the extra mile. I think what also happens is there's this image out there that the antiwar movement is largely a group of long-haired college students because people are trying to emulate the visual aesthetic of the Vietnam anti war movement. So people are actually are trying to dress like people dress like back then. But the reality is if you go to these marches, it's overwhelmingly older people, professionals, and it's not the demographic who make up most of the anti-war movement but because of a few people, the media is able to portray it as something that it isn't.

Off the Bus: You covered the 2004 election and you're now covering candidates for the 2008 election. I remember seeing you on "The Daily Show," and you referred to the national press that covers the candidates as a cross between "Heathers" and "Bad Girls." Explain what you meant by that and are you seeing the same kind of shallow journalism today compared to what you saw in the 2004?

Matt Taibbi: Absolutely. It's exactly the same. Look, it's not like anybody consciously goes into covering a campaign saying, "Look, we're going to ignore important issues so that we can concentrate on bullshit." It's a collective mindset that develops because of the way the campaign process works. If you're assigned to the campaign story, you're sort of stuck inside this bubble, where the only people you ever see are the other campaign staffers, reporters, and candidates, and it's all this sort of upper class crowd and community with its own internal logic, where the only thing that's important is who gives good speeches, who looks good on television, who's warm and genial, and who projects well in front of the camera, and because of that, people get used to covering that campaign on those terms because the campaign never visits places where you see real societal problems. They don't pay attention to them. If you're following a national candidate around, it's not like you ever go visit Bedford-Stuyvesant or places where kids are shooting up heroin. You never see that. You're always visiting the Norman Rockwell scene in some nice little town, where the mayor and a 15-piece band has come out to meet you, there's a big buffet for all the journalists to eat, and it's all like an extended school field trip. If you're an inexperienced young reporter, which many of these people are, it seems like a lot of fun. There's this aspect of it where you have a proximity to power, which for a lot of young reporters is really intoxicating. I mean politics is like Hollywood for ugly people and these reporters, for a lot of these people, being near Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama is like the sexiest thing they're ever going to be involved with. So they tend to be uncritical about it because for them, it's very fun. It's very thrilling and you forget it's something that has a wider meaning where if you're too incredulous, you're actually doing the public a disservice and that kind of thinking never enters your mind when you're actually there.

Off the Bus: It seems to me the less a candidate says, the more likely they can win the nomination. Do you agree with that assessment?

Matt Taibbi: Absolutely. Well, look. You can't put that all on the candidates. If there was a different kind of press out there, then the candidates might actually be rewarded for being more specific and more policy driven. But the fact is oftentimes the candidates who are very wonky, they end up get blasted in Newsweek and the Times and the U.S. News and World Reports. For them, it would be boring getting too weighed down in minutia and that sort of stuff. With John Kerry, the beginning of his campaign was far more specific about his various policies and he got ripped to shreds by all the big campaign hacks like the Newsweeks and the Times, and all the others. So what did he do? He started dumbing it down. The next thing you know, he's being praised for being more friendly and entertaining on the stump. So these guys, it's not necessarily that the voters are going to respond more positively to them by being shallow, it's the media that's going to respond to them.

Off the Bus: In "Spanking the Donkey" you share how depressing it was to cover the 2004 election. Why did you come back for the 2008 election?

Matt Taibbi: Well, you know, I think the first time I did it, it took me a long time to really understand what I was looking at. As I said before, it was my first time back in this country, and my first time covering a major American political story. So I didn't really have a good handle on it. This time around I think I know what I'm looking at a little more and I wanted to be able to go into it and do a better job of it. Also I think, I maybe experimenting with doing some other media, maybe something involving film. It's not finalized yet. But I think a lot of the things I talked about in "Spanking the Donkey" I think if I can tell some of those things to a wider audience about how the press works and how isolated they are, I think it would be a good thing. That's the service I can perform.

Off the Bus: "Off the Bus" was created by NewAssignment.Net and the Huffington Post to break out of patterns in the campaign press that repeat from election to election -- horse race journalism amid the spin cycle, with polls, ads, campaign strategy and "inside" analysis. Citizen journalists are trying to fill the void traditional media outlets often miss or neglect to cover. What in your opinion can (or should) citizen journalists contribute to and be effective at it? Is there something we should be doing better, is it the stories we cover, what would you suggest we do?

Matt Taibbi: I think one thing that needs to be done that isn't is you have to remember the campaign is a two-prong story. You have the fake thing that everybody sees which is the campaign trail, where the guys get out, give these bullshit speeches, and everybody argues over which one looks better in a duck hunting jacket. Then you have the real story that goes on behind the scenes, which is all these guys are raising $300 million dollars, and every dollar they raise is for a favor they're going to trade in four years. I think it would really behoove the press and the alternative media to look at who these guys are taking their money from and what it is they're going to give for that. What favor are they going to give a return for that, because that's really what's going on this year. When Hillary Clinton goes out and raises $300 million, that means next year she's going to do x, y, and z for all these guys and all of that is just a lot more meaningful than the shit that comes from the trail about how we need a strong America and all that stuff. I mean that's the real story. So, I think that the people who are trying to fill in the gaps, that's the kind of stuff they should do. Find out who's bundling for the candidates, which lobbyists are bundling fore the candidates, and what legislation is pending that's going to affect things next year.

Off the Bus: Thanks Matt.

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