Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Taibbi Gone Gonzo

Mother Jones has a funny, interesting interview with Rolling Stone and NY Press's Matt Taibbi. Taibbi's the journalist that caused a stir because of his article, "The 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope," and the criticism was warranted. It wasn't funny and it was extraordinarily mean-spirited.

Nevertheless, Taibbi has some insightful things to say about modern-day reportage. His new book, Spanking the Donkey, is his account of covering the 2004 presidential primary where the Democrats' infinite wisdom pushed John Kerry forward. He and it are being compared to Hunter S. Thompson and his Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72. Here's Taibbi explaining the differences between today's journalists and the reporters of a few decades back:
Mother Jones: The idea of reporting on political campaign coverage began with Timothy Crouse’s Boys on the Bus and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. You’ve now written your own book on the subject. How has that story changed?

Matt Taibbi: I was assigned exactly the same story from exactly the same people [Rolling Stone]. But the difference is that story doesn’t exist anymore. All the other reporters now are so paranoid about being quoted or showing up in an unfavorable light. Everyone assumes they’re going to be on the record somewhere. So there’s no bizarre behavior that goes on. Also I think that there’s definitely a different breed of reporter than what used to exist.

MJ: How so?

MT: My father is a reporter [for NBC], and my whole life I grew up around reporters. When I was a kid, at the time that Boys on the Bus was being written, reporters were rowdy, cynical, wisecracking, foulmouthed, a little bit iconoclastic, and independent thinking. These weren’t necessarily good qualities – but reporters certainly didn’t view themselves as being team players or worrying about the company. It was always “us against the editors.”

Nowadays, when you go around with a big crew of reporters who are following a story like the campaign, they’re all total careerists. Even if they’re straight out of school all they want to do is do a really good job and suck up to the staffers.

MJ: What was the makeup of the bus?

MT: For the most part it’s a lot of Ivy League people. It’s not a real fun-loving crowd. I think the schedule is not what it used to be like in ‘72. I don’t think they did four cities in a day back in ‘72 and there wasn’t a 24-hour news cycle. There were no cable guys who had to file eight times a day and the wire services didn’t have the technology. Now every place you go, as soon as the candidate says anything slightly different than what he said a couple hours ago, they have to go and update everything. The cable people have to go and do a live hit. By the end of the night they’re completely exhausted – just barely enough time to go to sleep to wake up and do it all over again. It’s like a cult. They have no social lives, they’re exhausted they have no time to do anything except file.
Big props to Taibbi for saying what many journalists feel. And wait till you read about Taibbi, high on acid, head cushioned by a Viking helmet, interviewing the former deputy head of the Office of National Drug Policy. Hilarious.