To read Matt Taibbi, a popular and well-paid journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, is to witness the extreme cowardice and creative bankruptcy of the modern media. Taibbi is a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe, but a comparison between the two reveals no small differences. It in fact reveals a chasm, a massive gorge that indicates how propagandistic and predictable the press has become since Thompson’s heyday in the 1970s.
Hunter S. Thompson is one of those celebrities who is now celebrated more than read. People tend to draw a line from him to Taibbi because both have covered politics for Rolling Stone. “Taibbi now occupies the former desk of Hunter S. Thompson,” one reviewer noted. Reason magazine called Thompson the “predecessor” of Taibbi.
I recently had the enlightening experience of reading Taibbi and Thompson side by side — Taibbi’s book “The Great Derangement” and his recent Occupy Wall Street article in Rolling Stone, and the just-released Thompson retrospective “Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone.” The differences tell the story not only of Taibbi’s lack of an original voice — it’s not surprising that he’s been accused of plagiarism — but of the sad decline of the media. The Rolling Stone issues from the 1970s read like Dostoyevsky compared to the dreary lefty sheets that arrive in the mailbox these days.
The first thing that struck me in Thompson’s book “Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone,” a compilation of his articles for the magazine, was its first sentence. It is from an undated letter from Thompson to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. “Your Altamont coverage comes close to being the best journalism I can remember reading, by anybody,” Thompson wrote. He was referring to Rolling Stone’s courageous and award-winning coverage of the December 1969 Rolling Stones and Hells Angels concert that ended in mayhem and death. Rolling Stone, the bible of the counter-culture, had actually condemned the selfishness, greed, lack of planning and plain old stupidity that led to Altamont. Calling it “Rock & roll’s worst day,” one Rolling Stone writer described the scene this way: “Flickering silhouettes of people trying to find warmth around the blazing track reminded one of the medieval paintings of tortured souls in the Dance of Death.” A writer in the equally radical ’60s magazine Ramparts observed, “We all seemed beyond the law at Altamont, out there willingly, all 300,000 of us, Stones and Angels included, and on our own.” The National Magazine Award that Rolling Stone won said the magazine was honored for “challenging the shared assumptions of your readers.”
It’s important to note that no one these days is calling for something as ridiculous as “journalistic objectivity.” We all know that such a thing does not exist. My point is not to call for objectivity. My point is that good writing, journalism that is interesting and can bring us to some new learning or even wisdom, is journalism that is willing to engage with the other side on some level. It is also willing to call fouls on its own side. It reveals the journalist to have integrity, to be an honest and insightful person of character — someone worth reading. I don’t mean some dull “on the one hand, on the other hand” formula, but some admission that there is another side and that it is not manned entirely by lunatics. That has all been lost in the last 40 years. To be sure, in the 1950s and ’60s, William F. Buckley was considered a freak in the media. But he was a freak who was regularly booked on TV shows and profiled in mainstream magazines. The press these days can be called, with no exaggeration, an Orwellian propaganda machine that silences people and facts it finds inconvenient. By ignoring the truth, it in fact lies. It has become a danger to free thought and democracy.