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.
People forget, but Hunter S. Thompson was a fair journalist. He was gifted at the art of the insult — a trope Matt Taibbi has raised to unimaginative slapstick — but he didn’t just save his quips for Nixon. One recalls his article about the Kentucky Derby, in which he wanted to find the drunk, illiterate, racist and inbred face at the derby that represented the worst of redneck America. After days of drinking and drugging, Thompson found the face — his own, in the bathroom mirror. His first article for Rolling Stone was about “freak power in the Rockies,” an attempt to elect a hippie as mayor of Aspen. Thompson was an advocate, of course, but in the piece he dropped observations like this: “The possibility of victory can be a heavy millstone around the neck of any political candidate who might prefer, in his heart, to spend his main energies on a series of terrifying, whiplash assaults on everything the voters hold dear.” When Watergate broke, Thompson verbally clothes-lined Nixon. But he also called Pat Buchanan — “the one person in the Nixon administration with a sense of humor” — and the two met in Washington for beers. Imagine Dana Milbank calling George Weigel or Jonah Goldberg to have a beer.
I believe that this shift, from advocacy with some fairness to outright propaganda, will erode the low public confidence in the media to the point where the majority of Americans simply stop paying attention to the mainstream media — that is, if that hasn’t already happened.
The non-coverage of the Occupy movement has been a watershed, at least in my mind. What has been so shocking about the liberal coverage of Occupy Wall Street is its total and complete submission to politics. With its disease, drugs, assaults and rapes (hundreds more than were reported at Altamont), the Occupy movement has become like a series of small Altamonts. When the Occupy crimes began to escalate, I thought: Surely the media will cover this. I visited the Occupy site in Washington a couple times and asked about the rapes. I was told by someone, a journalist in fact, “Well, you know, people get drunk, go into a tent to sleep and try and feel up somebody.” It was said with a shrug. Imagine the reaction if such a thing happened at a conservative conference. Actually, we have an example — the CPAC conference several years ago where there had been drug use and an attempted rape. It was the talk of the town, until it was revealed that the entire story had been made up by New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass.
I’m not saying that the liberal media should adopt the conservative position on the Occupy movement. The press could say it was only a few bad apples, they could praise the larger goals of the movement, they could read into it all kinds of sociological importance. But this is rape. This is assault. This is murder. Why can’t the press make the journalists who covered Altamont for Rolling Stone proud? They wouldn’t even have to “challenge the shared assumptions of their readers,” since I assume most of their readers are against filth and sexual battery.
It was not to be. In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Taibbi has an embarrassing piece, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Protests.” See, the right and the left have misunderstood OWS. It’s all about peace and love, man, and feelings. “We’re all born wanting the freedom to imagine a better and more beautiful future. But modern America has become a place so drearily confining and predictable that it chokes the life out of that built-in desire.” This is the kind of awkward hippie Play-Doh that Thompson would have sniggered at. It doesn’t even have the balls of real communism; it’s commie for kids, commie lite. And it’s a sign that Taibbi has crawled far up his own self-impressed arsehole. He can’t even report anymore.
It’s also a tragedy for Rolling Stone and for American journalism. It’s one thing to choose sides, which the media did a long time ago. It’s another to stop thinking and to anesthetize outrage at sexual attacks on young women in deference to ideology. One can understand that David Carr, the New York Times media writer and admitted drug addict and woman-beater, would want to stay in the dugout on this one. But where is Jack Shafer, the “fearless” media scold formerly of Slate and now at Reuters? Where is Arianna Huffington? Naomi Wolf, who once could sense misogyny in a fart, was on TV the other night praising Occupy Wall Street. I don’t recall her or the rest of the feminist left being so even-tempered during the Duke rape case.
Say what you will about conservative journalists, in the last few months I have seen our team dismiss Herman Cain (Charles Krauthammer), rue the feeble brain power on the right these days (Kathleen Parker) and call for higher taxes (Ben Stein). The Daily Caller published a rave review I wrote about a book just published by James Wolcott, the Vanity Fair writer who has written nasty things — about the Daily Caller. I’m willing to have a beer with Wolcott. Is he, or Taibbi, willing to honor Hunter S. Thompson and have a beer with Pat Buchanan?
I’m sure people will tell me that I’ve finally woken up and seen the media for what it truly is. They’ll welcome me to reality. But I can’t help still feeling outraged, and sad. I was just a little kid when Altamont happened, but I remember reading back copies of Rolling Stone when I was in high school and being thrilled by its coverage. It wasn’t as grand as Whittaker Chambers defecting or Ronald Reagan leaving the left, but to a kid who loved rock and roll, it was as important. These were my guys. And they had told the truth, even if their subscribers might not like it. They had honored their craft.
And they had done it with originality. I remember the exact moment when I realized I could no longer read Matt Taibbi. It was almost exactly halfway through his book “The Great Derangement.” A lot of the book involves Taibbi’s merry adventures as a hipster among Southern born-again Christians, a slow-moving target worthy of the cowardice of Bill Maher. At one point the Rolling Stone correspondent goes to a meeting at the house of some fellow churchgoers:
Frightened by a clowder of fifty-something housewives with crayon-thick eyeliner and Nancy Reagan hairdos — and anxious to avoid their pious, potbellied, truck-driving husbands — I spent the entire meeting clinging to an octogenarian Japanese anesthesiologist named Hiroshi Nakitomi, a stroke victim with memory lapses who sat mute a the dinner table tranquilly clutching a cane with a saintly smile on his face. I must have spent nearly forty minutes quizzing the good old doctor about the types of anesthesia he used over the years. Like all drug addicts, I have an unhealthy fascination with this subject.
“You ever use methoxyflurane?” I asked. “I mean, what’s your go-to general?”
He looked at me and smiled. “Putting them out isn’t the problem,” he said. “The trick is making sure they wake up.”
He nodded, pleased with his joke. I laughed with him.
“How about trichloroethylene? When do you use that?”
I just stopped reading there. This wasn’t original, it wasn’t in the service of the story (Thompson’s digressions were always in the service of the story, which was always about things other than how cool he was). It wasn’t an homage to Thompson. It was just cheap mimicry. I also suspected that Dr. Hiroshi Nakitomi was made up, a suspicion that gained weight when I Googled the good doctor’s name and came up with nothing. It wouldn’t be hard to do for someone who lives in a liberal fantasy land.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.