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Hate Inc. by Matt Taibbi (2019) (read in 2018/2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This book was published in serial form over the course of a year. I purchased a subscription at the very beginning and read the chapters as Taibbi produced them. Because of the serial nature, I’ve linked the original URLs (to which you only have access if you either have a subscription or if Taibbi just opens it up for everyone) and denoted which citations come from which chapters. I think I have the chapters in the right order.

It was an interesting experiment for an excellent book. I’ve still got a subscription to Taibbi’s output, but he hasn’t published anything since he finished this book. No regrets.

The book is about the American media over the last four decades, but focusing on the first two decades of the 21st century. It’s about the influence, the stupidity, the corruption and the sheer uselessness of it all. One of the main thrusts is of the major failures they have suffered in being utterly unable to reliably report on major issues, either before they happen or, even more embarrassingly, afterward.

This is a recurring feature of American media:

“[…] you can be fired for being wrong. You just can’t be fired for being wrong in concert. […] many of America’s highest-profile media figures are not only wrong very frequently, but absurdly so. But their saving grace is that the wrong things they express are the same wrong things everyone else is expressing.”

Taibbi’s accurate descriptions, drawn from the actual pages of America’s major newspapers, read like Orwell’s 1984. This kind of comparison is considered, in some circles, to be too trite to make, but look at it,

“In the blink of an eye, we went from tolerating Saddam Hussein without any trouble at all to needing to kill him immediately in self defense […]”

That is nothing if not a paraphrase for “We have always been at war with Eastasia.”

This style leads inevitably to the lowest-common-denominator of media: making dumbasses feel superior by showing them even dumber people. In one way, Taibbi’s book is a thesis proving that Judge’s Idiocracy was a vision of the future that has come much, much more quickly than 500 years.

“The most popular programs aren’t about geniuses and paragons of virtue, but instead about terrible parents, morons, people too fat to notice they’re pregnant, people willing to be filmed getting ass tucks, spoiled rich people, and other freaks. Why use the most advanced communications technology in history to teach people basic geography, or how World Bank structural adjustment lending works, when you can instead watch idiots drink donkey semen for money? […] We’re probably just a few years way from a show called, What Would You Suck For a Dollar? (Emphasis added.)”

Russiagate is a special target for Taibbi: he deems it even stupider than the WMD catastrophe that led to the Iraq war. He is careful to note that the effects of lying about WMD were much worse, but that the sheer stupidity required to promulgate Russophobia was much greater.

“Few think about this, but the press routinely puts the names and personal information of people arrested in newspapers, on TV, and, worst of all, online, where the stories live forever. Yet these people have not been convicted of crimes, merely arrested or charged. With Russiagate the national press abandoned any pretense that there’s a difference between indictment and conviction. (Emphasis added.)”

The media does whatever it can to (A) protect itself while it (B) makes as much money as it can regardless of (C) who gets hurt or (D) whether any of it is true.
The news cycle is like the weekly confession: the next week’s news washes away the sins and transgressions of the previous. Hell, for the right sponsors, the media even sells indulgences. Worst of all, though, they buy the myth just because the powers-that-be give them a taste of power, of wealth. Journalism used to be full of the working class; now, it’s a bunch of millionaires.

“When we deride journalists as stenographers, it’s not about them repeating the words of powerful officials. The real crime is absorbing the ideas of powerful people (often crafted by groups of officials in a dreary corporate process) and repeating them as if they’re your own personal thoughts.”

Taibbi’s anger is palpable, his research is impeccable, his bona fides are unimpeachable and his writing style is very entertaining. His conclusions are sobering for the American experiment: unless the media can do any part of the job that it used to have, America is doomed. Too many people are already getting the majority of their information about the world—I hesitate to call it “news”—from compromised sources that have no intention of doing anything but telling them a story focused on keeping them consuming, working a dead-end job and not asking any questions about how anything works and why everything seems to suck for them.

Citations

The Church of Averageness by Matt Taibbi

“Thirty years from now, Hannity will be getting a tin medal from whoever is Reichsmarshall of the ex-United States by then, and that will identify him, not Rush, as “America’s anchorman.””
“Having a sense of humor or a conscience or both in a high-profile media job is a quick way to end up wandering New York or some distant farm, Vincent Gigante-style, in a bathrobe and stubble.”
“[…] you can be fired for being wrong. You just can’t be fired for being wrong in concert. If you go back and look, you’ll find that many of America’s highest-profile media figures are not only wrong very frequently, but absurdly so. But their saving grace is that the wrong things they express are the same wrong things everyone else is expressing.”
“But articles from the Post and the Times about these revelations years later did not include re-examinations of the papers’ own complicity in selling a bogus war. This is a key part of how this system works. The institutional memory of the press about credulous acceptance of government nonsense is nonexistent, so we continually repeat the same errors.”
“Meanwhile, Frum wrote, the lunatic Hitler attacked Britain and Russia simultaneously, suicidal moves. So, you never knew. The only way to be absolutely sure you would never have to go to war with a dangerous and unpredictable adversary was to go to war with them.”
“So the Reagan administration salted papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post with bogus tales about how Libya was backing new terrorist initiatives. In fact, the CIA had secretly concluded Qaddafi was “quiescent” on the terror front at the time.”
“Friedman won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary that year. The fact that he declared “the next six months will be critical” fourteen times during the war is much laughed about today, but it’s actually a serious commentary on how long delusions are allowed to persist, provided they’re the right delusions.”
“In the blink of an eye, we went from tolerating Saddam Hussein without any trouble at all to needing to kill him immediately in self defense, with people like Brooks insisting that anyone who said otherwise was just refusing to face the irrefutable math.”
“The only crime is trying to punch above not just your own intellect, but everyone else’s. Many believe Iraq-style collective delusions are less possible today, because the post-Trump universe is so divided. This is a misread of how this all works. If anything, the Church of the Average is stronger than ever. The greater the political stress, the more the public is subjected to even stricter and more ridiculous enforcement of conventional wisdom. We place a great premium today on not thinking for oneself, and not temporarily, so as to green-light one war, but generally — on the grounds that free thinking has not worked out so well for America of late, and therefore must be discouraged.”

The Ten Rules of Hate, Rules 7–10 by Matt Taibbi

“Which headline is the Hawaiian Democrat going to click on first: “Ballast Discharge Measure Won’t Protect Hawaii’s Coastal Waters” or “11 Times Marie Hirono Had Zero Fucks To Give”? Scatological blather scores shares and retweets, and now that there’s no ideological or commercial requirement to avoid pissing off the whole audience – no more “Good morning, everybody” – there’s no disincentive to using the strongest language.”
“The problem is, there’s no natural floor to this behavior. Just as cable TV will eventually become 700 separate 24-hour porn channels, news and commentary will eventually escalate to boxing-style expletive-laden pre-fight tirades, and open incitement of violence. If the other side is literally Hitler, this eventually has to happen. It would be illogical to argue anything else. What began as America vs. America will eventually move to Traitor vs. Traitor, and the show does not work if those contestants are not offended to the point of wanting to kill one another.”
“Few think about this, but the press routinely puts the names and personal information of people arrested in newspapers, on TV, and, worst of all, online, where the stories live forever. Yet these people have not been convicted of crimes, merely arrested or charged.”
“What’s remarkable about Pauli’s story is how rare it is. Pauli happened to be in one of the worst corners of the game, covering crime, which is a genre significantly wrapped up in needlessly stoking class/racial fears on the one hand, while making people feel superior on the other. But the core dynamic of his job was not much different from what most of us do. We’re mainly in the business of stroking audiences. We want them coming back. Anger is part of the rhetorical promise, but so are feelings righteousness and superiority.”
“It’s why we love terrible people like Casey Anthony or O.J. as news subjects a lot more than we’d like someone who spends his or her days working in a pediatric oncology ward. Showing genuinely heroic or selfless people on TV would make most audiences feel inferior. Therefore, we don’t.”
“It’s the same premise as reality shows. The most popular programs aren’t about geniuses and paragons of virtue, but instead about terrible parents, morons, people too fat to notice they’re pregnant, people willing to be filmed getting ass tucks, spoiled rich people, and other freaks. Why use the most advanced communications technology in history to teach people basic geography, or how World Bank structural adjustment lending works, when you can instead watch idiots drink donkey semen for money? Your media experience is designed to nurture and protect your ego. So we show you the biggest losers we can find. It’s the underlying principle of almost every successful entertainment product we’ve had, from COPS to Freakshow to, literally, The Biggest Loser. We’re probably just a few years way from a show called, What Would You Suck For a Dollar?”
“In the early nineties, the Weekly Standard wrote that Republicans wanted Quayle to “dispel his bimbo image” by “showing some teeth, Spiro Agnew style.” Agnew is one of the biggest disgraces in the history of American politics, a blowhard with no discernible ideas beyond the promiscuous use of every conceivable form of political corruption – yet in the American consciousness, he’s not a loser. He’s an aggressor.”
“When you look back at the generation of Heathers-style coverage, the evolution toward Trump starts to make sense. We can excuse almost anything in America except losing. And we love a freak show.”
“We count on your shame in the same way. We know you know the news we show you is demeaning, disgusting, pointless, and not really intended to inform. But we assume you’ll be too embarrassed to admit you spend hours every day poring through content specifically designed to stroke your point of view. In fact, you’ll consume twice as much rather than admit you don’t like to be challenged. Like Tolstoy’s weak hero, you’ll pay to hide your shame.”

“We can’t get you there unless you follow all the rules. Accept a binary world and pick a side. Embrace the reality of being surrounded by evil stupidity, and do not commune with it. Feel indignant, righteous, and smart. Hate losers, love winners. And during the commercials, do some shopping.

“Congratulations, you’re the perfect news consumer.”

How Reading the News is like Smoking

“We may be insane monsters inside, but we work hard to have good consumer taste on the surface. Ellis understood that most of us, when we read the news, are really just telling ourselves a story about who we like to think we are, when we look in the mirror.”

All the folk devils are here by Matt Taibbi

“The constant drumbeat of “It’s the beginning of the end” stories about “bombshells” causing the “walls” to “close in” on Trump – so comic that a mash-up of such comments dating to Trump’s first week in office has gone viral – is a case of straight-up emotional grifting. Editors know Democratic audiences are devastated by the fact of the Trump presidency, so they constantly hint at hope that he’ll be dragged away in handcuffs at any moment. This is despite the fact that reporters know the legal avenues for removal are extraordinarily unlikely.”

BuzzFeed’s big scoop and the media’s giant factual loophole by Matt Taibbi (Hate Inc.)

“So in a world where not just wars but occupations can safely be left out of the news, imagine how the reporting works on individual bombings. There is a lengthy story about how we even have the authority to kill people in countries all across the globe by remote aircraft; those interested can read here. The government as recently as last spring asserted in an American courtroom that it had the right to authorize “lethal action” against even an American citizen without indictment, probable cause, even notice, due to a series of legal loopholes so preposterous they would impress Kafka.”

The class taboo by Matt Taibbi (Hate Inc.)

“Journalism has evolved into a career with significant entry barriers, one of which is the unpaid internship. This makes the profession whiter, wealthier… and less concerned with public policy issues that affect the poor and even the middle class.”
Dana Goldstein (The American Prospect)
“This to me was what journalism was supposed to be about, asking why things happen and being willing to be surprised or even upset by the answers. If Democrats could hear hard truths like the ones in What’s the Matter With Kansas? they were in good intellectual health.”
“The sheer number of articles wondering if Trump’s win suggests there’s “too much democracy” these days conveys more about who is doing the analysis than it does about the political situation. Politicians and journalists alike have absolved themselves of any responsibility for what’s gone wrong, settling instead for endless finger-pointing at people who are just irredeemably stupid and racist – who just “have bad souls,” as Frank puts it. This convenient catchall explanation makes the op-ed page the place where upscale readers go to be reassured they never have to change or examine past policy mistakes, even if it means continuing to lose elections.”

With this kind of crap going at home, Who is the U.S. to judge anyone else’s democracy?

It’s official: Russiagate is this generation’s WMD by Matt Taibbi (Hate Inc.)

“Russiagate institutionalized one of the worst ethical loopholes in journalism, which used to be limited mainly to local crime reporting. It’s always been a problem that we publish mugshots and names of people merely arrested but not yet found guilty. Those stories live forever online and even the acquitted end up permanently unable to get jobs, smeared as thieves, wife-beaters, drunk drivers, etc. With Russiagate the national press abandoned any pretense that there’s a difference between indictment and conviction.”
“As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction. We had the sense to eventually look inward a little in the WMD affair, which is the only reason we escaped that episode with any audience left. Is the press even capable of that kind of self-awareness now? WMD damaged our reputation. If we don’t turn things around, this story will destroy it.”
“Nothing Trump is accused of from now by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population, a group now larger than his original base. As Baker notes, a full 50.3% of respondents in a poll conducted this month said they agree with Trump the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.””
“There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included.”

More stupid, not worse. People are misrepresenting Taibbi’s opinion on this point.

The Scarlet Letter Club by Matt Taibbi (Hate Inc.)

“Kristol argued the United States should seek to be “a leader with preponderant influence and authority over all others in its domain.” With the Soviets gone from the scene, the argument went, our “domain” should now be planet Earth. Securing “authority” meant pursuing policies “ultimately intended to bring about a change of regime” in countries like “Iran, Cuba, and China.” (China!)”
“When we deride journalists as stenographers, it’s not about them repeating the words of powerful officials. The real crime is absorbing the ideas of powerful people (often crafted by groups of officials in a dreary corporate process) and repeating them as if they’re your own personal thoughts.”
“Officials have been lying their faces off to the press for a century. From World War I-era tales of striking union workers being German agents, to the “missile gap” that wasn’t (the “gap” was leaked to the press before the Soviets had even one operational ICBM) to the various Gulf of Tonkin deceptions, to the smearing of people like Martin Luther King, it’s a wonder newspapers listen to security sources at all.”
“Cruelty and monstrousness inherently come wrapped in absurdity, which makes sense, because without conscience or decency, the human animal is just an ape in a hat.”