Lacks the focus of Taibbi’s best work
Matt Taibbi has long been one of the sharpest social critics in contemporary journalism, one of the few writers to be able to articulate the causes of vast, unfathomably convoluted ills like the financial crisis in lucid terms. His latest book, Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another, turns that eye back on his own profession. Originally conceived as a post-cable, post-Internet update to Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, which posited that media in the false scarcity days of limited TV channels and highly controlled paper distribution erected a selective and intentionally bland form of broad appeal, news in the modern era is the result of chasing specific demographics so intensely that each successful company silos its audience from the rest of the country. Because an outlet can only hope to lure so many people in a time of endless options, the business model actively encourages alienation from others, feeding a sense of distrust for other media and the people who consume it to increase loyalty to a highly targeted perspective.
By the author’s own admission, though, what began life as an extended analysis of media practices “quickly became more confessional than academic study.” Taibbi’s personal disgust with much of his own profession brings out the combativeness that makes his writing so compelling, but it can also lead to esoteric grievances that feel less systemic than personal. Indeed, many of the early chapters read more like a vent session over drinks than a formal critique, with Taibbi reminiscing about being ostracized by fellow reporters while covering the 2004 John Kerry campaign for breaking an informal taboo by writing about the press’s behavior as well as the candidate’s. Elsewhere, he gets lost in minor details about journalist obliviousness to normal people and corporate spin, which come across less as insights into the minutiae of conscious and unconscious bias than him roasting colleagues for their passivity.
Originally released in serial form on the website Substack, Hate Inc. reflects its piecemeal publication in disconnects between chapters that often leave esoteric complaints hanging and makes them stand in for larger process critiques. Then, things will snap into focus for a chapter like “The Ten Rules of Hate,” which enumerates the path a news story can take from its ideological framing (“There are only two baskets of allowable opinion: Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative”) all the way through presenting news as a matter of emotional appeal rather than factual reportage as you also demonize the other side of the manufactured binary. This chapter, which traces the construction of a narrative from its broadest outset to its logical endpoint with clear observation and witty disdain, is Taibbi at his finest.
Elsewhere, though, chapters meander and rely too heavily on awkward analogy. There are not one but two chapters comparing political coverage to sports, one emphasizing how the press failed to catch on to the way that Donald Trump’s campaign behavior recalled the theatrics of professional wrestling heels, attributing this lapse in realization to the press’s elitism as if this comparison were self-evident and intentional on Trump’s part. Later, Taibbi likens contemporary news media to the more antic, say-anything tenor of sports talk, though most of the chapter is bafflingly spent on a shaggy-dog story about a Chicago sports radio show that once called a Boston DJ, reserving only three pages of a 10-page chapter to awkwardly tying this anecdote back into political journalism.
Barring the clumsy sports argument, the last third of the book finds Taibbi hitting upon a consistent, well-articulated media critique. The chapters even build off of one another. One, for example, looks into the way that the media will get around ethical hindrances to reporting on unverified material by slipping it to a contact in a government agency, then reporting on the act of said agency receiving and looking into that material. Then, Taibbi follows up by noting how those officials exploit their press connection as a two-way street to disseminate slanted or outright bogus intel without having to put their own necks on the line. Taibbi explicitly ties this to the way that Dick Cheney and other Bush and Blair administration officials managed to publicize their flagrantly invented justifications for the Iraq invasion while using news reports on their falsified documents to lend legitimacy to them.
This in turn leads to what feels like, thesis be damned, the true impetus of the book, the Russiagate debacle and Taibbi’s disgust over its handling by media. All of the incestuousness of the media’s codependent relationships with establishment figures comes to the fore here as Taibbi traces the leakage of unverifiable claptrap like the Steele dossier to the explosion of feverish speculation in liberal outlets. In particular, Taibbi singles out Rachel Maddow’s coverage, a career-ending travesty in a profession that still took its ethical standards seriously. Though the writer does not lay sole responsibility for the coverage at Maddow’s feet, he makes a compelling argument for including her on the book’s cover beside Sean Hannity, arguing that a once-compelling media voice succumbed to the same dopamine rush of hate that her more openly propagandistic counterparts have employed for decades.
A postscript interview with Noam Chomsky closes out the book by offering a window into the Hate Inc. that wasn’t, extrapolating more explicitly on the original intent to expand upon Chomsky’s most famous text. Their conversation, reasoned and well-considered, is a reminder that underneath all of Taibbi’s wit and punchiness is a shrewd, studious individual who puts in the kind of work that is far from common in contemporary journalism. Still, the book lacks the focus of Taibbi’s best work, hopping between history, personal grudges and cultural criticism in a way that undercuts the latter with too many moments that feel like the settling of petty scores.