Los Angeles/New York – Many consider him the Hunter S. Thompson of his generation, and not only for the fact that he works at the same place the late inventor of Gonzo journalism did for decades. Matt Taibbi, 47, is a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, for which he covers politics, media, finance, and sports.
Until this point in time he has authored several books whose titles alone pretty much tell the story of his approach to journalism: "Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus"; the New York Times bestsellers "The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap" (2014); "Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America" (2010); "The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion" (2009, all Spiegel&Grau), and "Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season" (New Press, 2005).
His latest book "I Can't Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street" has been named one of the "Best Ten Books of the Year" by the Washington Post. It deals with the death of a 43-year-old black man named Eric Garner who died on a Staten Island, New York sidewalk in 2014 after a police officer put him in a chokehold during an arrest for selling bootleg cigarettes. Garners last words, "I cant breathe", became a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
Prior to his time at Rolling Stone, Taibbi worked and lived in the former Soviet Union for over a decade, where he edited an English-language newspaper called The eXile, and wrote as a freelancer for Playboy, The Nation, and the now defunct New York Press and New York Sports Express.
Recently, Taibbi has been accused of having used misogynist language in the past after members of the so-called "Alt Right" movement started circulating quotes from his work at The eXile on social media without putting them into context. This was followed by a scathing piece in the Washington Post by Kathy Lally, a former Moscow correspondent of the Baltimore Sun, in which she accused Taibbi – who has not been accused by anyone of any kind of sexual harrassment throughout a career that spans three decades – of "terrorizing" her and "trafficking in hideous stereotypes and body-shaming".
Taibbi grew up in the Boston, Massachusetts suburbs as the only son of TV journalist Mike Taibbi and his first wife,Veronica Whelan. He attended Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, and graduated from Bard College, New York.
Taibbi and his wife Jeanne have three boys and live in New Jersey.
"Wiener Zeitung": Mr. Taibbi, how are you doing these days?
Matt Taibbi: It's odd that there is such a distinction between one's life on the internet and one's real life in America these days. I'm not doing so well on the internet side lately.
Journalist Kathy Lally has accused you in the Washington Post of "terrorizing" her when she was working as a Moscow correspondent for the Baltimore Sun in the Nineties. Back then you were working at The eXile; a magazine that at the time was known among English-speaking expats as a Gonzo-esque, completely over-the-top outlet which was trying to satirize the more-often-than-not despicable behavior of the members of that very community. After reading her piece and reflecting on your work at The eXile: Any regrets about what you wrote back then?
One of my primary jobs at The eXile was a kind of fact-checking assignment. I'd see all the American and Western European writers write home various cliches, things like, "Russia is making a great transformation to democracy and there is an emerging middle class everywhere." So I would travel around the country seeing if this alleged new prosperity was real, often taking jobs in obscure places – laying bricks in Siberia, working construction in a monastery, et cetera, to see what life was like. In that summer of 1998 there was a desperate non-payment crisis in which Russia's miners were going six months or more without wages. I had gone to the arctic city of Vorkuta and watched a miner feed his wife and two children on a single boiled egg and a piece of sausage.
I came back to Moscow from that trip to discover two things: that there was an effort to have our – admittedly outrageous and offensive – newspaper removed from an influential email list, and that one of the would-be censors was a Baltimore Sun journalist named Kathy Lally, who had recently written that the Russian financial crisis was subsiding, and that "ordinary Russians" were returning to "what they do best – persevering and hoping for the best."
Furthermore, she objected to a piece I had written criticizing the Washington Post for a flattering profile of oligarch Vladimir Potanin. As a result, we performed a prank in which we pretended a shadowy Russian secret service agency called FAPSI was preparing a case against The eXile, and called Lally to ask if she'd be a witness. She said she was "completely sympathetic" but would have to think about it. We published that transcript, which surely was embarrassing. Very standard satire. I would do it today. The background here is that I was young and self-righteous and angry with my colleagues for not doing the work. I felt they were intentionally avoiding the catastrophe unfolding "out there" as a result of U.S.-backed neoliberal policies. Many did not even bother to learn the language.
So, no regrets whatsoever?
Of course I have regrets. What I regret is that I used unnecessarily cruel language to describe Lally, calling her "matronly" and saying she had fat ankles and things of that nature. I wouldn't do that today. But speech is not violence or harassment, and pranks are not "terror." The notion that speech can be violence is a very new idea in American thought. It is a the product of several different movements colliding at once. It is a very dangerous line of thought. Now, a person can say, "I feel terrorized by your speech, therefore it must be censored." Americans speak of being "triggered" by challenging ideas. Only recently we were taught the exact opposite, that free speech must be absolutely protected because speech is not violence. The implications of this change are mind-boggling, not just for me but for everyone.
You've never been accused by anyone of any kind of sexual harassement. Yet, on social media, people have started to throw you in there with the Harvey Weinsteins of the media world. What's going on there? Is this just the climate we're living in right now?
I think the #metoo movement has been extremely positive and even in my case has accomplished one of its prime objectives, educating men about realities women face. I could have guessed there were Harvey Weinsteins out there – people in power will always find disgusting ways to abuse it – but hearing about the countless other stories, about men with electrified locks in their desks to trap women in their offices, or about phenomena like the "capture and kill" method of wiping out news exposes about abuse, about this I had no idea. I'm ashamed that I didn't know.
Then you found your own name on the list of prominent media men being singled out for bad behavior towards women.
What happened: My former co-editor at The eXile, Mark Ames, wrote a grotesque passage in a book we co-authored in 1999 in which he described the two of us harassing women in the eXile office. But this was plainly absurd, if you followed the paper back then – Mark's persona was like Mr. Hyde or Patrick Bateman in "American Psycho," an exaggerated monster who made all sorts of lunatic claims in print, including things like attempted murder. Mark was a satirical representation of the typical expatriate in Moscow at the time, who was a pig of the highest order, cheerfully selling the American way by day and gorging himself on booze and prostitutes by night. Just like our other columnist, a fictional creep named "Johnny Chen" who worked for USAID by day and molested people by night, it was all made up.
Incidentally, I never wrote about "sexcapades" or anything like that.
I was more the straight man in the act, doing the "respectable" journalism. But I did play the part of a rogue in interviews and the like, to play up the image of the paper. We were supposed to be these bad-boy "exiles" cheering on this monstrous community, even as we criticized it constantly in our reporting. It was a schtick, an act, like Andrew Dice Clay or Andy Kaufman's revolting "Tony Clifton" character.
Which couldn't have been more obvious to anyone who was familiar with The eXile at the time. How did this turn into the career-threatening thing it turned into?
After the Weinstein scandal a whole series of publications found this passage and ran with it as though it were biographical reality. I was described as a "sexual predator" and worse, and for two months, none of the reporters bothered to call the women in question. Finally one outlet did, and our former female co-workers, in particular the two Russian women in the passage, denied that any of this was true. They actually couldn't believe this had become an issue in America.
In movements such as this there are going to be mistakes, especially when many of the revelations are fueled by anonymous accounts. But my case was the weirdest of all. I had no accuser. I think among other things I was unpopular with some of these writers for other reasons, including many who objected to The eXile itself, which was seen as disgusting and misogynist, although I would contend it was demeaning to everyone. But again, speech is very different from conduct.
In Europe your case reminds a lot of people of the time when Charlie Hebdo was awarded the PEN Freedom of Expression Prize in 2015, and US authors like Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Díaz, Eric Bogosian, and Teju Cole protested the decision, essentially accusing Dominique Sopo, the Togolese-French president of SOS Racisme, of not understanding what he's talking about when he called CH "the most anti-racist publication in France." Is it possible that the majority of US journalists and writers just have a really hard time grasping certain concepts of satire? Especially ones that come from traditions and contexts which they're clearly not familiar with?
Americans are not good with humor in general, especially now. There is more discussion these days, in the Trump era, over what may and may not be the subject of jokes, then there is actual joking. A line of thought is becoming popular that laughing at anything that is not a direct denunciation of Donald Trump is a form of privilege, given that only those not directly affected by Trump's presidency can afford to laugh now. Many people are saying, "Now is not the time." Even inoffensive comedienne Tina Fey was lambasted for a very silly joke suggesting that one should eat cake in response to neo-Nazi movements.
To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, getting angry about something like this is like dressing up in a suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. When "now is not the time" to engage in silly humor, pretty soon it NEVER becomes the time. It's the same with civil liberties. I hear "now is not the time to worry about that" from fellow liberals who suddenly love the FBI, the NSA, and secret surveillance programs like FISA because they are being deployed against Trump. Also the same with absolute free speech – there is a movement suggesting even the ACLU should drop their defense of speech.
Humor is always the first to go in repressive movements because humor is inherently iconoclastic in all directions; truly funny things make us take everything less seriously, not just one party or another. Monty Python never took sides politically, but it made us think all politicians were silly. In a different way this was also the essence of Charlie Hebdo, which treated all forms of iconography with equal disdain, and in doing so earned the disfavor of many prominent liberals, who wanted its humor to have carve-outs for certain sacred intellectual/political cows. But true absurdism is universal, and serves the important purpose of making us not take ourselves too seriously.
On January 20 it'll be exactly one year since Donald Trumps inauguration as president. So much has happened since then it's become hard to keep track. Which developments in US society would you argue are the most significant ones since he took office, and why?
I would say Trump's missile attack on Syria was the biggest development of last year, not necessarily because of the event itself, but because of what it taught Trump. Here is a man obsessed with media and attention, who got virtually no good press at all last year, excepting that one moment, when he was lionized by the networks – CNN said he "became president" that night. So you have this terminally unstable, choleric, self-worshipping lunatic who spends virtually all his time glued to the news, and he learns that the one thing that guarantees him good, or at least not hostile coverage is military aggression. This to me is was a very underrated piece of bad news that may have serious consequences later on.
You lived in Russia for a long time. What do you make of Russian interference in US elections? And, considering what's become public knowledge about the Special Counsel investigation lead by former FBI director Robert Mueller until now, what are your thoughts on it?
There's an old joke in Russia in which Gorbachev wakes up late, hung over, and rushes to his limo. His driver is also drunk and passed out, so Gorby throws him in the backseat, gets behind the wheel, and zooms toward the Kremlin himself. The cops stop him for speeding. When the lead cop lets Gorbachev go with a warning, he walks back to his squad car scratching his head.
"Who was that?" the other cop says.
"I don't know," says the first cop. "But Gorbachev was his driver."
I tell this joke because it so perfectly defines a basic truth about that country: that nothing is ever as it seems, and that Russia is far more like a disorganized mob state, and a loose coalition of bad actors, than it is a monolithic dictatorship. So even something like the hack of the DNC, even if you stipulate that Russia or Russians were behind that, the number of possible motives or explanations just for that episode is extremely high. And we know so little about what happened even there, and that was just one small piece of what people imagine to be this sprawling, coherent conspiracy.
So despite all the stuff that's come out since the election, and in the course of Robert Muellers investigation in particular, we're supposed to believe there was nothing sinister going on at all between members of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's people?
Like many reporters who have experience living over there but write for the Western press – like Masha Gessen or Leonid Bershidsky – I'm being somewhat skeptical of the strangely confident narratives being pushed in the American media about collusion. I think these stories misunderstand Russia and also are being pushed so aggressively as to make any reporter nervous. I don't like stories where all or most of the sources are anonymous or from the intelligence agencies, and/or where there are serious questions about provenance and sourcing, like the Steele report. The sudden anti-Russian hysteria in America also strikes me as very strange, and I say this as one of the first Americans to ever write negatively about Putin. He was just as bad five years ago, when the narrative was, "Let's try to work constructively with Russia despite our concerns."
I don't discount that Trump or those in his inner circle are guilty of something here. I just don't know of what. The range of possibilities is enormous. Is it active collusion? Passive collusion? Accidental collusion? Ideological collusion (many maintain this is the same as the active kind)? What, exactly, was the law broken? With what illegal act did the collusion start? I see all these unknowns and it puzzles me that there's such certainty.
Since the Alabama Special Election, when Doug Johnson won a Senate seat for Democrats in the deep South, pundits can't seem to stop talking about an upcoming "Blue Wave" in the 2018 midterms. Democrats are expected to take back the House, and perhaps even the Senate. Do you agree with this assessment? And if it happens, what's next?
If there's one lesson we should all take with us from 2016, it's to stop listening to pollsters. The more sure they are, the more wrong they seem to be. My guess, as someone who gambles on things like football, would be the Democrats take the House but not the Senate. If the Mueller probe lasts that long, they'll find something for use in impeaching Trump, and Trump will be impeached in the House but not the Senate. This will be the strategy for winning the White House back in 2020. I have no idea if that will work, but that's my guess.
Since the presidential primaries a lot is being made of the real and perceived divide between traditional Democrats and "Berniecrats". How much of a problem is this for the national Democratic party in the long run?
It's a massive problem for the Democratic party, as it should be. Whenever I visit Europe I am amazed by all of the sensible social programs enjoyed by ordinary people in virtually every major country: mandated or free child care, affordable higher education, truly rehabilitative criminal justice systems, health care as a human right, more job security, pay equity, shorter work weeks and guaranteed vacations, maternity and paternity leave, less militarization, and so on. We have none of that here in America, and there is a real fight between those who want such things and those who want to focus just on beating the Republicans using Trump's negatives as the main issue.I think that divide is real and growing more bitter all the time. I think a lot of the acrimony and infighting in American politics comes from the resistance to a real movement for change even within the Democratic Party.
While America is busy navel-gazing, the rest of world is concerned about the long-term impact the Trump presidency and the isolationist ways of the modern Republican party are going to have on global stability. Is the idea of American leadership in the 21st century dead? Or is the Trump era, as some conservative commentators are arguing, "just a phase" we have to go through – and survive – before everything goes back to "normal", whatever that means in this day and age?
America will never be a truly isolationist country in the way Trump seems to desire occasionally, because the mere fact of our overwhelming military and economic might will always put us in the middle of things. But America as the unquestioned world leader is not necessarily a great thing, either.
We are an extraordinarily stupid and violent country, as we've recently proven at the polls. Your average American can't write his or her own name in the ground with a stick. We are institutionalizing things like the drone assassination program that, guaranteed, will soon result in people being incinerated from space for saying things like, "This cheeseburger is da bomb, yo!" I would feel a lot better if the Canadians or the Danes were hegemonic world powers.