By G.W. Schulz
The absolute best (and darkest) moments in Rolling Stone contributor Matt Taibbi’s book on the 2004 presidential election are not when he attacks the contemptible political antics of the candidates themselves, but when he savagely launches mortar shells at the national press corps trailing along on the campaign planes.
His most memorable direct hit is leveled at the New York Post and its election coverage under the weighty tutelage of media mogul Rupert Murdoch in a single, brilliant paragraph:
“It’s always a little surprising to remember that the New York Post has a ‘Washington bureau chief’ filing ostensibly factual stories from the Hill about the movements of the president and other real, breathing government officials. The effect of reading these touchingly earnest impersonations of credible journalism is a little like watching Koko the gorilla play with a kitten or punch the ‘buttons’ on a toy telephone. My God, you think. It’s so human! But sooner or later Koko plugs her ears with her own turds again, and she’s back to being just another loveable ape.”
Our illustrious executive editor, Tim Redmond, may actually dislike our praise of Taibbi’s ferocious Post critique. Long-time Guardian readers familiar with the paper’s old design know Tim adores the Post’s screaming banner headlines and splashed them similarly across the Guardian’s former front-page template for years without shame.
If he hadn’t secured a job in San Francisco raking City College’s board over the coals or relentlessly barking at the heels of PG&E, no doubt he’d be a perfectly content copy editor at the Post, and he’ll tell you as much. He could hardly contain his glee when the Post announced it would be distributing a deadwood edition in San Francisco.
He’s on vacation, though, so we can say whatever we want about the Post. Hell, I’m writing this in his office now with a joint burning haphazardly at the edge of his desk and a friend prying open the petty cash box with a crow bar. Okay, not really, but ripping off Hunter S. Thompson, coincidentally, is a subject we must visit in a moment. Fun aside, Tim’s crush on the Post presumably (hopefully) stops at the headlines.
As far as Taibbi’s concerned, his first book wavers dangerously between completely unoriginal and insightfully refreshing. The problem is, “refreshing” doesn’t become an appropriate adjective until at least three chapters into Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season. So if you’re not the kind of person who must compulsively finish a book once you’ve begun it, you may miss its satisfying evolution.
Despite encouragement from a respected friend, I put off reading it for some time worried it would be an unabashed rip-off of Hunter S. Thompson. Some sections of the book -- particularly the early chapters -- do unabashedly rip off Hunter S. Thompson, it turns out, so my concerns were justified, and I’d nearly overcome my own obsessive compulsion and tucked the book away unfinished before reaching some of its better moments.
At one point, he even concocts a half-baked plan to dress in a Viking costume, eat two tabs of acid, and interview a former top-ranked drug czar. Who eats acid these days, anyway? Thompson’s ribald and far-reaching legacy mostly belongs in the fiery grave he doomed himself to, at least as far as imitation goes.
There’s no doubt that Thompson greatly influenced the current crop of twenty and thirty-something alt weekly journalists, of course, but few would really go so far as to thoroughly emulate him and pass it off as something to be taken seriously.
The journalists that do try it end up like that dipshit on the cast of "I’m From Rolling Stone" who, when he first met the magazine’s editors, flashed a stupid grin and announced that he’d tackled his inaugural assignment in a drunken haze. It went over like one of Koko’s turds floating in a punchbowl.
Hunter S. Thompson was a single persona who helped prove rules were meant to be broken when it came to contributing to the history of American pop culture, even the rules of journalism. He proved journalism could be laced with embellishments in a way that enlivened our collective understanding of America’s ugly, unwashed butt. Instead of merely calling Richard Nixon a rabid pitbull, he’d craft a detailed “report” on how Nixon had inadvertently come face-to-face with a pitbull while campaigning in Chicago, wrestled the thing to the ground, placed it in a painful submission hold, and chewed off its ears. The fictional account was ultimately a more honest take on what many Americans believed Nixon was capable of with respect to his own lust for power.
But journalism schools should probably not be aspiring to fictional crusades as an acceptable trend in news reporting, even if some of us still proudly position first-edition copies of The Curse of Lono on our bookshelves (a beloved gift from my sister).
As Taibbi’s book expands, however, he does something many alt weekly writers are afraid of today. When it matters, he leaves behind the punishing barrage of sarcasm so common in the tabloids (for which Taibbi himself is very good at, pulling no punches when it comes to career lefty protestors and spoiled Fourth Estate reporters alike), and openly hopes for a political process not beholden to slimy Democratic Party functionaries, quietly racist Bush campaign volunteers and a media establishment that nurtures them both.
Though sometimes admittedly funny, when he leaves the drug-fueled stunts aside and writes and comments like someone who cares genuinely about the American psyche and pays close attention to its cries for mercy, he shows there’s more to no-holds-barred criticism (notably for him, media criticism) than clever insults. While his assessment of Dennis Kucinich’s ill-fated but admirable lunge at the White House is itself endearing, he hits his best stride when turning the big guns on arrogant reporters at the national dailies unwilling to admit their own contributions to the diluted American presidential election we all now witness with horror every four years.
From the book:
“It was all a game to these people, which is why they covered it like a game. There were some people I know personally out there who hated it, who felt guilty about being part of the whole ugly charade. But there were a lot more who were really proud of this life of free lunches, VIP seating, and the chance to be the planted audience for the occasional dick joke in an off-the-record chat with some of the hired liars on Air Force One. The maintenance of these privileges for certain people dwarfed the more abstract matter of which millions down there on the ground won or, more to the point, which ones lost. How do you decide who’s the country’s Worst Campaign Journalist? Well, the one who loves the job most is probably a good candidate.”
Even if you've read a lot of campaign books, including, pathetically, everything from Thompson, Spanking the Donkey is still worth it.
Okay for now. “Overwrought” might be one way to explain my blogging style. I'm taking a break, at least until I get around to having some fun with the new POA Journal we just got in the mail today.
*Turd box from Worth1000.com