January 16, 2022

MATT TAIBBI: What Happened to the “Question Authority” Era? Discussion with Author Walter Kirn.

Taibbi: I remember the reaction I had when they hired [former CIA head] John Brennan and [former Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper as TV analysts. Former CIA chief Michael Hayden was another one. I thought, theoretically, I guess you could have them comment on so certain general topics, but they would have to recuse themselves from all the ones that they were directly involved in, at least.

It turned out to be the opposite. In other words, they would have Brennan and Clapper and all those guys, and they would bring them on to talk about the stories that they themselves were most directly involved with. This new thing with Fauci — the new emails that have come out, they’re kind of shocking, just on the level of proving that Fauci and others were being deceitful about their assessment of the lab-leak story at the beginning. The fact that people aren’t jumping all over those stories is amazing to me.

Walter Kirn: To point out the conflict of interest, you are now accused of being a conspiracy theorist. Well, journalists aren’t supposed to be conspiracy theorists. They’re supposed to be conspiracy finders.

The thing that infuriated me and almost radicalized me against this corporate regime, and journalism, was the Russiagate story. I’ll tell you why, and it’s not because it was adversarial for Donald Trump. It’s because the Russiagate story, which was, I’m just here to tell you — it was bullshit. It had bullshit sources. It stemmed from high influence peddlers and campaign officials and places like the Brookings Institute and so on. It posed as Watergate. It posed as an outsider exposure of the ways of power, when in fact it was just the opposite. It posed as muckraking when in fact it was icing the cake of power. Pulitzer Prizes were awarded, and star reporters were crowned in this supposedly anti-authoritarian mega-story, which was being reported despite the anger and fury of power.

In fact, it was just the opposite. It was a completely phony caricature of a Watergate-style investigation. When I saw the press willing to pose as crusaders and outsiders on behalf of the most established political, intelligence, and even corporate entities in America, I was just like, this is the biggest travesty.

Taibbi:
Obviously you’re not going to have to work too hard to get me to agree about Russiagate being bunk, but one of the first clues for me that the story probably wasn’t real was that there was so much pressure to go along with it, and also so much pressure in the other direction, not to say anything against it.

As a journalist, you know when you’re saying something risky. This is a business where they let you know right away when you’ve said something that crosses a line somewhere. There was none of that with this story. It was completely in the other direction.

Walter Kirn: All those newspaper movies, those romantic movies, like All The President’s Men and Spotlight, in which the crusty editor says, “I’m not gonna put the reputation of this paper on the line for your half baked reporting! You get me a witness in the next 36 hours, or we’re killing this story forever! And I’m firing you!” That’s the supposed newsroom. When you’re going up against power in Russiagate, it was: “Get me more people from the DNC to be outraged about this by tomorrow, or, we’re going to pay somebody else hundreds of thousands of dollars to write this story!”

* * * * * * * *

I have to say I had, I want to focus on what appeared to be the most trivial part of the question — the preface that we’re both from Ohio. That was I think the most important part of it. We have a national myth, and a great musical called the Wizard of Oz, which I think warms the heart of every child at least initially. Remember, Dorothy’s a Midwesterner, but Holden Caulfield felt the same way, and he was an Easterner. Its message was, “Look behind the curtain. Don’t be Buffaloed by power, money, glamor, smoke, and mirrors. Make sure that you take a peek at the hidden aspects of reality.” Now, the opposite of that is Chris Cuomo telling us on CNN that it’s illegal to look at WikiLeaks. We can do that as journalists.

He actually said this on TV. He literally said, I know you’ve seen behind the curtain, and seen that the Wizard of Oz is actually this little con man from Kansas. But pretend you never saw that. In fact, it’s illegal for you to have seen that. So if you can wipe your memory banks, we’ll tell you what to think.

When I saw that moment on CNN, a journalist actually demanding incuriosity of the audience, I went, okay, the country I know is dead. The Midwestern ethos of, I’m gonna look behind the side show, or the Emperor’s New Clothes myth, of being that little kid who stands up and says, “Hey, you know, he’s naked, he’s a fat naked man.”

That was being systematically and affirmatively repressed. We now have a professional priesthood because, because throughout Trump, what we heard about journalists was that they were the most persecuted they’d ever been. They were one minute from being thrown into camps by Trump, and how dare we insult their profession. They exalted themselves into something resembling medieval priests. We read Latin, please. You don’t want to look at the Bible — we’ll tell you what’s in it.

So I’m standing up for a cultural tradition of seeing for yourself. You know — Missouri, the Show-Me State. Ohio, the state that produced James Thurber, who laughs at the fancy people, and so on. Look behind the curtain. I don’t wanna let that go.

Read the whole thing. As Glenn wrote in the aftermath of Dan Rather’s implosion in 2004, “The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn’t ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn’t fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I’m not sure. It’s not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.) The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy. That’s because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren’t linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that’s impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.”

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