When Matt Taibbi agreed in late 2022 to become part of Elon Musk’s handpicked group of “Twitter Files” reporters, it was only the latest sign to his left wing critics of the progressive journalists’s inexorable drift further down a right wing rabbit hole. In receiving tens of thousands of internal company documents from Twitter’s archives, Taibbi and the other handpicked reporters sought to present a case in Twitter threads that Twitter, prior to Musk’s ownership, discriminated in its content moderation policies against groups like Trump supporters and Covid skeptics. They also sought to prove that Twitter’s content moderation policies were heavily shaped by improper behind-the-scenes influence from the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agents on the federal government’s Foreign Influence Task Force. They also highlighted what they deemed improper influence on Twitter’s content moderation by academic researchers studying the flow of misinformation at government funded think tanks.
Parts of Taibbi’s reporting on the Twitter Files seemed to indicate that he was over-selling what he found in Files documents in order to appeal to the right wing audience both toward which his Substack site Racket News was increasingly oriented and which Musk clearly aimed to appeal to in marketing the Files. Mehidi Hassan brought up some of Taibbi’s errors and exaggerations in his Twitter Files reporting when he brought him on his MSNBC show for an acrimonious debate in April. For example, in one Twitter Files thread, Taibbi claimed that the Department of Homeland Security funded academic non-profit Election Integrity Project (EIP) flagged 22 million tweets for removal as “misinformation” during the 2020 election season. Hassan pointed out that the actual number was 2890–these were flagged for Twitter to examine for possible violations of the companies’ Terms of Service. The 22 million figure was the number of election related tweets the EIP tracked during the 2020 election season in order to study the flow of election related misinformation.
In another instance, Hassan pointed out the problem in Taibbi’s initial Twitter Files thread where he sought to prove the pro-Democrat bias of pre-Musk Twitter officials by featuring a case of Twitter removing a handful of tweets at the Biden campaign’s request prior to the 2020 election. The implication was that the Biden campaign got Twitter to remove political speech it didn’t like. Taibbi felt no need to inform his readers that the tweets contained nude images of Hunter Biden taken from the infamous laptop and thus violated Twitter’s Terms of Service by being shared without Hunter Biden’s consent. Asked by Hassan why he did not inform his readers that the tweet URLs contained in the screenshot he shared in his Twitter Files reporting featured Hunter Biden “dick pics”, he blustered “because I didn’t need to!”
Taibbi is a frustrating character. It is tempting to pigeonhole him as a charlatan in the style of Glenn Greenwald or Jimmy Dore, an ostensible leftist peddling a MAGA friendly “anti-establishment” pose to credulous persons on the internet. Yet that would not be completely fair. For all his alignment with MAGA on key issues–his arguments about the left wing cancel culture menace, criticism of Covid vaccine mandates and trumpeting of the populist virtues of the MAGA movement–Taibbi is clearly still capable of sometimes doing compelling work, as segments of his Twitter Files work showed. For all the right wing slant and exaggeration of aspects of the Twitter Files, Taibbi and his colleagues made a compelling case that there was something inherently problematic about government officials using their privileged positions to shape social media content moderation without any transparency or democratic oversight.
After the Twitter Files, among other journalistic projects, Taibbi began a series of articles on NewsGuard, a Pentagon funded “reliability” grader of news outlets. Late last year, he was interviewed about NewsGuard on Greenwald’s System Update podcast and made a case that was concisely incisive and happily free of the right-wing claptrap that has marked his recent writing.
So recently as the year 2019, Taibbi published a book of considerable merit. The book was called Hate Inc.: How Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another. The author offers it as an updated version of Noam Chomsky’s and Edward Herman’s 1988 classic Manufacturing Consent and states frequently throughout the book how much he has been influenced by the Chomsky/Herman analysis. There is even a transcript of a friendly interview of Chomsky by Taibbi in one of the book’s appendixes.
Hate Inc. is not as radical, not as in-depth and, frankly, not as good as Manufacturing Consent. But it is still a book of much merit, full of intelligent analysis and deep information about issues occurring in mainstream media.
One thing stands out about Hate Inc: it describes problems created by the control of American media by for profit corporations but offers no coherent suggestions about how the problems might be fixed.
Manufacturing Consent doesn’t offer much either in suggestions for media reform but, in its final chapter, at least offers a few: expansion of public access media, expansion of publicly funded media to give voice to marginalized populations and a strengthening of the media capacities of progressive economic and social movements.
Taibbi since the publication of Hate Inc. has been more forthcoming with media reform suggestions. In a January 2021 piece in Canada’s National Post he opined that “we need a new media channel” that embraces four principles. The latter were 1) “not be aligned with either Democrats or Republicans” 2) “employ a Fairness Doctrine inspired approach that discourages groupthink and requires at least occasional explorations of alternative points of view” 3) have an operational philosophy that stresses professional journalistic “credibility” over securing high viewer ratings and 4) operate “on a distribution model that as much as possible doesn’t depend on the indulgence of Apple, Google, and Amazon.”
This extraordinarily banal proposal illustrates the limitations of Taibbi’s thinking. In Hate Inc. he describes the problems of mainstream media as structural. As cable media channels and internet politics sites have expanded since the 90’s, the profit motive has encouraged media platforms to keep the attention of niche audiences by delivering hollow demagoguery, clickbait and scaremongering in large doses. For Taibbi, both MSNBC and FOX display this dynamic, the former targeting Democrats, and the latter Republicans. In his National Post piece, he proposes to solve the problem by hoping that an individual or multiple persons with enough capital will magically appear and start a corporate television channel operating under the august principles outlined above that can somehow avoid entanglement with Big Tech platforms “as much as possible.” He wants to solve the structural problems of corporate media by starting another corporate media channel to compete within the existing corporate media structure.
In Taibbi’s discussion of the themes of Hate Inc in various media forums, the book’s mildly radical edges—inspired by Manufacturing Consent—have disappeared. Instead, we’ve gotten a series of cliches about the divisiveness and extremism of FOX and MSNBC, criticism of media slander of Trump during Russiagate and a longing to return to the days when everyone, including the stereotypical “crazy right wing uncle” trusted the objectivity of Walter Cronkite. Indeed, Taibbi has frequently referred to Cronkite with admiration—although he allows that Manufacturing Consent exposed serious flaws in Cronkite’s journalism.
Taibbi’s Conservative Inclinations
To me, Taibbi is an utterly fascinating figure. It interests me greatly how one can go from publishing a book (Hate Inc.) inspired by Noam Chomsky in 2019 to, roughly four years later, teaming up with the vile Zionist fanatic Douglas Murray to debate Macolm Gladwell and the New York Times’s Michelle Goldberg about the problems of US media in Toronto’s prestigious Munk Debates. This debate was a dull affair,sometimes enlivened by the back and forth sniping between Taibbi and Murray on one side and Gladwell on the other. Gladwell implied that Taibbi always invokes Walter Cronkite because he wants US media to go back to a time when it was entirely controlled by white men. Meanwhile, Taibbi devoted part of his speaking time to one of his favorite themes of recent years, one that has endeared him to many right wingers: the extensive mainstream media distortions about Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia. To be clear, his points about Russiagate are often fair enough–his chapter on Russiagate in Hate Inc. is excellent.
Taibbi’s criticism of the US media’s coverage of Russiagate is a prime example of his increasingly deep disillusionment with mainstream US media in recent years. This disillusionment has not led him to drift further leftward into the arms of Marxists, anti-war, anarchist or other radical leftists. Rather his politics have moved from his traditional liberal populism towards an increasing orientation to right wing populism. He has found himself aligned with the “anti-woke” anti-cancel culture denizens of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web like Bret Weinstein. He frequently collaborates on journalistic projects with Michael Shellenberger, a right wing populist who is fervently pro-police, a strident enemy of the “woke matrix” and one who has smeared American radical leftists as pro-Hamas terrorism. Taibbi has also aligned with Silicon Valley oligarchs like Elon Musk and David Sacks: right wing, anti-union, wealthy elite who brand themselves as “anti-establishment,” are obsessed with the menace of “wokeness” and occasionally mouth anti-war and anti-corporate phrases but are otherwise leading beneficiaries of the American system of corporate exploitation and war-making.
There is not a much better illustration of Taibbi’s drift to the right politically than his June 2020 rant against left wing cancel culture published on his Substack site, Racket News. “The American left has lost its mind,” he wrote. It “rejected traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry and even racial harmony.” It had become a mob of cultural revolutionaries marauding across academia, media and business using “shaming, threats, and intimidation” to force the deplatforming, firing and thorough reputational destruction of persons who disagreed with them ideologically.
Taibbi thought that this extreme anti-social fanaticism of leftists shone through in the George Floyd protests. Protestors were right, he thought, to attack police brutality both during and prior to the protests. But where were the leftists who condemned the burning of buildings and other violence by protestors?
Protestors themselves were incredibly rude to people who expressed sympathy for the protest goals but did not fully agree on everything the protestors advocated. A prime example of this for Taibbi happened when Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey “skulked out” of a town hall after protestors shouted “get the fuck out!,” chanted “shame!” and threw refuse at him as he left. This ghastly treatment of the mayor occurred despite his arguments “for police reform” and the fact that he had “attempted to show solidarity with protestors in his city.” The protestors objected to the mayor’s refusal to support police defunding—but, Taibbi pointed out, the mayor was joined in this by a large majority of Americans, including a large majority of black Americans.
The following month on Racket News Taibbi continued on this theme, directing his increasingly hysterical fury at the militant anti-racism emerging from the George Floyd protests that was also expressed in the New York Times’s 1619 Project. According to Taibbi, this anti-racism was not rooted in authentic grassroots movements. Rather it was promoted by mainstream corporate media and other “people who run this country,” an attempt to “stoke civil war” through the Floyd protests to distract from the American ruling class’s complicity in neoliberal era economic inequality and institutional corruption. Taibbi wrote with patriotic horror that the media was promoting the theme of “modern America as a Nazi apartheid state.” The founding of the United States in 1776 was portrayed as primarily motivated not by noble ideals of freedom as Taibbi obviously thought; but by a desire of American elites to escape potential future British restrictions on slavery. American elites, he ranted, in promoting the George Floyd protestors’ militant anti-racism were encouraging attacks on “the one thing no thinking person ever considered a problem, i.e. the Enlightenment ideas that led to the American Revolution.”
My point in cataloging the above deeply reactionary and paranoid reflections of Taibbi—as well as his non-threatening stance on corporate control of news media—is that Taibbi, for all his reputation as an anti-establishment gadfly, is a fundamentally conservative person. It is obvious that a big part of Taibbi believes that despite the widespread presence of corruption and inequality in American life, American institutions are fundamentally sound. It is as if he believes that–apart from the cancel culture menace–there really is an orderly marketplace of ideas where everyone can get a fair hearing and processes are offered by the legal system and governmental bureaucracy that allow an equitable redress of every grievance. There is no understandable reason why any person might be driven to the point where they would burn a building or shout obscenities at a politician like poor Mayor Frey.
It seems clear in my mind that Taibbi’s rightward trajectory is driven by a fundamental sincerity. Putting aside the factual unreliability in his account of some of the incidents underlying the supposed cancel culture menace, there is no doubt that he is sincerely upset by it. His cancel culture obsession has also unquestionably been influenced by his own experience at being dropped by his publisher Penguin Random House in 2017 after sexist and misogynist passages came to light in a book Taibbi co-wrote years earlier with Mark Ames about their adventures as journalists in 1990’s Russia. Ames and Taibbi both claimed the sexism was satire.
Overall, Taibbi’s recent work suggests less similarity to a populist internet charlatan like Jimmy Dore and more towards an establishment liberal in the 1960’s writing for publications like Commentary and Encounter. Many of those sorts of liberals turned toward neoconservatism in reaction to ghetto riots, rowdy anti-war protests and widespread questioning of traditional patriotic myths about American society. Similarly, it seems Taibbi has drifted toward the right, at least in part, because of genuine discomfort at the manner in which traditionally marginalized groups have sought to gain respect and the ability to get their voices heard. This is what the largely overblown right wing hysteria about “woke” cancel culture is about.
The most likely future drivers of real enhancements to free speech and the democratization of media in this country will be progressive and radical left members of movements for social and economic equity. Taibbi these days is a long distance away from those movements: you are not likely to see him on a picket line in front of a Starbucks store or Amazon warehouse but you can definitely catch him schmoozing with David Sacks.
A correction was made on February 10, 2024: The initial version of this article stated incorrectly that the Election Integrity Project analyzed 22 million election related posts across all social media platforms during the 2020 election. The 22 million figure only included posts on Twitter.
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