Hate Inc.: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matt Taibbi 2019
Can you trust the news media? What are their biases and blind spots?
This interesting book by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi takes an in-depth look at how the media (mostly television media) covers and shapes the news stories that both inform and inflame us as a nation.
I enjoy Matt Taibbi's writing because he pulls no punches and criticizes both sides, making you think beyond the artificial battle lines drawn between Fox News and MSNBC. He has written scathing articles about the 2008 financial collapse, and is one of the few non-MAGA journalists who will criticize President Obama.
Taibbi's basic premise in this book is that the news media today is profiting off of pitting two sides against each other and feeding each of them what they want to hear. The other side is bad and our side is good. Lost in the battle is any real discussion of complex issues like human rights abuses worldwide, environmental crises, corporate misdeeds, or the corrupt campaign finance system. Any topic that doesn't neatly fit into the us vs them dynamic is ignored.
Are most reporters biased toward the liberal side? Of course they are. But it's not because of some diabolical scheme hatched by George Soros. People who are attracted to reporting jobs are less likely to want to defend the status quo. (People in the military, automobile sales, and management are biased towards the right for the same reason- those jobs attract certain types of mindsets.)
But beyond the liberal bias of CNN and conservative bias of Fox news is the fact that all networks are focused on one thing- profits. Profits come from getting high viewership and selling advertising, which means catering to very specific demographics who think a certain type of way. Organizations like CBS and NBC that tried to cater to everybody have been on the decline for decades, though many good journalists still exist.
Part of being profitable means creating stories and narratives that hook your viewers. It also means making news addictive like a soap opera, so your viewers will tune in all the time to keep up with their stories. Networks like Fox News ratchet the drama up even further by demonizing other groups whose opinions differ, selling fear to their listeners in an almost cult-like appeal.
The most enlightening thing I found from this book is how Taibbi states that today's cable and internet media, while having a slight liberal bias, mostly endorse the status quo. Most media companies have been swallowed up by conglomerates, and they are not usually ones to rock the boat. Plus advertisers are hard to come by these days, and offending the companies that pay for everything is hard to justify for most editors and executives.
Taibbi devotes a chapter to something he calls the ten rules of hate:
1- There are only two ideas
2- Those two ideas are always in permanent conflict.
3- Hate people, not institutions. (Don't attack the system)
4- Everything is someone else's fault.
5- Nothing is everyone's fault
6- Root, don't think.
7- No switching teams.
8- The other side is literally Hitler.
9- In the fight against Hitler, everything is permitted.
10- Feel superior to the other side- they are losers
The book devotes an entire chapter to compare today's politics with professional wrestling, (which is also fake drama). In wrestling, characters sell, not reality.
Another chapter covers what the author calls the invisible primary. This is the period in the year before a national election when the big donors and party leaders get together secretly and decide which non-threatening candidate to put their money behind. This worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but failed miserably for Jeb Bush. By the time we get to vote in primaries, a lot of the candidate field has been influenced before we get to make a choice.
There is a factual loophole that I hadn't heard of where unnamed government sources "leak" information to journalists that serves a narrative they want to put out. Journalists are competitive and will print almost anything that scoops the competition, even if it turns out to be untrue. Which leads us to the Iraq War.
Taibbi devotes a lot of time to what he calls the "Scarlet Letter Club," of media types from the New York Times, Washington Post, and all cable channels that got tricked into supporting the Iraq War in 2002-2003. This costly war turned out to be the product of some grandiose thinking from the Bush administration hawks to remake the Middle East. The weapons of mass destruction (WMD) story that turned out to be wrong was one that fooled the media wholesale, and Taibbi has fun roasting the individuals that fell for it.
He also devotes a chapter to Russiagate, trying to point out that the left was just as wrong as the WMD crowd, but I think he comes up short here. The book was published in early 2019 before the Ukraine impeachment scandal hit, but it claims that the Mueller report totally shot down a lot of the narratives that the left- especially Rachel Maddow- were pushing every night about Trump and Russia. Just seeing how Russia and Vladimir Putin have been treated during the Trump presidency, it's hard not to think that there's some sort of corruption going on there. There's just no proof.
Have you ever watched a presidential debate and been frustrated about the questions that weren't asked, the follow-ups that weren't done, and the lies that were let slip by? This is what American politics is to the press these days. Two sides in epic battle, both with valid viewpoints, and your reporters and pundits sit on the sidelines and sell you the backstory and the drama just like a sportscaster at a football game. The issues don't really much matter, and increasingly the truth doesn't seem to matter either. The only things that matter are gaffes, who you want to have a beer with, and who "looks" presidential.
This book asks some important questions, but in these days when the news media is under attack from both advertisers and politicians, it seems more urgent than ever that we look more carefully for the stories that define our world. It's just a little harder to dig beneath the drama and the headlines. And sometimes, you just need to turn it all off for a while and read a book.