Rolling Stone contributing editor Taibbi (I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, 2017, etc.) spares neither right- nor left-leaning pundits as he inveighs against cable TV and other media that treat news as a form of entertainment.
After nearly three decades as a journalist, the author reconsiders the message of one of his earliest professional touchstones, Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, in which Chomsky argued that censorship in the United States wasn’t overt but covert—that news companies simply failed to promote people who opposed their aims. Taibbi saw the self-censorship in newscasts that courted the widest possible audiences with a bland approach he sums up as, “Good evening, I’m Dan Rather, and my frontal lobes have been removed. Today in Libya.…” The explosion of cable news channels helped to change that, but the author argues convincingly that many outlets have traded one sin for another. Media companies now shunt viewers into “demographic silos” and treat news like pro wrestling, fomenting conflict by encouraging people to take sides. Prime examples include the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News and the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. “Maddow defenders will say she’s nowhere near as vicious and deceptive as Hannity and therefore doesn’t belong in the same category,” writes Taibbi. “But she builds her audience the same way,” by fostering an us vs. them mentality. This binary approach narrows debate, discourages the pursuit of complex stories, and leads journalists into blunders such as believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or implying that the Mueller Report might topple the president by the next commercial break. First published in online installments, this book—which ends with a spirited interview with Chomsky—is less polished than recent works by Taibbi that arrived by a more traditional path. But his mordant wit is intact, and his message to journalists is apt and timely: Not everyone has to win a Pulitzer or Edward R. Murrow Award, but, please, have some pride.
An invigorating polemic against tactics the news media use to manipulate and divide their audiences.