Matt Taibbi, the bitingly funny yet provocative chief political reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine, will deliver a lecture entitled "Independent Journalism Amidst Conformist Media" at Ithaca this Monday. Taibbi, who now maintains the desk once held by Hunter S. Thompson at Rolling Stone, is often compared to the legendary journalist, and has made a name for himself with his unflinching, often controversial approach to politics and society. We took a moment to wrack Taibbi's brain in attempts to gain a little insight into humor, journalism and writing at large.
The Ithaca Times: How is it that humor can reach such a disturbing and transcendent level of exposure? In my experience, satire has often produced the most devastating journalistic effect. Why do so many people seem to write it off?
Matt Taibbi: What's great about humor is that on some unconscious level most people understand that if something is funny, it's almost always also true. It's really hard to make people laugh with a lie. You can make a sound, reasoned argument without being funny, but if you make the same argument in a way that's also funny, people will remember it.
IT: I'm assuming you take pride in the Hunter S. Thompson comparisons, but can a journalist get away with the Gonzo approach anymore, or has that ship sailed?
MT: I could never figure out what "Gonzo journalism" actually meant. In fact, I'm not even sure such a thing as "Gonzo journalism" exists, independent of Hunter Thompson. I even talked about this with him once, when I was assigned by a publishing house to edit an anthology of Gonzo journalism. Back then, I called Hunter and told him about the project. He said to me, "Sounds like a sh***y assignment. How badly do you need the money?" I told him I really needed the money, but couldn't figure out how to define what "Gonzo journalism" was, except to say that "Gonzo" vaguely meant: "like Hunter Thompson."...Hunter ended up advising me to ditch the project and I did.
Incidentally, I think the Thompson comparisons are embarrassing. I mean, I get it - I'm a humorist with a drug history who covers presidential politics in the first person for Rolling Stone - but in reality it's silly. That's sort of like saying Meat Loaf and Pavarotti are both fat singers. Technically true, I guess, but...
IT: When you're castigated for a controversial piece like your "Death of the Pope" article, does it get to you, or do you sort of revel in it?
MT: That one was funny because it caught me completely by surprise. I was on the West coast covering the Michael Jackson trial and I had no idea that my editor had put that piece on the cover of the New York Press. If he had buried it inside the paper in its usual place, probably no one would have noticed it. But next thing I know, two U.S. Senators and the Mayor of New York are denouncing me on TV, and I don't even know why. It was surreal.
But in general, no, that stuff doesn't bother me. If you're going to whale on people in print, you have to be prepared to get whaled on. And, you know, sometimes people who criticize you are right.
IT: Your coverage of the 2004 presidential election is legendary. What was it like for you when the smoke cleared and Bush was the one left standing?
MT: I knew Bush was going to win all along. That was a function of watching John Kerry in action for almost two years. Early in the race, I saw a woman in New Hampshire sitting in the front row of a Kerry event fall asleep two minutes into his speech. You could hear her snoring while he talked. I know he was cooked right there.
IT: Lastly, how can a young writer make his or her voice work in a medium otherwise dominated by pre-established rules and templates?
MT: One of the things I always tell young people is that writing is not a career and you don't need a job to be a writer. If you just decide at the outset that you're not going to worry about making money from your writing, you don't have to worry about rules and templates. You can just write what you want and hand it out on the street corner, which is what I basically did in Russia when I started my own newspaper. These days it's even easier to self-publish with the web. Writing is more like a calling and you can do that all by yourself. Journalism on the other hand is a career. You can do both, but it's important not to get the two things confused. Nine times out of ten, someone who wants to be a writer shouldn't go into journalism, because the business mostly teaches people to write badly. I mean, just read most newspapers. You'd never catch Shakespeare writing something like, "It's been a rough week for Jessica Simpson, who became the subject of much weight-gain talk after recent photos showed the pop-turned-country star appeared to have put on a few pounds..." His head would explode after he wrote the first two words. So by all means be a writer, but don't expect the journalism world to help you do it well. One thing is like art and the other is like wrapping fish. As long as you don't get them confused, you'll be fine.
Taibbi will appear at the Emerson Suites in Ithaca College's Phillips Hall this Monday, February 9, at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public.