What the Hell Happened to Matt Taibbi?

Written by Carl Peterson   
Tuesday, 12 May 2020 02:20

I used to think if we had more journalists like Matt Taibbi we could make some headway against the prevailing currents of the corporate media.  What an accomplishment that would have been!  A 21st century outburst of the irreverent spirit of pragmatic, democratic American straight-talking.

I remember how clearly Taibbi explained the causes and mechanisms of the 2008 economic meltdown triggered by a greed-crazed and opportunistically criminal American financial “elite,” (who, as it turned out, escaped from their self-made catastrophe with scarcely a rebuke, but plenty of reward, while regular Americans, the ones who keep this country alive [and maintain the elite on their golden perches despite repeated depredations by and systemic failures of the ruling plutocracy]--trudged on, predictably battered again.)  

I remember Taibbi’s brilliant metaphor of the Vampire Squid, and the blood funnel, and I’m pretty sure the Vampire Squid still remembers, for didn’t we hear Goldman Sachs shriek in agony like a 50s sci-fi monster meeting its end when Taibbi’s metaphor struck its target, and stuck, lodging itself forever in the black place where the Vampire’s heart would be if it had one?  

But Matt Taibbi’s recent article, The Inevitable Coronavirus Censorship Crisis Is Here, published on RSN on about May 2, 2020, like a lot of his recent work, does not uphold the standard of excellence he set and maintained years ago.  It seems that Taibbi is no longer attempting to speak truth to power, but is up to something else.  What that is?  Hard to say exactly.

As several reader comments on RSN attested, it can be difficult to follow Taibbi’s argument that there is a coronavirus censorship crisis.  Taibbi points to a number of pieces of evidence (some listed below) that the crisis is here, but never provides a clear and persuasive argument that ties the evidence together and explains how it adds up to a demonstration that there is a crisis in America of coronavirus censorship.

Some Evidence Cited by Taibbi In the Article

Exhibit #1

April 25, 2020 article by Jack Goldsmith and Andrew Keane Woods, Internet Speech Will Never Go Back to Normal in The Atlantic.  The article argues that America’s experiment with a wide-open internet has failed, and that America already is--and should be--moving in the direction of China in monitoring and controlling speech on the internet.  

The authors summarize their thesis:

“Significant monitoring and speech control are inevitable components of a mature and flourishing internet, and governments must play a large role in these practices to ensure that the internet is compatible with a society’s norms and values.”

First, let us note that protecting “society’s norms and values” is a centuries old conservative value, not some radical new trend in American politics.  Further, Taibbi fudges his analysis of Goldsmith and Woods’ article by conflating its argument with one made in an article by Jonathan Rauch, (see next, below):
Exhibit #2

July 2016 article by Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Went Insane, a genuinely conservative reaction to the advent of Trump.  Taibbi claims that Goldsmith and Woods echo Rauch’s assertion that, “Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties, which is like spending decades abusing and attacking your own immune system. Eventually, you will get sick.”

“The new piece by Goldsmith and Woods says we’re there [in a polity disordered by the loss of elite control], made literally sick by our refusal to accept the wisdom of experts. The time for asking the (again, literally) unwashed to listen harder to their betters is over. The Chinese system offers a way out. When it comes to speech, don’t ask: tell.”

Actually, there is nothing in the Goldsmith and Woods article complaining about “our refusal to accept the wisdom of experts.”  Nor is that complaint explicitly part of Rauch’s thesis.  These two articles do not significantly build on each other or reinforce each other, or even particularly relate to each other:  Rauch advocates plainly for a return to a larger role for political elites, because, according to him, we need “middlemen” and “gatekeepers,” to fill in the parts of our governing instructions left out of our Constitution, and because democracy unconstrained by such gatekeepers (middlemen between the people and their democracy) has led to chaos (Trump). Goldsmith and Woods advocate a larger role (that they say is inevitable anyway) for the American government in reducing societal harms caused by a wide-open internet.  

In a democracy both of these advocacies should be debatable, (and Rauch’s argument in particular is especially unpersuasive given the existence of an enormous body of evidence showing that the plutocratic elite, acting as “overmen,” not middlemen--is destroying our democracy, but Taibbi never makes clear how either of these articles help to demonstrate that we are currently experiencing a coronavirus censorship crisis.  

Exhibit #3

A recent Youtube video (removed from Youtube by Youtube for violating “community guidelines,”) produced by two urgent care physicians practicing in Bakersfield, California, questioned the need for reacting to COVID 19 any differently than for the flu.  According to Taibbi, “the reaction of the medical community [to the video] was severe,” citing this joint statement:

The American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) and the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) jointly and emphatically condemn the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical society and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.

COVID-19 misinformation is widespread and dangerous. Members of AAEM and ACEP are first-hand witnesses to the human toll that COVID-19 is taking on our communities. AAEM and ACEP strongly advise against using any statements of Drs. Erickson and Massihi as a basis for policy and decision making.

Exhibit #4

Taibbi then describes Tucker Carlson’s (on Fox) and Chris Hayes’ (on MSNBC) reactions to the Youtube censorship controversy.  Taibbi depicts Carlson’s reaction plainly:

“Tucker Carlson on Fox backed up the doctors’ claims, saying “these are serious people who’ve done this for a living for decades,” and [Carlson said] YouTube and Google have ‘officially banned dissent.’”

However, in describing Chris Hayes’ reaction, Taibbi reaches for vividness.  According to Taibbi, Hayes “seethed,” “sneer[ed]” and “angrily demanded” that Carlson go work in a meatpacking plant if he was so sure that society should be reopened.  

My question at this point in reading the article was: “Is Taibbi trying to say that Chris Hayes sneering at Tucker Carlson constitutes evidence of some kind of coronavirus censorship crisis?”  I thought Chris Hayes’ criticism of Carlson might be better classified as free speech, not censorship.  And I read further, wondering if Taibbi was presenting his case in an unusual order, that is, with a bold thesis statement in the title, followed by insufficiently and/or misleadingly explained supporting evidence, interspersed with auxiliary bold claims...maybe to be followed at last by analysis and reasonable explanation to tie it all together?  

Without explaining whether or how his example of Youtube’s censorship of the Bakersfield physicians was meant to be an example supporting his claim that we are in a coronavirus censorship crisis, Taibbi then segues into commentary based on his understanding of Thomas Frank’s concept of a utopia of scolding.  Briefly, according to Taibbi, what used to be “liberal America” has become a giant “finger-wagging machine....united by loathing of Trump and fury toward anyone who dissented with their preoccupations.”  (You may notice the similarity between this claim, and the positing of a Trump Derangement Syndrome, that is, that all criticism of Trump [the pure Lamb of Innocence] is entirely a case of vengeful Democrats’ inability to get over their resentment of Trump’s presidential victory.)  An implication so bold, i.e., that the real problem is not with Trump’s response to the coronavirus, but with an opposition driven mad by losing to him and now directing its misguided fury at everyone who disagrees with them,would require extensive reference to the evidence, analysis, and explanation of conclusions to become a real argument.  But like those who use the Trump Derangement Syndrome as an all-purpose defense against any criticism of the president, Taibbi does not even attempt to demonstrate the truth of his claims about the utopia of scolders.  Does he think he is just reminding us of what ought to be self-evident?

Exhibit #5

April 29, 2020 article in The Atlantic, Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice, by Amanda Mull.  

Mull writes about the recent phased reopening of Georgia’s economy:  

Instead, [stories told by interviewed Georgians] depict a struggle between a state government and ordinary people. Georgia’s brash reopening puts much of the state’s working class in an impossible bind: risk death at work, or risk ruining yourself financially at home. In the grips of a pandemic, the approach is a morbid experiment in just how far states can push their people. Georgians are now the largely unwilling canaries in an invisible coal mine, sent to find out just how many individuals need to lose their job or their life for a state to work through a plague.

Taibbi reacts:

When the Covid-19 crisis struck, the scolding utopia was no longer abstraction. The dream was reality! Pure communism had arrived! Failure to take elite advice was no longer just a deplorable faux pas. Not heeding experts was now murder. It could not be tolerated. Media coverage quickly became a single, floridly-written tirade against “expertise-deniers.”*  For instance, the Atlantic headline on Kemp’s decision to end some shutdowns was, “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.”

[*Note: Media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic did not and for now cannot become a single, floridly-written tirade, not least because Fox’s “floridly-written tirade” opposes the establishment media’s “floridly-written tirade.”]

Taibbi means to express alarm and excitement in this passage, but he is also saying that the scolders’ utopia achieved the realization of its dream only with the arrival of the coronavirus crisis.  Taibbi is implying not so subtly that the utopian scolders welcomed the coronavirus as the golden opportunity to impose their repressive regime of censorship on American society.(Enforced by scolding? But without a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence as governments are said to have?  Most people would rather be scolded than thrown in prison without cause, or stood up against a wall, or thrown out of a helicopter, or into a concentration camp, or disappeared.)  “Pure communism had arrived!” an absurd finding by Taibbi that seems to come out of nowhere, implying that the dream of the scolders’ utopia has always been communism.  This seems to be what used to be called red-baiting, but Taibbi’s relatively recently developed habit of hitting with provocative claims and quickly moving on without ever developing a coherent argument leave his point clouded in ambiguity.

Exhibit #6

Taibbi offers four mainstream media articles from early 2020 as evidence that “a significant portion of the medical and epidemiological establishment called this disaster wrong when they were polled by reporters back in the beginning of the year.”  

Get a Grippe, America: The flu is a much bigger threat than coronavirus, for now: Washington Post, February 1, 2020

Coronavirus is scary, but the flu is deadlier, more widespread : USA Today, February 1, 2020

Want to Protect Yourself From Coronavirus? Do the Same Things You Do Every Winter : Time, January 31, 2020

We should de-escalate the war on coronavirus, Wired, January 29, 2020

Actually, these four articles do not show that the experts “called the disaster wrong” at the beginning of 2020.  As is generally the case with mainstream American journalism, the articles are more nuanced than their headlines indicate.  Further, there is no evidence in the articles that the “medical and epidemiological establishment” was claiming at that time to be able to accurately forecast the course of the then covid 19 epidemic, and that they therefore “called the disaster wrong.”  The February 1, 2020, article in USA Today noted that the World Health Organization had recently declared the coronavirus a global health emergency and the Trump administration had shortly thereafter declared the coronavirus a public health emergency.  But even if the scientific and medical authorities had incorrectly forecast the course of the COVID 19 epidemic in early 2020, what bearing would this have on Taibbi’s central claim that inevitably we have found ourselves in a coronavirus censorship crisis? Taibbi is not clear about this as he is not clear in many parts of the article; it may be that he intended but failed to clearly point out that since authorities are not infallible or are even notoriously unreliable, there is no reason in a democracy to bow to the findings of any claimed authority.  Hence, for example, the Bakersfield physicians had every right to publicly question the necessity of following the coronavirus safety protocols recommended by national and international infectious disease authorities.  Silencing the Bakersfield physicians on Youtube seems to constitute for Taibbi an unacceptable censorship of opinion, even if The American Academy of Emergency Medicine and the American College of Emergency Physicians found that, “These reckless and untested musings [from the Bakersfield physicians] do not speak for medical society and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19.”  

Taibbi continues his blanket attack on “expert opinion,” claiming that “‘Authorities’ by their nature are untrustworthy,” without explaining whether there is a single nature shared by all the different authorities that compels them to be untrustworthy, or whether each authority has its own particular nature that causes them to be untrustworthy.

Taibbi claims, “The WMD fiasco happened because journalists listened to people with military ranks and titles instead of demanding evidence and listening to their own instincts.”  Actually, the WMD fiasco related to the second invasion of Iraq happened because the George W. Bush administration lied to the American people and everyone else, and undermined its own “authorities,” including the CIA and the State Department, in a scheme to promote evidence cooked up to justify invading Iraq.  

Admittedly, that administration was crucially aided and abetted by the journalistic “authorities,” The New York Times and the Washington Post in its promulgation of WMD lies.  Any American would be right to be skeptical of those newspapers’ reporting on any issue fundamental to the interests the oligarchic American plutocracy--which the issue of war will always be.  But indiscriminate dismissal of authorities, including scientific authorities, is not the way out of our current, extreme political polarization in America.  Where the credibility of authorities on various aspects of ordinary reality has been destroyed, and every aspect of a presumed shared reality is up for rancorous dispute, what then will step into the vacuum of credibility they leave behind?  I’m concerned that it will be not a scolders’ utopia but the government monopoly on the legitimate use of force.

Exhibits #7, 8, 9

Taibbi hyperlinks to three articles that he indicates provide evidence that “intelligence ‘experts’ with grand titles who are now proven to have been wrong to a spectacular degree, if not actually criminally liable in pushing a fraud,” are responsible for “Russiagate.”  If Taibbi’s assessment of the evidence presented in the three articles is correct, then the Trump administration is exonerated of all culpability related to the Mueller investigation, just as the president and William Barr have claimed all along; and perhaps some “intelligence experts” should go to prison.  However, in the first item of evidence, “Corroboration Zero,” Taibbi downplays the fundamental assessment of the Horowitz report that the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation was properly predicated, and was not motivated by political bias, even while finding substantial irregularities in some aspects of FBI’s handling of the investigation.  Taibbi’s suggestion that the three articles together demonstrate that intelligence experts with grand titles have now been proven wrong to a spectacular degree and that maybe some of them should go to prison for “pushing a fraud,” is not born out by the articles themselves.

‘Corroboration Zero’: An Inspector General’s Report Reveals the Steele Dossier Was Always a Joke, article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone

Michael Flynn's lawyers seize on note showing how FBI official approached key interview in White House, article by Katelyn Polantz, David Shortell and Evan Perez, CNN April 30, 2020

Christopher Steele claims Clinton lawyer fed him debunked claim about Russian collusion in 2016, article by Jerry Dunleavy, Washington Examiner, April 28, 2020

Inevitably, it seems, Taibbi ties his ongoing interest in what he believes to be the travesty called “Russiagate,” into his article purporting to be about the coronavirus censorship crisis.  What is the link?  According to Taibbi, both have been caused at least in part by the reliance on “experts,” who, as he made clear earlier in his article, “are by their nature untrustworthy.”  Then, in a stunning description and criticism of what he himself has been doing throughout his article purporting to be about a coronavirus censorship crisis, Taibbi decries the politicization of reality in America.

“We’ve become incapable of talking calmly about possible solutions because we’ve lost the ability to decouple scientific or policy discussions, or simple issues of fact, from a political argument. Reporting on the Covid-19 crisis has become the latest in a line of moral manias with Donald Trump in the middle.”

Why if scientific and medical authorities are untrustworthy, as, according to Taibbi, “Authorities by their nature are untrustworthy,” would we even want to “decouple scientific or policy discussions from political argument”?  Why shouldn’t the findings of science, if they are not trustworthy, be subjected to insidious political destruction as in the United States they now are?  How can we as an extremely polarized society even settle on issues of fact if as Taibbi suggests, you can’t trust any authority.  If authorities are untrustworthy why bother with them?  Why not get rid of them?  Taibbi spends the entire article casting doubt on the promulgations of authority, then near the end complains, “We’ve become incapable of talking calmly about possible solutions.”  Well, Matt, I’ve been listening for months to the best scientific and medical authorities talking calmly about solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, only to see political provocateurs repeatedly seek to distort and obscure the clarity these authorities present to their fellow Americans.  Why don’t you talk calmly about a solution to that?

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