BOOK REVIEW: Hate, Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another
By Matt Taibbi. OR Books, New York. Hardback, 294 pp.
It is increasingly clear that if the United States is going to fix democracy, it is going to have to start out by fixing the sources of information on which its 320 million citizens act to make decisions on how to select its leaders to govern. Because that system is broken, as the Fox News channel so eloquently demonstrated in the past week with its astonishing reversal of its reporting on the Covid-19 coronavirus.
If you think this is a purely American problem, it is not. the United States, for better or worse, remains the most important guarantor of the world order, or was until 2016 when the voters put a thoroughly irresponsible president in office who set out to destroy interlocking treaties that had governed the west since World War II, wrecked the world trading system, tore up treaties that kept Iran from continuing its nuclear enrichment program, allowed the North Koreans to run rings around him and accelerated the decline of the west.
How much of that was due to the decline of the western news media is debatable. But it is clear that in the United States today a great proportion of the population lacks the facts on which to make electoral democracy work. Political advertising has become so specialized that for instance in the 2000 election the voters produced the closest thing possible to a statistical tie – 50,456,002 votes for Al Gore, 50,999,897 for George W Bush. Matt Taibbi, a poplar contributing editor to the US magazine Rolling Stone, has set out to try to discover why in this book. It was after the book was finished in 2019 that Fox staged its most egregious run of falsehoods.
After two months of virulent criticism of Democrats by Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Trish Regan for allegedly faking concerns about the virus as a means of damaging the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump – while urging its own staff to limit travel and personal contacts – the network did a complete volte-face within 24 hours without explanation of their reversal, with Ingraham and Hannity especially taking on somber attitudes to describe the seriousness of the situation directly after the president abandoned his own weeks-long efforts to downplay the virus, saying he had known it was a pandemic all along.
It was that kind of insanity that impelled Taibbi “Hate, Inc.,” in which he seeks to understand how journalism, especially cable news journalism, has reached this state, where, as he puts it, “while the foibles of the press once mostly seemed amusing…I began a few years ago to be conscious of the business drifting toward something truly villainous.”
The book’s premise is that news reporters began to consciously divide and radicalize audiences on both sides of the political spectrum. The subject, as he points out, is the wholesale phasing out of independent journalism – not just by Fox News, MSNBC and other cable channels – but by the mainstream media as well and replacing it by siloing it into deeply politicized programming on both sides. “Which ‘side’ is immaterial: neither approach is journalism.”
Of course, there is a great deal more to it than that, beginning with the debasement of the American education system, with the teaching of government, civics and history vanishing down the STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – rathole. There is also the proliferation of absolutely irresponsible websites including Infowars, QAnon, Breitbart on one side and the Palmer Report, Patribiotics and others on the left.
But Taibbi, who once famously described the Goldman, Sachs investment bank as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," makes a lot of valid points in this book about how the press has gone off the rails. It isn’t just cable news. The New York Times, in its venomous hatred of Donald Trump, has gone well beyond the rational practice of journalism to accuse him without end of perfidious behavior. Trump is an incompetent, and in some respects unpatriotic, president. But the Times, and The Washington Post along with it, have all but abdicated their responsibility as journalists.
Taibbi is provocative to a fault. A great deal of the book goes to pointing out the obvious – that the major press organizations hire almost exclusively from the Ivy Leagues, ending up with a workforce that has nothing in common with most of America and writes like it. But there are other gems in which he describes how much the media, especially on television, has adopted, consciously or unconsciously, its methods of covering politics, from Wrestlemania.
Overall the book will probably have the reader discovering truths he or she already knows. But he is an entertaining writer, and his careful evisceration of the press and demonstration of how it went wrong is worth reading.