An exciting writer who chronicles the insanity of our political and economic system is Matt Taibbi, a Rolling Stone columnist who has written several best-selling books, including his latest I Can’t Breathe: A Killing on Bay Street, which we reviewed in our previous issue. The book details the NY police killing of Eric Garner which erupted into massive protests around the country. Sadly, Eric Garner’s daughter Erica, a hero in the story who tirelessly fought for justice after her father’s death, died at age 27 last week.
I worked with Taibbi in Russia back in the 1990s where we both wrote for English-language newspapers. Taibbi made his mark as an impressive investigative reporter who exposed the corruption of the Yelstin regime in a satirical newspaper called The Exile. There have been recent allegations of sexual harassment in a book he co-wrote at the time called The Exile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia. Taibbi said the book was mostly satire of young American expatriates living in Russia, and apologized for what was written that could have offended people.
Chicago News: Can you tell us a little about yourself. How did you become a journalist?
Matt Taibbi: It’s the family business! Growing up, almost everyone I knew was a journalist. My childhood was like the movie “Anchorman.” My father was a reporter for a local affiliate in Boston. He and his friends had outstanding seventies facial hair and everything, just like the movie. My stepmother was a business/consumer reporter on TV as well, and most of our family friends worked in newspapers. But, I never wanted to be a reporter. I wanted to be a novelist. I was very depressed as a young man and funny books cheered me up, so my heroes (like Gogol, Saki, Evelyn Waugh) were all funny writers. That’s what I wanted to be, was one of those people. But I have no talent for fiction, as it turns out.
CN: What do you think about the state of journalism today?
MT: I think journalism is in a state of crisis worse than anything we’ve experienced since probably the Red Scare or the Palmer Raid days. It is an extremely complicated dilemma, not easy to explain, a mixture of commercial and political incentives gone haywire. One major problem is that the Internet has divorced content creators from distribution, which allows companies like Google and Facebook to seize all the ad revenue that in the old days went to media outlets. A second problem is that the commercial incentives are so powerful when it comes to telling people what they want to hear that the practice of challenging your audience has all but disappeared. There’s lots of negative reporting, but it’s all about the sins of other people – liberals if you watch Fox, Republicans if you watch, say, MSNBC. This lines up with the way things like the Facebook algorithm work: modern audiences don’t just expect, they demand news that be pre-fitted to their worldview. This is a broken system that heavily incentivizes media companies to sow division and discord for clicks. As for veracity, that’s out the window, too, since most of the actual media distributors – Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc. – do not have responsibility for policing fake news the way, say, newspapers and TV stations do (I say this recognizing the old system had a lot of flaws, too).
CN: Why should people read your latest book I Can’t Breathe?
MT: Because, I hope, it compresses hundreds of years of history into a few hours of reading, told through the eyes of a larger-than-life, funny, flawed, complex human being whom readers will like and embrace from the start. Despite the terrible ending, I found Eric Garner’s story to be a beautiful one, about love, about the lengths a father will go for his children, about persevering even in the face of hopelessness, about brokenness and recovery. It was also, for me, a thrilling (if upsetting) legal mystery story, a journey through the labyrinthine insanity of our criminal justice system.
CN: How do we curb police brutality?
MT: I’m not so good on “solutions” questions. But a change in tactics might help. A persistent theme of the book is that from both the perspective of police and of the people being policed in inner city neighborhoods, the “Broken Windows” strategies employed in most big cities artificially create opportunities for violence and brutality. Shut down statistics-based policing that goes after minor offenses and switch toward a system that targets more serious crime, and you’ll have fewer unnecessary contacts and fewer beatings and deaths. Maybe. I don’t know. Some of these problems run so deep, it’s hard to know how to change them.
CN: What do you think about the code of silence for police?
MT: There’s definitely a kind of omerta when it comes to these issues. Moreover police see themselves as surrounded by enemies, unappreciated and forced to deal with problems dumped on them by politicians who demand lower crimes rates at any cost, but sell them out whenever something goes wrong. I think if you change the mission of police they’ll come out of their shells. Most joined because they wanted to be heroes. I can’t tell you how many cops told me they joined because they saw Serpico. Then they get on the job and their bosses have them hassling people over open containers and fare beats and stupid stuff like that. Most cops want to walk the beat and be seen as protectors rather than chase stats all day long. Make people do an occupier’s job, and you’ll get occupiers.
CN: Did you have a Jon Burge in NY torturing hundreds of black men to get false convictions? Chicago’s getting a lot of exonerations now from false convictions.
MT: I haven’t personally heard of a lot of stories like that, but I will say I’m working on something right now along those lines. The more prevalent problem I saw was convictions based on false testimony and “test-a-lying.”
CN: Did you look at the police union contract in NY? Here in Chicago the city is renegotiating the police contract and want to take away the impunity officers have when it comes to discipline.
MT: I looked at it a little. It came up in this story because it came out the police union had negotiated quotas for how many “stop-and-frisk” stops each cop had to do every month. There are those who want to change parts of the discipline system here in New York, as well, but I doubt the political will is there for that now.
CN: What do you think of Mayor Bill de Blasio and how does he compare to Bloomberg? Did anything really change in NY from a republican to a democrat?
MT: Bill de Blasio does not come out looking good in this book. What I heard over and over again, from lawyers to cops to politicians, is that mayors may say they’re for police reform before election, but once elected they all start getting calls from rich constituents telling them to keep their neighborhoods clean. You want to keep the boyars of any big city quiet, you need the police. So all mayors eventually become pretty hardcore on the law and order side. Same with de Blasio, who campaigned on ending Broken Windows, then made the father of the movement, Bill Bratton, his commissioner.
CN: What do you think about the Laquan McDonald shooting in Chicago? Is it similar to the Garner case? Any predictions how the jury will decide?
MT: It’s very similar in the sense that in both cases, it took forever to find out anything about the officer(s) involved. In NY we only learned about the cop’s abuse history due to a leak. In Chicago the law at least helped crack open a year-old case eventually. But both cases show how bureaucracies are stacked to prevent disclosure.
CN: Have any reactions surprised you about your book? It has been praised in the liberal media, but probably vitiated in the conservative media, not to say about reactions from law enforcement.
MT: I’ve been grateful for the reviews, which have mostly been very positive. I’ve had a number of prosecutors and even a few cops write to me to thank me for talking about problems they’ve wrestled with on the job. One review up in Boston seemed to think I was overly sympathetic to Garner, which I found confusing.
CN: What are your thoughts on the current Russian-Trump connection? What can you say about Trump?
MT: I’ve said (and been criticized heavily for saying) that I’m somewhat unenthused by the furor surrounding #Russiagate. I’m no fan of Donald Trump. I just think this is a dangerous story for the media. This gets back to one of your first questions, about the state of the media. The media shouldn’t be in the business of backing or not backing a politician (even if we have strong personal leanings). That’s the job of activists, movements, politicians, voters. They’re the ones responsible for making change. A reporter only has one job, and that’s to get stuff right, so that those other people can act in an informed way. Once we start worrying about anything else, we lose our way.
I’ve had so many people write to me angrily in the last year, “If you want to show us you’re a real reporter, do your job and find the proof!” This, to me, is nuts. Our job is just to go from one fact to the next, whether the results please readers or not. (Imagine if sportswriters were under constant pressure to send back news of wins by the home team!). The press has not been allowed to do that with this story. There’s a furor for scoops and a rigid partisan divide among the media outlets that makes what happened with the Russia business very difficult to sort out. And I say that as someone who couldn’t imagine a worse president than Donald Trump. I find the extreme emphasis on this one story odd, given all of Trump’s other peccadilloes. I’d like to see Bob Mueller’s team look at the TrumpSoho deal, for instance.
CN: Any predictions for our new year?
MT: Donald Trump will tweet something that offends someone.
CN: Who has shaped you as a journalist? How important is journalism today?
MT: My father, who worked in journalism for almost five decades, taught me almost everything about this business. He is a much better pure reporter than me. His ability to strike up a rapport with people anywhere in an instant is amazing to watch. He was doing it from the age of seventeen and eighteen at a high level. As I get older I appreciate him more. I know he mentored many others in this business, as did my first boss, the late former Village Voice muckracker Wayne Barrett, another great influence. Journalism is all-important, which is why I worry about it becoming so politicized. If you lose a free and independent press, the game is up.
CN: You’ve done some fantastic pranks over the years to point out the injustices in this world, such as showing up in a gorilla outfit at Goldman Sachs and slapping Michael Wines with a horse-sperm pie. Which ones stand out for you? How important is satire or having a sense of humor in our society? Do we have it?
MT: I’m 47, have three kids, and am not much of a prankster anymore. I’m embarrassed by some of them. I would say the hardest one we ever pulled off was putting out an entire doppelganger edition of our competitor, the Moscow Times, on April Fool’s day one year. We had to perfectly copy the paper and hire guerrilla distributors, and it was convincing enough that the U.S. Embassy apparently thought it was real and convened a meeting about its “news” (one of the headlines was that a prominent Russian-American financier had been denied a McMuffin at Moscow’s big McDonald’s).
I think it’s extremely important to have a sense of humor. I get why people are not feeling so funny these days (the world is scary), but when people start saying “now is not the time,” it’s usually a prelude to it no longer being “time” for other things, like civil liberties, free speech, etc. So I worry about the direction right now.
CN: Outside yourself, who should we be reading today?
MT: I’m going to give a shout-out to old friend David Sirota as being one of the hardest-working investigative reporters in the business right now. Ashley Feinberg is excellent as well. Alex Pareene is a gifted writer. And even though I didn’t part on such great terms with the folks at First Look, I think the people at the Intercept have been doing great work.
CN: Can you tell us a little about your journalistic work in Russia. When you worked for The Exile, what did you accomplish as a reporter that the other journalists didn’t report?
MT: Part of what makes the “scandal” over a passage from the old eXile book so upsetting is that people seem to think that I spent all those years at the eXile writing obnoxious or offensive articles boasting of all sorts of misdeeds, when in fact my job there was so different. Most of what I did there was take bad western-reporting clichés – like that Yeltsin’s Russia had an “emerging middle class” everywhere – and go out all over the country to send very long dispatches about whether or not these things were true. I worked as a bricklayer in winter, as an itinerant laborer at a monastery. I went down into mines, sold moonshine, sat up with night watchmen waiting for cattle thieves in Siberia, worked in an elephant cage, even worked as a clown. I probably wrote several books worth of this stuff. This was very revealing in terms of how dire things were in fact (at the time, we were among the only people predicting a slide back to autocracy for Russia). To be fair, most straight-news reporters wouldn’t have had the freedom to do it, although few seemed interested in trying.
Again, I’m embarrassed by some things that I wrote back then. I’ve said as much and will always say so. I worry about things my kids will read. But most of what I did there, even the bad stuff, stemmed from so over-immersing myself in this work that I often over-reacted in a very immature way when other journalists blithely wrote opposite accounts from behind gated compounds in Moscow.
CN: Your NCAA worst journalist of the year spoof in The Exile was priceless. Can you tell our readers a little bit about that.
MT: Basically we paired all of the Western reporters in Moscow in a bracket and whoever wrote worse each week, advanced. Contestants were allowed to openly bribe us to get out of the tournament (a few did). We ended up giving the first prize to a New York Times reporter we felt had soft-pedaled the rise of Putin. Again, not stuff I would do today, but at the time, it seemed funny.
CN: Why is Chicago’s murder rate like three times NY’s? One professor told me NY didn’t tear down its public housing like in Chicago and disperse people all over the city, messing up gang boundaries and creating more homelessness and instability.
MT: I have to plead ignorance on that one. One thing this recent experience with the Garner book taught me is that criminologists often don’t have good answers when asked to explain why crime goes up in one place and down in another.
CN: Can you tell us a little about your aborted stint at The Intercept? Why didn’t it work out?
MT: We tried to create a Spy Magazine style online outlet called Racket that would be a humorous counterpart to the Intercept. A lot of things went wrong there that I can’t get into, because of an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). But basically I was forced to leave because management felt I was insubordinate and disrespectful to authority, which I would have to say is true.
There are rumors that I left for other reasons, but this is absolutely not the case, as I said in a statement months ago.
CN: What are your plans for the next book. Do you have one in mind?
MT: I hope I get a chance to write another book.
CN: Anything else people need to know about your latest book?
MT: No, just that it’s a true story, and sad, and that I hope the Garner family gets some justice some day.
By Jim Vail