Crying Wolf: How Matt Taibbi and 'Rolling Stone' Did Michele Bachmann a Favor


Rolling Stone’s hatchet job on Rep. Michele Bachmann has proven too much even for many liberals. As Yahoo News reports, there’s a controversy raging over the way the piece–sedately titled “Michele Bachmann’s Holy War”–“borrows heavily from a 2006 profile of Bachmann by G.R. Anderson” in the Minneapolis City Pages.

The problem with all that borrowing is that author Matt Taibbi didn’t bother to acknowledge it. Or rather, says editor Eric Bates, Taibbi did bother, but Bates himself cut the attributions because of “space considerations.” So apparently, if Bates had just been able to make a little more room in there, he could have left in those pesky sources. (Correction: that pesky source. Judging by the hyperlinks that did make it into the Web version of his piece, Taibbi appears to have quoted a grand total of one article.) As G. R. Anderson himself says:

“I would tell him that it’s very easy to cut five words somewhere else in the story, and put the five words in that actually [cite] the source.”

There’s something in that. Bates could have taken out “paranoid,” “psychopath,” “Machiavellian,” “pathological,” “conscienceless,” “dangerous,” “fanatic,” “narcissistic,” “hysterical,” “campy,” “bizarre,” “freakouts,” “grandiose,” “lunacy,” and “insane,” along with a couple of “Stepfords” and several instances of “crazy” (five of which appear in the same sentence). That would have provided plenty of room for attributions, although there wouldn’t have been much else left in the piece.

For it seems that Taibbi’s preferred writing style, when dealing with conservatives, is simply to throw heaping handfuls of adjectives at them, along with a few choice nouns. And if those words sometimes land in a way that doesn’t make much sense, well, that’s just the way the ball bounces. (Case in point: “A photo shows Bachmann, only the top of her Stepford head visible … ” Anyone want to explain what a “Stepford head” is?) Taibbi is widely considered a satirist, but you can’t write satire if you display neither (a) a sense of humor, nor (b) some idea of the way that words are supposed to go together. In short, Dorothy Parker he ain’t.

As for the actual claims in the piece, they’re reminiscent of those in the Killian memos, a couple of elections ago. Much as Dan Rather and others just felt that those documents were “fake but accurate,” as a New York Times headline put it, Taibbi just felt that Bachmann is a whackjob, and didn’t need to rely on such old-school methods as careful sourcing and fact-finding to make that assertion. He just felt that Bachmann is “crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she’s built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.” (He also just felt that Bachmann’s former town of Stillwater, Minnesota, had “no black people” in it, even though, as he eventually confessed to Abe Sauer of The Awl, he hasn’t been there to see.)

Of course, all this talk of craziness is pretty rich coming from a guy who once threw coffee at Vanity Fair reporter James Verini, and then followed Verini down the street making threats.

So what made Taibbi and his editor think they could get away with the sloppy writing and even sloppier research and attribution that make up this piece? By “get away with,” I mean “put out there and have people actually take seriously.”

The obvious answer is that it’s been done before. As I documented in my book, ‘Bring Her Down’: How the American Media Tried to Destroy Sarah Palin, many reporters, columnists, and bloggers felt justified in making the most outrageous and baseless accusations against Palin simply because they didn’t like her beliefs. To this day, Andrew Sullivan continues to obsess over the workings of her reproductive system–and he still has a job in journalism and the respect of at least a few of his peers. If anything, whaling on Palin has long been considered healthy for one’s journalistic career.

If it could be done to one conservative female politician, the reasoning probably goes, it can easily be done to another. But that reasoning overlooks one possibility: that the media’s hysterics in the last election helped to inoculate conservatives during this one. When you won’t quit crying wolf about conservatives, you run the risk of people starting to think you’re the one with the problem. And in this case, Taibbi left little doubt of that. Sauer, for one, has ruefully acknowledged that by publishing such a careless piece, Rolling Stone just might have done Bachmann a favor. This may hold true for other conservative candidates as well.

Because if that’s what’s going to pass for investigative journalism from the Left in this election cycle, it looks like Republicans can rest easy.


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