4/5/10

Some Words of Wisdom from Matt Taibbi

My first job as a journalist was writing political columns for my university's paper. With the occasional exception, the columns—like my political beliefs at the time—were naive and idealistic, an overeager kid's attempt to grant his half-baked opinions an audience. The job served as a good bridge from the activist work I'd been doing (and losing interest in) toward a career in writing, but it didn't ever give me any real sense of what being a journalist was like.

Where I really cut my teeth in journalism was at the Tribune, the city paper of Ames, Iowa. I started there early in 2007 as a freelancer and began a staff writing internship that summer, covering a variety of goings-on around town. Politics remained my primary interest, though, and I was lucky enough to be in the first-in-the-nation caucus state where nearly all of the serious presidential contenders poked their heads in constantly.

At the end of the year I was a freelancer again and driving to Story City to cover a Hillary Clinton rally at an elementary school gymnasium. When I arrived, the place teemed with excitable Democrats and disinterested journalists. Clinton was running late, so I began to casually survey my surroundings. I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary, except for a man sitting impatiently on top of a storage crate by the press bleachers who looked very familiar.

I did a double take to confirm that I had spotted Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone contributing editor known for his scathing indictments of American politics, and for antics that have included following John Kerry around in a gorilla suit and going incognito with the Christian right as the son of an abusive, alcoholic clown.

I introduced myself and he seemed happy to have someone to talk to. He was on assignment to write a media critique, which became "Merchants of Trivia."

"Is this what you want to do?" he asked me, after I told him about my assignment.

"Yeah, definitely," I told him, thinking he meant being a journalist.

"Really?" He raised an eyebrow, then said something to the effect of "I hate this shit."

At about that time, a Clinton staffer stepped out of the shadows to introduce two kids who would toss T-shirts to the loudest people in attendance. The decibel level went through the roof, and the kids started chucking T's.

Taibbi turned to me, straight-faced, and said, "It's moments like these that make me want to hang myself."

A half-hour later, Clinton finally showed up, and Taibbi and I got to scrawling notes. The speech ended, and I bugged a couple people for quotes then drove back home to write my story. The next month, I picked up the latest Rolling Stone to read Taibbi's.

"And when Hillary finally arrives," he wrote, "her speech turns out to be the same maddeningly nonspecific, platitude-filled verbal oatmeal that every candidate has spent the last year slinging in all directions—complete with the same vague promises for 'change' we've heard from every last coached-up dog in this presidential hunt, from Barack Obama to Mitt Romney."

Clinton's words, per Taibbi: "'Some people think you get change by demanding it,' says the former first lady. 'Some people think you get change by hoping for it. I think you get change by working hard for it every single day.'"

His next paragraph read: "I see reporters frantically writing in their notebooks and laptops. The line was the money shot of this whole presentation, tomorrow's headline."

I looked at the clipping I'd saved of my article. Sure enough, four paragraphs in, I had written: "'Some people think you get change by demanding it,' Clinton said, referring to Edwards. 'Some people think you get change by hoping for it,' she said, referring to an Obama campaign theme. 'I think you get change by working really, really hard for it every single day.'"

"In a vacuum, of course, this is the most meaningless kind of computer-generated horseshit, the type of thing you would expect to hear coming out of the mouth of a $200-an-hour inspirational speaker at a suburban sales conference," Taibbi continued. "... And the hacks deliver, right on cue."

But I wasn't too discouraged. Later in his piece, Taibbi wrote something that to this day I tell people was inspired by my presence. A bit of a presumption, I suppose, but:
The first few times a newbie comes on the campaign trail, he's watching all the flag-waving and the soldier-humping and he's writing it all down with this stunned expression, as if to say, "Jesus, I went to college for this?" Two months later, he's doing six hits a day on MSNBC as a Senior Political Analyst and he's got this weirdly pissed-off look on his face, like he's mad that the world woke up and forgot to kiss his ass that morning. This same meek rookie you saw bent over a steno book just months ago is suddenly talking about how Hillary Clinton needs to do this, Barack Obama needs to do that—and he's serious! He's not kidding! Next thing you know, he's got an eight-figure book deal and a ten-foot pole up his crack, and he's wearing a tie and loafers to bed. In other words, he's Jonathan Alter.
I am happy to inform Matt Taibbi that I have not turned into Jonathan Alter. Then again, I've finally decided to relax my duties at the Ames Progressive and seek out an internship so I can graduate, and if I hear back with an offer of a multimillion-dollar book deal I will not hesitate to accept it.

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