Matt Taibbi Media Criticism

The Sovietization of the American Press

The transformation from phony "objectivity" to open one-party orthodoxy hasn't been an improvement.
[david rush / CC BY-ND 2.0]

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

I collect Soviet newspapers. Years ago, I used to travel to Moscow’s Izmailovsky flea market every few weeks, hooking up with a dealer who crisscrossed the country digging up front pages from the Cold War era. I have Izvestia’s celebration of Gagarin’s flight, a Pravda account of a 1938 show trial, even an ancient copy of Ogonyek with Trotsky on the cover that someone must have taken a risk to keep.

These relics, with dramatic block fonts and red highlights, are cool pieces of history. Not so cool: the writing! Soviet newspapers were wrought with such anvil shamelessness that it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever read them without laughing. A good Soviet could write almost any Pravda headline in advance. What else but “A Mighty Demonstration of the Union of the Party and the People” fit the day after Supreme Soviet elections? What news could come from the Spanish civil war but “Success of the Republican Fleet?” Who could earn an obit headline but a “Faithful Son of the Party”?

Reality in Soviet news was 100% binary, with all people either heroes or villains, and the villains all in league with one another (an SR was no better than a fascist or a “Right-Trotskyite Bandit,” a kind of proto-horseshoe theory). Other ideas were not represented, except to be attacked and deconstructed. Also, since anything good was all good, politicians were not described as people at all but paragons of limitless virtue — 95% of most issues of Pravda or Izvestia were just names of party leaders surrounded by lists of applause-words, like “glittering,” “full-hearted,” “wise,” “mighty,” “courageous,” “in complete moral-political union with the people,” etc.

Some of the headlines in the U.S. press lately sound suspiciously like this kind of work:

— Biden stimulus showers money on Americans, sharply cutting poverty

— Champion of the middle class comes to the aid of the poor

— Biden’s historic victory for America

The most Soviet of the recent efforts didn’t have a classically Soviet headline. “Comedians are struggling to parody Biden. Let’s hope this doesn’t last,” read the Washington Post opinion piece by Richard Zoglin, arguing that Biden is the first president in generations who might be “impervious to impressionists.” Zoglin contended Biden is “impregnable” to parody, his voice being too “devoid of obvious quirks,” his manner too “muted and self-effacing” to offer comedians much to work with. He was talking about this person:

Forget that the “impregnable to parody” pol spent the last campaign year jamming fingers in the sternums of voters, challenging them to pushup contests, calling them “lying dog-faced pony soldiers,” and forgetting what state he was in. Biden, on the day Zoglin ran his piece, couldn’t remember the name of his Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and referred to the Department of Defense as “that outfit over there”:

It doesn’t take much looking to find comedians like James Adomian and Anthony Atamaniuk ab-libbing riffs on Biden with ease. He checks almost every box as a comic subject, saying inappropriate things, engaging in wacky Inspector Clouseau-style physical stunts (like biting his wife’s finger), and switching back and forth between outbursts of splenetic certainty and total cluelessness. The parody doesn’t even have to be mean — you could make it endearing cluelessness. But to say nothing’s there to work with is bananas.

The first 50 days of Biden’s administration have been a surprise on multiple fronts. The breadth of his stimulus suggests a real change from the Obama years, while hints that this administration wants to pick a unionization fight with Amazon go against every tendency of Clintonian politics. But it’s hard to know what much of it means, because coverage of Biden increasingly resembles official press releases, often featuring embarrassing, Soviet-style contortions.

When Biden decided not to punish Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi on the grounds that the “cost” of “breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies” was too high, the New York Times headline read: “Biden Won’t Penalize Saudi Crown Prince Over Khashoggi’s Killing, Fearing Relations Breach.” When Donald Trump made the same calculation, saying he couldn’t cut ties because “the world is a very dangerous place” and “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the paper joined most of the rest of the press corps in howling in outrage.

In Extraordinary Statement, Trump Stands With Saudis Despite Khashoggi Killing.” was the Times headline, in a piece that said Trump’s decision was “a stark distillation of the Trump worldview: remorselessly transactional, heedless of the facts, determined to put America’s interests first, and founded on a theory of moral equivalence.” The paper noted, “Even Mr. Trump’s staunchest allies on Capitol Hill expressed revulsion.”

This week, in its “Crusader for the Poor” piece, the Times described Biden’s identical bin Salman decision as mere evidence that he remains “in the cautious middle” in his foreign policy. The paper previously had David Sanger dig up a quote from former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross, who “applauded Mr. Biden for ‘trying to thread the needle here… This is the classic example of where you have to balance your values and your interests.’” It’s two opposite takes on exactly the same thing.

The old con of the Manufacturing Consent era of media was a phony show of bipartisanship. Legitimate opinion was depicted as a spectrum stretching all the way from “moderate” Democrats (often depicted as more correct on social issues) to “moderate” Republicans (whose views on the economy or war were often depicted as more realistic). That propaganda trick involved constantly narrowing the debate to a little slice of the Venn diagram between two established parties. Did we need to invade Iraq right away to stay safe, as Republicans contended, or should we wait until inspectors finished their work and then invade, as Democrats insisted?

The new, cleaved media landscape advances the same tiny intersection of elite opinion, except in the post-Trump era, that strip fits inside one party. Instead of appearing as props in a phony rendering of objectivity, Republicans in basically all non-Fox media have been moved off the legitimacy spectrum, and appear as foils only. Allowable opinion is now depicted stretching all the way from one brand of “moderate” Democrat to another.

An example is the Thursday New York Times story, “As Economy Is Poised to Soar, Some Fear a Surge in Inflation.” It’s essentially an interview with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who’s worried about the inflationary impact of the latest Covid-19 rescue (“The question is: Does [it] overheat everything?”), followed by quotes from Fed chair Jerome Powell insisting that no, everything is cool. This is the same Larry Summers vs. Janet Yellen debate that’s been going on for weeks, and it represents the sum total of allowable economic opinions about the current rescue, stretching all the way from “it’s awesome” to “it’s admirable but risky.”

This format isn’t all that different from the one we had before, except in one respect: without the superficial requirement to tend to a two-party balance, the hagiography in big media organizations flies out of control. These companies already tend to wash out people who are too contentious or anti-establishment in their leanings. Promoted instead, as even Noam Chomsky described a generation ago, are people with the digestive systems of jackals or monitor lizards, who can swallow even the most toxic piles of official nonsense without blinking. Still, those reporters once had to at least pretend to be something other than courtiers, as it was considered unseemly to openly gush about a party or a politician.

Now? Look at the Times feature story on Biden’s pandemic relief bill:

On Friday, “Scranton Joe” Biden, whose five-decade political identity has been largely shaped by his appeal to union workers and blue-collar tradesmen like those from his Pennsylvania hometown, will sign into law a $1.9 trillion spending plan that includes the biggest antipoverty effort in a generation…

The new role as a crusader for the poor represents an evolution for Mr. Biden, who spent much of his 36 years in Congress concentrating on foreign policy, judicial fights, gun control, and criminal justice issues… Aides say he has embraced his new role… [and] has also been moved by the inequities in pain and suffering that the pandemic has inflicted on the poorest Americans…

You’d never know from reading this that Biden’s actual rep on criminal justice issues involved boasting about authoring an infamous crime bill (that did “everything but hang people for jaywalking”), or that he’s long been a voracious devourer of corporate and especially financial services industry cash, that his “Scranton Joe” rep has been belied by a decidedly mixed history on unions, and so on. Can he legitimately claim to be more pro-union than his predecessor? Sure, but a news story that paints the Biden experience as stretching from “hero to the middle class” to “hero to the poor,” is a Pravda-level stroke job.

We now know in advance that every Biden address will be reviewed as historic and exceptional. It was a mild shock to see Chris Wallace say Biden’s was the “the best inaugural address I have ever heard.” More predictable was Politico saying of Thursday night’s address that “it is hard to imagine any other contemporary politician making the speech Biden did… channeling our collective sorrow and reminding us that there is life after grief.” (Really? Hard to imagine any contemporary politician doing that?).

This stuff is relatively harmless. Where it gets weird is that the move to turn the bulk of the corporate press in the “moral clarity” era into a single party organ has come accompanied by purges of the politically unfit.In the seemingly endless parade of in-house investigations of journalists, paper after paper has borrowed from the Soviet style of printing judgments and self-denunciations, without explaining the actual crimes.

The New York Times coverage of the recent staff revolt at Teen Vogue against editor Alexi McCammond noted “Staff Members Condemn Editor’s Decade-Old, Racist Tweets,” but declined to actually publish the offending texts, so readers might judge for themselves. The Daily Beast expose on Times reporter Donald McNeil did much the same thing. Even the ongoing (and in my mind, ridiculous) moral panic over Substack ties in. Aimed at people already banished from mainstream media, the obvious message is that anyone with even mildly heterodox opinions shouldn’t be publishing anywhere.

Those still clinging to mainstream jobs in a business that continues to lay people off at an extraordinary rate read the gist of all of these stories clearly: if you want to keep picking up a check, you’d better talk the right talk.

Thus you see bizarre transformations like that of David Brooks, who spent his career penning paeans to “personal responsibility” and the “culture of thrift,” but is now writing stories about how “Joe Biden is a transformational president” for casting aside fiscal restraints in the massive Covid-19 bill. When explaining that “both parties are adjusting to the new paradigm,” he’s really explaining his own transformation, in a piece that reads like a political confession. “I’m worried about a world in which we spend borrowed money with abandon,” he says, but “income inequality, widespread child poverty, and economic precarity are the problems of our time.”

Maybe Brooks is experiencing the same “evolution” Biden is being credited with of late. Or, he’s like a lot of people in the press who are searching out the safest places on the op-ed page, the middle of the newsroom middle, in desperate efforts to stay on the masthead. It’s been made clear that there’s no such thing as overdoing it in one direction, e.g. if you write as the Times did that Biden “has become a steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint” (which even those who like and admire Biden must grasp is not remotely true of the legendary loose cannon). Meanwhile, how many open critics of the Party on either the left, the right, or anywhere in between still have traditional media jobs?

All of this has created an atmosphere where even obvious observations that once would have interested blue-state voters, like that Biden’s pandemic relief bill “does not establish a single significant new social program,” can only be found in publications like the World Socialist Web Site. The bulk of the rest of the landscape has become homogenous and as predictably sycophantic as Fox in the “Mission Accomplished” years, maybe even worse. What is this all going to look like in four years?

13 comments

  1. You cite many examples and they fit the technical form of “propaganda;” see this book (a ‘bible’ of sorts of the “social phenomenon” of) “Propaganda” by Jacques Ellul, translated from French (1962) to English in 1965. Most relevant is his explanation that all governments must and do utilize this hard core tactic of communication since any force for good is at a disadvantage and propaganda is the only means capable of counteracting opposing forces- forces that do use these techniques. One part of the method, to maintain the support (acquiescence) from the people, effective communication (maintenance of control) requires a constant re-enforcement of the message that ‘we’ are the greatest, the most wise, the most on your side, the most moral, etc etc. Every government must do this. No excuse, merely pointing out the knowledge that we as members of society constantly let ourselves be manipulated. We are most susceptible to propaganda when we feel like we are smarter than that. We even get a feel good payoff by believing so. Beware your hubris.

    1. Further to Jaques Ellul’s magnificent book, and preceding it by some 35 years is
      Edward Bernays’ ‘Propaganda’. The very opening paragraphs:
      “THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
      We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly
      functioning society.
      Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”
      Bernays was part of a selected team employed by to persuade a reluctant American citizenry to enter the European War (aka WW1).
      https://www.voltairenet.org/IMG/pdf/Bernays_Propaganda_in_english_.pdf

  2. Matt,

    I must question even your objectivity. I in an unbiased vein I must term frequent trips to Moscow to add to your collection of Soviet Newspapers frivolous bourgeois excess!

  3. While I understand your concern regarding the idea that major outlets like the Times try to exercise journalistic critical thinking and not go sycophantic, I have to respond to your article with the following observations:
    1. Major outlets not presenting the GOP side of issues seems perfectly reasonable to me. News outlets have to stick to presenting the various sides of the Dems because the Republican party is defunct. They have no rational platform, ideology or ideas. They have become a party of overt racism, fascism and insane conspiracy theories. They have nothing of value to say and it is refreshing to not have to hear them…at all.
    2. After 4 years of doom, destruction, insanity and depravity because of Trump, we finally get some good news headlines, some encouraging headlines, some hope. And you complain. I have great respect for you and your work. Surely you can find something better to write about than this.
    3. Thanks for the tip about the World Socialist Web. I did not know about that site. Been a socialist for more than 50 years. I have a new home!
    All the Best Matt.
    George.

  4. “SOVIETIZATION”= 💩. $2M STIMULUS WAS PROMISED AD NAUSEUM BY “WALTER” BIDEN ( SEE JEFF DUNHAM’S DUMMY) DURING AND AFTER HIS ELECTION, NOT $1400+$600= $2M!! SAME FOR THE $15 MIN. WAGE! THIS ARTICLE SHOULD BE THE BANNER HEADLINE OF THE NOW CORPORATIST PAPERS, THE NYTIMES AND JEFF BOZO’S WHITEWASHINGTON POST.

  5. “SOVIETIZATION = FASCISM! “WALTER” BIDEN ( see Jeff Dunham’s dummy) promised ad nauseum for a $2m stimulus check!THAT IS not $1400+$600= $2m!! Same for the $15. minimum wage. ALSO AN EMPTY CAMPAIGN PROMISE! BOTH THE NEW PORK TIMES AND JEFF BOZO’S WHITEWASH. POST ARE NOW PROPAGANDIST,
    “SOVIETIZED” “newspapers”

  6. Poor Matt Taibbi jumped the shark, now occupying the ecosphere of Glenn Greenwald, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Quillette, and Tucker Carlson.

  7. Hah! Not even Chomsky could have said it better. It just goes to show that the 40+ years of persistent neo-liberal policies aimed at dumbing down the education system (along with sucking all the wealth from the middle and lower classes) has paid off handsomely for the oligarchs leaving an eviscerated media of sycophants and boot lickers.

  8. Congratulations! We’ve got Pravda!
    On one side human slime tweets about fake news. On the other side indentured stenographers write about the post-fact era.
    Well what came first the chicken or the reptile? Who put the mouths of mendacity in charge of the news? Who set up CIA newspapers all around the world to publish their propaganda? Who polluted every major news outlet in the United States with their generals anonymous sources and David Gergens?
    Congratulations! We now have Pravda but we call it network news.
    Who analyzes tactics but not strategies? Who cowers with nightmares of McCarthy? Who prefers Trump over Sanders? Who puts two snakes without a pit to hiss in on TV to sink their fangs into truth and kill it with the venom of objectivity that only advertisers recognize as objective?
    I realize you’re sick of hearing about it. I certainly am too.
    But what do you say about two turds in a punchbowl when all the glasses are filled with piss? What good would chopping off the head of the snake do when the viper Medusa-like sprouts new adders in its place?
    Everything moves in slow motion during the most dangerous moments of our lives. That’s the way it is for our country right now. Collapsing for seventy years in slow motion with hardly anyone noticing but now quite upset about a simpleton madman who takes corruption for granted whose constituents welcome it.
    And now the corporate media titans who to this day put pathological liars on camera and label that an objective perspective wring their hands about a former president who is a pathological liar.
    What happened to the good old days? They seem to be saying. When we could all agree to dissemble? When we delightedly staked left and right positions about sodomy and race but all veered hard right at the first whispers of war?
    But really you should not be so hard yourselves. We are in your debt. Congratulations to all the national security experts and their partners in the news media who manufacture perceptions of reality You have succeeded brilliantly. Your mark on history is a redaction.

  9. Headline from N.Y. Times 3/16/21: Putin ordered 2020 election to aid Trump U.S. Intelligence Says. Thus sayeth the newspaper of record.

    Reading the actual intelligence report is an exercise in orwellian doublespeak. Lots of innuendo, Putin knew, state and non state actors etc. etc.

    Every society including indigenous societies engage in propaganda, a telling of their side of the story, a disdain for all others. In general it is moderately harmful. In the case of a large and powerful nation like the U.S. it can become extremely dangerous.

    I am under no illusions that Putin or Iran or China would not try and manipulate our elections for their own gain. Neither am I under any illusions that Trump, Obama, or Biden give a rats ass about my or other poor peoples plight.

    The rise of the podcaster is the greatest leveler in regards to dissemination of information in the history of the world. This terrifies the elites, no way left to control the narrative, but to censor, and denigrate. Official doublespeak only please, no dissenting points of view please!

    Do we as human beings need to read an entire treatise on propaganda to understand that rich assholes control our society and use instruments like WAPO, NY Times and propornot.com to bullshit us? I’m kinda thinking it’s self evident.

    If there’s light at the end of the tunnel it’s the simple truth that the masses are beginning to call bullshit, and are disseminating their own information. Now people like Justin Jackson can interview poor people and ask them how they feel about Uncle Joe and the dems covid bailout. No “expert” panels, actual working poor telling their stories, can’t have that now can we?

    Wow can’t have the people calling the shots
    now can we? That might look like Democracy.

  10. Thank you, Graeme, for your ‘history lesson.’ I love it – finding out how things really work. Would that these books were required reading in our old schools. And I pass on to those able to listen. David S.

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