Saturday, October 5, 2019

Book Review: 'Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another' by Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi has discovered that news (his career) is a consumer product. Consumers choose the ones that have the features they want and stick with that brand, no matter how far from the truth it wanders. It is purely a consumer preference and does not pretend to be fair, neutral or comprehensive. That is the essence of Hate, Inc. The bulk of the book is damning journalism and reporters for not checking facts or sources, adding to the credibility crisis and hate in the field. It is an imperfect book with a hugely important message.

Taibbi says we used to be served a constant diet of unity and conformity. Today, it’s all about division and hate. Doesn’t matter what news network you watch; it all the same – them vs us. MSNBC is the mirror image of Fox, and neither one can be trusted for a moment. Hate, Inc. is a book for everyone, not just those who despise mainstream media. There are valuable insights into how we’ve all been fooled for decades. And despite recognizing the disease, it’s getting worse, not better.

News used to be for the sake of news, but now it’s for dollars. The news department used to lose money and was a public service. Today, it is a gigantic profit center, and the news is tailored to attract and keep specific audiences. Off-topic news, other angles and other voices don’t make the cut – they risk alienating the precious audience.

It’s all about reinforcing fear. Fear of the Other, fear for rights, fear for a way of life. Be afraid – be very afraid is the daily message. Keep telling people they are worse off and at risk, because it keeps them coming back for more.

Taibbi got the book’s framework from reading Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. He even interviewed Chomsky to see what he thought had changed since it was published in 1988. The answer was social media, of course, which distills news, rumors and lies to single paragraphs that mislead, reinforce the worst fears and promote division.

There is an odd chapter on Trump adopting a professional wrestling act stance, quoting a wrestler that what he says fits perfectly with the standard wrestling storyline. Except it often doesn’t, which is obvious in Taibbi’s telling.  What he misses is that Trump is much simpler than that. As a narcissist, he must be the top story at all times. If he isn’t the top story it means outrageous tweetstorms early Sunday mornings so he can be the first topic all on the news and public affairs programs later. If there is a big event that might overshadow him personally, he will attack some reporter or national leader or make some outrageous claim or threat to make it all about himself. The hate is irrelevant. As long as they spell his name correctly, it’s all good. It’s entirely predictable, and far more consistent than the contrived pro wrestling scenario.
There is an even odder chapter on sports talk radio, which adds no weight to Taibbi’s arguments.

Taibbi classifies manufactured hate into ten aspects all Americans should recognize instantly:
  1. There are only two ideas
  2. The two ideas are in permanent conflict
  3. Hate people, not institutions
  4. Everything is someone else’s fault
  5. Nothing is everyone’s fault
  6. Root, don’t think
  7. No switching teams
  8. The other side is literally Hitler
  9. In the fight against Hitler, everything is permitted
  10. Feel superior

The media have become obsessed with finding the hate nugget in every news story that comes through. One great example Taibbi cites is Trump signing a budget giving the military an extra $82 billion – more than the cost of the Iraq War during a couple of its years. What was it for? Why was it needed and why now were questions that were not asked. Instead, reporters were all over Trump slighting John McCain, whose name was on the bill. That was the headline the cable news shows and their endless boring pundits focused on the rest of the week. They ignored the real story for the hate. And Trump made it about himself again.

The book is full of examples from Taibbi’s well stocked research. He devotes one chapter to the Iraq War and how the Bush administration bamboozled reporters and editorialists into claiming the war was both justified and necessary, despite the general population’s far better instincts. How journalists of all stripes focused on the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that did not exist, for months, continually falling for the Bush administration’s campaign of lies (which Taibbi documents well). How those who fell for it hook, line and sinker were only not fired, but promoted and allowed to spout their nonsense on other issues.

He saves his biggest shaming for Russiagate, which took in – and likely still takes in – news media of all varieties with its complete fabrications, half-truths, unverified claims, anonymous sources, obviously insane rumors, and ulterior motives. He is especially critical of Rachel Maddow at MSNBC, who apparently bet her career on it.

Taibbi is a self-confessed provocateur. He is as pointed in his writing as the people he criticizes. He says of his colleagues: “They fused simple laziness with demeaning caricatures.” And yet this is how he describes Fox’s Sean Hannity: “The rectum-faced blowhard was celebrated for his fake daily victories over the intellectual Washington Generals act that was Allan Colmes.” Spot the difference if you can.

He says a lot of absurd, wild things like “Religion becomes a cult when it doesn’t allow the testing of its premises.” Or that your anger watching a political program doesn’t empower you, it “neutralizes you as an independent threat.” So there’s as much to criticize in Hate, Inc. as there is in mainstream media.

He is all about the symptoms and never examines the causes. The whole reason for red vs blue, right vs left, we vs them is the two-party system that all but requires to classify everyone as one or the other. It prevents other voices in the media. There are all kinds of views that can never be aired in this atmosphere or in the USA today. Not everything is about the party, and the party certainly does not have all the answers. It was the hope and fear of the Founders that political parties would not arise in the new republic. They knew precisely, 250 years in advance, that the two-party system would result in the strangulation of their experimental new democracy. And said so, repeatedly.

If you want to heal the nation, listen to the men who designed it. Ditch the parties and work on issues. Together.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.