Rolling Stone’s holy war against Bachmann

Rolling Stone‘s piece on “Michele Bachmann’s Holy War” is “The Hit Piece That Hit Itself,” as John Hudson says, a profile that raises ethical questions about drawing heavily from previous reporting and what passes for journalism, even for magazines that allow more directed reporting.

We need to do a LeBlanc-style edit of this piece just so you can see some truly amazing portions, but please do not misunderstand this post. I am not defending Bachmann as a politician and would write the same post if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had been portrayed the same way.

As Yahoo News and The Awl note, the piece raises questions about plagiarism as it borrows heavily from a 2006 profile of Bachmann by G.R. Anderson in the Minneapolis City Pages.

Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates cut the attributions because of “space considerations,” but as Gina Dolfanzo says, perhaps he could have made room by taking out a few other words.

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.

Back in the day, Jeremy Lott wrote about Matt Taibbi’s departure from the New York Press after his anti-pope cover story.

Taibbi acknowledged that the piece “was way over the top” but he argued that its very over-the-topness was “commensurate — to the 197 consecutive f*ck—g hours of Pope funeral coverage on cable we all know is coming very soon, with every politician on earth with a nose for Catholic votes lining up for a chance to blow into his hanky at the podium.”

Taibbi is awarded for his anti-religious views with a horrifying hit piece extended profile of Bachmann, who officially announced her candidacy for the GOP nomination today. Bear with me as we examine some of the particularly frustrating paragraphs.

Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions.

What’s a religious zealot? How do you become a zealot–by believing that God calls you to a specific career? Is there evidence that Bachmann believes that God actually directly speaks to her in divine visions?

One of Bachmann’s step-siblings, Helen LaFave, would later come out as a lesbian, a fact that Michele, who became famous opposing gay marriage, never mentions on the campaign trail.

This fact isn’t a tax form or something. Are we supposed to expect her to disclose this for some reason? Should her views on society automatically change once something becomes personal?

To that end, Bachmann was mentored by a crackpot Christian extremist professor named John Eidsmoe, a frequent contributor to John Birch Society publications who once opined that he could imagine Jesus carrying an M16 and who spent considerable space in one of his books musing about the feasibility of criminalizing blasphemy. …Bachmann says she believes in a limited state, but she was educated in an extremist Christian tradition that rejects the entire notion of a separate, secular legal authority and views earthly law as an instrument for interpreting biblical values.

Why would the writer assume she is a clone of her professors?

(Bachmann seems so unduly obsessed with Shariah law that, after listening to her frequent pronouncements on the subject, one begins to wonder if her crazed antipathy isn’t born of professional jealousy.)

Whether or not you agree with Bachmann’s point of view, this is quite the leap.

To combat this dark outcome, Bachmann joined up with a Junior Anti-Sex League-type outfit called the Maple River Education Coalition, which was largely composed of Christian conservatives rallying against educational standards. The group met in a church, and its sessions resembled old-time religious revivals, complete with whooping and hollering. “There were enormous amounts of ‘amens,’” recalls Mary Cecconi, a Stillwater resident who attended an early meeting of Maple River. “It’s like a mission from God with those people.” Maple River was so out there that Minnesota’s then-governor, Jesse Ventura, no slouch in the batsh*t-conspiracy department, dismissed the group as nothing but a bunch of people who “think UFOs are landing next month.”

Apparently, all you have to do to discredit an organization is to find a resident who attended the meeting to say it was weird and that passes for journalism.

Maple River eventually morphed into an organization called EdWatch, which railed against various dystopian indoctrination plans, including the U.N.-inspired International Baccalaureate program, offered in some American high schools. Bachmannites despise IB because its “universal” curriculum refuses to recognize the superiority of Christianity to other religions.

The author provides no evidence that the reason “Bachmannites” hates the curriculum is because its refusal to recognize the superiority of Christianity.

In her later telling of the story, however, Bachmann substituted a higher authority than Bill Pulkrabek. It was God, she insisted, not a girlfriend-abusing politician, who instructed her to get involved in politics. “As if we didn’t have enough to do, He called me to run for the Minnesota State Senate,” she said in 2006. “I had no idea, no desire to be in politics. None.”

Let’s clear this up once and for all. It’s not unusual for Christians to say they believe God intended them to do something. They might cite certain circumstances, advice from other people, say they “felt called,” etc. etc. to different degrees, but this is not strange. There’s a big difference between someone who thinks that they are “called by God” to public service and someone who believes God ordained their specific votes.

Bachmann’s entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. …She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullsh*t artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

Where is the evidence that she lies or that she knows that she’s lying? Perhaps she lacks judgment or worries about things that might never happen, but that doesn’t mean that she lied necessarily unless we have more evidence.

In 2003, after the Massachusetts Supreme Court issued its famous ruling permitting gay marriage, Bachmann proposed an amendment to the Minnesota constitution banning gay marriage — despite the fact that the state legislature had already passed a law making same-sex unions illegal. Even the politicians who were sufficiently gay-phobic to have passed the original anti-¬marriage law were floored by the brazen pointlessness of Bachmann’s bill. “It’s unnecessary, it’s redundant, it’s duplicative,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Ann Rest.

If she thought that Minnesota’s Supreme Court could make the same move as Massachusetts, it would nullify the state law. What was it about Minnesota’s constitution that made a constitutional amendment irrelevant?

She even told the congregation that she and hubby Marcus — who by then had opened a Christian counseling center — had been united not by love but by a unique series of divine visions experienced by three people simultaneously.

Did she say she and her husband were not united by love?

Bachmann has ties to the Left Behind crowd and has even said that Beverly LaHaye, wife of LB co-author and fundamentalist godfather Tim LaHaye, was her inspiration for entering politics.

Lots of Christians read Left Behind who don’t take on the authors’ views of the end times. What makes him think Bachmann believes everything LaHaye says?

… but often overlooked is her greatest quality, the gigantic set of burnished titanium Terminator-testicles swinging under her skirt.

How is this not completely offensive?

This is a case of 5,000 words of advocacy (perhaps more European) journalism with serious issues of accuracy and fairness. When lines like “a turbocharged cross between a born bullsh*t artist and a religious fanatic” and “Little House on the Never-Existed Fundamentalist Prairie sensibilities,” pass for reporting, what we get is a sloppy, crude, and depressing state of Rolling Stone “journalism.”

Update: I have partially edited expletives in this post that the reporter used in his piece.

Print Friendly

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Sarah, I’ll take you at your word that you’d do the same for Hillary Clinton if you’ll take me at my word that I’d offer the same defense I’m about to offer on behalf of conservative writers like Matt LaBash or P.J. O’Rourke, who produce similar funny, unfair, over-the-top, baroque prose. I’ve written for Rolling Stone (not as funny or over-the-top), but I don’t know Taibbi and am not defending him out of any loyalty. I’m not even defending him, in fact — just pointing out the obvious, which is that the piece is intended to be completely offensive, over-the-top, etc. It’s not meant to be neutral or even fair. Taibbi is heir to Hunter Thompson at RS; and love or hate Thompson, I imagine that we can agree that to express shock that his hallucinatory gonzo journalism wasn’t “fair” is to profoundly miss the point.

  • mattk

    I think I read a copy of Rolling Stone back around 1988. Wasn’t impressed then. Not impressed now.

  • Norman

    This is a case of 5,000 words of advocacy (perhaps more European) journalism

    European journalists write better than this:

    crackpot Christian extremist professor

    railed against various dystopian indoctrination plans

    Are we not supposed to notice this is purple prose just because the guy is on the “right” side?

    How is this not completely offensive?

    This entire article is one of the ugliest, most juvenile things I have ever read in a major publication.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Jeff, thanks for weighing in. I really would be horrified if the same piece was written about Hillary Clinton. I do think fairness is still a quality to uphold but let’s pretend for a minute that we’d be fine with a piece that wasn’t objective and took a particular point of view. Did the piece pass other journalistic qualities? I just don’t know what part of this piece was worth publishing.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Sarah – I absolutely believe you’d be horrified. I meant that sincerely. When liberals critique, say, Matt LaBash for being over the top and unfair, I say the same thing — they’re missing the point. Taibbi and LaBash both practice deliberately offensive gonzo satire. I think fairness is a fine quality — but not in a satirical attack. I’m not arguing for or against the piece — I’m suggesting that you may have inadvertently set up a straw man here. I haven’t looked into the citation issues, but they’re not the point of your post above. You’re taking issue with it because it uses extreme, unfair language to bludgeon home a point of view. That’s like taking issue with Metallica because they’re loud. That’s what Metallica does. That’s what Taibbi does. It’s the deliberate use of hyperbole. Take this sentence — “Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions.” — I’d never write something like that myself, but I think it’s kind of clever, though I don’t believe Bachmann has claimed visions and that absent more reporting we don’t know whether her statements about Islam are delusional or calculated. I don’t know if I’d call her a zealot, but she certainly is zealous — she is proud of being uncompromising, in fact.

    But my point isn’t to defend Taibbi. I don’t use most of this kind of language myself. But I also don’t read Taibbi for measured, informed commentary. One reads him — or doesn’t read him — for his rage, flamboyance, and lack of moderation.

  • Mollie

    The Labash comparison doesn’t work. When Labash profiles someone — be it Dick Cheney or Marion Barry — he actually, you know, meets with them and spends time with them and then writes something beautiful and interesting.

  • Norman

    Jeff, the case you make for over-the-top prose depends on the quality of the writing. Hunter Thompson was brilliant. He was fun to read. Molly Ivins was laugh-out-loud funny. I don’t see the value in Taibbi. One has to steel oneself to read this, and then the best you can do is endure it. It isn’t any fun at all, it’s just a torrent of diarhetic hate.

  • Lucy

    Not again. What is wrong with the mainstream media? I don’t get their hatred for Beck, Limbaugh, Palin or Bachmann. All of them are liberal “conservatives” and not caricatures that the media paints them to be.

    MSM is so far-left that it believes liberal conservatives to be far-right.

  • Suzanne

    Rolling Stone is not mainstream. Matt Taibbi is (no doubt proudly) not mainstream. Calling this an example of mainstream media makes no sense.

    I find Taibbi mostly unreadable, and certainly think this piece is an example of his worst qualities.

    This point leaped out at me, though:

    Why would the writer assume she is a clone of her professors?

    I don’t, just as I don’t assume that Barack Obama is a clone of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or William Ayers. But both were (rightly, IMO) considered fair game when examining Obama.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Mollie — I agree that it is better to, you know, speak to the subjects of one’s profiles when possible. That said, I think that’s an irrelevant point. Same goes to Norman’s point, which I also happen to agree with — the quality of the writing matters. I happen to think Taibbi is an excellent vitriolist (a term I just made up that I think should enter the media dictionary) even when I don’t agree with him, but that’s beside the point. He could be as dull as Rush and O’Reilly or as witty as Mencken and Dale Peck — haters, all — and I’d still be left feeling like this conversation is disingenuous. High quality or low, it makes no sense to judge Taibbi’s Bachmann hit piece — of course it was a hit piece, deliberately so — according to the standards of “fair” journalism, anymore than it makes sense to judge Metallica according to measure of subtlety set by, say, Nick Drake. Since it makes no sense, I’m left wondering whether Taibbi isn’t being used as a stand-in for more establishment media, just as the liberal press often uses Fred Phelps as a stand-in for Christian conservatives. That’s not to say that Taibbi is the same as Phelps, only that neither is representative of what they’re being said to represent. I do think Rolling Stone is more or less “mainstream” — certainly critics of my work on the anarchist left and fundamentalist right have said as much when attacking stories of mine — and, regardless, it’s tremendously influential (moreso these days than more ostensibly mainstream publications like U.S. News & World Report. Does that still exist?). But it’s a failure of reading comprehension to mistake Taibbi’s piece for conventional journalism and then decry the mainstream media’s lampooning of Bachmann. More relevant is the typically lousy work of Newsweek, etc.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Can’t help but notice all my comments are getting “disliked.” For what? Because I’m making a genre distinction? Or because people are jumping the gun and misreading my comments as attacks on Bachmann or defenses of Taibbi’s perspective?

  • Mollie

    I’m resisting the urge to “dislike” that last comment. But it would be funny.

  • Julia

    The comparison of professors with Wright, a long-time pastor, and Ayers, who hosted Obama’s political coming-out, is not valid. Both relationships were chosen and of substance.

    I’ve had some pretty kooky professors, but their position as my teachers for one semester each doesn’t make them my mentors. After 8 years postgrad, I can count maybe one or two professors as mentors. I would assume that’s true for most people.

  • carl

    Jeff Sharlet

    But it’s a failure of reading comprehension to mistake Taibbi’s piece for conventional journalism and then decry the mainstream media’s lampooning of Bachmann.

    So what you are saying is that this article does nothing more than vicariously express the animosity, prejudice, contempt, and outright hatred that is felt by the readership of Rolling Stone towards the people for whom Michelle Bachmann serves as a convenient surrogate. What is the journalistic purpose of such a piece? Why did Rolling Stone see fit to publish it otherwise?


  • asimon

    Great analysis Sarah.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Carl – no, I’m not saying that. You can tell I’m not saying that because I did not, in fact, say that. Does Taibbi’s contempt for Bachmann represent that of the readership of RS? Probably a fair bit of it, but certainly not all of it, given that RS has always had a number of conservative readers and many more who don’t particularly have any political thoughts at all. What is the journalistic purpose of the piece? Same as the journalistic purpose of H.L Mencken’s reports from Dayton, Rush’s daily rants, Ramesh Ponnuru’s caricatures, and everything Hunter Thompson did, whether he did it well or not. It’s a form of brutal, hyperbolic satire. It’s not nice, it’s not fair, and it’s not reporting in the traditional sense. It’s opinion writing, and RS probably published it for the same reason they published Thompson — or, for that matter, Taibbi’s scathing takedowns of posturing Democrats over the years. It’s a genre.

    I’m puzzled as to why so many bright GR readers, somehow engaged with journalism, won’t make that distinction — or the distinction between my identification of the genre and a defense of it. As I said before, I think Taibbi’s one of the more talented insult artists at work (and not because he’s vaguely left; I think Michael Savage, a far more hateful bigot, is also a brilliant vitriolist), but that’s absolutely irrelevant to the point I’m making here. The point is that Sarah, a traditional journalist, uses Taibbi’s openly opinionated rant as a proxy for mainstream (read: liberal) media disdain for Bachmann. Taibbi’s just not the right target. He doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as a traditional, objective journalist, because that’s not what he is. Meanwhile, a bigger, more complex, and more important story is being missed: The disdain for Bachmann in the traditionalist establishment press. I’d submit that it’s not unlike the disdain we saw for Howard Dean years ago, or the disdain for Ralph Nader. This is not an issue of liberal bias against conservatives any more than that was evidence of conservative bias against liberals; it’s establishment pooh-poohing of anti-establishment figures, left and right.

  • Bob Smietana

    I think Jeff is right – this was an intentional hit piece. It’s very similar to the piece he did on the Tea Party, which included this memorable line summarizing that group:
    “They’re full of sh*t.”
    Maybe people who hate the Tea Party or Bachmann want to read that kind of thoughtful journalism.

    More than anything, Taibbi’s was lazy. He borrowed from other people’s work without attribution and added his “look at how clever I am” sarcasm.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    With respect for Bob, I didn’t mean that as a critique (or a defense). Merely a statement of fact. There are good hit pieces and bad hit pieces, left and right, tall and short, fat and skinny, etc.

  • Henry

    It seems to me that the real issue here is not so much what the piece says, but rather that portions of it seem to have been plagiarized, and that the lack of attributions was awkwardly attributed to “space considerations”. Even if for sake of example we read the piece as 0% journalism and 100% (attempted) comedy, it is neither ethical nor professional to steal other people’s work. Making up goofy excuses after the fact isn’t much help either.

  • Jerry

    Jeff Sharlet,

    We all realize that you’re neither a journalist

    That error is why I think you’re getting dislikes in your comments – because the voters don’t know your background and miss the point you’re trying to make.

    For what it’s worth, I take Rolling Stone to be no more of a source of unbiased news as Xinhua when it comes to Chinese actions. This was a piece designed to jazz up the readership who don’t like Bachmann and appreciate crude innuendo and salacious gossip. It should be treated as a step up from the National Enquirer when it comes to journalistic excellence but no where at the same level as any regular news outlet.

  • Lucy

    Calling this an example of mainstream media makes no sense.

    What irritates me to no end is how many in the media put traditional conservatives “in love with Palin or Beck” when plenty of us criticize them or dislike them. My view is below:

    MSM is so far-left that it believes liberal conservatives to be far-right.

    Yes I do find Palin and Beck to be too liberal. I’m just tired of reading articles from liberals calling people “extremists” whom I consider pretty liberal in their politics or libertarian leaning.

    I mean I really don’t get the whole hysteria about the Tea Party. I don’t agree with them but I disagree that they are “extremists” and part of the underground “boogeyman religious right”. I really do believe they are sincerly in love with capitalism and libertarianism.

  • Allie

    Satire should not pretend to engage with facts. If you are right Jeff than the author should just say, “I am going to go on a vitriolic rant that is baseless and manipulative of reality.”

    The beautiful thing about satire is it is funny because we see traces of truth and reality in it. This is just shameful.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Why is GR bumping comments in line and holding mine for moderation? I’ve posted three civil comments — one in response to a distinctly uncivil one, in response to a friend, and one about establishment bias vs. “left-right” bias, but GR is holding them while 4 comments made after mine have been posted. May I have an explanation?

  • Jeff Sharlet

    While I wait for moderation, I’ll respond to Allie like I’ve responded to everyone else — I’m not making any claims for the quality or lack thereof of Taibbi’s satirical rant. My only point has been that — oh, why bother. Doesn’t seem like Sarah’s going to post this anyhow.

  • Lucy

    Basically I’m a far-right winger whom doesn’t find Bachmann to be “far-right” at all like Jeremy Lott does. Bachmann is part of the Tea Party, believes in individualism, freedom, small government and the free market, soft on immigration, works outside the home, involved in politics in a leading position and so many other things. I’m sorry if I whine too much but the “far-right” people like me shouldn’t be scaring the media because most of us find most politicians and figures out there to be too liberal for our tastes. The media goes hysterical over Palin too but to many of us far-right wingers she’s just another social liberal (not conservative enough). Same thing for Beck or other figures.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I agree with Jeff Sharlett’s analysis, although I’m not in a mood to push his buttons.

    Sorry… it’s that kind of evening. Anyway, the “likes” seem to be running in his favor without my help.

    Taibbi is clearly not practicing journalism, any more than Bill O’Reilly or Glenn Beck. He is a left wing ideologue as they are ideologues on the right.

    The problem is that all this ideological ranting is making it’s way, albeit more mildly, into what might be considered the mainstream. I heard a comment tonight that a majority of Democrats and independents regarded the media as advocating for Pres. Obama in the last campaign. Of course, most Republicans believed in a bias towards Obama. The drumbeat is already on for 2012, and if anyone thinks it will be a festival of objective journalism, watch any of the alphabet networks’ evening news.

    One might wish the grown-ups would take charge, but then ratings might suffer.

  • Jerry

    One might wish the grown-ups would take charge, but then ratings might suffer.

    That is too true and why my goto network is PBS when it comes to responsible journalism. Sure they don’t always do the right thing, but it’s night and day compared on average to the commercial networks.

  • Mollie


    I’m not entirely sure why some of your comments went to our spam or moderated filters but it’s definitely not Sarah’s doing.

    We all attempt to clear out the queues as able but sometimes (evenings in particular) this takes longer.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Thanks for the clarification. My apologies. On to other stories…

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks everyone for weighing in and to Mollie for clarifying our comments issue. Since I have a separate full-time job, it can be difficult to keep up. As a general comment, perhaps I should have added this to my post: I think the reason why it frustrated me so much is that someone’s faith was used as the primary source for an argument like “Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions.” Whether or not we should expect this from Taibbi or Rolling Stone, it’s unfortunate to see religion used as the source for such a hit piece.

  • Ryan

    It just tickles me to see all these interesting words, extremist, evangelical, and so forth attached to a Lutheran, a Lutheran from Minnesota for goodness sake! These words just never get mentioned about us.

  • C. Wingate

    Jeff, I have to agree with you that on one level there’s little point in worrying about the fairness of the piece. Being unfair is obviously part of the point. The way in which the piece occasionally tiptoes over the line into a certain dishonesty is particularly heightened in the initial passage where he fairly inaccurately relates her upbringing; Taibbi’s own silver spoon path through school paints it with a certain hypocritical cast. The effect is rather dampened if one reads it online with Wikipedia at the ready for some rough-and-ready fact-checking, so one finds out that “tiny Anoka” is in fact nearly as big as Stillwater, and that the latter isn’t that much more white than pretty much any other town in the state. The “prep school boy sneers at the state college graduate” effect of it all is off-putting even to this prep school boy. He is provincial as only an upper class New Yorker can be provincial.

    It’s obvious that something dramatic happened to Bachmann’s thinking at Winona, and it’s equally obvious that Taibbi offers no understanding of it, has no real curiosity about it, and in fact would find the burden of that understanding working against his urge to write a hatchet job. His failure to grasp anything about her religion is of a piece with his failure to grasp pretty much anything else about here.

  • C. Wingate

    re 31: I was in fact surprised that he didn’t manage to get a dig in at her for being a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran.

  • carl

    Jeff Shallet

    Saying that this article represents a certain ‘genre’ does not explain what an article of this genre does. We know what it does not do. It does not inform. It does not instruct. It does not enlighten. It contains no serious argument. What then does it do besides allow the reader to indulge his own animosity and prejudice? You can call it “hyperbolic brutal satire” but that doesn’t explain what purpose this kind of ‘hyperbolic brutal satire’ is supposed to serve. Nor does it explain why Rolling Stone would publish it – other than to do exactly what I suggested.

    It was not published for the sake of the writer. Rolling Stone is not in business to provide space for authors to reach the public. Rolling Stone is in business to serve the interests of its readership by providing articles its readers would find interesting and valuable. Rolling Stone thought its readership would derive value from this article. What is that derived value? Besides the enjoyment of contempt, and animosity, and hatred?


  • Norman

    Jeff, I think we largely agree on the genre of Taibbi’s work but disagree on his effectiveness, which is fair enough . There’s little constructive room for argument on that here, as this really isn’t a place for aesthetics. I’d like to draw you out on one thing though, which is whether you think “vitriolism” should be immune from critique of its content, or whether you just think the specific method of criticism employed in this post is inapt. I can’t see placing any form of journalism above content scrutiny.

    You mentioned Thompson, and thank you for doing so, because it reminds me of how much great writing he did and how much I enjoyed once upon a long-ago. In his case I agree that you would not evaluate him by the measure of absolute, perfect recounting of specific events, but there was always the sense with him that he was, in a hazy, hallucinatory way using his license to make serious, substantive observations about the subjects of his writing. (For what its worth, I essentially agreed with Thompson back when I used to read him, and I always found that he invested the people he wrote about with humanity, too) Be that as it may, how, do you think, does the critic engage with what you term a “vitriolist’? On the broader, philosophical point(s) they are making? On style and ability? Just what is fair game?

  • carl

    Jeff Shallet should be Jeff Sharlet, of course. My apologies. I am not the best typist.


  • Brett

    Mr. Sharlet is right in that some magazines run pieces that are over the top rather than straight reporting or profiling, and that Mr. Taibbi’s piece on Ms. Bachmann is such.

    He could not be more wrong that Mr. Taibbi is in any way heir to Mr. Thompson or in the vein of Mr. O’Rourke or Mr. Labash. His writing does not match their quality. Even at their most acidic, all three men demonstrated enough respect for their craft, if not for the subjects of their writings, to interview them and let them be hung by their own words. Mr. Taibbi, as demonstrated by the Bachmnan piece and his juvenile Post cover story on Pope John Paul II, is simply mean and operates with little, if any respect for his craft or his subjects, if they happen to be people with whom he disagrees.

    Moreover, as Ujala Sehgal’s blog on this story at “Media Bistro” notes, Mr. Thompson went out to dig for his stories. Mr. O’Rourke and Mr. Labash do the same, although Mr. Sehgal does not mention them by name. And none of the three have ever been credibly accused of plagiarism (although Sonny Barger did claim that Mr. Thompson made up much of his book about the Hell’s Angels), while Mr. Sehgal’s blog and other places make it clear that Mr. Taibbi’s piece on Ms. Bachmann borrowed substantially from others with little or no attribution.

    I think this as well as much of his other work demonstrates that one’s knowledge of the world will suffer no great loss if one dismisses out of hand anything bylined “Matt Taibbi.” But the same has been easily said of most of Rolling Stone itself for a number of years, although the first twenty or so pages of the magazine do help one know what clothing Ralph Lauren is selling these days.

    PS — Although I think he is dead wrong, I too think “disliking” Mr. Sharlet’s initial posts would be mistaken — he’s commenting on the journalism and is doing so mostly with respect.

    PPS — I attempted to include the Media Bistro link but it would not work. Searching “Taibbi” at the site brings up the story, though.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    Norman raises an important question for media critics and literary critics alike: How does one engage a vitriolist? In this case, I’m tentatively persuaded by the disgruntlement of the uncited City Pages writer, Taibbi’s failure to go to Minnesota, and, if the biographical details are correct (I know nothing of Taibbi’s background other than the fact of his famous father and his Russia days), C. Wingate’s charge of hypocrisy. That, and his failure to connect. I don’t mean in a touchy feely way. I mean his failure to land a punch. I don’t think it’s too disrespectful; I think it’s not disrespectful enough. Not of Bachmann (it may surprise some here that my only public comments on Bachmann, at Bloggingheads, have been largely positive), but of the “target.” A vitriolist fails when he falls back too often on “crazy,” just as Mencken failed at Dayton. Dale Peck connected in his famous attack on Rick Moody precisely because, whether you like Moody or not (I do), Peck’s savagery cut to the bone. When the odious Michael Savage snarls at a certain kind of Northern California liberal with which he’s intimately familiar, one likewise smells blood. That may be the measure of a vitriolist. By that measure, Taibbi’s famous takedown of Goldman Sachs was first-rate vitriol. This feels phoned-in, a “misunderestimation” of a charismatic leaning fundamentalist (sure, a Lutheran; just like W. was a Methodist and Bill Clinton a Southern Baptist). I’ve read Eidismoe, for instance, and although he surely is extreme by any measure but Lucy’s, he’s not the cro-mag depicted here. He’s a smart, influential extremist, which is always more interesting than “crazy.”

    As for Kharrl — is that how you spell it? — a little online research would reveal that Taibbi’s a contract writer with RS. So yes, they do provide space. He’s more like a columnist than a freelancer.

  • Martha

    What Jeff is saying is that this piece is not journalism, it’s satire, in the vein of the 18th century political caricatures of Rowlandson and Gilray, which were not remotely concerned with fairness but with bludgeoning home a political point by mockery and derision.

    Fair enough – I think we can all agree that that piece is by no means journalism. I do wonder, though, what will Mr. Taibbi do for further shock-value when the bar for vitriol is set ever higher? Once it becomes boring to attack right-wing/conservative politicians, who does he go for next in order to keep the shock-value high?

  • Mark Baddeley

    I’ve found Jeff’s arguments helpful, and also the responses from various parties.

    I wonder if the issues at stake can be summarized this way:

    1)This article is not journalism, it’s a different genre and so different standards apply.

    2)No, even when allowance is made for that, enough of the standards that govern journalism still apply to fail it. And besides it even fails by the standards of its own genre.

    That’s how the discussion so far reads to me.

    Speaking personally, I found 1) helpful, but ultimately agree with 2).

  • carl


    Actually Jeff Sharlet did call this piece journalism. He said in [1] that it was ‘heir’ to Hunter S Thompson’s ‘hallucinatory gonzo journalism.’ He asserted in [16] that it had “journalistic purpose.” I have understood him to be saying that this piece is a different genre of journalism. He does not think it can be used as a club to bash more conventional journalism for bias. That’s why he said right up front in [5]:

    I’m suggesting that you may have inadvertently set up a straw man here.

    I get all that. I will even grant his point.

    What offends me (deeply) is the idea that this sort of screed somehow represents a legitimate ‘genre.’ To say ‘It is loud the way Metallica is loud’ is to trivialize the nature of its moral content. Change the target of the animus and the author is suddenly accused of racism or anti-semitism or homophobia. What this article represents is a culturally safe expression of hatred. The readership is confirmed and justified in its visceral emotion. That’s why they read it and enjoy it – to receive that confirmation and justification. “I hate these people. Oh, see, I am supposed to hate these people, because they are so hateful.”

    Don’t call it gonzo journalism, or brutal hyperbolic satire, or an attack piece, or the work of a talented ‘insult artist.’ Call it what it is.


  • Will

    Since Tabibi’s contribution to the self-destruction of the New York Press was mentioned…. one of the comments came from “Alan Cabal”, who noted “I was offended, and I’m a card-carrying Satanist.”

    Just to point out that it was not just whining from Catholic Leaguers who couldn’t take a joke.

  • Roberto

    I agree with Jeff: you don’t read Taibbi for a reasoned argument, although there is a surprising amount of substance in most of his pieces hidden behind the hyperbole and vitriol. You read (or don’t) for the entertainment value of his style.

    For example, his writing on the financial crisis: you want facts, dispassionate analysis and a hint of moral outrage, you read Bethany McLean. You want vignettes that illustrate the larger issue, Michael Lewis is your guy. If you want to see the investment banks cut down to size and put in their place, as you define that “place,” Taibbi is your guy. He recounts many of the same facts that McLean does (he does do research and he does get off Jan Wenner’s couch and travel to place pace some of his critics), but he makes you laugh with the over-the-topness of it all. Or not. He’s not for everyone.

    The biggest problem with the Bachmann piece was that it was lazy. Unlike his Tea Party piece, he didn’t meet with people who supported Bachmann, much less Bachmann herself. He just seems to have Googled it in. Instead of a picture of people in government paid for scooters, as in the Tea Party story, denouncing government spending, we got a stream-of-consciousness rant.

  • Jeff Sharlet

    I don’t know how many ways I need to say this: I’m making no claim of quality by comparing Taibbi to Thompson, Mencken, or Michael Savage. The points I’ve been trying to make over the rumble of the assembled defenders of the faith are that A) the question of “how is that not offensive” misses the point of a piece of prose designed, for better or worse, to be offensive; and B) Sarah’s larger point, about the media marginalization of Bachmann is not well-served by picking on Taibbi.

    But having now read the fury with which my suggestion that Taibbi is not representative has been received, I’m inclined to believe that there’s some Taibbi-ism going on here. Many commenters seem as determined to declare Taibbi representative of a media establishment they don’t like — and as absolutely, irredeemably beyond the pale of human society — as Taibbi seems determined to declare Bachmann representative of religious politics he doesn’t like, and thus beyond the pale. The difference is that Taibbi winks.

    Again, before the alarms sound — that’s not a defense. I’m really not participating in that argument. In fact, I think I may be the only one here more interested in the ways that the actual establishment media marginalize Bachmann, in ways that are much more subtly derogatory — and thus more powerful — of her religious politics. But why bother with taking on real power when we can put the marching boots of righteousness on and take aim at a caricature? C’mon, everybody! Let’s kick Rolling Stone some more! Kick it! Bite it! Hit it! Ha! I haven’t read it since 1782! I wouldn’t use it to line my canary’s cage! Matt Taibbi is super duper evil! Probably the evilist! He’s no Hunter Thompson, blessed be his dear departed gentle, always fair-minded, moderate soul!

  • Ben

    [Rolling Stone] should be treated as a step up from the National Enquirer when it comes to journalistic excellence but no where at the same level as any regular news outlet.

    I’ll have to disagree with you, Jerry. Rolling Stone did unseat the NATO commander in Afghanistan and produced the original reporting for “Generation Kill.”

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    It seems to me that some points are being made over and over again. Great discussion, but please do feel free to hop on other threads today. Thanks.

  • Dan

    Some smart convo here, thanks for the intelligent back and forth.

  • USAF veteran

    Mainstream media (not counting RS here) is simply afraid to attack any national political candidates. They did not investigate when Bush made claims to support his invasion of Iraq, and now thousands are dead, billions of $ spent, and Bush admitted publicly, that there were NO weapons of mass destruction. (and Bush even got rid of Colin Powell – the lone voice of reason in that episode).
    The possible election of Michele Bachman scares me more than the election of the village idiot rich kid who had been an alcoholic for 20 years. (USA is still paying the consequences of that). [and the rich keep getting MUCH richer].

    I think religion damages the brain at least as much as alcoholism, but probably more !

    I do wish Taibbi had pointed out more facts though.

    Bachman frequently seems to say some incredibly stupid things – and I am not even talking about the typical mis-speak that most politicians (left and right) seem to occasionally say, but rather the fundamental concepts and premises she voices.

    Where are the really rational, INTELLIGENT conservative and liberal writers and politicians ?
    I don’t always agree with what they said, but at least I could see how they reached their conclusions !

  • Timothy Dalrymple

    This has been an interesting conversation. I am persuaded by the argument that Taibbi’s verbal assault on Bachmann is not a piece of standard journalism and so assessing it by those standards is subtly off point. The problems, as I see them, are twofold:

    (1) The dividing lines between traditional journalism and vitriolist journalist (I refuse to associate Taibbi with Thompson by calling it gonzo journalism) are so far deteriorated that I fear many of RS’s readers will take this as a relatively reliable and accurate (if obviously partisan) representation of who Bachmann is and what she believes. This is an absurdly caricatured, cartoonish representation of Bachmann, and it perpetuates the kind of breathless, paranoid, hateful political discourse that stands among the major problems in our body politic today. I was not a fan of his takedown of Goldman Sachs, but at least that one could claim to be showing corrupt, immoral and perhaps illegal activity from a major bastion of power. This comes across as a viciously personal and anti-Christian attack. It does Taibbi and RS considerable discredit.

    Rush is arguably a vitriolist, as we’re defining the term here, but he does not present himself as a journalist in any genre. I think it’s fair to say that Taibbi’s piece should not be held to the standards of traditional journalism — as long as it is not presented as such. If Taibbi or RS present him as an essayist and not a journalist, then fine. But this stands in the same place as some of the reporting RS has done, for instance, on the war in Afghanistan. In other words, I think RS has to make a clear genre distinction if it does not want to be criticized according to the standards of traditional journalism. Will it be obvious to media-savvy readers such as ourselves that it does not belong in that genre? Perhaps. But making a clear genre distinction would help most readers and help the dialogue. Unfortunately, since I doubt it would help RS, I doubt RS has any interest in drawing that line.

    (2) While it may have been beside the point to hold Taibbi’s piece to the standards of traditional journalism, it’s not off-point to point out the extraordinary distortions, insinuations and caricatures that fill the piece. Not to say that ‘this is not good journalism,’ but to say ‘this is foolish tripe that does more harm than good.’ And I think Taibbi is justly criticized for basing his hatred in large measure on a caricatured representation of a person’s faith, and then attempting to pass this hatred along to others as a sort of gnostic sophistication that RS readers can share over against those knuckle-dragging fundamentalists. I know it’s tiresome to draw comparisons like these, but if Taibbi had said such things about Islam he would have been the recipient of an outpouring of public censure, and deservedly so. He should receive the same in this case, and yet he won’t, or at least it will be quite limited to certain quarters. Partly (and this I understand) this is because evangelicalism is a large enough contingent that we think it doesn’t need minority protection, and partly because his prejudice is shared, to a greater or lesser extent, by many in the American media firmament.

  • carl

    Jeff Sharlet

    But having now read the fury with which my suggestion that Taibbi is not representative has been received, I’m inclined to believe that there’s some Taibbi-ism going on here.

    I will readily concede your point that Taibbi is not representative of conventional journalism. What I will not concede is that this article is a poorly attempted version of an alternate journalistic genre. It is a well-attempted version of an old-fashioned non-journalistic polemic, and it is intended to incite hatred. The paralell that comes to my mind is not Thompson but Streicher. The only reason Taibbi gets away with it is because he attacks a group that can be safely hated without incurring any consequence from the chattering classes.


  • Mark Baddeley

    I need a new category for responding to comments to properly classify Timothy’s comment at #49. ‘Like’ isn’t strong enough. Can we add a ‘Love’ option please?

  • carl

    Jeff Sharlet

    As for Kharrl — is that how you spell it?

    Close enough. I eventually realized what it meant.

    … a little online research would reveal that Taibbi’s a contract writer with RS. So yes, they do provide space. He’s more like a columnist than a freelancer.

    Irrelevant. RS doesn’t provide Taibbi space for Taibbi’s benefit. RS provides him space because they think he will make RS money. This article was perceived to be of benefit to the readership of RS. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been published. So what would that perceived benefit be? A claim of ‘enjoyment’ is insufficient. Why would the readership enjoy it?


  • Bram

    A more accurate genre for Taibbi’s piece than “vitriolism” would be “hate-mongery” or perhaps “hate-pornography.”

  • Bram

    Or, of course, merely “hate speech.”

  • Lindsey

    It’s not this snippet of Bachmann’s extreme ideology or that snippet or her extreme ideology that frightens independents and mainstream moderates. Taken separately each snippet does not set off alarm bells. But, rather, it’s ALL of the snippets…ALL of her beliefs…taken together and analyzed that causes the reader/listener to conclude that this woman is an extremist fundamentalist zealot whose plans for this country, if she has free reign and friends in Congress, will base American law on, no, not Sharia Law, but MOSAIC Law. Which is no better. Pick up a Bible, read it for yourself, and see for yourself. Any rational-thinking person should fear this woman becoming our President.

  • C. Wingate

    re 38: Jeff, acto Wikipedia, Taibbi went to Concord Academy, which I would rank in the uppermost echelon of academically-oriented prep schools, and he went from there to Bard. And of course there’s his father. “Silver spoon path” is, I think, an entirely justified characterization of his upbringing.

    What’s especially striking is the picture painted in this article from the Star-Tribune which serves as the main source for this portion of the Wikipedia article. Here we see Bachmann mostly telling the story herself about some of these key moments, and one surely gets the sense that there is more to the religion story. It states, for instance, that “both [she and her husband-to-be] had accepted Christ as their savior when they were 16,” a curious choice of phrase for someone who otherwise seems to have an entirely Lutheran background. It also spells out some of her changes in plan along the way; it does not, however, address why she ended up going to law school at ORU. But somehow its silence is more illuminating than Taibbi’s assumption that Bachmann is a Falwellian fundamentalist.

  • C. Wingate

    On second thought I want to get back to a core GetReligion issue here. Bachmann consistently emphasizes her Lutheran upbringing, and she is now a Lutheran albeit of a decidedly non-mainstream flavor. In between she may or may not have had some sort of fundagelical period. Nowhere do I see this reflected. The Star-Trib story, in a way, I fault more, because they are local and could definitely be expected to understand the significance of WELS membership; likewise one could have the same assumptions of the story that Taibbi worked from, for the same reason. Taibbi himself is patently clueless and for all I can tell might be surprised to learn that she isn’t a Southern Baptist.

    In any case, her current affiliation is obviously important considering how central the rhetoric of religious conversion is to her story (virtually the only thing that Taibbi got right). The apparent lack of curiosity about this is an Epic GetReligion Fail.

  • Norman

    Isn’t there a problem whereby this genre of journalism becomes a form of propaganda for which there is no effective response?

    We seem to be saying here “don’t take it too seriously” while such writers are doing the very serious business of attacking people and ideas which they dislike.

    The standards of critique proposed seem quite weak to me. So far they seem to be the very low bar of plagiarism, whether or not the attack hits home, and whether or not the author is a hypocrite. There are, though, many ways of being dishonest short of plagiarism, and many ways of striking a bullseye that are underhanded. Context can be distorted, positions misrepresented, small aspects of a persons personality that can be magnified, all of which can transform a complex human being into a caricature.

    And just why is it wrong to call for minimum standards of taste and decency just because an author wishes to offend?

    The more I consider this, the more valid Pulliam Bailey’s post seems to me. No form of journalism should be exempt from a serious examination of the facts offered and the arguments made. I don’t buy that Taibbi or anyone else working under the banner of satire should be immune to such scrutiny.

  • Tracy Hall Jr

    Matt Taibbi boasts in an interview with the New York Observer about the chemistry that powers his ‘Journalism’ That was eleven years ago, but it clearly discloses his longstanding contempt for ‘bourgeois’ morals.

  • carl

    That link by Tracy Hall sure explained alot.


  • str

    What is the journalistic purpose of the piece? Same as the journalistic purpose of H.L Mencken’s reports from Dayton…

    So because a loudmouth did it decades okay, it is okay now?

    Trash then, trash now!

  • Mollie

    Some more criticism of Taibbi’s journalism over at The Awl.