Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Talking Shop with Hendrik Hertzberg and Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi's political columns for Rolling Stone have become increasing vitriolic to the point of sounding like the rants of a misanthropic mad man. I love them though. His editors let him go where few professional journalists would be willing to stray, including the extended use of masturbatory metaphors. A sample quote from his recent column on "The Lies of Sarah Palin:"
Not only is Sarah Palin a fraud, she’s the tawdriest, most half-assed fraud imaginable, 20 floors below the lowest common denominator, a character too dumb even for daytime TV – And this country is going to eat her up, cheering every step of the way. All because most Americans no longer have the energy to do anything but lie back and allow ourselves to be jacked off by the calculating thieves who run this grasping consumer paradise we call a nation.

Tonight I attended a seminar featuring Matt Taibbi and Hendrik Hertzberg, political commentator for another of my favorite magazines The New Yorker, discussing the media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign.

Matt Taibbi is goofier and less angry than you would think based on his columns. Conveys his thoughts better on paper than in person. Most stinging quote came in his advice to journalism students: "Journalism school is the most useless thing in the world. Quit immediately." Most interesting life fact: Played pro for the Mongolia Basketball Association in the 1990s.

Hendrik Hertzberg, in a brown corduroy suit and yellow tie, goes by Rik. Is more in love with Obama than most journalists are willing to show. "Obama is potentially another Lincoln." But that's okay because what Hertzberg does is not "objective reporting. It's objective judgment reaching." Most stinging quote (from my perspective as a blogger): "Reporting is expensive. The web is feeding on the corpse of the mainstream media. Just adding snark and commentary."

The Election Coverage
Hertzberg and Taibbi agreed that election coverage is lacking. "TV has pushed politics into the direction of being a spectator's sport," said Taibbi. "Politics used to be about the exchange of ideas. Now it's about winning and numbers."

"But in sports, commentators don't get to decide who won," added Hertzberg, referring to the post-debate round-ups.

On Writing
After graduating from Harvard, Hertzberg passed up a job at the New Yorker to work for Newsweek in San Francisco, covering hippies and the summer of love. After a stint in the Navy, he went to the New Yorker, doing Talk of the Town pieces on music and sports, but he was growing bored with journalism. Left to be a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, and went back to journalism as editor of the New Republic with a new love of politics. "I didn't become a writer until I found a different passion."

Taibbi on his writing style (quotes are approximate): "I get an assignment. Then I will do nothing for a while. I will calculate the shortest time it will take me to write the piece if written in absolute high panic. Then I wait until the last minute and write in a state of sheer white terror."

Hertzberg: "I don't like writing. I like having written."


Matt Frassica said...

From where I sat, considerably aft of Kashmir and R.J., Taibbi looked uncomfortable. But everyone can summon more eloquence in print than in person; it was the tone of the "seminar" that thew him. Moderator Rachel Sklar expected no less than absolute earnestness, a mode that does not suit Taibbi's skills of comic vituperation.

The political conversation didn't yield any particularly surprising insights. Of greatest interest to me were the two writers' opposite career trajectories, Taibbi from (way) outside, Hertzberg from inside. (Offered a job at the New Yorker as an undergrad, turned it down.)

Nomination for best line: [H.H., to M.T.] "Sometimes I read your stuff to loosen up."

Kashmir Hill said...

Nice observation regarding tone set by Sklar. And I second your nomination for best line.

robb johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
robb johnson said...

I was sorry to see both Hertzberg's fetching suit and Taibbi's most judiciously selected v-neck slathered with so much mutual affection. Though, I may simply be acting out. I'm admittedly envious of the former's calf boots and coif.

I expected more from these two linguistic knife jugglers. Their whole Palin-push circle seemed too easy, the frustrations and jab-critiques delivered with far less eloquence and thought than their columns would suggest; but as Matt offered, all are generally more nimble in print.

All in - quite fun.

Nomination for best exchange:
M.T. [after explaining his run as a power forward in the Mongolian professional league] "I led the league in rebounds."
H.H.: "Of course...but I..."
M.T.: "I'm serious."