Interview with Matt Taibbi

On April 25, 2023, the Buckley Institute hosted Matt Taibbi for a talk on censorship and the Twitter Files. Matt Taibbi is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, an award-winning columnist for Rolling Stone, and one of the lead journalists covering The Twitter Files. His recent book, Hate, Inc., is a turbocharged take on how the media twists the truth to pit us against each other. Aron Ravin ‘24 had the opportunity to interview Taibbi shortly after his talk.

Aron Ravin: Hey Matt, thanks for joining me. What did you expect when coming to Yale? Did your visit actually meet said expectations?

Matt Taibbi: Well, I’m very familiar with Yale. I had a long-term relationship with a Yale student back in the ’90s and early 2000s, so I knew a lot of Yale people. I had been to the campus quite a lot, but I had never interacted with the William F. Buckley Institute, campus conservatism, or anything like that. In fact, I think it’s probably the first time I’ve ever met with a conservative campus group of any kind. I’ve certainly talked to Yale professors over the years and I’ve heard about changes on the campus. But I really don’t spend a whole lot of time on college campuses these days, so it’s always interesting for me to go. I was really surprised by the students. When I was younger, the campus conservative was such a rarity, and was usually sort of a social outcast, almost by choice. This is different. I feel like the modern incarnation of the William F. Buckley conservative feels like a very different kind of personality type than the ones that I might’ve known as a young person. I think they’re responding to problems not only on campus in terms of intellectual intolerance, but also to shifts in the political landscape that have made it difficult to simply go along a monoculture in upper-class American society. So I can understand being part of this kind of group much more than I might have in the past.

Aron Ravin: Well, one of the interesting things about you as an intellectual figure, regardless of whether you consider yourself polarizing at all, is that, for a long time, I don’t even think you would’ve identified as being on the right. What do you think got us here? How did we get to the point where it seems like people who never would’ve dreamed of switching sides have felt the need to call out their own team for being ridiculous?

Matt Taibbi: I mean, I’ve obviously had to spend a lot of time thinking about this question because it’s had a major impact on my career. It’s impacted my colleagues, it’s impacted friends in other professions. I’ve seen it kind of advance from one field to another. It probably started on campuses and then spread to politics and the media after that. As recently as a few years ago, it was a pretty rare phenomenon to see the news media being angered to the point of demanding a colleague’s firing over some political view. That would’ve been total anathema to what the media is all about. In a newsroom, we didn’t really care what the political views of the person next to us were because the job wasn’t about that. It was about something different. But I think what happened is that Trump’s election gave a group of political opportunists the opening to argue to people who would’ve considered themselves liberals that they had to do away with their former ideals about due process, tolerance, free speech, and democracy itself. They had to embrace a new, kind of elitist way of looking at the world, one that accepted ideas like de-platforming. They really went in that direction more than embracing the traditionally liberal idea of countering speech you don’t like with better speech. Now the idea is we’re going to shut it down, that de-platforming works. “See, once we ban MiloYiannopoulos, there’s no more Milo Yiannopoulos on campus then. So let’s just keep doing that.” The problem with this is that it breeds this new type of personality that’s essentially authoritarian in nature, and that it causes people to lose touch with the things that made them liberal in the first place. And so now you see it’s the conservatives who are embracing all those ideals that the ACLU used to care about for all those years.

Aron Ravin: Yeah. There was a time when the Christian Right was the one that was going after all that de-platforming. Not to say that a Christian conservative needs to believe in that, but at least I can see the clear ideological justification from that. Again, it’s very strange for people who are liberal to be inverted in that way. One argument that I used to hear against de-platforming is the so-called echo chamber effect; that, yes, maybe we would reduce a person’s influence in the broader population, but that might actually exacerbate a particular thinker’s influence on the groups that feel as though that they have been isolated from the mainstream media. It seems like if the echo chamber effect has ever been real, it’s now. See: QAnon. I know that you’re definitely against the echo chamber effect, I don’t need to ask you about that. But what can we do about it? What happens if the people who follow Tucker Carlson, regardless of what they think about him, follow him into a site or area or section of the world and media that is much worse than Fox News?

Matt Taibbi: Well, that’s going to happen, and this is the problem. These people who believe in de-platforming, and you heard Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez expressly say, “it works, let’s do it!” Well, she’s saying this to Jen Psaki who has an average audience in the 25 to 54 range of 29,000 people. So they want to de-platform this enormously popular, organically chosen voice, but they don’t have any strategy for appealing to that same audience. So what do they think they’re accomplishing? If you shut off that valve, where are those people going to go? And this is what drives me nuts about the people who say, “oh, let’s take Trump off Twitter. Let’s do this. Let’s do that.” Do you think that those people are going to suddenly flock to whatever you’re offering and have a conversion and say, “Oh my God, I should have been listening to this all the time!”? No. When somebody forces you to abandon your natural choice, you’re going to dig in even harder, and you’re going to radicalize even more. So this combination of an authoritarian solution with this total lack of interest in trying to reach out to an increasingly broad, I would say, disaffected population — is a recipe for disaster. We started to see it in 2016 after the Democrats lost and they didn’t really do an autopsy. Like, what went wrong? Bernie wanted to do that. I talked to Bernie Sanders about this. Bernie was very insistent that the party needed to do some deep looking in the mirror and say, “How do we reach these people? Trump is reaching them. We’re not, why is that?” And they didn’t do that, they went the other direction. They said, “Let’s call him a Russian agent. Let’s spend four years trying to put him away for that. And that’ll solve all of our problems.” But it doesn’t. It just creates more rancor and radicalization.

Aron Ravin: Do you think there’s any kind of event or stimuli that could lead to a correction? But what would it take for the de-platformers who are spearheading these kinds of initiatives to realize that this isn’t conducive to a good political environment? That the things that they want to accomplish won’t be done, won’t succeed within this world?

Matt Taibbi: Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going to get that message until something pretty drastic happens. It’s going to be pitchforks in the mansion. It’s going to be something like that before these people get a clue. I’m convinced at this point that there is nothing that can penetrate their sensibility purely in terms of argument. They have to be made uncomfortable by circumstances in order to realize what’s going on. It’s unfortunate because even the election of Donald Trump — which should have been a massive wake-up call when you lose an election to a game show host who’s trying to lose. There was no question in my mind that this guy did not really, really want to win. But when that happens, and even that doesn’t wake you up, like that alarm clock that doesn’t actually get you out of bed, it’s going to take something much more serious. And that’s what I really worry about, because we’re headed there, I think. Absent some kind of brilliant leader who comes along and figures out a way to talk to both sides and get them to see the light, I just don’t see it happening.

Aron Ravin: That’s disheartening. How do you think that the new generations, Generation Z or maybe even Generation Alpha, are going to enter into this political environment? Do you think that things might get better at all?

Matt Taibbi: Well, I don’t really know. I mean, part of, I think the difficulty for younger generations right now is that they’re growing up in an atmosphere of financial anxiety that people of previous generations can’t possibly understand. And not just financial, but also existential anxiety. I mean, they’re worrying about things like climate change in ways that our generation didn’t. We worried about nuclear war, but frankly, not all that much, honestly. But for this generation, I think there’s an anxiety that governs a lot of the decisions: “we don’t have time to screw around with due process and making sure that we’re dotting all the i’s on our constitutional guarantees when we deal with the other side. We’ve got to get them behind bars now.”

Aron Ravin: No justice, no peace.

Matt Taibbi: Yeah, exactly. “It’s past time for all those niceties, it’s time to throw them down.” That’s kind of the attitude that I hear from younger people. What’s unfortunate to me is that they’re not being mentored by people who’ve been through similar kinds of, let’s say, confrontations in the ’60s and ’70s, to tell them what’s on the other side when you fight like that. Because of this absolutism that’s taken over campuses and professions like mine… there’s a type of thinking that now dominates the news media that wasn’t there even 10 years ago. It doesn’t lead to anything good, I don’t think. It also is a very bad atmosphere for coming up with solutions because people, they’re not free to think in all directions as you might be in an ideal situation. So I don’t know. I think it’s just a bad atmosphere right now.

Aron Ravin: What do you think about this solution that some have proposed, of fact-checking? It’s not perfect, but do you think that this is a worthwhile compromise with the de-platformers?

Matt Taibbi: So do you mean fact-checking PolitiFact and groups like that?

Aron Ravin: No. Earlier we were talking about echo chambers and people being de-platformed and the existential threat that a lot of modern political issues are involved in. And, unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on climate change. Not everyone on the Right is Bjorn Lomborg when they talk about global warming. Some people say some ridiculous stuff. And that’s kind of the evidence that people in my generation point to. It’s like “this is basic, it’s tantamount to a Holocaust denial. That’s the scale of the problem that we’re facing.” Could fact-checking be a compromise?

Matt Taibbi: No, because, and this is ironic because this is what I’m spending so much time working on now. This whole international consortium of quote-unquote fact-checking organizations or anti-disinformation organizations is the thing that we found underneath the Twitter files that was so scary. It’s this kind of monolithic, cartel-style group of organizations that are dedicated to meeting and coming up with a consensus idea of what’s true and what’s not. This is totally, again, opposite to how the media used to work. Fact-checking in traditional media was a defensive thing that we did to keep ourselves out of litigation. We aren’t trying to declare the absolute truth when we do fact-checking. What we’re doing is making sure that there’s enough justification for each line, factually, that no one can claim that we wrote the article in bad faith and didn’t try to be accurate. We were just making sure the quotes are correct. But points of view could have been wrong. I mean, I think that’s something that people have to understand. You can’t fact-check reality. Reality changes all the time, even scientific consensus changes constantly. This idea that things can be fact-checked absolutely is a political illusion, frankly, that I really, really worry about because it lulls people into a sense of security that if only you give over an issue to a group of people who’ve been funded by the Newmark Foundation or whatever it is, and give them a day to decide what’s true and what’s not, they’ll give you some kind of score and say, ‘this is mostly true” or “this is three Pinocchios,” or whatever it is. It doesn’t work like that. The reality is that, most of the time, on most issues there are infinitesimal small shades of truth and untruth in all kinds of reporting. This is also true in academia — things are subjective. What might be true to one person might seem less true to another person because of their circumstances. You have to allow everybody to express their point of view, and each individual has to make his or her own decision about what reality is, after taking in all this information. I really worry about the model of “let’s have a body that checks facts” and that body becomes the authority. Somebody ends up having to do that and then that person is imbued with just way too much power. And by the way, America has traditionally always been full of completely batshit crazy people, and we’ve really thrived despite it. I mean, think about our past. We have all sorts of lunatics who’ve been in politics and media and have said crazy things, and we got through it. Error is not a terrible thing among other things because every now and then the conspiracy theorist is right, and that’s why it’s really important to allow it. We have to let that stuff go because locking it down is much worse.

Aron Ravin: Thank you so much for meeting with me today. Do you have any closing remarks? It wasn’t a very optimistic talk, but that last bit was fairly inspiring. What do you think that a Yalie or any college student in America should be looking forward to, or really trying to fight for right now?

Matt Taibbi: Well, first of all, if you’re at Yale, you’re already way ahead of the game. You have infinite possibilities. You can be anything you want to be in ways that all sorts of people can’t. And the world is a beautiful place and being at the very top of American society means that you have the chance to have direct influence over world events in a way that’s denied to 99.9% of the population. As somebody who’s lived in all sorts of bizarre places, it would take some of the people that I’ve met generations of effort for their kids to even think about getting to the places where a Yale student gets to be. That’s incredibly exciting. There’s also a kind of pessimism around politics that’s settled in now which I think is more artificial than people have been led to believe. The commercial strategies of the media are designed to make people unhappy and think that there’s no hope. To really put all their energy into hating another side. Once you throw that off and decide not to accept it, it’s very freeing. And the world suddenly starts to look like a pretty interesting place. I mean, we’re not that far from fixing all kinds of really, longtime serious problems. And after that, this could be the generation that figures it all out, which is fantastic. I would give anything to be in your shoes. So there are a lot of people who are very pessimistic right now in politics and media. Don’t be one of them. Things really don’t suck, it just seems that way.

Aron Ravin: I think that’s a great way of putting it. Thank you so much, Matt.

Matt Taibbi: Thanks Aron. I appreciate it.