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“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”
~ Mark Twain (apocryphal)t
If you feel you can’t trust the news anymore, you have good reason.
Award-winning — and newly independent — journalist Matt Taibbi (of “vampire squid” fame) returns to Peak Prosperity to break down for us how the news media industry became corrupted by the profit motive and now intentionally produces content to “entertain” rather than “inform”.
The five media behemoths who own more than 90% of all US media outlets (Comcast, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, Newscorp) have discovered that it’s much more profitable to focus on discrete audience segments and give them the information they want to hear.
Which is why the time-honored approach of “just the facts” reporting to a general audience has practically disappeared. There’s less money in it, so it’s just not pursued anymore.
So we’re now served a steady diet of intentionally-biased outrage and pablum, with opinions replacing facts, and any intellectually “triggering” content quickly gunned down by today’s trigger-happy censors.
It’s no wonder that a recent Gallup poll revealed that the majority of Americans no longer trust the US media to report accurately or fairly.
This is a huge social challenge. In such a world, where can one turn for objective information? And what are the consequences of creating such a poorly-informed populace?
While there are no easy solutions, Taibbi shares how he and other respected investigative journalists are ejecting from the system and self-publishing their work, freeing them of the control and biases of corporate overlords.
To understand just how broken our news media is and to learn how to navigate your way to the few reporters and channels remaining dedicate to sourced, factual journalism, play this interview with Matt Taibbi:
Adam Taggart: Welcome to Peak Prosperity. I’m Peak Prosperity Co-Founder Adam Taggart here with Matt Taibbi. Matt’s an American author, a national magazine award winning journalist and podcaster. He has keenly researched and reported fearlessly in the areas of finance, media, politics, and sports. You may know him, he’s forever endeared himself to the Peak Prosperity audience by coining the term Vampire Squid for Goldman Sachs. And Matt is here with us today to talk about the media landscape. And one of the main reasons why I wanted to get Matt on here, not only because he’s such a seasoned and accomplished journalist in his own right, but he has also recently gone independent with publishing his work. Though he does remain a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. But I wanted to get an independent perspective into the area of media.
And the reason why I want to dig into that is that it’s all about trust in media today which has actually plummeted to all time lows. Back in the old days, the vast majority of the country listened to the likes of Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow. And they trusted that they were being kept well informed. Now you contrast that to today where the landscape of news sources has fractured into millions of different options with opinion often replacing facts and accusations of fake news. Resulting in a tsunami of modern day censorship the likes that we haven’t seen for many decades.
So Matt I want to start here with a recent Gallup poll that shows that a full 60% of Americans no longer trust that the US media is accurately and fairly reporting the news. And these results came out before the Presidential election with its contested results. And the huge tangle of conflicting narratives that have erupted since then. So my question for you Matt is what has brought us to this point where the majority of the masses no longer trust the press?
Matt Taibbi: Yeah I’m actually surprised, first of all thank you Adam for having me on. I’m surprised that number isn’t higher frankly. We’ve been in a trend where belief and trust in the news media has been on a downward planed trajectory for some time now. And there’s an odd kind of paradox there because as people trust the news media less, they’re actually consuming it more. Which, to me, tells me that news is moving into the entertainment space. And it’s becoming more of an entertainment product that people do consume a lot of, they just don’t believe it as much anymore. And that has a lot to do I think with the commercial strategies of the news business. I wrote about this in a book called Hate, Inc. Basically I think in our business we’ve switched out an old model that was based on the idea of the news being non-denominational, nonpartisan, and sticking to just the facts, to a highly politicized, opinionated presentation that people enjoy but they don’t necessarily believe. And that model I think is going to have negative consequences for the business in the long run.
Adam Taggart: And is that driven by the profit motive of corporations? Or is it driven by other agendas? Just one stat I want to mention here. In 1983, there were about 50 corporations that owned pretty much most of the media in the country. Today that has concentrated to just five key players: Comcast, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and News Corp. So clearly, the vast majority of whatever news we see is rolling up into one of those companies which has its own profit objectives and whatnot. Is it just all about the dollar or are there other factors in play here too?
Matt Taibbi: I think the economic considerations are central to all of this. You talk about the concentration as you go up the chain, but the products have been atomized and fragmented since 1983. So back at that time there were only three or four major newscasts. Now, you have hundreds or even thousands of news products dotting the internet including the traditional legacy media. But there’s something for everybody. Most of them are owned by those companies, one of those companies.
But the strategy now has changed from trying to get the entire audience which is what CBS, NBC, and ABC used to try to do, they tried to get everybody. To recognizing that they’re not going to do that anymore. And trying to pick an audience and just dominate it. Which was the strategy that Fox pioneered. Let’s not go for everybody, let’s pick a certain demographic. Maybe older, conservative, suburban, or rural. And we’ll just feed them news that we know they’re going to like. And that’s kind of the business model now. And it works, but it has a tendency to fragment and polarize news audiences when you employ it.
Adam Taggart: Yeah so here’s where I’m going to get to your experience as a journalist working for media organizations. There’s, you hear all the time that they news media is biased. Oftentimes called the left wing media and whatnot. And I think the data does prove that out that most of these major news organizations do have a bias. You just said that they’re kind of picking an audience and selling into that audience. Just another bit of data, a recent Texas A&M, Arizona State University research survey showed that over 60% of journalists identify as being left of center. So not moderate but left of center. Interestingly the number of conservative journalist was surprisingly small. The ones that identified as conservative.
So we have a lot of left leaning organizations. We also have some conservative ones and I think that the severity of bias is just as extreme on both sides. But what happens is you get to a point where their ideology is determining what news is. Right? And we’re seeing more and more extreme examples of that. And I think one and we’ll get to social media in a second, but one important one was when Twitter decided to not let the New York Post tweet out its articles about the Burisma investigation. Which, hard to argue at least it’s not relevant to what was going on there. I’m not saying it’s good or it’s bad. But it was, I think the New York Post is one of the largest, oldest newspapers in the country. Maybe the fourth largest. Yeah and Twitter was just saying hey we don’t believe your version of the news is acceptable. Right?
So when you’re working in a newsroom and you’re trying to be an independent journalist and get the story out as you see it as factual, but maybe the editorial staff comes to you and says no you got to take this stuff out because it doesn’t really fit our ideology. How rampant is that right now? How hard is it to be an honest reporter in today’s environment?
Matt Taibbi: That’s a great question. That dynamic has changed drastically since I first started working in media 30 years ago. My father was in the news media also. Once upon a time, it was a virtue, it was considered a virtue in the business if nobody knew what your politics were. And especially the viewers in the audience were supposed to be left guessing as to what you really thought about things. They had to trust your factual reporting so they didn’t really want to know what you thought about things. And that was true inside the newsrooms as well. It tended to be true that most of the people who worked as reporters were misanthropes and just hated everybody if they had an orientation at all.
That has changed dramatically and especially in the last four or five years it’s now the case where if you’re not a team player politically, it can become a serious problem in newsrooms. And we saw over the summer there were a number of controversies at publications, ranging from The Intercept to the Huffington Post, to Bon Appetit, to Variety, to a whole bunch of others. Where there were internal revolts directed at people whose politics were unorthodox. And that’s a problem. Again, it’s okay to have political leanings and to have political beliefs. I think it would be odd if you didn’t have them. But for the job, you have to be able to shut that off and with each story, approach each set of facts with a clean slate and at least embrace the possibility that things are going to be different this time. Right? You have to consider alternative news stories.
And so items like the Hunter Biden story, there’s no evidence to suggest that that wasn’t real. People might have said it wasn’t important or that it wasn’t something that needed to be paid attention to. But I don’t see the justification for yanking it out of the news landscape. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
Adam Taggart: Yeah so I want to talk just a moment about your decision to go independent which I mentioned at the beginning of the video here. Because I know others are also following your lead. But I’m just curious, I’m going to dig into this point just a little bit more. What is it like to be a journalist in this environment maybe before you headed off on your own, hung your own independent shingle? In the newsroom, can you go out and identify a story and work on it the way that you see fit? Or is it really sitting down with the editors and the editors are kind of giving marching orders. Hey, we want a story, an article that tells this to get our angle of the story. How much independence does the average journalist have today? Do they still have leeway or are they really just order takers today?
Matt Taibbi: So it’s not really like that. They don’t give you orders. I think what happens in news organizations is that over time, journalists are sort of given, it’s made clear to them what is desired and what isn’t desired. Right? So just to take a really crude example. When I worked in Russia, that was where I began my career was in post-Communist Russia. I learned pretty early on that editors love stories about American culture being exported to the Soviet Union like McDonalds or Ikea or whatever it was. I guess that’s not American, but western culture.
But they hated stories about western programs failing. So American advisors would advise shock therapy and that would not do well. And they didn’t want to hear that. So it’s not like they would tell you not to file or to present those stories. But you would learn that if you did file those stories, they probably wouldn’t make it. You know? So over time you develop a sense of what editors want and what they don’t want. And what’s happening in this environment politically is that just everybody knows what the editors do and do not want. And where it gets uncomfortable is where you feel like you have an obligation to try to push something because you think it’s true or important but you know that the editors aren’t going to want to deal with it.
And I think one of the first stories that was a serious problem for a lot of progressive journalists anyway was the Russia Gate story. Where it was made clear to everybody early on that nobody wanted to hear the idea that there were problems. There were problems with that story. So everybody who had an aggressive take on that got published and everyone who didn’t, either kept their mouth shut or didn’t get published. And that’s where you have problems, is when there’s the self-editing that goes on.
Adam Taggart: Got it. And it sounds too like you said that there’s sort of this incentive of attrition which means you know sure write what you want to write. But if it’s not fitting our narrative that we want to tell, it’s just not going to see the light of day type of deal.
Matt Taibbi: Right or you learn that there are going to be additional problems. So you file that kind of story and they say oh it’s really good but we just want you to work on a little more. So you learn that it takes X amount of energy to get this kind of story published and a lot less energy to get the other kind published. And what end up happening is you just start selecting for the easier path.
Adam Taggart: Got it and I think this is probably obvious but it sounds like this is probably a term that has accelerated during the course of your thirty years in journalism?
Matt Taibbi: Oh yeah absolutely. And I should emphasize, I have kind of a unique situation. I always did with Rolling Stone. I always had a lot of freedom. They always encouraged me to pursue ideas that maybe the editors didn’t necessarily agree with. And that was really great. I mean if you look back, you can see that I criticized, for instance, the Obama Administration when the rest of Rolling Stone wasn’t doing that too much. But for most people who are in journalism, you kind of get an idea of where the newsroom is politically and there are now basically there's a price to pay for sticking your head up and being the one who tries to be different. And that’s so unusual because this business used to be about people who wanted to be different. Like most journalists were independent minded once upon a time. And now it’s much more of a herd type activity which is really strange.
Adam Taggart: Yeah alright so let’s now talk about your transition to being an independent publisher of your own work. First, if you can tell us your main reasons for doing that. I’m assuming that they’re tied to what we’re talking about here but if that’s an incorrect assumption, let us know. And also, there have been some other big people making similar departures like that. So very recently Glenn Greenwald just announced that is going to the same service that you're publishing on, Substack. And the really interesting part about Glen’s story is is first he worked for The Guardian, ended up colliding with the editorial issues we’re talking about there. And founded a company called The Intercept. And ended up having similar collisions of interests with the partners that he had worked with to put that together. So now he’s gone totally independent.
We also have Bari Weiss at the New York Times, who very sort of publicly said hey look I did this for as long as I could, but it’s just not the place I originally joined. So you’re seeing these, I would call these types of journalists kind of the modern day paragons for independent investigative work. These are the people that are breaking big news. They’re really telling important stories that weren’t being told before they got out there and advanced them. And it really does seem like a breaking point on their end where they’re just saying I can’t work within the system anymore. I'm going to have to start working outside of it. So anyways if you can comment on your transition to Substack and what you and your peers, why you guys are making that transition?
Matt Taibbi: So my situation is slightly different from Glen or somebody like Matt Yglesias who’s another amazing example because he was the Co-Founder of Fox and he ended up having to basically leave his own company because he was squeezed out by the pressures you’re talking about. I really wasn’t experiencing that so much. It was more that I had kind of an inkling that this was going to be a successful for people like me in the future. And I had some experience with this company because I had serialized a couple of books through them. It was an experiment that I had done. So I made that move that was more of a professional calculation than what’s actually happening with a lot of these other people is that they're being literally forced out of their companies. And this is where they’re going because they have to.
Where the tie in for me is, is that a lot of audiences are now leaving organizations like the New York Times or The Intercept or Salon or Vox because they’re tired of getting basically a media monoculture and they want some independence of thought. So they’re going to these new sites like Substack where we don’t have editorial constraints because that’s where you can find it. And so that’s where I’m connected to people like Greenwald Andrew Sullivan whose politics are different from mine or Matt Yglesias. It’s because there is a big audience out there that is leaving traditional media and they’re looking for something new and that’s what we’re trying to deliver on.
Adam Taggart: Good, good. I’m going to ask you in a second how that’s working out so far. But I just want to underscore, so we at Peak Prosperity we are an information site. And I think we’re in existence because there's plenty of people out there that are looking for information sources that they feel are more trustworthy, more agnostic. Just sort of more pragmatic and unbiased. And of course I'm biased in my opinion to that because it’s the company I created. But as you said I think people out there are really hungry because they’re looking at the major mainstream sources and just again losing faith for all the reasons we've talked about and we’ve already shared all the survey data and stuff like that. So I’m curious Matt, I know it’s a relatively recent transition of yours, within the past year or so. How has it been working out so far with the initial results?
Matt Taibbi: It’s amazing. One of the other Substack writers said to me Substack is the greatest invention since penicillin. It definitely works. Financially I think it’s working better than I expected. But I think what I would say is that this is a model that’s going to work for people who already have some profile before they make a move like this. The subscriber based model is going to be difficult when it comes to trying to figure out how we pay for institutional investigative reporting. Just something that’s disappeared gradually since going back to the 80s. We still don’t really have a way to pay for that. We might be able to pay for some individual people but the problem is that this model depends on regular content. So you can’t be a Seymore Hirsch who works on one story every five months and live on Substack. I think that’s going to be difficult. So this is a solution for a certain kind of media figure but it’s not a cure all for the problems of news media.
Adam Taggart: Alright great. Two more questions for you before we wrap this up. Again real quickly I just want to cite an experience that we’ve had here at Peak Prosperity is we saw a huge influx of new readers and viewers primarily coming in through YouTube due to our coverage of the coronavirus. Particularly in the earlier months of the epidemic where just quality information was really hard to come by. Initially, the government, our leaders weren’t really sharing too much. They weren’t, from our opinion, taking it as seriously as they later on realized they needed to. But there was just so much conflicting information out there. And people I think coronavirus, 2020 has really done a lot to continue to kick trust in the media while it’s already down. You had the coronavirus for those reason I just mentioned and then of course you’ve had run up to the elections and all the dust still in the air from that. Where people are just hearing so many different narratives from so many different sides.
But again here at Peak Prosperity we witnessed that firsthand this year by just seeing our YouTube audience basically jump from I can’t remember it was like 50,000 subscribers or something like that, it’s up to like 370,000 now. Because that many people were that hungry. Alright but that’s a good segue into this next question I want to dive into. We mentioned it super briefly with the hyper fragmentation of the media landscape now. But I just want to get your opinions on social media. I’m assuming and tell me if you haven’t, but I’m assuming you’ve seen the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma or something similar to that. And for those that haven’t seen it, it basically just really kind of deconstructs how social media is creating just literally billions of bespoke custom newsfeeds for each individual. And so we are increasingly just living within our own eco chambers. So from an information standpoint, we’re getting a very slanted view of reality. And then on top of that, information is being pushed at us that’s largely being driven by sponsors and advertisers who want us to think a certain way, behave in a certain way. And it very clearly does influence beliefs and behavior.
So people are waking up to that and I think increasingly they are questioning the news they’re getting whether it’s through social media or other channels and saying look is this actually information at all, or is it just marketing? Am I just basically being marketed to all the time through these channels? What’s your opinion of the impact of social media on these issues that we’re talking about in terms of being able to trust the media?
Matt Taibbi: Oh it’s horrid and pernicious and it’s as destructive to your mind as tobacco is to your lungs. As a consumer product, they’ve turned information into something that’s completely unhealthy. And I was talking about this with somebody the other day who described it this way. Imagine a circle and then within that circle is a smaller circle, and that smaller circle is the information that, say, a company like Facebook is guessing that you’re interested in. And so what they do is they just find all that information and they keep feeding all this stuff that’s in that circle to you.
Now if they were trying to be responsible and trying to create people who had a little bit more breadth of opinion, they would at least move the subset of content out of that circle occasionally. But they’re not doing that. They want to give you the pure heroin of information that they know that you agree with. Right? And they do it relentlessly over and over and over again. And what they’ve done is they’ve created these addictive patterns for people where they’re just on their phones all day long looking at stuff that is designed to either trigger them or reinforce their anger or whatever it is. But it’s designed to do everything except make you think. It’s the worst possible use of this technology.
And from the standpoint of the news business, this is terrible because what it’s doing is it’s raising a whole generation of people who are unable to take in information that they disagree with or that is uncomfortable for them. And that makes the job of people like me infinitely harder because our job is to try to convince people of stuff that might be difficult or unsetting. And it’s been awful. And that documentary was right on the money and I think that issue going to start becoming more important.
Adam Taggart: Alright. I was kind of hoping you were going to poke some holes in my negativity there but you just added a few. And I know you’re a parent as am I. And I think any parent watching this, you probably had a real nervousness in your gut around social media for many years watching your kids increasingly become addicted to it. And I think everything you just talked about Matt just says that we’re right to be that concerned.
Alright well Matt as we wrap up here, I'm going to try to inject hope into this story if there’s any to inject. So what is your advice to concerned viewers? People that are watching this and are agreeing and maybe a little outraged, maybe a little bit more concerned again about where things are headed. Two questions basically. What changes should they be demanding either with their votes at the voting booth or with their wallets in terms of the type of media models that they’re going to support? And then how can they reduce their exposure to media bias? How can they find sources of information that they feel are more factual, will give them a more informed world view than these kind of biased channels that we’re talking about?
Matt Taibbi: Great question. The first one’s harder. Like what do you do about it? I’m not really sure. I really wish that people were more concerned about the censorship angle because I think what’s going on there is that you have a whole series of very powerful actors who realize the power of this technology and rather than try to make it less harmful, they want to harness it for propaganda purposes. And that is deeply troubling. So any kind of cooperation between the federal government and this handful of tech distributors that dominates news, I would hope that people are on the lookout for that and are urging their elected representatives to at least pay some attention to that.
In terms of how people can break out of these patterns, I think people do break out of those patterns. The amazing thing about the situation that we’re in is that we’re seeing this amazing flowering of independent media, whether it’s your show or shows like Joe Rogan’s that just completely crush the cable news networks in terms of views. There’s a lot of stuff out there that is really interesting and creative and well done. And the history of our country is that we have a lot of, that there’s always an independent powerful voice that rises and that people learn to trust and it breaks through the propaganda. Whether it’s IF Stone or Attatar Bell or Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolf or whatever it is. We have a really strong history in that area in this country. And I think that tradition will continue. It’s just going to be in a different medium going forward. And until they completely clamp down the internet, I think we can expect that something like that is going to lead the way to something better. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.
Adam Taggart: Alright great. Well in just a second I’m going to ask where people can go to find out more about you and your work. Because Matt you are one of my trusted sources of information and I presume you are for many other people too. But real quick before I let you do that. Is there a topic that we haven’t touched on yet, a question I haven’t asked that you think is important for folks to know about this general topic about media trustworthiness?
Matt Taibbi: I mean not really I think we’ve covered a lot of it. I think the main thing is, and you touched on this is this idea of people becoming aware, that what they’re experiencing is marketing and not news. I think that’s going to become more important. Like people have to start having consumer awareness about information in the same way that they have learned to have it about food or cigarettes or cars or energy sources. This is also a consumer product. And I think we have to have a debate about what’s healthy and what isn’t. And so that’s the only other thing I would stress is that people start thinking about that a little bit. Because it’s become a serious issue in our lives.
Adam Taggart: Alright great it’s honestly just like the, I liked your analogy about food. We talked with Joel Salitan who very famously noted of America’s farmeries the figurehead for sustainable farming in America. And one of the things Joel talks about all the time is we can vote with our votes, but we can also vote with our dollars. And there are all these better models for food production. Many of them local and whatnot. And yeah that might cost a little bit more but you’re also getting lots and lots of additional benefits for that additional cost. Both health benefits, local economy, etcetera. And basically says the more that we direct our dollars and our patronage to those models, the more they’re going to blossom and eventually hit critical mass and whatnot. And I think it’s very much the same dynamic here. So alright so as we wrap things up Matt first thank you so much for taking your time and giving us so much of your expert opinion. Great conversation. So if people do want to learn more about you, follow your work, where should they go?
Matt Taibbi: Primarily to Taibbi.substack.com. I’m also on Rollingstone.com and I’m the Co-Host with Katie Halper of a show called Useful Idiots. So that’s once a week, comes out every Friday. And @mtaibbi on Twitter.
Adam Taggart: Alright great and I’ll put up the URL there for your Substack site and also your Twitter handle there too. Alright folks as we wrap, again Matt thank you so much and if you are new to Peak Prosperity, if this is one of the first times you’re watching this video and you are interested in hearing more conversations like this that are hopefully delivering informative, unbiased, and practical information, take a quick second and just subscribe to this YouTube channel. The subscribe button is right there below the like button there. And if you click the little bell icon you’ll get alerted the next time we publish another video like this. Alright Matt, wonderful talking to you. Look forward to having you on again soon.
Matt Taibbi: Likewise. Thank you so much Adam. Take care.