BROOKE GLADSTONE: "Meaningless, underhanded, vapid, shameless, pointlessly vicious, degrading -- one of the most prolonged insults to human dignity the world has ever seen." These are some of the choice descriptors New York Press columnist Matt Taibbi reserves for the quadrennial ritual of American democracy recently concluded. But instead of sitting idly by, this time Taibbi decided to take action.
MATT TAIBBI: [READING FROM HIS PIECE] Though we're tempted to blame the politicians, it's time to dig deeper. It's time to blame the press corps that daily brings us this unrelenting symphony of buncombe, and never comes within a thousand miles of an apology for any of it. And it's time to blame the press not only as a class of people, but as individuals who must brand anyone who puts his name or his face on credulous campaign coverage an eternal enemy of the state. Hopefully, over time, this will have a deterrent effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, Taibbi launched the First Quadrennial Election Hack Invitational, otherwise known as Wimblehack. The rules of the tournament were straightforward -- every week the journalist who penned the worst coverage advanced into the next round of play. The goal was to determine America's worst campaign reporter --the journalist who truly is the scourge of American democracy.
MATT TAIBBI: The way that campaign coverage is designed is that it makes it almost impossible for even the most honest and idealistic reporter to do a good job. I mean I was on the plane with Kerry for four weeks last spring, and you don't have a chance to talk to anybody that the campaign doesn't introduce to you. So all the attention is focused on the candidate, and for 18 months, you're looking at the same, you know, millionaire on both sides who's saying the same, you know, market-tested lines. And instead of spending that 18 months actually looking at the country's problems and listening to what people have to say, we spend the entire time in this plane.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how do they get those real voices in their pieces?
MATT TAIBBI: Well, they don't. I mean, that's the whole -point. I mean when I was with the Kerry plane, what I would do is, as soon as we got to a location, I would literally sprint a mile in any direction-- [LAUGHTER] and just talk to people who were there and ask them if they cared at all about what was going on in the campaign, and nine times out of ten people weren't going to vote, were disgusted with the process, but were complaining about real things in their neighborhoods and then, you know, I'd look down at my watch and it was time for me to go back again. If a reporter wants to actually talk to real people, and he's on the plane, that's what he has to do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They need running shoes.
MATT TAIBBI: They need running shoes. Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the things that really seemed to get Wimblehack's blood boiling was the absolute complicity that reporters have in perpetrating the very thing that they say they hate, which is the kind of political bloodlust that wants to see campaigns conducted like cock fights or Battle Bots.
MATT TAIBBI: Right. You would have to search far and wide to find a debate piece that wasn't just laden with boxing imagery. For instance, Howard Fineman of Newsweek, this is the way he prefaced the debate. He said "The Kerry people seem to feel they have no choice but to send their man out into the middle of the ring, swinging." You know. And then he says "This is the 8th round of a championship fight of 10 rounds." You know, for obvious entertainment reasons, it works better as theatre for the press when the candidates are being really nasty to each other. So what they really try to discourage is candidates who go off on lengthy diatribes about policy. In fact, you'll find, especially in the writings of Time's Karen Tumulty -- she consistently derides any candidate who spends too long in polysyllabic speeches about arcane economic or environmental policy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And she probably comes in for the most vicious invective of anyone in the Wimblehack contest. Tell me about the Tumultersault.
MATT TAIBBI: Well, Tumultersault is something that I named after her because she practices it more than anybody else. This is where reporters use a phrase like "Kerry's strong environmental record," or, you know, "Bush's aggressive furthering of his economic policies," and then they don't elaborate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Go through your papers here and find a perfect Tumultersault.
MATT TAIBBI: Here's, here's a Tumultersault that was actually written by Tumulty herself in a piece called "The Glean Team" on July 19th, and I quote. "When he finished, Kerry couldn't resist jumping in with a mini-seminar on trade policy that included references to the fine print of the anti-dumping and anti-surge laws, but at least Kerry answered the question." [LAUGHTER] And here, she's accomplishing two things --number one, she's berating him for talking at length about these boring things, and number two, she's talking about the anti-dumping and anti-surge laws without--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Explaining what they are.
MATT TAIBBI: -- explaining what he's saying about them. In other words, the issues and the positions become confined to the words "issues" and "positions."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, one thing that a reporter can do to keep from moving into the next round is to go a week without filing anything from the campaign trail. You wrote, "The best way to be a better journalist, especially when it comes to the campaign, is not to practice journalism." I think that's a good joke, but doesn't it destroy the entire integrity of your rating system, as if you care?
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. A) I don't care, and, [LAUGHTER] and B) No. I think the problem is the way that this campaign is structured. You're better off just not doing it. It doesn't take 18 months of celebrity coverage of these candidates to educate America on which candidate to vote for. It usually takes about a day for people to decide that. But nobody really sits back and thinks, well what was this whole 18 month charade really all about?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I really enjoyed reading Wimblehack, but one thing that I thought really marred it is that you seemed to take issue with the way that people looked, especially Jodi Wilgoren in the New York Times and Karen Tumulty of Time magazine. Now, these people may be, in your view, terrible reporters, but did you have to take aim at them for their physical flaws?
MATT TAIBBI: Well, one of the things that I really hate the most about the media business is that people who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum in public -- you know, your right wing pundit and your left wing gadfly who appear together on television arguing -- no matter what they say in public, everybody's everybody's pal once they're off camera. And I just don't believe that that's the right way to go about things. I think that if you really believe in something, there has to be a limit across which you just can't be friends with somebody. Maybe I went over the top with Tumulty and, and Wilgoren, but I think what I'm trying to say is that I'm not trying to be anybody's friend.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, you're out to lose friends and influence people.
MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. I mean I think if it becomes like a country club event where everybody's chummy with each other the way the candidates aides are chummy with the reporters and the candidate is chummy with the reporters, what purpose does that serve for the public? I think there has to be a line at which it gets personal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
MATT TAIBBI: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Matt Taibbi is a columnist for the New York Press. The final installment of his Wimblehack will appear in this week's paper. [MUSIC]