Saturday, December 1, 2012

Politics Put Plainly

Politics Put Plainly

Political commentator Matt Taibbi’s outward skepticism and apparent bias are refreshing in today’s world of supposedly objective journalism. There are facts and there are lies, and to report on each as if they were both legitimate shows fear of being attacked as “biased”. In his blog at the Rolling Stone magazine website, Taibbi published an article titled “The Vice Presidential Debate: Joe Biden Was Right to Laugh” where he comments on the debate as well as political punditry in general. He makes the argument that debate moderators and journalists have a duty to ask harder questions of political candidates and call them out when they are lying which, in today’s misguided political atmosphere, is somehow seen as unfair, slanted, and even rude. This argument has been made time and time again, but the way that Taibbi makes it brings light to something very important about journalism in general: If journalists stop asking questions, stop drawing attention to falsehoods, stop reporting as if they are actually human, then journalism’s official style will be the doom of the medium as it repeats the things that its subjects say without reporting on the truth or validity of said statements plainly. Before we go there, however, let’s get some background.

For the citizen casually interested in politics, this article is quite accessible and despite its simple style I do not find it to be dumbed down or insulting to the reader. Taibbi does not bother giving us all the details behind every point he makes, which makes readers feel comfortable and because he doesn’t need to for his audience. The people who read this blog get their news elsewhere, and this blog is meant to be a supplement to it (more on that later). Furthermore, since this article is editorial, it goes slightly beyond the ‘plainest’ style as the reader needs to realize that there is an explicit bias present. As far as credibility is concerned, the article draws quotations from the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and nominee Paul Ryan, giving it a solid platform of information to critique. It does slightly distort some information due to the author’s clear political opinions, but this doesn’t detract from credibility — in fact, according to Taibbi’s theory, subjectivity adds credibility. One can imagine sitting across from the author having a discussion that sounds alot like the way that he writes. This authenticity that does not mask meaning is very accessible and, basically, it works in the context of political commentary. Finally, Taibbi’s blog succeeds because he knows his audience and uses that knowledge to make allusions to familiar culture, state his opinion, and, get his point across.

As I’ve mentioned before, Taibblog (the name of Taibbi’s syndicated column in Rolling Stone) is in most cases not a primary news source. Rather, it is an editorial column for the author to express his opinion on current events. His readers will most likely read an article from the New York Times or Washington Post, then move to Taibblog to discover Taibbi’s opinion. In other words, Taibbi answers the “So what?” question that accompanies typical news stories. Furthermore, Taibbi uses his column to call out these other typical news sources for their apparent lack of interest in the stuff they are reporting on. If they really cared, wouldn’t they too laugh in the face of Paul Ryan when he makes claims of a twenty-percent tax cut for everyone? Taibbi’s answer to this question reads, “We all should be doing it. That includes all of us in the media, and not just paid obnoxious-opinion-merchants like me, but so-called "objective" news reporters as well.” Here, Taibbi directly addresses the fact that he is an “obnoxious-opinion-merchant”. In other words, his blog has a bias, and he isn’t afraid to show it. Using the word “obnoxious” to describe himself draws attention to his ample use of sarcasm and keeps the reader from taking him too seriously. This type of meta-discourse would not fly in the official style, which seeks to hide meanings and opinions under the illusion that it is “objective”, but by using the plain style, Taibbi can says what he wants to say and provide a report that is true and meaningful rather than true but dry.

So what makes Taibbi’s blog so stylistically different from others? First of all, it is his colloquial language that brings him closer to the reader and, more specifically, his use of expletive phrases. For example: But man, did he get it right in last night's debate, and not just because he walloped sniveling little Paul Ryan on the facts.” “But man” is an  example of the many expletives that Taibbi uses in his blog.  Later in the article,  we find another example of this technique: “Think about what that means. Mitt Romney is running for president – for president! – promising an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut without offering any details about how that's going to be paid for.” Again, Taibbi uses an expletive phrase to bring himself closer to the audience while also adding emphasis to what is important about his article — his disgust at the lies of the now irrelevant Romney/Ryan presidential ticket. This use of expletive phrases helps the reader imagine sitting down with the author and talking politics, debasing the “top-down” mentality of journalism where the source of news is above a blissfully ignorant audience.

Along with his colloquialisms, Taibbi uses a deep understanding of his audience and purpose to his advantage. Rolling Stone magazine highlights popular culture and liberal politics from its publishing office in New York City. Although it is a national publication, it can be safely assumed that Rolling Stone is read by young, urban, liberal New Yorkers. Taibbi makes use of this knowledge by bringing familiar allusions into his work. For example, he says, “So much of the Romney/Ryan plan is so absurdly junior league, it's so far off-Broadway, it's practically in New Jersey.” Taibbi gets fancy here by using catachresis — mixing a metaphor, often with unusual grammar or syntax. In this case, he mixes a metaphor with both an unusual grammatical structure and allusions to nearby institutions. For the East Coast audience that Taibbi writes for, this metaphor really drives home as it makes reference to baseball, Broadway, and, of course, New Jersey, all things that East Coasters love.

Finally, and most importantly, Taibbi uses irony to drive his points home. For us “post-modern-Generation-Y-types”, irony is practically a second language featured in entertainment of all kinds and even our everyday speech. It isn’t hard to imagine some Milwaukee style hipster sarcastically saying to his friends, “Oh yeah guys, I can’t wait for the Ke$ha concert tonight . . .” Taibbi taps into this cultural phenomena of rampant irony for two reasons: satire and emphasis. Ripping on Romney’s high-headed promises, he says,

“If you're going to offer an across-the-board 20 percent tax cut without explaining how it's getting paid for, hell, why stop there? Why not just offer everyone over 18 a 1965 Mustang? Why not promise every child a Zagnut and an Xbox, or compatible mates for every lonely single person?”
This passage is a perfect example of satire often found on political blogs like Taibbi’s. The author here is obviously not being serious. He is, however, offering a serious perspective on the bold claims made by Paul Ryan by comparing them to other frivolous, optimistic promises that could be made but obviously not kept. By using irony, Taibbi does what other reporters are afraid to do — laugh in the face of politics-as-usual. Even better, he does it all in unambiguous, plain language. Tired of translating the pundits on national networks like Fox and MSNBC? Head over to Taibblog.

~Michael Gibson

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