I am aware of Matt Taibbi for two reasons: the first is I was recently made aware of his (new?) blog on TrueSlant, and I like his writing; the second is he was instrumental in founding The Buffalo Beast, whose “Fifty Most Loathesome People” column ends up being the highlight of my year1.
Spanking the Donkey is more or less a collection of Taibbi’s coverage of the 2004 election cycle, taken from his articles in The Beast, New York Press, and Rolling Stone. I imagine that in 2006, when this book first came out, it must have seemed especially poignant to defeated liberals spending a lot of time in contemplative navel-gazing—or maybe not. When it comes down to it, Spanking the Donkey says less about the 2004 election and a little bit more about the election cycle generically.
I should first point out that Taibbi is very clearly a dedicated fan of Hunter S Thompson, having taken the whole “gonzo journalism” thing to heart, wherein you don’t simply report about a subject, but instead you report about you reporting about a subject—that is, the reporter is an indispensable part of the story by virtue of being there. This, of course, manages to blur lines between reporting and narrative, as well as introducing questions of narrator reliability: it’s painfully obvious to me that the events in Spanking the Donkey—excepting those bits which are very clearly fictionalized—have been embellished, perhaps even fabricated. None of this is helped by the fact that, not unlike Thompson, Taibbi occasionally likes to get whacked out his brain on drugs before doing his job. No alligators or anything in this one, though.
With little exception, the articles here cover Taibbi’s time on the campaign trail, which includes not only the political infighting of the Democratic primaries, but also Taibbi’s scathing criticism of other reporters, who, he tends to conclude, expend themselves upon horse race and other inconsequential but sound-bytable data. To take his word for it, he is the only reporter looking to ask Howard Dean questions about policy, while everyone else merely lines up to compliment his shoes and take turns gently fellating him2. Once again we should consider the source and the style of journalism and ask ourselves which is the likely possibility:
- Matt Taibbi is the only journalist on Howard Dean’s plane who has the balls to ask any kind of important questions
- Taibbi, by virtue of being a report for a small publication, has so little to lose that only he can ask the tough questions
- Taibbi is embellishing his own importance and diminishing that of other reporters3 like The Daily Show for both comedic and political effect.
In actuality, it’s probably a bit of all these things. Taibbi’s penchant for metajournalism (writing about other journalists and media coverage at least as much as he writes directly about the things they cover—again, like The Daily Show) can be damning, though his own interjection into the coverage’s narrative is problematic on an argumentative level. Too, his occasional foray into fictional pieces, or little satirical vignettes, seems somewhat disjointed in this context.
A little one-sided? Sure. A little linear? Sure. A little inconsistent? You bet. I’m not sure Spanking the Donkey is the best introduction to Taibbi’s work (I’ve seen him do better); I’m positive it’s not the best campaign trail reporting I’ve ever read—that honor, in perpetuity, belongs to David Foster Wallace. The extent to which Taibbi’s coverage is tied to a specific slice of time limits this book’s later appeal, and I actually wish I had chosen a more carefully-selected body of work. Spanking the Donkey is ok, but it won’t top any lists.
- See 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, and 2004[↩]
- Fox News, had they been present, would have been the only news channel asking him why he hates America so much.[↩]
- One notable exception here is the New York Times‘s Jodi Walgoren, who, I’m given to understand from other sources as well, is a terrible human being[↩]