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What Happened to the "Question Authority" Era? Discussion with Author Walter Kirn
The terrific humorist, journalist, and novelist talks about the downfall of journalism, bureaucratic absurdity, and class cruelty in a blistering indictment of an America turned upside down
Walter Kirn is from the Midwest, worked for Time magazine, and has written a pile of wonderful novels, from Up in The Air to The Unbinding. I’m from Boston, worked for Rolling Stone, and only wish I could write fiction. But, it turns out we have a lot in common, and we had a charged and hilarious discussion on Callin yesterday, aided by great audience questions.
I know there’s frustration that Callin is still exclusive to iPhone, but in an effort to share some of yesterday’s wide-ranging talk about the state of the media, vaccine madness, the new urban snobbery, and the lost art of talking, I’m reproducing a partial transcript here. The first question came from a caller named Nick:
Nick: Where the hell is this thing coming from?
Walter Kirn: I had a psychiatrist once and when I came in with some dysfunction or problem, he said, “What happened right before that?” So I would say, “What happened right before?” What happened right before this was social media. It has created a sort of hyper-consensus engine, because these ridiculous takes that you’re talking about all just exaggerate a basic take.
It’s basically an arms race that’s going on now, in which people attempt to agree more intensely than they agreed before. I do credit social media, at least that’s the place where we see these takes. We don’t tend to hear them by CB radio or over the phone necessarily, but there’s something about this third particle accelerator of opinion that we call Twitter which seems to inflate the craziness.
Now, as to whether the liberals have changed? Yes, they’ve changed! They used to be gentle, interesting, controversial, humorous people. Now they’re strident ideologues who love every institution which they professed to detest and suspect in the old days…
Matt Taibbi: And have no sense of humor.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and that sense of humor and weirdness is something that they call out, rather than try to cultivate, unless it’s the weirdness that’s already been pre-approved — at which point they compete to inhabit it more completely than anyone else.
Nick: Matt, I mean your show and your writing, and Chapo Traphouse, was a big political awakening for me…
Walter Kirn: Look, Matt’s a dissident in this community. He may be disappeared before this Callin is over. The mainstream folks who are driving this are on the hunt right now for a sense of humor. If they find any in the landscape, they will launch an arrow. I mean, I have very funny friends who were last night on Twitter, who aren’t this morning.
Taibbi: What novelist would do the best job of capturing the current craziness?
Walter Kirn: It’s been a progression. About a year ago, it would’ve been someone like Kafka, who talks about these open-ended crimes and the insoluble cosmic mystery that the individual gets caught up in and never has an explanation for. But to cut to the chase now, it’s somebody like Joseph Heller, because we’re now in an absurd carousel of bad routines.
And that’s what Catch-22 is. I just re-watched the 1970 Mike Nichols version last night to prepare for this. Just a few outtakes: you’ve got these guys living on a bomber base in the Mediterranean and they’re dying one by one, their planes are getting shot down and they want to get out of it. But the Colonel in charge keeps raising the number of missions you have to fly in order to retire from the bombing. And that reminds me of the vaccines. You’ll need six! No, you’ll need seven!
The great conceit of the whole novel is that the base is slowly turning into a capitalist hell. Milo Minderbinder, the ambitious impresario, is selling the parachutes in Egypt for cotton. The bomber pilots wake up in the middle of runs and find out their parachutes are gone. It’s because this syndicate, which has developed out of their base, has sold them. In the end, Minderbinder does a deal with the Germans: they will buy up the excess cotton, which he spent all his money on and has gone broke on, if he will agree to bomb the base himself so the Germans don’t have to.
I look at COVID a little bit like that. We will agree to destroy our society for you, China… Our greatest product at the moment, this vaccine, our most expensive and profitable export, is the result of our suffering. And it isn’t seeming to cure it either, frankly, from my perspective, since every single person I know who’s gotten the booster in LA is now asking me for recommendations on zinc and other vitamins to take. There’s the famous saying, that the capitalist will sell the revolutionary the rope he will use to hang himself. Well, that’s kind of the situation I see us in. It’s as though there’s only one corporation in charge right now, and that is one Pharma/gov/tech conglomerate. Maybe it’s called BlackRock, or Vanguard.
It’s literally making a great profit opportunity out of the suffering of society. Oh, you can’t go out? We’ll sell you virtual zoom technology. Oh, you’re sick? We’ll sell you yet another booster, but you’ve gotta wait to get better from the current variant you’re suffering from, you can take the next booster, which is actually happening to friends of mine.
Taibbi: You were telling me that story, that’s such an unbelievable thing.
Walter Kirn: I live in Montana. There are all these college kids who are home from their universities for break. They hang out together, and they all had to be vaccinated in order to be at college in the first place. So they’re all double vaccinated and they’ve all got Covid, and they’re waiting for their Covid to pass because they have to get vaccinated, again. They have to get boosted again, to go back to school.
Waiting to get better from the thing that wasn’t prevented, so that you can try to prevent it again — if that’s not Joseph Heller, what is?
Taibbi: Where has the instinct to laugh about some of these absurdities gone?
Walter Kirn: If you were talking about the liberal mindset in 1970, the Vietnam War was raging hot. Post-Tet Offensive, America was at least able to laugh or cry in a literary way at books like Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s story of the Dresden fire-bombing, at books like Catch-22…
Walter Kirn: At the movie M*A*S*H, which came out the same year. We seem to have lost entirely the ability to be in pain and understand things satirically at the same time. What is this, all of the sudden? What is this sudden prohibition on dark humor in the midst of crisis? I don’t get it.
Taibbi: Wasn’t part of what made Vietnam so horrible the bureaucratic lunacy — that the war didn’t have a real point or end goal, so they had to invent ghoulish metrics for success like body counts and truck kills?
Walter Kirn: It’s all about bureaucracy, ultimately. There’s a scene in Catch-22 in which a doctor, Doc Daneeka, he’s sitting there on the shore, looking out at the ocean, and a plane crashes into the ocean. And someone has a chart showing that the doctor standing next to him is on the plane. He mourns the death of the doctor, giving preference to the chart over the man in front of him, saying “I’m right here. I’m not on the plane!”
There you have the bureaucrat’s preference for their numbers or their forms, or documents, over the reality. That’s really the situation that we face now, even more intensely than in Vietnam, with those stories of body counts and of bombing runs that are deemed a success because so many tons were dropped, as though you could measure progress in a war by the tonnage of explosives expended. All those metrics and surreal measurements were being used far away and reported to us. But now they’re being used at home. They’re being used on us.
I was at the hospital yesterday in Montana, which I read constantly in the New York Times is almost on its knees from Covid-19. The place was empty. I could barely find anyone to give me directions to the radiology department, where I presumed millions would be having their lungs examined. What am I to say? Is the doctor standing next to me the reality, or is the report that he’s on the plane, i.e. the empty hospital, the reality? I read that here in Trump country, we’re just staggering under the weight of the vaccinated, rude Covid-19 victims.
Taibbi: That was the root of that bizarre story in Oklahoma, where the horse-paste eaters were supposedly so numerous that they were leaving gunshot victims outside. Everybody repeated that story. Nobody stopped to think: there’s probably not that many gunshot victims in rural Oklahoma…
Walter Kirn: I have to tell you, Matt, the middle of the country is being treated much as the middle of the country was treated back during the Indian wars. These are stories of strange tribes committing atrocities out in the middle of nowhere. Everybody in the metropolitan areas is reading these newspapers and thinking: “Oh, the Commanche just bore off another 30 white women into slavery!” or whatever. Or, the stories they would tell about Mormon polygamy as potboilers in East coast newspapers back in the middle of the 19th century. Living in Montana, which I promise you is no longer The Revenant — we aren’t warming ourselves inside of bear carcasses. It’s an incredibly sophisticated state with airline connections to the world, sometimes even with just one stop.
Yet we’re being described as though we’re on the precipice of savagery. I saw that with the Oklahoma thing. I was in South Dakota last year when I heard an NPR report that the hospital in Rapid City, which I was one mile from, was about to collapse. And I drove over. I had a thousand parking spots to choose from. Then when I rechecked the text of the NPR story, I saw that it was a speculative story, which interviewed a doctor about what might happen if things got so much worse. So, I’ve had that experience over and over of being reported on as a resident of the great frontier and then checking outside my door to see whether or not it was accurate and finding it wasn’t.
Taibbi: Walter, you come from the journalism world. You wrote for Time, a leading member of the club.
Walter Kirn: Talk about liberalism. I was a columnist for Harper’s. I was the national correspondent for The New Republic, three-and-a-half owners back or whatever. I’m joking: maybe just two. So I know what journalistic standards are. I used to have to meet them myself.
Taibbi: What do you think is going on? Is it dishonesty? Is it cluelessness?
Walter Kirn: One thing we know is that it’s not “mass formation psychosis,” because the AP fact-checked that with a New York University professor and found out that there’s no such thing!
What’s going on? Scapegoating. That’s the old-fashioned word for it. In that piece that you wrote about that Jimmy Kimmel routine about Anti-Vax Barbie: It said it was available only in Kentucky and Florida. That was amazing! The left loves to talk about dog whistles. That’s not a dog whistle, that’s a dog horn! You know, Kentucky! You know, Deliverance! You know, no teeth, stupid people!
If the left could solve the problem of two Americas that RFK so eloquently spoke of, it’s now decided that the America that is left behind, that it used to profess great care for and ambitions for, should just be annihilated with ridicule and a sort of mockery that dehumanizes them and renders them irrelevant.
That’s a sign of real failure. To be serious, that’s a kind of real failure on the left when it starts making fun of poverty, basically, in order to advance its cosmopolitan agenda. Another joke was it comes with a “Barbie dream ventilator,” which suggests these people are dying, and we could have a laugh over it. I mean, I don’t wanna laugh over anyone on a ventilator in my lifetime if I can help it, but we’re already there on network television.
Taibbi: Another journalism-related question: In the eighties and nineties, it seemed the reigning attitude of most journalists was they didn’t really care that much. Or, I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it — let’s say they were sufficiently detached from the subject that they were more concerned about whether they were getting things right, than whether they were sending the right message. Do you think there’s a change there?
Walter Kirn: I feel like it’s a massive change. Most journalism now is about other journalism. Most journalism now is internecine warfare between the so-called legacy and prestige outlets, and all their competitors, which are accused of being everything from in the pockets of Vladimir Putin to insurrectionists. The hunt for disinformation and misinformation is now almost the whole of the job. In fact, from what I’ve seen, 98% of journalism is committed without ever leaving the laptop screen.
That’s one of the openings for these whopper stories about the real America, which they only visit when they go to the Iowa caucuses. Everybody thinks that because they went to a diner during a presidential primary, that they know the heartbeat of grassroots America.
One of the reasons they can tell so many stories so inaccurately about people in places that they aren’t is that they don’t even have a fact-check in memory about being to of those places, let alone a friend who lives there. So they can expect from their audience total incuriosity about the truth. So you get a spiral of reaffirmation that becomes almost completely detached from reality and journalism.
You know, it’s funny to see this term fact check now used every day on Twitter. Remember Matt, when that was kind of a specialty term, that only we knew as journalists. It was inside baseball, a fact-checker, a fact-checking department. It was most probably famously evoked in Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney, the hyper-elitist novel about cocaine, and the New Yorker fact-checking department.
Taibbi: The Bolivian Marching powder!
Walter Kirn: Now our inside baseball is for everybody because the process of journalism has now become the story, rather than the supposed outcome of journalism, which is going somewhere, getting facts right.
Taibbi: In my father’s generation, all journalists were on the phone all the time, and now they’re not. Do you talk about that with colleagues — this astonishment at how much the idea of talking to people has disappeared from the job, replaced by looking for links?
Walter Kirn: Matt, this profession, especially in its mainstream liberal form, now distrusts people — they have a one out of two chance of being an insurrectionist or a racist, a bad wrong-thinking person. What journalism now specializes in is waiting in line to talk to the same expert, the former intelligence agency chief, the John Hopkins professor, the Nate Silverish statistician. Sometimes I think that these 50 or 100 experts who are generating about a third of the news now must almost be like professional witnesses in trials. They’re so in demand that must be getting paid because they’re apparently spending their whole day talking to a circle of journalists. And that is no exaggeration.
Taibbi: Remember Mark Halperin’s Gang of 500? The premise was the same 500 lobbyists, experts, donors, and politicians decided everything. His “Note” column was supposedly so valuable because he had the whole 500 on his Rolodex and that’s basically what journalism was. Everybody’s talking to the same 500 people.
Walter Kirn: I used to love talk radio, and I didn’t care what the political views of the host were because it was the only time I got to hear Joe truck driver call in and tell me what he was going through or whatever. And because we have become a country divided by a certain kind of populism, a hyper populism, the news now tends to come from the elite sector of society. We don’t have the Mike Roykos and the Jimmy Breslins and those guys who sat at the bar, heard about cops’ divorces and got some story from the bartender and checked it out. That sort of gumshoe, working-class journalism of the big city seems to have disappeared. And that was, to me, the original romance of journalism was to kind of get gossip and check it out.
Taibbi: Let’s talk to — Andrew?
Andrew: The writer Thomas Frank was basically saying in “Listen, Liberal” is that they’ve become the professional class, the adults in the room. They know that they’re the smart ones, the ones with the college degrees, so they basically get to tell us what to do and what harm is real and what harm isn’t. I think that’s part of what’s shifted because in the past it was the conservatives deciding that, for example, gay marriage was too harmful for society.
I don’t know what we do because it seems like the conservative response is to simply just throw up their hands and say, well, we’re not applying any kind of measures that might be useful, just because we don’t wanna go down the slippery slope. What do we do to break this framework?
Walter Kirn: To start, I would say you could not have a more slanted situation than the largest advertiser and corporate sponsor for the media, the pharmaceutical industry being basically the subject of inquiry. In other words, you’re less likely to get honest inquiry and diversity of opinions and adversarial reporting in a press that is owned by big Pharma than you were. Jake Tapper is literally brought to you by Pfizer; his segments on CNN are introduced as such. You are in a snake-eating-its-tail situation, when the subject of journalism is the greatest advertiser.
Taibbi: Just to follow up on that, people forget that until 1997, pharmaceutical companies weren’t allowed to advertise.
Walter Kirn: My father was a patent lawyer for the 3M corporation… he spent his life suing Johnson and Johnson. Basically, they were the biggest infringer on 3M’s medical patents. And he told me when that change came about, when pharmaceutical companies were allowed to advertise on television, he said, “This country is going to rue the day it allowed this to happen.” Of all the prophecies of the late Walter Kirn, Jr., that one is the one that rings in my ear most often now.
Andrew: Quick follow-up: do you think that the consumers of these media outlets even care that they’re brought to you by Pfizer? Because I see it as a problem, but I’m not sure they do at all. I’m also not sure they don’t see it as a benefit, like who else should be sponsoring them? After all, they’re the ones that made the drug!
Taibbi: I’ve got an answer for that one because it ties into another issue that drives me crazy, which is the prevalence of ex-intelligence officials who are suddenly every second anchor-person. When you complain about that, one of the things that people will say is, “What’s wrong with that? They’re the people who know!”
I don’t even know how to approach the person who has that reaction. With the FBI or the CIA or the NSA, if you have an ex-intelligence agent on the air, these people, their whole purpose, they’re trained to manipulate facts, and lie. That’s their job! It’s completely antithetical to what the journalist’s job is supposed to be.
I think people have the same naïveté about drug company officials — who, by the way, I started to notice are appearing as experts more and more often on the air too. It’s starting to remind me a little bit of the Iraq war period when suddenly there were former generals on the air all the time. But yeah, you have to be crazy to not understand the problem with pharmaceutical companies having an influence over the news.
Walter Kirn: This is going to offend everyone — I can just hear people clicking off out there — but we live in a country where our chief health official for governmental and media purposes, Dr. Anthony Fauci, is at least mentioned in every single account of the origins of the virus, either as a manipulated virus or one that was captured wild. Now we used to call that conflict of interest. We used to say that if you made money from something, or if you knew someone involved in the story, or if you made money from some aspect of the story, you couldn’t comment on it.
Now, what used to be considered a flaw, having a conflict of interest, is considered a virtue, because just as Matt said, if you’re on the inside now, where the conflicts of interests are, you’re considered an expert. Conflict of interest is considered evidence of your having been read in, of being knowledgeable. So we have taken what was the first commandment in journalism — Thou shalt police for conflict of interest! — and turned it upside-down. We’ve said, you should seek out those who have the most conflict. The intelligence person is reporting on war, the pharmaceutical spokesman is reporting on the effectiveness of a vaccine. The pharmaceutical CEOs, you go to them first.
This was thought in the past to disqualify someone from at least being the sole commentator on the story. I mean, you expected a general to feed you BS about his own accomplishments in the war. You expected a corporate talking head to feed you PR about the vast success of their company, and its loving kindness to all people. You expected a politician to sing the praises of the party platform. But you did not credit them with truth.
Taibbi: I remember the reaction I had when they hired [former CIA head] John Brennan and [former Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper as TV analysts. Former CIA chief Michael Hayden was another one. I thought, theoretically, I guess you could have them comment on so certain general topics, but they would have to recuse themselves from all the ones that they were directly involved in, at least.
It turned out to be the opposite. In other words, they would have Brennan and Clapper and all those guys, and they would bring them on to talk about the stories that they themselves were most directly involved with. This new thing with Fauci — the new emails that have come out, they’re kind of shocking, just on the level of proving that Fauci and others were being deceitful about their assessment of the lab-leak story at the beginning. The fact that people aren’t jumping all over those stories is amazing to me.
Walter Kirn: To point out the conflict of interest, you are now accused of being a conspiracy theorist. Well, journalists aren’t supposed to be conspiracy theorists. They’re supposed to be conspiracy finders.
The thing that infuriated me and almost radicalized me against this corporate regime, and journalism, was the Russiagate story. I’ll tell you why, and it’s not because it was adversarial for Donald Trump. It’s because the Russiagate story, which was, I’m just here to tell you — it was bullshit. It had bullshit sources. It stemmed from high influence peddlers and campaign officials and places like the Brookings Institute and so on. It posed as Watergate. It posed as an outsider exposure of the ways of power, when in fact it was just the opposite. It posed as muckraking when in fact it was icing the cake of power. Pulitzer Prizes were awarded, and star reporters were crowned in this supposedly anti-authoritarian mega-story, which was being reported despite the anger and fury of power.
In fact, it was just the opposite. It was a completely phony caricature of a Watergate-style investigation. When I saw the press willing to pose as crusaders and outsiders on behalf of the most established political, intelligence, and even corporate entities in America, I was just like, this is the biggest travesty.
Taibbi: Obviously you’re not going to have to work too hard to get me to agree about Russiagate being bunk, but one of the first clues for me that the story probably wasn’t real was that there was so much pressure to go along with it, and also so much pressure in the other direction, not to say anything against it.
As a journalist, you know when you’re saying something risky. This is a business where they let you know right away when you’ve said something that crosses a line somewhere. There was none of that with this story. It was completely in the other direction.
Walter Kirn: All those newspaper movies, those romantic movies, like All The President’s Men and Spotlight, in which the crusty editor says, “I’m not gonna put the reputation of this paper on the line for your half baked reporting! You get me a witness in the next 36 hours, or we’re killing this story forever! And I’m firing you!” That’s the supposed newsroom. When you’re going up against power in Russiagate, it was: “Get me more people from the DNC to be outraged about this by tomorrow, or, we’re going to pay somebody else hundreds of thousands of dollars to write this story!”
Taibbi: Let’s do one more. Kevin?
Kevin: A lot of us are having conversations about, as Walter said, regular folks. I’m in Ohio, which by the way, shout out to Walter — you were born in Akron, weren’t you?
Walter Kirn: Akron. St. Thomas Hospital, man. Yep.
Kevin: One of the most disturbing aspects of that just horrible, cruel, nasty Kimmel sketch was the one bit where the doll “does her own research.” It wouldn’t be so insidious if there wasn’t a whole New York Times article saying, “Careful now, do not do your own research.” As if that’s the last thing you want to do…
Lastly, I want to read something that Walter tweeted a couple months ago, because I think eventually we’re going to have social media awards, and Walter, you wrote this, and I thought it was so brilliant:
Walter Kirn: Wow. Thank you. I have to say I had, I want to focus on what appeared to be the most trivial part of the question — the preface that we’re both from Ohio. That was I think the most important part of it. We have a national myth, and a great musical called the Wizard of Oz, which I think warms the heart of every child at least initially. Remember, Dorothy’s a Midwesterner, but Holden Caulfield felt the same way, and he was an Easterner. Its message was, “Look behind the curtain. Don’t be Buffaloed by power, money, glamor, smoke, and mirrors. Make sure that you take a peek at the hidden aspects of reality.” Now, the opposite of that is Chris Cuomo telling us on CNN that it’s illegal to look at WikiLeaks. We can do that as journalists.
He actually said this on TV. He literally said, I know you’ve seen behind the curtain, and seen that the Wizard of Oz is actually this little con man from Kansas. But pretend you never saw that. In fact, it’s illegal for you to have seen that. So if you can wipe your memory banks, we’ll tell you what to think.
When I saw that moment on CNN, a journalist actually demanding incuriosity of the audience, I went, okay, the country I know is dead. The Midwestern ethos of, I’m gonna look behind the side show, or the Emperor’s New Clothes myth, of being that little kid who stands up and says, “Hey, you know, he’s naked, he’s a fat naked man.”
That was being systematically and affirmatively repressed. We now have a professional priesthood because, because throughout Trump, what we heard about journalists was that they were the most persecuted they’d ever been. They were one minute from being thrown into camps by Trump, and how dare we insult their profession. They exalted themselves into something resembling medieval priests. We read Latin, please. You don’t want to look at the Bible — we’ll tell you what’s in it.
So I’m standing up for a cultural tradition of seeing for yourself. You know — Missouri, the Show-Me State. Ohio, the state that produced James Thurber, who laughs at the fancy people, and so on. Look behind the curtain. I don’t wanna let that go.
*Broadway performer Clifton Duncan reappeared on Twitter after this interview, and said he was not removed.