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Transcript: "America This Week" with Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi
On muzzling the new Citizen Kane, the lettuce-life of Liz Truss, occupying England, and more
Before tuning in to watch some NFL teams go from buyers to sellers this Sunday afternoon, check out a few excerpts from the new episode of America This Week with Walter Kirn and Matt Taibbi. To hear the full audio, click here.
A focus of the show was the Bloomberg report that sent Twitter stock tumbling before the opening of trading Monday, that the U.S. might be “weighing” options for stopping the sale of Twitter to Elon Musk on national security grounds.
On the possible nixing of the Twitter sale:
Walter Kirn: It sounds like Elon Musk, for the crime of pursuing Twitter financially has been perhaps called in, or will be, for some kind of national defense review of his activities, the basis for this being (I guess) his tweets about Russia, or his tweets about a possible, compromise with Putin over the Ukraine war. It seems that Elon Musk’s pursuit of Twitter has been continually rebuffed and usually using the same message, that the American security state can’t afford for Twitter to fall into the hands of a heterodox thinker, even a free-thinking capitalist. This latest thing sounds like a candid admission, that Twitter is in fact an arm of the security state in some way, that it’s vital to our mission in shaping opinion, maybe domestically, maybe internationally, and controlling the narrative around events like the Ukraine War. I don’t know that they’ve ever come out and shown that as positively as they have with this notion that he’s going to be called down to the principal’s office.
Matt Taibbi: It’s funny because for the first six or seven years, we’ve had a lot of these like controversies about speech, where somebody’s taken off the internet, maybe Alex Jones gets sent to purgatory, or whatever it is. This is a completely different level. This would be the mother of all First Amendment stories. To deem the private purchase of a media distribution platform subject to the national security bureaucracy, which could exercise veto power over that — I can’t think of anything in our history that would even rival that.
Walter Kirn: One thing this proves is that there is no such thing as “fuck you money” in America anymore. The richest man in America, the one whose riches have to a large degree come from contracts with the government or subsidies for his electric cars, somebody who has worked hand in glove with the establishment to pursue many of its stated goals, like green energy — that he should be a suspect person is pretty astonishing. It means there is no level at which you free yourself from the scrutiny of the state. I guess that for some is a blow for equity, but it also suggests a very insecure and intrusive state.
Matt Taibbi: I thought the whole idea of Elon Musk is that he had beyond fuck you money.
Walter Kirn: He’s Iron Man. Iron Man is suppressive person. In an Iron Man script, the point at which Iron Man becomes a suspect in the eyes of the state apparatus would be a great plot point. He’d have to prove his patriotism at some point.
Matt Taibbi: I think that’s in Iron Man 3. The suit controls him, or Don Cheadle replaces him or something…
Walter Kirn: Anyway, about there being no such thing as fuck you money. About a week ago, Musk made some noises about pulling Starlink from the battlefield in Ukraine because Zelensky had told him to fuck off, and for other reasons, because he wasn’t getting paid, which seems astonishing to me. For the money we’re laying down on the Ukraine war, we can’t spend 80 million? They should allow him to make a slight profit, defending the free world from Putin and all.
Matt Taibbi: That’s not even between-the-couch-pillows money for the Pentagon.
Walter Kirn: Elon Musk as a dramatic figure in American life has gone through so many metamorphoses. He was Iron Man, the person who is maybe going to spearhead our future development in all kinds of ways, bringing smarts and engineering props and social vision to the remaking of America. Now he’s being treated as some sort of, kind of the way that Chinese treated Jack Ma, who was their richest man who also fell afoul of the state. I start to see in discussions of them on Twitter that he’s South African, a sort of suspect nationality. It’s kind of without specificity, these warnings. He’s growing into Dr. Evil for, for a certain contingent.
Matt Taibbi: (mimicking Mike Myers voice) Forty-four billion dollars!
Walter Kirn: Shutting up Alex Jones or suing Kanye West or other celebrities really doesn’t hold a candle to taking Iron Man, and putting him in a girdle.
Matt Taibbi: This leaked out to the public via a Bloomberg story before the opening of the trading day, and the stock price fell 16%. The Bloomberg story’s amazing. It’s anonymously sourced. It could theoretically come from Musk side, but it doesn’t feel like it. There are two amazing paragraphs in here, which feel like they’re worth reading verbatim:
The discussions are still at an early stage, the people familiar said on condition of anonymity. Officials in the US government and intelligence community are weighing what tools, if any, are available that would allow the federal government to review Musk’s ventures.
One possibility is through the law governing the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review Musk’s deals and operations for national security risks, they said.
Matt Taibbi: This Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is a real thing. I’ve seen it come up a few times in the past — let’s just say the ch something that’s owned by the Chinese government wants to buy into a chip maker or an aerospace company. In one case, they nixed a deal involving the purchase of a wind farm that was too near a Naval air station. The point is, it’s never happened that the government has gone to this committee and said, “We want you to look at this.” It’s something that I’m pretty sure is supposed to be invoked automatically. This would be extraordinary, if they did things backwards and said, “Hey, what bureaucratic infrastructure do we have that we can use to nix a deal?”
Walter Kirn: Two points. Number one, yours, which is that this is a committee that traditionally at least, seems to make its own recommendations that the higher reaches hear about, and act on. But this is in reverse. This is the higher echelons looking around and saying, you know, what can we use against him? Second, what’s foreign about his investment in Twitter? I don’t quite understand. Is he not a domestic actor? We’re not talking about China or Russia buying Twitter, are we? Isn’t Elon Musk one of us?
Matt Taibbi: He’s a U.S. citizen. Doesn’t that entitle him to be an asshole?
Walter Kirn: He also has security clearance. He couldn’t work on the projects that he does for us without that. Are they going to take away his satellites? What are they planning to do? In fact, when they talk about looking at the breadth of his business operations, as I understand it: he makes cars, He runs Starling. He is trying to churn out solar panels. Is severing his management of these projects a national security win? Um, or is this just purely punitive?
On a New Republic hit piece on David Sacks:
Matt Taibbi: There have been a bunch of these stories lately that are about rich people who are trying to enter the media world, but doing it in a way that is not approved. Like, there, there was, there was a crazy story that came out in The New Republic, which I seem to remember once was a readable magazine.
Walter Kirn: I used to be the national correspondent for The New Republic. That meant I dealt with everything that didn’t happen within the Beltway. I was allowed to stick up for farmers every once in a while…
Matt Taibbi: The story, the story is, it’s called “The Quiet Political Rise of David Sachs, Silicon Valley’s Prophet of Urban Doom.”
Walter Kirn: Prophet of Doom!
Matt Taibbi: It’s also out of a Marvel movie.
Walter Kirn: In what way does he want to doom the urban landscape?
Matt Taibbi: The sub-headline is great:
Like his pals Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, Sacks is using his wealth and online clout to unite conservatives and former leftists in a reactionary movement against liberalism.
Matt Taibbi: Even I was mentioned in this piece as a reactionary. Even funnier though, they led with Katie Halper talking about how she interviewed the former district attorney of San Francisco, Chesa Boudin. They’re upset that Katie had a confrontational interview with Boudin on Sacks-owned Callin, and implying that because Sacks doesn’t like Boudin, this is another evil capitalist buying the left to do hit pieces. Except, Katie had already done multiple stories on Boudin, and there’s no editorial direction at Callin, it’s just an app. It’s looney-tunes conspiracy theory.
They’re basically saying that David Sachs and Peter Thiel and Elon Musk and all these people are trying to bring about the so-called horseshoe theory uniting would-be leftists with reactionaries to stop the forces of light and good from triumphing everywhere. But no one seems to mind when billionaires own mainstream media organizations. Really, since when have billionaires done anything but try to influence the media?
Walter Kirn: It’s all in Citizen Kane, which is based on the story of William Randolph Hearst, of course. Media ownership is what allows you to start wars. It also allows you to marry bimbos, for whom you then build opera houses in an attempt to promote beyond their talents, all while missing that sled from childhood that made them feel healed, and happy.
Matt Taibbi: It doesn’t fill the hole!
Walter Kirn: They need to fill the hole, with influence and political potency. That is what billionaires do in the American mythos. What else would they be good for? You know,
Matt Taibbi: Again, we encourage that when they’re funding crappy neoliberal media ventures that basically say the same things that all of our politicians say. They even like upstart publications if they say the right things. Remember Ariana Huffington? When she came up it was, “Wow, look at this amazing new thing, a wealthy person is creating a vehicle through which all this political energy can pour out into the media landscape. Isn’t that amazing?” I seem to remember that being celebrated. But suddenly now that a handful of them are dabbling in ventures like Callin or Substack or whatever, we can’t have that. Time to get CFUIS on the horn!
Walter Kirn: They seem to be, Okay. So, so be off of Salesforce, I believe owns Time Magazine, if that’s correct. Um, another magazine I used to work for that’s changed hands several times. Um, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem when these billionaires buy legacy, uh, legacy publications,
Walter Kirn: When they buy the right places for the right reasons, they’re patrons. When they do something else, they’re suspect persons.
On the reign of Liz Truss, and the British in general:
Matt Taibbi: How funny was the short-lived reign Liz Truss, who was hailed by everybody in the United States as the great conservative alternative to populism? The American Enterprise Institute ran a great piece called “Growth Beats Grievance” or something, and Truss was gone about a ten minutes later.
Walter Kirn: She was the Third Way.
Matt Taibbi: There are sneezes that long that that probably lasted longer than her tenure. It was pretty amazing.
Walter Kirn: I lived in England, London, and Oxford for a few years. It was at a time in the eighties when Thatcher was Prime Minister, and Reagan was back here, and the British left was having a kind of massive spasm of both nostalgia and hostility to this new, frankly capitalist, Milton-Friedman-driven atmosphere. They often lectured me, my British friends, on the inferiority of the American system, their party-based, parliamentary system, which was much more flexible. You could call elections, you could lose faith in a leader and replace them. But theirs is looking pretty Keystone Kops right now.
Matt Taibbi: Is there anything funnier than a British person trying to argue superiority of anything British with regard to the United States? I mean that with all due respect. There are a lot of great things about the English. I lived there as a boy. They make great nature shows. They make excellent detective series. They’re really good writers. But they’re a glorified version of Puerto Rico now. They’re a US territory, and part of the deal is that we get to make fun of them. And we also get to recruit some of their talent to star in our superhero movies as villains and to narrate stuff, because they’re really good at that, too. Although we had a period of letting them run magazines here, and that didn’t end well.
Walter Kirn: I would relegate them to the status of international influencer, a sort of TikTok style influencer. Between their royal family and their various melodramatic political spasms. They’re somewhat colorful political characters. They hold our attention. But they haven’t been people of substance on the international scene for a while, at least since Tony Blair went. They had a kind of renaissance as part of the anti-Saddam coalition. But since then, there hasn’t been much.
Matt Taibbi: Really all they did in that episode is put a fake stamp of approval on our bogus reasons for invading Iraq, which is what they’re there for, to give a veneer of civilization on the things that we do. That’s what Britain is good at. They sound civilized. The politicians sound civilized or, and, and often look civilized, although not always. They’re there to do what we ask them to do, and they’re good at it.
Walter Kirn: When they coordinate with the American president, when there’s a Thatcher to a Reagan, or there’s a Blair while there’s a Bush, they often put a kind of bow tie on the American persona internationally. Blair restates what the stumbling Texan, heir to the Bush Dynasty, can’t say very well. He sits in the big councils and gives that special touch of class. Thatcher gave a touch of class in a way to an American movie actor president, though she was a different kind of figure. Boris Johnson’s rather short reign didn’t seem to coordinate very well with America.
Matt Taibbi: He meant less to the American imagination than Harry and Meghan did. All they are now are grifters. They came over and got a deal to do this massive Spotify podcast and did one and a half episodes, got paid $30 million or some ridiculous amount of money, and then checked out. To that, I say, good for them. I’m glad. That’s what America’s for. You come here, you rip us off, because we’re stupid and have lots of money. I applaud all Europeans who sell their European-ness on the American market and get vastly overpaid to do so. I think that’s a wonderful thing when it happens. But I balk at taking them seriously. And, and frankly, uh… I guess I should just admit that I have a dark fantasy about sending the 101st Airborne to occupy England sometimes.
Walter Kirn: Let’s explore your childhood, Matt, because this seems to be not purely policy-based bias that you have.
Matt Taibbi: I was picked on by the Brits when I was a kid. So I cop to that.
Walter Kirn: They’re great at being mean to people. I mean, it took me about a year living in England to realize that the national pastime is insulting you. Then they say, “Oh, just taking the mickey.”
To segue into our other censorship based story we must remember that Harry joined the Aspen Institute’s “misinformation initiative” or whatever it was called. He did speak in front of the UN not long ago about the necessary necessity of pure discourse or, I don’t know — something about the dangers of misinformation. Harry does have that brief, even internationally, and here with our think-tankers. It does seem that you see stories every once in a while about Britain being a little ahead of us in the combating-woke-micro-aggressions department.
I’ve seen a lot of stories about policemen showing up at people’s houses because they tweeted something that was deemed offensive to some group or something. I always like to feel that we’re a little freer than they are. I think we are...
Matt Taibbi: (irrationally angry) Wait, backing up — how do we have Prince Harry in charge of anything? What are the qualifications of that person? That mystifies me,
Walter Kirn: That’s the whole American experiment. We rejected the notion that that birth equals qualification, but it hangs on back in very old England.
Matt Taibbi: But then why do we do it too?
On the disappearance of ABC News producer James Gordon Meek:
Walter Kirn: Anyone who has a conversation in public, I think has begun to feel the cold fingers of the state on their shoulder. The amount of censorship in this society that’s run through Silicon Valley onto places like Twitter, Facebook, et cetera, is great, but the amount of self-censorship that’s going on in the minds of the people is far greater. And you begin to wonder if America can even speak in the way it used to, either personally or across the wires. Uh, I’m starting to get a sense of people talking in code retreating to sort of bunkers of like-mindedness, or simply being false in their public presentations. It is a cold digital curtain that’s falling on America, and whatever the specific justifications for it are, whatever the individual raids are predicated on, the feeling that reigns is one of inhibition.
Matt Taibbi: To follow up on your prior thought, the old bedtime story in our business was that the person who worked in the media was somebody who was just bursting with the emotion of defiance and unwillingness to be told what to say or think, or to self-censor. The people we celebrated the most in the media were the least inhibited people, the people who were least interested in what the government had to say about what, what it was. This could have been represented by somebody like Hunter Thompson, whose literary style of total defiance was what made him so popular. Or it was somebody like Sy Hersh…
Walter Kirn: I was just going to mention him.
Matt Taibbi: He was in defiance of every institutional safeguard in the country, found out true things, told the public about them. And even though he was a controversial figure, the public thought, this guy is great, because he’s taking risks, he’s working the phones to find out the truth and give it to us and, and fuck what the Pentagon thinks about it. There was no question that there was a tone of defiance in the way that he wrote that was really attractive. He told us about the CIA’s domestic surveillance program…
Walter Kirn: The My Lai massacre. Abu Ghraib.
Matt Taibbi: This was the opposite of official messaging. And now, where is that? They don’t want us to be that.
Walter Kirn: The character of the maverick or the rebel is about as relevant as the whaler is to modern industry.
I don’t know what inspires young people to become journalists now. The possibility of doxing your neighbors, the possibility of being a Taylor Lorenz who cruises the internet to find wrongthink, and then exposes its speakers? Is it more like a policeman to be a journalist now?