Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

The 'Rolling Stone' Michele Bachmann Profile Aftermath (and Where Matt Taibbi is Right)

"Because brother, I have been there, when some would-be 'reputable' journalist who's just been severely ass-whipped by a relative no-name freelancer on an enormous story fights back by going on television and, without any evidence at all, accusing the guy who beat him of cheating. That's happened to me so often, I've come to expect it. If there's a lower form of life on the planet earth than a 'reputable' journalist protecting his territory, I haven't seen it."

That description of the lowest form of life reporter Matt Taibbi has ever found on planet earth came exactly one year ago yesterday. It was directed at Lara Logan ("Lara Logan, You Suck") after she criticized Rolling Stone for printing scandalous statements by General McChrystal's team.

A year later, when I confronted him about the fact that his profile of Michele Bachmann contained a whole lot of unattributed information, including quotes, that came from reports and profiles written by smaller blogs and local papers years ago, Taibbi's defense included leaning on his alt-weekly background. The old "I know what it's like, dude" thing.

The old "I come from an alt weekly background too" excuse was the same thing his Rolling Stone editor, Eric Bates, trotted out when he faced questions about why he cut at least three source attributions in Taibbi's final draft—something Bates said he did "for space."

As Slate's Jack Shafer asked The Cutline about the decision: "How big was the art hole on that piece? Huge, I'll bet."

He bet right. No space there.

In addition to cutting mention of three sources, the Rolling Stone piece appears to make a conscious effort not to credit anyone for any information.

In 5,200-words, only two sources show up: the program "Hardball" and the Washington Post—both for recent quotes from Bachmann. That despite passages like the following, which, given the other quotes, well….

Rolling Stone:

Maple River was so out there that Minnesota's then-governor, Jesse Ventura, no slouch in the batshit-conspiracy department, dismissed the group as nothing but a bunch of people who "think UFOs are landing next month."

City Pages, 2006:

Former Governor Jesse Ventura once said of them, "The Maple River group, they think UFOs are landing next month. They think it's some big government federal conspiracy!"

In the end, the original material published by Rolling Stone amounts to quotes from four people: Chris Littleton, an Ohio Tea Party leader, and Elwyn Tinklenberg and Mary Cecconi, both candidiates who lost to Bachmann in elections, the latter a lobbyist for Democratic causes.

The fourth person Taibbi speaks with is Bill Prendergast, who's credited as "a Stillwater resident who wrote for the town's newspaper and has documented every step of Bachmann's career."

The newspaper was the Stillwater Gazette and Prendergast was fired from his column there on Oct. 12, 2005. The position he was asked to leave was unpaid.

Later Prendergast joined the Dump Bachmann blog where he wrote about Bachmann until he left, on less than amicable terms, in part because of posts like this. Today Prendergast blogs for The Daily Kos and the Minnesota Progressive Project.

That Rolling Stone's concern about space led to the removal of the City Pages citations doesn't explain how Bill Prendergast's bio was reduced to a job he only held for two years and which he has not held in more than five.

In the course of Bates explaining that this all wasn't that big a deal, he emailed that it "started out being more about her campaign and her relationship to the Tea Party, so Stillwater didn't come up when Matt planned his travel" and that "it wasn't until toward the end that I asked him to shift to include more about her background, which brought Stillwater into the story more."

A hastily changed focus that necessitated more information on short notice. Happens all the time.

Unless Bates was trying to make the piece seem more robust than it really was, and make it appear as if the paper's new-millennium answer to Hunter Thompson had "done it again." The day the magazine came out, Taibbi was already booked to appear on Imus and a number of other stops on the well-worn pony ride circle of screaming professional opinion-havers. (To kick off his interview, Imus said he hadn't read the piece yet.)

Taibbi has become a kind of late-stage Dali employed by Rolling Stone as masthead juice to be rolled out every time it wants to give some in-the-now high-pageview political figure "the Taibbi treatment."

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes notes that even Taibbi is becoming a bad version of Taibbi:

"[Taibbi] described Mike Huckabee as a 'wild-eyed Baptist goofball,' a 'Christian goofball of the highest order,' a 'religious zealot,' 'full-blown nuts' and 'batshit.'

Compare that with his characterization of Bachmann: 'a religious zealot' who has 'strangely unfocused eyes' and 'may seem like a goofball' but is actually 'completely batshit crazy.'"

I would add to Bercovici's good examples Taibbi's description, in the same piece, of Jesse Ventura as "no slouch in the batshit-conspiracy department." And in an October, 2010, Rolling Stone piece ("The Truth About the Tea Party") Taibbi described Rand Paul's views as "flat-out batshit crazy." It all started back in his book The Great Derangement, where Taibbi describes the world of a Texas church as "utterly batshit." (In that same book, guess what word he uses to describe the process of being "born again"?) Meanwhile, members of the congregation? "Goofballs."

While doing an interview on radio, after agreeing with the host's statement that "Bachmann isn't crazy like Sarah Palin is crazy," Taibbi added that "Sarah Palin is just a goofball." Taibbi garnished that by saying Bachmann was kind of like Osama bin Laden.

(Incidentally, Taibbi's written about Sarah Palin too, in the October 2 issue of Rolling Stone. There he called Palin "a religious zealot" and "cross-eyed political neophyte." Also in that profile, Taibbi calls Palin a "small-town girl" who thinks "the PTA minutes are Holy Writ." More recently, of Bachmann: a "small-town PTA maven.")

When I reached out to Bates again for comment, I got a message back from the Wenner Media PR department: "Eric is on vacation, and very hard to reach." Then they stopped answering emails.

Taibbi is also no longer responding to questions, though he did respond to The Cutline to say, "I grew up in alternative newspapers and have been in the position the City Pages reporter is in, so I'm sympathetic. They did good work in that piece and deserve to be credited. But you should know also that this isn't plagiarism—it's not even an allegation of plagiarism. It's an attribution issue." Rolling Stone PR also took it up with The Cutline's use of the "P" word.

Taibbi, for his part, seems genuinely regretful about the way things went down. (Or maybe he remembers his own statement about Logan.) He sent an email to me a day after the first Awl piece:


This is not for publication –

Do you have contact info for G.R. Anderson? I want to call him to offer an explanation, and, if Eric allows me to do so on behalf of the magazine, an apology.


[Editor's Note: The Awl is always happy to speak to people in confidence, but that arrangement isn't reached by a demand: it's an agreement.]

Anderson, the writer of the original City Pages piece (as well as many others about Bachmann's early days) did not yet get that apology.

"What good would it do me?" G.R. Anderson told me. He added, "If nothing else, this kerfluffle has shed light on a side of Bachmann that I know well, and felt then as I do now, that interested citizens need to know. So, that's an upside." Anderson, who graduated from Columbia journalism school just as Bates did, laments what the whole thing means to journalists—because they are "not held in high regard in opinion polls, and these things don't help. In fact, it saddens me, because it hurts the reputations of good, hard-working journalists who only have credibility to offer."

Anderson had actually pitched Bates the very story from which Bates got to remove Anderson's credit. During the 2008 campaign cycle, he pitched Bates "some stories on Coleman-Franken, Obama in MN and Bachmann's influence on the electorate in what was deigned a swing state of sorts."

Anderson says that he still has a trove of information he's never published, including, for example, church bulletin notices that Bachmann wrote. He got those by going down to her church and convincing one of the administrators there to hand them over. He's also emailed with one of her children. Of going back to covering the candidate he tells me is the "most dark and cynical politician" he has ever seen, Anderson said the thought kind of depresses him: "Journalists are people too."

Anderson, who now teaches some journalism classes at the University of Minnesota, predicts Bachmann will win Iowa, lose New Hampshire and end up "on Mitt Romney's undercard."

A wrench on the works of the Chicken Little Bachmann Rising narrative is that Michele Bachmann may be running for president because it's the only thing left for which she might run. A June, 2011 Public Policy Polling survey found that only 10 percent of Minnesotans wanted Bachmann to run for re-election. In the 2010 election, which produced the greatest Republican congressional victory landslide of all time, Bachmann won with 52.5 percent of the vote, her highest victory margin ever. (Compare that to, say, Paul Ryan's 68 percent.)

Among the 154 incumbent Republicans who won their re-election bids in 2010, Bachmann's margin was the sixth closest. Hardly indicative of a powerful pol. Still, Anderson doubts this, saying he's totally confident she can hold her seat "as long as she wants."

Where Taibbi was more correct than anywhere else, and even presciently so, given what just happened with "John Wayne" in Iowa, is this:

When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

That's why, despite all the invective knitted together from others' work on behalf of the Olbermann circuit, what will really bring Bachmann down with primary voters is investigative work such as NBC News' recent findings that "While Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., has forcefully denounced the Medicaid program for swelling the 'welfare rolls,' the mental health clinic run by her husband has been collecting annual Medicaid payments totaling over $137,000 for the treatment of patients since 2005."

Update 6/29 PM
: Taibbi's just posted June 29 Rolling Stone blog entry on Bachmann's campaign start ends… curiously:

"Anyway, I would advise anyone who wants to know more about Bachmann to read a new book on her by William Prendergast and Chris Truscott called Michele Bachmann’s America. Prendergast, who lives in Bachmann’s hometown of Stillwater, Minnesota and has been following her for years, is like the living oracle of Bachmann, and walked me through her whole life story on the telephone a few weeks ago. The book is available in Kindle version."

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer at gmail dot com. He is on Twitter.

34 Comments / Post A Comment

deepomega (#1,720)

Can we get that last part turned into a banner ad that runs over every political blog? "Making fun of factual errors will not make voters like you. Making fun of political hypocrisy will."

shaunr (#726)

And for this one: "Publishing private correspondence will not make readers like you…"

Abe Sauer (#148)

@shaunr I'll just address that right here and now. That was an unsolicited email from him to me that came as no part of a conversation, especially since all follow ups with him re: that email were ignored. Just slapping "do not publish this" on your correspondence (especially to somebody you know to be working on that very story) does not automatically make it "private."

allyzay (#321)

@deepomega Matt Taibbi of all fucking people should know you don't just blurt shit out without getting an agreement first that you are off the record. You don't just email "THIS IS OFF THE RECORD!" apropos of nothing and then start in on it. I'm not going to get pissy with Abe over Matt Taibbi's continually sloppy, unprofessional behavior, is basically my point.

riggssm (#760)

@Abe Sauer Oh fuckstick I tried to thumbs-up your reply, Abe, but hit reply then accidentally liked shaunr's instead. I suck.

shaunr (#726)

@Abe Sauer Thanks for addressing that but *even without the direct request not to publish* I would think a similar letter or email of mine to be a private correspondence and because I otherwise loved your piece you can see how running the email might seem a kind of synecdoche to me for the squandering of sympathy you rightly clobber Taibbi for.

I know I sound like one of those 'more in sorrow than anger' cunts, concern trolls or whatever, but your piece is, among other things, about good manners. It's great and I think it doesn't need that email.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@shaunr Taibbi knows full well how these agreements work and would do the exact same. That said, I'm sure at least in his mind this will be seen as a dick move that undermines the piece's argument.

IBentMyWookie (#133)

@Abe Sauer Bullshit, Abe. It was a dick move on your part, and something you think is acceptable because you're so fucking self-righteous.

barnhouse (#1,326)

You know what is really interesting is, how come Taibbi would want that particular statement off the record? Why would he be unwilling to acknowledge a desire to apologize to this writer? If he had any sense, wouldn't he make the apology publicly?–that at least would start to put things right (paging Dave Bry, who can show him how.)

kneetoe (#1,881)

@deepomega: The problem with his logic is that "these people" are never going to vote for a Dem anyway, so fuck it, go ahead and make fun.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@IBentMyWookie I don't agree that it's a dick move per se, but is almost certain to be perceived as one by Taibbi (who, again, should absolutely know better). Which will surely only prolong the drama and make him look stupider, so maybe it was actually a META dick move on Abe's part? Intriguing…

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: My guess is, for the same reason businesses don't apologize when you get hurt on their property: an apology is a tacit admission of guilt. If Anderson decided to sue RS, he'd have more of a leg to stand on now.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff a worthy conjecture, but man the whole thing is still very mystifying.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

"When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC…" I too found that the most cogent bit of Taibbi's piece. I grew up with religious fanatics. In general, appeals to reason are wasted on them, and mockery strengthens their delusions of persecution. The consequences for American government are baleful.

TJ O'Neal (#14,548)

Man you guys are sure edgy and cool by just publishing anything you get that is off-the-record.

Keep stickin it to the man Abe!

E (#14,552)

@TJ O'Neal Off the record is not a declaration. It's not like yelling, "jinx, you can't use this" and then the journalist goes, "aww snap!"

Off the record is an agreement journalists make. You say, "I have something I need to tell you, you need to know, but I can't be the source. Is this off the record?" Then if the journalist says, "Yes", it is off the record.

I am not a journalist and I know this. Matt Taibbi is one of the most famous print journalists in the world. It's pretty dumb for him not to know it.

helplesscase (#9,843)

@E I don't think the problem is whether Taibbi knew what he was doing (hopefully he did), but how the publication of the letter appears to members of the gen pop. It just doesn't look *all that great.*

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Taibbi will always have a place in my heart for The eXile and his NY Press stuff (OK mainly just his review of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat), but I think the best part of Abe's take-down here is he does it exactly the way Taibbi would, minus the repetitive name-calling.

Is there any way we can create some kind of Sauer-Taibbi hybrid and give it, say, the NY Times's entire reporting budget and news hole? I can certainly think of worse ways to use those resources.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@stuffisthings the repetitive name-calling is the most irksome to me. Maybe printed publications figure contentious drama to be a shot in the arm, a way to stave off encroaching on-line competition.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@whizzard I've been thinking about this (far too much probably), and I realized that the problem is Taibbi is at his best when he directs his vitriol against something which is actually ridiculous, yet for whatever reason has established an air of reasonable respectability. So when he tears the guts out of a boring middlebrow figure like Thomas Friedman, it's refreshing, because Friedman's plausible-sounding horseshit is actually quite dangerous and harmful. Whereas a figure like Bachmann or Palin has never truly been taken seriously by anyone, even on their own side, so the name-calling seems juvenile and superfluous. Calling ultra-fringe evangelicals "batshit goofballs" would have been edgy in the 80s, but not today when anyone sensible already knows that they are and anyone else would just be offended by the profanity.

Aatom (#74)

This comment is not for publication.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Aatom you forgot to say "off the record", I'm running it.

emilydemery (#7,418)


Thanks for the competent takedown.

Taibbi's bloviating and name-calling runs so blatantly counter to his teetering on the journalist-come-purist pedestal it drives me nuts.

I am <3ing the Awl so hard right now!

Peter Feld (#79)

Great piece but your comparison of Bachmann's and Ryan's vote totals is potentially off-base. Without checking (lazy!) it's likely Ryan has a much more Republican district than she has. It's also likely that Bachmann's district lines will change with the new census and could be made into a safer seat. Someone who gets 52% in a split district might be a stronger performer politically than someone who gets 68% in a safe district.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Peter Feld Paul Ryan's 1st district voted for Obama. How "safe" is that?

In a parallel universe Abe and Matt are totally BFF.

sigerson (#179)

Oh, Jeezus Christ on a moped, Abe, you're such a self-righteous pain the ass. Love ya, but why did you have to go back to this story? Your first post was solid but this post seems petty, strangely biased (why hate on Prendergast so much?), unethical and hypocritical. It also reeks of professional jealousy, which is just unbecoming (to say the least).

And thus we have taken our eye off the prize, and turned what we have been waiting for 6 years for, real scrutinizing of Bachmann on a natioanl scale, into a pissing match of who didn't get credit. I understand that these guys have poured their heart and soul into the Bachmann project, but they have forgotten the goal. It is no longer important that we slay the dragon. All that matters is that they get to be the slayers.

And thus we have taken our eye off the prize, and turned what we have been waiting for 6 years for, real scrutinizing of Bachmann on a natioanl scale, into a pissing match of who didn't get credit. I understand that these guys have poured their heart and soul into the Bachmann project, but they have forgotten the goal. It is no longer important that we slay the dragon. All that matters is that they get to be the slayers.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

I have no valid explanation as to why, but I am getting a fairly deep and cheap thrill over you going after Matt, Abe.

kjohns (#14,697)

Why all the pure unadulterated ultra rabid HATRED of Mrs. Bachmann? Is a successful female politician who does not toe the Democratic Party line really that threatening to the liberal left world view? Seriously, anyone with any fairness in their soul at all who sees on TV, hears on radio or reads online or in print hate filled attacks on Michelle Bachmann cannot help but wonder why she is so hated and feared by the left. Could it possibly be that unlike the left she does not believe that constitutional rights and liberties apply only to left wing elitists? Or is it that, unlike every other far left politician, she has actually worked hard to make a positive contribution to this world by providing a loving home to twenty something foster children, as well as her own birth children? Perhaps it's because she is a religious person? After all, every true lefty knows the Christian and Jewish faiths (all other faiths getting a pass of course) are evil and made up entirely of fanatics. It just helps make it clear that the oh so tolerant (tolerant of THEIR beliefs that is) and freedom loving (loving freedom only when it applies to THEIR freedom, of speech or anything else of course)left just hates it when someone dares to think or act for themselves while proudly flaunting the fact that they actually have real values and morals. Honestly, the hate on the left is driven, I think, by fear. Fear that the American voting public might see the left for what it truly is if someone as decent as Bachmann runs for President.

Ben Sherry@facebook (#113,063)

@kjohns war on drugs, 3 conflicts, 'border fence' those are some expensive, liberty restricting positions supportedvby Michelle Bachmann We need Johnson/Paul or maybe Cain/Johnson.

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