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

by Abe Sauer

“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.