ve never been a fan of Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone's award-winning political writer and blogger. But I did want to agree with him when he called out CBS's Lara Logan for her ludicrous criticism of Michael Hastings, author of Rolling Stone's profile-cum-takedown of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, titled "The Runaway General." (Briefly: Logan implied that Hastings had acted deceitfully by coaxing his sources into blurting out their real views -- i.e. by doing what every journalist is supposed to do, every day.)
But I can't agree with Taibbi because, as usual, the shrieking intensity of his rhetoric is about the only thing he has going for him. Set aside the juvenile, idea-free name-calling that got him in trouble at True/Slant, where he blogged until last month. His carelessness for the facts is the greater issue.
Parodying Logan's position, Taibbi writes:
You cover a war commander, he's got to be able to trust that you're not going to embarrass him. Otherwise, how can he possibly feel confident that the right message will get out?
True, the Pentagon does have perhaps the single largest public relations apparatus on earth -- spending $4.7 billion on P.R. in 2009 alone and employing 27,000 people, a staff nearly as large as the 30,000-person State Department -- but is that really enough to ensure positive coverage[...]?
When you read something that makes you say "Now that just can't be right," it's always worth looking into, because it usually isn't. And, indeed, that's the case here.
Although he doesn't link to it, Taibbi is referring to an AP report from last year, which said the Pentagon budgeted $4.7 billion for "recruitment, advertising and public relations." That's recruitment, as in the hiring of more soldiers to actually go and fight wars, not the recruiting of friendly journalists to write nice articles. The breakdown isn't even close, either. Explained the AP:
The biggest chunk of funds -- about $1.6 billion -- goes into recruitment and advertising. Another $547 million goes into public affairs, which reaches American audiences. And about $489 million more goes into what is known as psychological operations, which targets foreign audiences.
So, no, the Pentagon does not have 27,000 flacks running around writing press releases. But that's not Taibbi's only distortion. He continues:
And true, most of the major TV outlets are completely in the bag for the Pentagon, with two of them (NBC/GE and Logan's own CBS, until recently owned by Westinghouse, one of the world's largest nuclear weapons manufacturers) having operated for years as leaders in both the broadcast media and weapons-making businesses.
How "recently" was CBS -- Logan's network -- owned by Westinghouse? Again, no link from Taibbi, but in fact, Viacom (VIA) bought the network in 1999. Eleven years ago is only "recently" in world-historical or geological time, and if that's your scale, then the four years Westinghouse owned CBS was but an eyeblink. (I'm guessing Taibbi also knows, but did not say, that GE (GE) already has a deal to sell NBC to Comcast, but since that sale has yet to be completed, I'll let it slide.)
Undaunted, Taibbi wraps up his riff like so:
But is that enough to guarantee a level playing field? Can a general really feel safe that Americans will get the right message when the only tools he has at his disposal are a $5 billion P.R. budget and the near-total acquiescence of all the major media companies and the near-total acquiescence of all the major media companies, some of whom happen to be the Pentagon's biggest contractors?
Note how blithely he tacked on another imaginary $300 million to the Pentagon's P.R. budget, or more than 50% of the actual outlay. But whatever, right? After all, what does one expect from a writer whose most famous sentence -- describing Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money" -- is itself a biological fiction?