Rolling Stone's Bachmann Article: The Hit Piece That Hit Itself

In its attempt to takedown Michele Bachmann, the magazine fails to cite its sources

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Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates is facing a wave of criticism for publishing a hit piece on Representative Michele Bachmann that relies extensively on the reporting of previously published works, which aren't credited in the magazine. The piece, "Michele Bachmann's Holy War," by Matt Taibbi, is a 5,000-word diatribe based largely on articles and blog posts reported by former Minneapolis City Pages reporter G.R. Anderson, who teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota. When Abe Sauer of The Awl pointed it out in a line-by-line comparison of Taibbi's piece and Anderson's 2006 Bachmann story, he elicited an acknowledgment from Bates, who admitted to deleting several "according to City Pages" citations. The magazine then added the citations in the online version. But Anderson, in a Q&A with City Pages writer Erin Carlyle, wasn't satisfied.

I'm surprised that a publication that I respect so much would actually play so fast and loose with something as simple as citations. I do know that during my course as a reporter for City Pages and other publications, I've quoted from Rolling Stone and attributed it to something of the effect of, according to Rolling Stone magazine article. If it was space considerations for Eric Bates, I would tell him that it's very easy to cut five words somewhere else in the story, and put the five words in that actually cites the source. That strikes me as a basic tenet of good journalism.

Indeed, it doesn't appear that other media gazers are dropping the issue either. Joe Pompeo and Dylan Stabelford at Yahoo labeled it a "plagiarism incident" and quoted Slate press critic Jack Shafer laying it on thick. "Attribution is the last thing an editor should cut!!!!" Shafer wrote. "How big was the art hole on that piece? Huge, I'll bet." And not all of the complaints were citation issues. The Awl took Taibbi to task for the piece's "lazy contentions about Bachmann and Stillwater," the town Bachmann is from that Taibbi describes as a "Midwestern version of a Currier & Ives set piece" with "no black people." The Awl cites local blogger Karl Bremmer who has doggedly reported on Bachmann and disputes Taibbi's claim (though he's admittedly biased given his Stillwater residence).

In defense of my own hometown of Stillwater, I have to inform them that if they are looking for the typical Bachmann Teabagger voter, they are more likely to find them elsewhere in the 6th District, since Bachmann has failed to carry Stillwater in any of her three congressional races. In fact, it wasn't until she moved to ultraconservative West Lakeland Township, which went for Tom Emmer over Mark Dayton by a margin of more than 2:1 in 2010, that Bachmann ever managed to even carry her own precinct.

Earlier today, in a conversation with Yahoo, Taibbi clarified that his original article did include the proper citations. "I did in fact refer to the City Pages piece in the draft I submitted," he said. "I did not see that those attributions had been removed. 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."

On that point, Jeff Bercovici at Forbes agrees. But he's not letting Taibbi off the hook for what he sees as the "laziness of his thinking."

As I've written before, celebrated though he may be, too often Taibbi doesn't have much more in his quiver than hyperbole, caricature and insults. And his stock of even those is pretty thin. In a profile four years ago, he 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."

Maybe the writer Matt Taibbi has really been ripping off is Matt Taibbi.

Still, the harshest media-on-media insult comes from Anderson's assessment of how Bates handled the Taibbi story, as Poynter's Jim Romenesko pulls out from City Pages' interview with Anderson:

I do want to say this for the record: I would not consider what the Rolling Stone article contained in it to be plagiarism. ... What I will say, as a graduate of the Columbia J-School, and an adjunct at the University of Minnesota J-School, I do know that if a student handed in a story with that particular lack of sourcing, not only would I give it an 'F,' I would probably put that student on academic fraud.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.