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In a March 2003 column for the New York Press, Matt Taibbi wrote of a pre–Iraq War press conference, “It would be hard to imagine an image that more perfectly describes American political journalism today: George Bush, surrounded by a row of potted plants, in turn surrounded by the White House press corps.” Written in response to the apparently scripted nature of the conference—Bush chose his questioners from a predetermined list rather than raised hands—the column, “Cleaning the Pool,” was included in the Best American Political Writing 2003 anthology. It’s also in Taibbi’s new Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season, a savage, hilarious recounting of the 2004 election cycle that compiles Taibbi’s Press columns, extended versions of articles previously published in the Nation and Rolling Stone, and campaign-trail diaries. A current of exasperated, unsparing criticism of the mainstream media runs through the book, which culminates in the ingeniously conceived “Wimblehack,” an elimination tournament to determine the worst campaign journalist in the United States. Along the way, the irreverent Taibbi has a lot of fun at the expense of the candidates, especially John Kerry: The author reserves a peculiar brand of scorn for the eventual Democratic nominee, which manifests itself in various pranks that involve the donning of Army-vet, gorilla, and Viking costumes. But prior to Kerry’s Iowa and New Hampshire primary victories, Taibbi claims, his campaign was something of a joke anyway: “I would have bet my own life that he would never become the nominee. How he managed to win back the confidence of the campaign reporters, whom I had frequently seen doubled over with laughter every time he gave a speech, remains one of the mysteries of the campaign.” Note that it’s the reporters’ confidence—not the voters’—that’s at issue here. But, while Taibbi radiates contempt for Kerry, Bush, and Lieberman—generally speaking, anybody on the ballot who isn’t Dennis Kucinich—he reserves the most bile for his fellow scribes. He blames them for encouraging the campaigns to be run like horse races, overemphasizing polls and buzzword concepts such as “electability” and “the likeability gap” and thus virtually guaranteeing that image will always trump substance. Taibbi’s scorn for the media paradigm is writ largest in the Wimblehack chapter, which catalogs the grievous habits of such journalists as Time’s Karen Tumulty, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman, and the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne and Dana Milbank. The idea is simple: 32 reporters are bracketed into pairs; the worse writer wins the match and advances to the next round. Typical offenses include unironic comparisons between the presidential debates and reality TV, and writing about the debates as if they were a sports match, which AP writer Nedra Pickler does to a surreal degree in the example Taibbi cites. The New York Times’ Elisabeth Bumiller, the eventual tournament winner, locks up a first-round victory with an article comparing the Spanish accents of Bush and Kerry and later clinches the tournament with a postelection profile of the president’s tailor. Such journalism, in the end, is essentially decorative, not even as functional as the oxygen-giving flora flanking the president’s podium. By the end of the book, it’s not difficult to see why the plants are given the better seats in the White House press room.—Chris Hagan