I was away on a story last week when it occurred to me that I'm getting tired of all this travel. Maybe, I thought, I should find a job closer to home. So it was with more than idle curiosity that I flipped through the Times want ads, and came across the following:
NEEDED: Assignment editor in important cultural organization. Must have no morals and be completely full of shit. 5+ years exp. required. Serious applicants only.
It was Sunday, but I called right away. A woman answered:
"Yes, I'm calling about the ad."
"Are you completely full of shit?"
"I'm a journalist," I explained.
"A good one?"
"A hack," I said. "But at night, I sleep like a baby."
She paused. "How does Tuesday at nine sound?"
On Tuesday I dressed in a suit--unusual for me--and went to the Park Avenue address. It was odd; I'd never noticed before that the News Cycle had its own skyscraper. The interview was in 4411, in the front-page department. A man with slicked-back hair and fat yellow suspenders from the 80s waved me inside.
"Rick Rothstein," he said. "Glad to meet you."
"Matt Taibbi," I said, shaking his hand.
"Right. So, Matt," he said, retaking his seat behind his desk. "Why do you want to work at the news cycle?"
I shrugged as I sat. "Well," I said. "I'm immensely lazy, and I want to make gigantic money without having to move or think much. Plus, as I've gotten older, I just don't give a damn anymore."
He nodded and wrote in a notebook. "Those are all excellent reasons," he said. "What makes you think you're qualified?"
"Are you kidding?" I said. "I'm a completely depraved media figure. I promise you, I'm absolutely rotten to the core."
"Hmm," he said. "Did you cover the Michael Jackson trial?"
"I covered the shit out of it," I said, beaming.
"Okay," he said. "Well, we have a standard test we give to applicants here. We need to know if you really understand the news cycle."
"Shoot," I said, folding my arms.
"Okay," he said. "It's Monday morning. There were no late-breaking stories on Sunday night. The president is in Belize, attending an international conference on climate change. What are you looking for when you scan the wires on the way to work?"
"That's easy," I said. "A blond white child trapped in a dumpster."
"Anywhere," I said. "Montana. Missouri. Florida. It'll probably be Florida--that's the first place I'll look."
"Okay," he said. "What are your top three standup locations?"
"All right," I said. "One, outside the idyll suburban home from whence he was snatched. You'll want the still-ajar window in the shot. Two, in front of the police barriers at the nearby landfill where, sources say, a search with 'cadaver dogs' is being conducted. Three, outside the squalid home/trailer of the 'person of interest.' If there's no overturned Big Wheel in the foreground, buy one."
He nodded. "That's nicely done," he said. "What else will you be looking for?"
I frowned. "What, you mean the basics?"
"Indulge me," he said.
"Okay," I said. "A tropical depression headed this way. A suspected case of Mad Cow in Kentucky or maybe Tennessee. Are you safe? Fuck no. A B-list celebrity crouching over the blood-drenched body of his same-sex companion. A Democratic senator with his cock in a Jack Russell. Lance Armstrong, our hero, still going strong. And news from the latest cultural witch-hunt, of course."
"Which witch hunt do you have in mind?"
I shrugged. "Whichever one's available," I said. "Gays teaching evolution, maybe. A five-year-old wearing a Canadian-flag pin during the pledge of allegiance. If things are tight, a seditious professor somehow granted tenure while we weren't watching. Once called bin Laden a human being or something."
"Okay," he said. "Answer in three seconds or less. There's bad news in Iraq. What's on the cover of the New York tabloid?"
"Um," I said, snapping my fingers. "Black dude on the loose in Queens. Kwame Jefferson, 19, inset!"
"What's the gist of the headline?"
"Well, there are a couple good ones," I said. "There's 'How could we let this happen?' and there's, 'Cops: It was her first piano lesson.' Either one works."
He nodded. "Not bad. What's the ultimate headline?"
"KILLED FOR A TEDDY BEAR," I said quickly. "Nab tot in bear gun hit. Photos, p. 4."
"Not bad. What will Brad and Angelina name their baby?"
I shrugged. "Hard to say. Whatever it is, it'll sound like a new General Motors vehicle. Something like 'Zephyr' or 'Avalanche.' We want that picture."
"What picture do we want, exactly?" he asked.
"We want holding-her-for-the-first-time, we want dressed-in-baggy-jeans-and-sunglasses-to-buy-diapers, we want holding-her-adorable-little-hand-in-the-park. The Jackie-and-Caroline shot."
"I have AIDS. What should I do?"
"Go fuck yourself," I said. "Unless you want to hold up a Circle K with a syringe."
"When aliens land to claim our planet, what will the position of the New York Times editorial board be?"
"They'll advise caution. We could look at this as an opportunity, but we should also be realistic. Of course we should have known this was coming. A Times story in June 1997 addressed this very possibility. Both parties, but especially the Republicans, share in the blame. E.T. remains a beloved cultural institution. The president is to be supported until he gives us reason to do otherwise."
"What is Robert Novak doing at this very moment?"
"Jerking off," I answered.
"The Price of Power, by Seymour Hersh," I said.
"All right," he said. "We're going to play a little word association game."
"Okay," he said. "NASCAR."
"Outstanding," I said. "Burgeoning cultural phenomenon. We're looking for stories about it spreading among the college-educated. Its fans flexing electoral muscle."
"Envious bastards. Their movies suck."
"Exclusive interview: Tom Cruise, or Vladimir Putin?"
I laughed. "Does Putin have a movie?"
"Ha, ha, exactly," he said. "One last thing: could you give me today's summary?"
"You mean today, July 12?"
I took a deep breath. "Dennis fizzles. Panhandle breathes sigh of relief. Remains of a child found in Idaho. Brit cops revise timeline: bearded creep, inset. Fantastic Four pulls Hollywood out of its box-office doldrums. Kyrgyzstan, Srebenica, Manila."
"What will it be tomorrow?"
"Boy abducted in Oregon. Tornado in Arkansas. Barry Bonds, encephalitis, Willie Wonka. And I'm going to guess Caracas, Sweden, and maybe Kabul. Iraq in the shitter still."
"Fantastic," he said. "Well, Matt, I think I'd like to offer you a position. When can you start?"
"When do you need me?"
"Well, we'll be invading Iran later this year. Do you think you'll be available then?"
I shrugged. "Later this year, huh? What's the movie?"
"They're not great. Get Rich or Die Tryin', National Lampoon's 'Pledge This!,' some John Cusack thing called The Ice Harvest... Although there's also a Harry Potter."
"Well," I said. "That's a start. Something to work with, anyway. Sign me up."