Raging hacks with Muckraker turned magazine creator Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, photographed by Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos / New York Magazine
Photo: Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos / New York Magazine

Matt Taibbi, the former enfant terrible of political journalism, limped into a cozy diner on Chambers Street in Tribeca, a Russian-style fur cap pulled over his ears, a half-formed excuse for being late already on his lips. “I am – I had to – have I kept you wait?”

Informed that he’s actually seven minutes early, his shoulders slump in relief. “Okay,” the gangly 44-year-old said, with a toothy smile. “Good. You’ll have to excuse me. It’s been a crazy time for me.”

This is Matt Taibbi, circa 2014: deferential, polite, very busy. In mid-February, shortly after the birth of his first child, Taibbi announced he was leaving Rolling stone, where he worked for nearly a decade, launching a digital magazine for First Look Media, the company owned by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. The last few weeks have been about business: hiring editorial staff, approving designs. Taibbi won’t discuss the exact format of the new business, or its name – which is still in the works as well – but he sees it focusing, in part, on the same corporate malfeasance issues he covers. since years.

What I hope to capture is the funny yet satirical voice you have with To spy magazine, ”he says. “Everything will probably be a little different from what a lot of people wait.”

What people expect, of course, is the saucy and strongly antagonistic voice of a writer who is, in his own words, “full of outrage”. The guy who compared Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of mankind, relentlessly driving his blood funnel into everything that smells of money.” The reporter who dropped acid, donned a Viking hat and wrap-around sunglasses, and had a casual conversation with the former deputy director of the Bureau of National Drug Policy, the same policymaker responsible for the “Here’s your brain on drugs” ad campaign. And the person who, as editor-in-chief of a Muscovite newspaper, entered the local offices of the Times and slammed a pie filled with horse semen in the face of a reporter he considered a “hack”. Unfiltered and un-intimidated Matt Taibbi who once threw coffee at an interviewer from Vanity Show then I chased him down the street.

But despite his new personal courtesy, none of Taibbi’s anger at the “toothless” media has dissipated. “I think it’s a lost art in this country – developing that narrative voice where readers connect with you as a human being,” he says, harpooning a stray piece of scrambled egg. “They want to see how you individually react to things. And if you think something is outrageous and you write about it in a tone without outrage, then it is only deception, you know?”

Taibbi says his decision to leave Rolling stone was based in part on the need to make a change and “not to be a role model”, and in part by his desire to “be on Glenn’s side”. Glenn being Glenn Greenwald, who, along with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, currently edit another First Look property, the National Security Center Interception, which has been online since February. “Glenn is in this position of a reporter trying to publish material from a whistleblower, and now they’re both essentially in exile. It’s crazy. If the media that existed in the 60s and 70s saw this situation, they would stand up as one and denounce the government for it, ”Taibbi said.

Like old Washington To post scribe Ezra Klein, who recently moved to a new venture at Vox Media, Taibbi sees hope in the founding and start-up mode of journalism. “You have this widespread distrust of media organizations,” he says, “and the feeling on both sides that the networks are in the reservoir of one political party or another. I think people are more willing to trust individuals than themselves organizations. “

Taibbi grew up on the South Shore of Boston, where he said he was a “depressed” kid, happy to spend the day browsing old Russian novels. “I had to read Dead souls a hundred times, ”he said. “I had this fantasy I was living in 19e– century Russia. (It was his Russophilia that led him to settle there in 1992, where he remained until 2002, working first at the Times, then to exile, a newspaper he helped found with his expatriate compatriot Mark Souls.)

Taibbi’s dad is an Emmy Award winner CNB journalist Mike Taibbi – and along with Gogol and Tolstoy, he also idolized the “middle and working class people” who then populated the newsrooms. “They relished their role of idiots who wouldn’t let anything slip. And I was drawn to it, ”he says. “I mean, reporters should be dark, funny, mean people. It’s appropriate for their antagonist, accusatory role.”

Compare that with today, he argues, when for many journalists, “the attractiveness of work has more to do with proximity to power. They mean they had a beer with Hillary Clinton or whatever. Particularly offensive to Taibbi: the tendency of his peers to go to great lengths to always give the same weight to opposing arguments. “If there is one way of looking at it, and there is another way of looking at it which is totally ridiculous, you don’t have to give this last point of view as much space as some professors of journalism. contemporary might say so. you.”

He wakes up. It’s time to go: the day is full of appointments, and at home in Jersey City, his wife, a family doctor and his son are waiting. But first he wants to take a look at the waitress tattoo. She stretches her hand forward: I FUCKING LOVE YOU, reads a line of blue cursive writing. “Very good”, says Taibbi with appreciation.

Outside, the temperature dropped to 19 degrees. Taibbi, tucked away in an old square coat, says it’s not as cold as when he lived in Moscow, and it’s positively mild compared to climates in Mongolia, where he, at 25, had spent a season playing professional basketball. . The team was the Mountain Eagles; Taibbi was a small striker. “I had met this kid who played street ball in Moscow and he told me about a professional league in Mongolia called the MBA. So I quit my job and took a train to Ulan Bator. They called me ‘the Mongolian Rodman’, ”he says. “I would have stayed. I was having fun. But I caught pneumonia and had to go back to Moscow.”

Taibbi heads south, towards the cloistered streets of the financial district. I wonder aloud if he thinks the work he’s done on Wall Street – on subprime mortgages, the student loan apparatus and the “rat nest teeming with corruption” that led to the 2008 collapse – made a difference.

I think the first clue I got was when Occupy happened, ”he says. “And I could see a lot of the stuff I wrote about was in the background. People carrying papier mache squid at some events which was cool. I think that’s part of what every journalist wants: to make an impact. Yet that impact has only gone so far. None of the operators Taibbi considers to be criminally responsible for the accident has been sanctioned; meanwhile movies like the wolf of Wall Street are, in his opinion, idolizing bankers in a way he finds improper. “It’s kind of the same way they glorified the Mafia once upon a time,” he says. “But at least with the mafia, there was always this lesson that we had at the end, that the crime did not have To pay.”

Taibbi stops at the top of the steps at Fulton Street underground station. “Big companies like Goldman Sachs have billions to spend on their own advertising. They don’t need us to do it for them. And everyone in this world needs us to do it for them, ”he said, waving his hand. “I think of that a parcel.”

* This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of new York Magazine.

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