Ask an old-time journalist to define the media’s societal role and without missing a beat many will immediately respond, “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Journalists of my day disparagingly dismissed themselves as “ink-stained wretches” and the profession attracted more than its share of iconoclasts and misfits. A collective desire to speak truth to power is what once bound the newsrooms of America.
Although he’s only 52-years-old, Matt Taibbi has the soul of journalists from a long-gone era. He first came to my attention in April 2010 when he published this story in Rolling Stone about Goldman Sachs, in which he characterized the firm as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The story easily ranks as one of the best business profiles ever published in American journalism, all the more impressive given that Taibbi wasn’t a business journalist. Until Taibbi published his biting profile of Goldman, the firm enjoyed mostly gushing press by business journalists enamored and awed by the firm’s power and glory.
Taibbi decamped from Rolling Stone two years ago and began publishing on Substack, a platform for independent journalists who have the guts and the talent to attract and monetize their own audiences. One can’t survive on Substack publishing stories promoting narratives one can easily find reading the New York Times, Washington Post, and the panoply of American mainstream publications writing variations of the same stories: Donald Trump is a very bad man and a threat to America’s Democracy; those who oppose vaccines, masks, and lockdowns are quacks who are jeopardizing the health of Americans; America is a fundamentally racist country; and every damaging act of nature is the result of climate change.
Where Taibbi has made his mark is giving the mainstream media the same treatment that he gave Goldman Sachs. He’s published some very damning stories, particularly about the mainstream media’s coverage of Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russians. As Taibbi wrote for left-wing Rolling Stone for many years, he can’t easily be dismissed as a “right wing” journalist, which to mainstream reporters is the ultimate putdown.
The media’s need to discredit and defang Taibbi was driven home to me reading this New York Times article about the hostility and outrage mainstream reporters demonstrated in response to Taibbi’s decision to publish various emails of Twitter executives leading up to their 2020 decision to sabotage the promotion of a New York Post story about damning documents that were found on a laptop belonging to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. The documents suggested that Hunter Biden engaged in massive influence peddling and that Joe Biden, referred to as “the Big Guy,” was the recipient of some of the largesse.
The New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS News have all confirmed that the documents the New York Post reported on were authentic; had Twitter not suppressed the Post’s story, Donald Trump and his avid supporters believe it could have tipped the 2020 election in his favor. I don’t believe that’s the case, but the fact many do undermines the perception of the fairness that’s required for the mainstream media to maintain legitimacy. A Gallup poll released in July that most Americans have little trust or confidence in newspapers and even less faith in broadcast journalism.
The Times in its story about Taibbi publishing the Twitter emails referred to him as an “iconoclast journalist,” which it intended as a putdown, but I regard as the ultimate compliment. The Times also slimed Taibbi as “a polarizing figure” in journalism but offered no examples as to why that’s the case.
I’m happy to step up to the plate.
One example of a Taibbi story that no doubt rankled the mainstream media is this one he wrote when he was still at Rolling Stone about the inspector general report on the so-called Steele dossier. The mainstream media tried to fashion the report as a vindication of their reporting because it determined that there was no “political bias or improper motivation” in the FBI’s probe of Trump’s Russian contacts.
But Taibbi dug deeper and outlined how the report validated allegations of “fake news” about previous news stories and said that reporters who promoted and circulated the contents of the Steele dossier “should be embarrassed.” Taibbi’s story is worth reading because it offers insights as to how the mainstream media distorts the news to fit its narratives.
Taibbi’s story on the Mueller report also serves as an excellent primer on mainstream journalism dishonesty and how it’s driven by clicks and ratings.
Here’s a taste:
For the commercial press to recapture any dignity after this collusion debacle, it has to at least start admitting to its role in artificially raising expectations in the last two years. It’s hard to imagine them doing that, however. This story has been so enormously profitable for cable stations, in particular, it will be hard for them to let go of this narrative. What are they going to do, go back to just reporting the news? One can almost feel how depressed network executives must be at the thought. They’ve trained audiences to expect bombshells. What will they sell now?”
Taibbi’s most damning story was this one he published on Substack about the resignation of Glenn Greenwald, one of the co-founders of The Intercept. Here are the opening three paragraphs.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald quit his job this morning. In a bizarre, ironic, and disturbing commentary on trends in modern media, the celebrated reporter was forced to resign after writing a story criticizing both the Biden campaign and intelligence community — only to have it spiked by the editors of The Intercept, the news outlet he co-founded six years ago with the aim of preventing pretty much this exact situation.
“The irony,” Greenwald says, “is that a media outlet I co-founded, and which was built on my name and my accomplishments, with the purpose of guaranteeing editorial independence, is now censoring me in the most egregious way — about the leading presidential candidate, a week before the election.”
Greenwald becomes the latest high-profile journalist to leave a well-known legacy media organization to join Substack. You’ll be able to read the piece rebuffed by The Intercept at his new site here.
Taibbi gave a detailed account how Greenwald had expressed doubts about the media’s dismissal of the New York Post’s story and his skepticism of former intelligence officials saying it had all the markings of a Russian disinformation campaign. Greenwald’s proposed story was first rebuffed by Intercept editor Betsy Reed, who maintained that “even if (the Post article) did represent something untoward about Biden,” that would “represent a tiny fraction of the sleaze and lies Trump and his cronies are oozing in every day.”
Admittedly, there are many Americans who would agree with Reed, but what’s notable is that she took it upon herself to make the decision for them. Neither Reed nor Peter Maass, who was assigned to edit Greenwald’s commentary, identified any inaccuracies in his article, but simply disagreed with its conclusions.
Reed and Mass spiked the story and Greenwald quit. Adding insult to injury, Reed issued a statement likening Greenwald to “a grown person throwing a tantrum.”
Had The Intercept published Greenwald’s commentary it would have ranked among the online publication’s prouder moments and distinguished it as nonpartisan.
After Greenwald’s departure, The Intercept, which bills itself as a nonprofit, began experiencing fund raising problems. It recently was offered a financial lifeline from disgraced crypto czar Sam Bankman-Fried, but it appears he might not be able to make good on his commitment. As for Betsy Reed, The Intercept editor who resisted Greenwald’s story from the get-go, in July she was named editor of the U.S. operations of The Guardian, a British journalism nonprofit.
There are no career repercussions in U.S. journalism for spiking legitimate stories or publishing false ones, providing they are consistent with the narratives reporters believe the public must accept. Ben Smith, the former BuzzFeed editor who published details of the Steele dossier that other publications rightly suspected were possibly untrue, was subsequently hired by the New York Times to become its media columnist. He has since founded Semafor, a publication partially bankrolled by Sam Bankman-Fried.
Matt Taibbi has done an admirable job calling out the hypocrisy of U.S. journalists. He may be a polarizing figure among those in the mainstream media, but Americans who want journalists to only report the news and not make election or other decisions on their behalf should regard Taibbi as a national hero.