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Matt Taibbi Is Still an Outsider

Charlie Tidmarsh at Real Clear Wire

Photo by Louis Velazquez / Unsplash

If you happened to be in Manhattan’s Financial District on December 12, 2011, you would have witnessed a herd of giant squid floating toward West Street. The papier-mâché puppets, complete with white canvas tentacles and bulbous, golden heads, and upheld by a half-dozen or so Occupy Wall Street protestors, served as the dramatic final act in one of the more dramatic days of the Occupy movement, which grew into the New Year and around the world. Accompanying each squid were hand-painted signs that read variations on the slogan “Goldman Sachs CONSUMES” held up by a coterie of activists marching to the investment bank’s headquarters.

The squids were a reference to a 2009 Rolling Stone piece by journalist Matt Taibbi entitled “The Great American Bubble Machine.” The essay eviscerates Goldman and its alumni network of Fed chairs and Treasury secretaries as the architects of “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.” Describing them collectively as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” Taibbi rattles off a damning trail of hundreds of millions in bailout tax dollars that had been dispensed to and from Goldmanites under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. In 2023, it’s hard to imagine a two-year-old piece of magazine writing inspiring the iconography of a street protest; harder still to imagine a political reporter referring to John Thain as Merrill Lynch’s “asshole chief” in print. Taibbi’s brash and prolific writing secured him darling status on the reenergized American Left.

Taibbi’s career has been long and varied. He began in his twenties as an expat reporter in Eastern Europe during the waning years of the Soviet Union, first in Uzbekistan and then in Moscow, where he was a founding editor of The eXile with Mark Ames. The two American drifters pumped out a tabloid that was as critical of post-Soviet kleptocratic dysfunction as it was crass and boozy. Pieces by Taibbi—about IMF policy in Russia or Putin’s early salvos in the Chechen War—would run alongside Ames’s ribald stories of Moscow nightlife. Taibbi came to be feared and respected in equal measure by the many American bureau chiefs in Moscow at whom he often aimed his scorn, and by 2005, back in the states, he was hired as a contributing political editor at Rolling Stone.

Now, nearly two decades and ten books later, Taibbi has no editorial home but his own Substack newsletter, Racket News (formerly TK News), one of the highest-grossing publications on the platform. This new independence indicates a news media ecosystem that’s shifted beneath Taibbi’s feet. The same progressive corners that once idolized him as their generation’s Hunter S. Thompson, a gifted stylist sharing their rage at the banality of American political corruption, now tend to mutter his name dismissively alongside Glenn Greenwald’s—onetime investigative wunderkinds who’ve since lapsed into paranoid screeds against wokeness and cancel culture. “Now I just don’t know what the hell he’s going on and on about,” progressive journalist Doug Henwood said of him, speaking to Ross Barkan for a 2021 profile of Taibbi. “He’s obsessed with stupid shit.”

After winning the 2008 National Magazine Award for his work in Rolling Stone, Taibbi began edging away from traditional news media outlets, and his massive public profile diminished. Between 2010 and 2020, he wrote four books and numerous essays about cancel culture, identity politics, and the media. Then, on December 2, 2022, he published a thread on Twitter entitled “1. THE TWITTER FILES,” which presented a collection of dozens of internal Twitter documents and emails pertaining to the company’s decision, in November 2020, to suppress the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story. The thread erupted on the platform, soon amassing millions of unique engagements and a quarter of a million likes.

The Twitter Files series currently has 19 installments. Taibbi has published over half of them himself, each framed around a theme but all revealing email correspondences between various government actors and the employees at Twitter, under Jack Dorsey’s ownership, who were responsible for making decisions about content moderation and account discipline. The FBI, for one, was in the habit of sending the company lists of accounts that it requested be banned, suspended, or otherwise actioned, typically on the grounds that said accounts were meddling Russian bots or state-sponsored propagandists. We now know that the FBI’s estimation of Russia’s presence on Twitter was inflated, and that many of the accounts it targeted belonged to ordinary civilians tweeting about politics. Congressman Adam Schiff and his staff appear numerous times in the emails, regularly passing along moderation requests. One particularly damning recent document shows a revision to Twitter’s internal moderation guidance that appears to cede ultimate moderation authority to “the U.S. intelligence community.”

Taibbi and the Files have been met, in the press, not with journalistic curiosity but scorn, apathy, and silence. The Nation referred to Taibbi and Bari Weiss as Elon Musk’s “pet journalists” in a piece that goes on to dismiss the investigations’ findings as “garden-variety content moderation, notable mostly for its staidness and bureaucratic jargon.” The only large outlet giving the story much coverage is the New York Post. The New York Times gave a skeptical review of the first document trove back in early December and has instead focused most of its Twitter coverage on Musk’s supposed blunders.

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