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In Praise of Matt Taibbi

The Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman writes an able defense of Matt Taibbi against those who would drum him from journalism for using too many curse words or daring to express outrage beneath his byline. But toward the end, Starkman engages in some tut-tutting of his own, writing that "the weakness of the piece is where others might find strength, its polemical nature and its hyperbole." In particular, he says that "when you call Goldman a 'great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,' you’re in a sense offering a big fat disclaimer—this piece is not to be taken literally and perhaps not even seriously."

But you're also doing something else: You're saying this piece is to be read. You're signaling to the readers that you are writing for them. That you have decided that the difficulty of these issues increases the responsibility of the writer, not the reader. Putting that liner in the opening of the piece is a clear message that the reader can relax. This will be interesting. This will not be homework.

And journalism needs much more of that. The rest of the profession probably shouldn't adopt Matt Taibbi's voice. But it does need to find its own voice. Because the reason Taibbi had such an impact with his article was not that he was the first to discover these facts or synthesize this information. He was just the first to present it to people who didn't know they wanted to read thousands of words on Goldman Sachs.

This has been a particular problem in the financial crisis, and for an obvious reason: The financial press is a specialized press. The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times are two of the only newspaper Web sites that have managed to survive on a subscription model. Business sections are read by business types. The best writers in the field -- with the notable exception of Michael Lewis, who had spent the last few years covering sports -- were used to writing for an audience that already wanted to read them. That needed to read them. They weren't used to writing for an audience that didn't need to read them, and didn't even really want to.

But that's how Taibbi saw his job, and his article has received millions -- literally -- of page views. It's almost certainly been the most-read article of the crisis. And that's true even though Rolling Stone didn't put it online for the first month. Whatever you think of the actual piece, it's an almost startling reminder of the power of good writing. My takeaway from the piece had very little to do with Goldman Sachs and a lot to do with my job. Too much of journalism is about serving the existing audience, because that's where the steady revenue and obvious interest is. But when you write for the audience that wants to read you, you're almost by definition not writing for the audience that doesn't want to read you, even though you could actually do a lot more by somehow speaking to them.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 7, 2009; 11:59 AM ET
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Part of the issue is "who are you writing FOR?" Taibbi's article is written to stir up outrage among those who are already inclined to agree with him. If he were writing to try to persuade undecideds to come around to his view, he would presumably want to use a different tone.

Posted by: tomtildrum | August 7, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Agree wholeheartedely with tomtildrum. Hyperbole and vitriole are great for making yourself feel good, and making those who already agree with you shake their fists and say "yeah, right on!" but it is extremely counterproductive when you are trying to pursuade people who are undecided or on the other side of the fence.

Posted by: ab1301 | August 7, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse

Interesting that a BBC commentator earlier today highlighted the Taibbi phrase about: the "great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity". Gotta admit it's a great metaphor -- even if it is a bit of hyperbole.

I'm not a huge Taibbi fan, but there's definitely a place for his kind of writing. If anything his pieces have the ability to trigger healthy debate and perhaps they'll trigger some readers to dig deeper into issues. That's one role of quality journalism.

Posted by: JPRS | August 7, 2009 8:24 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Ezra that Matt Taibbi writes to be read, does it well, and with a flair all his own. I'm bothered by the cuss words, though. He could have his own voice. He could connect with the readers. He could guide them to important truths. He could do all these things without ever once using the eff-word.

Unfortunately, he does not have the confidence in himself to believe that.

Posted by: Rick00 | August 7, 2009 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Wow, you people that yimmer yammer about hyperbole would make great Democratic congresspersons that put all their effort into never offending anyone on the other side, but always fail to actually win anything for our side.

Seriously, are you 10? The curse words trouble you more than the objective truth of which Taibbi writes?

Politics in a two party system is a tug of war, and you oh so clever people steeped in sanctimonious civility seem to think that by running with the rope of political discourse to the inoffensive middle, all the while kneecapping the guys anchoring the left end of the rope with your tisk tisking about their 'naughty words', you are somehow going to move the debate in your direction. As you dazzle us with your middling civility, you never seem to notice that the Republicans have only taken in the slack you created in the rope, and thus the middle of the political discourse to the right. Your precious middle is no longer the middle, and you're forever stuck uselessly flailing without footing on the muddy ground in the former middle, useless to the rest of us ostensibly on your side that actually would like to change things.

All those in the effete middle-left, you're not morally superior. You're losers. Honestly look at your record of capitulation. Further, since the policy issues we're fighting over actually have consequences for real people, you're kind of jerks for helping the other side. Maybe you could try finding an outlet for ego stroking that, you know, actually makes things better? Heck if you pick up the rope and yank with the rest of us, I'll even tell you how great you are.

Posted by: mike_silva | August 9, 2009 5:19 AM | Report abuse

I think Starkman's critique of style is absurd. "Not to be taken literally" is a flaw that invalidates Taibbi's writing? So if any run of the mill established Beltway journalist writes that lawmakers "put the brakes on" negotiations about something, are we to say "oh, well, clearly they weren't literally stepping on the brakes of some vehicle, so that means I should dismiss this article as non-serious"?

I think it's entirely the other way around. Established journalists or financial analysts see writing like Taibbi's and assume from it that he's a lightweight, and then they pounce, writing some absurd criticism (like the one I just mentioned). And then Taibbi responds and destroys them.

Posted by: BillEPilgrim | August 9, 2009 5:21 AM | Report abuse

I disagree that Starkman defended Taibbi in any way. All he did was title his article "Don't Dismiss Taibbi" and then went ahead and dismissed him by agreeing with every criticism of Taibbi out there.

Starkman has not yet learned that it's not just bankers and CEOs who now read about financial scandals. It's everyone looking at a decimated 401k or an exploding mortgage who knows they have been raped and is tired of being told it's just one of those things that happens when the party gets out of control.

Oh, I'm sorry, did you think I was being literal? Nobody actually bent me over and raped me? Oh, you're smart enough to know I was just making a point? I guess it's called good writing.

This is a defense of Taibbi, not the dribble that Starkman put out.

Posted by: JerryC3 | August 9, 2009 5:22 PM | Report abuse

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