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.
August 7, 2009; 11:59 AM ET
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