Has Matt Taibbi failed journalism, or has journalism failed Matt Taibbi?
I’m late to this, but it’s not going away, so here’s my question: Is Matt Taibbi merely a journalistic scourge, or also a scourge on journalism itself? The question isn’t just about Taibbi, but about the state of journalism and America right now, post-bubble, post Iraq war, post-Bush.
You probably know the background: Taibbi has written a couple of searing cover stories for Rolling Stone on the financial shenanigans of Goldman Sachs over the past century and on the Obama administration’s close ties to Goldman and Wall Street and its halting attempts to reform the banking system.
These pieces are, unlike most stories that contain the word “Geithner,” actually fun to read and make a simple and compelling point: historically, and now, there is a tight nexus between the elite banks and uppermost reaches of the federal government – whether it’s run by Republicans or Democrats. This has proven to be catastrophic. Its persistence after the disaster of 2008 is a significant structural problem for the American economy – and, by extension, the global economy. Obama’s diffidence on the matter is one of the great mysteries of his presidency, given the both the substantive problem and the political advantages to taking on the bankers, which would theoretically appeal both to liberals and the tea party crowd.
Taibbi indicts not just Goldman, but the system. And that system is, well, highly indictable. But on the way, he overreaches. He imbues his villains with more agency than they deserve. He makes mistakes. So some journalists have been actively fisking Taibbi, including Megan McArdle at the Atlantic, Tim Fernholz at the American Prospect, Heidi Moore and Paul Smalera at the Big Money, Smalera here at T/S. And Chris Lehmann and Felix Salmon have been fisking the fiskers. In a Twitter exchange with NYU’s Jay Rosen, I got hung up on these questions: Can you be right on the big issues if your facts are wrong? Or is the business media engaging the small issues at the expense of the big and truly important ones? After all (with a few exceptions) the business media didn’t alert us to the financial insanity of the housing bubble before it burst.
If you want to indict the system, you need to build a case. And that case should be based on facts. So I agree with Taibbi’s critics that he is playing a bit fast-and-loose, and that in a strict empirical sense, this calls his entire thesis into question. So, Matt – do a better job. Get your Jamie Rubins straight. Explain your chosen financial instruments correctly. But do his mistakes indicate that on the whole, Taibbi has no idea what he’s talking about? I am not a financial journalist, but I don’t think so. The “Taibbi fact-check” seems like kind of a sideshow to me, an approach that doesn’t really get at what Taibbi is doing, what it means, and whether it is right or effective journalism.
The second complaint is about framing: By putting Goldman Sachs as the center of his narratives, Taibbi presents a distorted picture of history, the financial system, Goldman’s own role in various bubbles and the nature of bubbles themselves, which by definition are not the fault of a single entity but a of an entire marketplace. But I don’t read his pieces that way. In individual instances he may inflate Goldman’s role. But if you are even halfway-informed about bubbles and finance, you will realize that Goldman is just swimming with the current, and helping to propel it – but so are dozens of other actors. And that context makes his pieces that much scarier: if Goldman really were the singular villain here, fixing the problem would theoretically be easier. But Goldman is just emblematic.
The real problem here isn’t one journalist, but journalism itself. The U.S. media’s neutral, non-ideological form of reporting reached its apogee in terms of political influence and number of practitioners post-Watergate and pre-9/11. But during that time, its reach and credibility among the public were also steadily declining due to – you name it: fragmentation, failing business models, culture wars, growing structural and demographic political divisions. Government (and governing itself) came under sustained assault, and its regulatory and political checks on business – never all that strong – have been weakened.
Taibbi peels back the layers on this and shows it to be outrageous. Whether you are a liberal or a free-marketeer, it is clear something big has gone wrong in the business-government nexus. If you’re going to part ways with Taibbi over his factual blunders or framing, that’s legit. But it still leaves the big question hanging out there – is his outrage misplaced?
But post-Watergate pre-9/11 journalism doesn’t traffic in outrage. Take Watergate. Facts and digging – often against the tide of conventional wisdom – exposed the true extent of the Watergate scandal and brought Nixon down. This event has shaped much of the generation of investigative journalism that followed: the Platonic ideal is to get someone indicted, to resign, or both. The problem with this is that its assumptions are essentially naive: that the system basically works, or can work once the facts come out. But what if it doesn’t work, or cannot? What if what’s most shocking and unjust is what’s perfectly legal? Also: what if, in society, there’s no consensus on what’s shocking and unjust?
These questions tend to drive practitioners of empirical journalism (and I count myself among them) crazy. If the system doesn’t work, you have to make some value judgments. If you make value judgments, though, people who disagree with you will attack you as biased. Which can’t be, because we’re trained to be cool and detached, to convince people through rational argument, to reach for universal approbation of our conclusions. But this goal, always elusive, is now nearly impossible. Should that stop us from investigating? Or making judgments?
But that’s now it works in practice. The establishment media is, after all, tied up with government and business itself in various ways. If those things aren’t “working” the media has trouble grasping the failure. To do so would be “controversial.” It would invalidate the hoped-for universal approbation! Better to keep your head down, withhold judgment.
These tensions can drive the media to forest-for-the-trees absurdities. Take the debate over whether to call “enhanced interrogation techniques” “torture.” The New York Times, NPR and other outlets have engaged in odd verbal gymnastics to avoid calling something what it self-evidently is. All ultimately in service not to any empirical truth but to the legal and historical interests of the politicians and appointees who engineered the interrogation policy – and have build an edifice of spin around it to obscure the facts.
The travails of the banking system are not directly comparable with “enhanced interrogation,” obviously. Except that in one sense: They require journalists to question their basic assumptions about how, and whether, government works. The Nixon problem could be addressed (if not “solved”) by digging up the truth and letting the system do its work. No longer. Too often, though, mainstream journalism just won’t ask these questions because they are too knotty, too complex, too dangerous for institutions already under siege to take on. My advice, though, is to get comfortable with outrage: it’s pointing somewhere interesting.
Here’s my problem with Taibbi, though. He is a polemicist, and a polemic has its uses. But it’s a lot easier to indict the system after that system has already failed. And his polemics don’t explain what’s really happening, or why. But if you read his pieces, there’s not much explanatory power: it’s just a bunch of assholes doing self-interested things and the weak and/or evil politicians who enable them. That is, of course, unsurprising. It’s human nature. But “human nature” doesn’t tell us where the system went wrong, what the incentives are, what the politics are that enforce the status quo and block reform. What are the politics of taking on the banking system? How did things get so bad? Have they always been that way? (Call this the “Al Swearengen school of democratic capitalism.”)
I remember reading an old “Doonesbury” strip in which Duke is engaged in some scheme and he remarks on that there’s no rules, everybody is out for himself, the American dream is just a big scam: “It’s my time!” he declares. This seemed to capture something larger that was unfolding at the time, and has since flourished a thousandfold. And I want to know more about it.