Lehmann, Taibbi, others moonlighting in business journalism: Get it right
I’m glad that true/slant is structured the way it is: a loose collection of bloggers writing about the topics that they want to, without editorial oversight or judgment. Because fellow true/slant contributor Matt Taibbi is wrong about enough things that’s it’s getting to be hard for me to take him seriously even about the things he’s right about. I’m not going into the litany right now, though Tim Fernholz’s TAPPED post about his latest piece is more important than he’s been given credit for. Taibbi admits he confused two Jamie Rubins in his Rolling Stone article on Obama economic team, but in his correction, he says, “there is indeed a factual error in the piece — a minor biographical detail that identifies Bob Rubin’s son Jamie as a former Clinton diplomat.”
Yes, but. The mistake is one that someone familiar with the territory in DC wouldn’t have made. And being familiar with the territory, despite cries from the fringes that mainstream journalists are all bought-and-paid-for shills, is actually a good thing. It’s important, when doing first-person primary reporting, to know the players. Every journalist makes factual errors, including me. But if you’re writing about Jamie Rubin in a feature article for a national publication, my expectation is that you know his bio, you know his connections and source of power, and, most of all, you know if there’s another Jamie Rubin floating around somewhere. You also know that a “diplomat” moving into an economic advisory role doesn’t happen often or without some cause. Yes, Washington is a big connected place where people of a certain stature move into and out of public and private sector jobs of all kinds, based on who is in power and whether their patrons are on the ins or the outs. But people don’t cross areas of expertise as vast as diplomacy to macroeconomics quite that easily or commonly. Not knowing this just makes me realize that Taibbi is in over his head, and his chosen weapon to fight his way out is snark and hyperbole. Again, I’m not claiming to be making the complete case against Taibbi, just to tell you where I stand.
The problem with this approach was beautifully illustrated by The Awl’s Chris Lehmann. A political reporter getting into finance, starting with an attack on The Big Money’s Heidi Moore. Now, unlike at true/slant, Heidi and I do share an editor at The Big Money and we have an editorial process, so the attack was definitely at least partially on a place that pays me to write for them. So there’s your disclosure– I admit, I wasn’t happy to read Lehmann tee off on my publication or colleagues. But I was happy to see our editor, Jim Ledbetter, strongly defend Moore against Lehmann’s rant. That’s because Lehmann got a basic fact in his story very wrong.
In essence, he used the wrong number. A number that anyone who knew their subject matter well would’ve never confused with the correct number, just as anyone who knows Washington well wouldn’t have confused the two Jamie Rubins. Then Lehmann corrected himself not by saying, “I used the wrong number” but instead by saying, “Gee, I was so tripped up by Moore’s writing that I conflated two numbers that have nothing to do with each other and now I’m going to make it sound like it wasn’t totally my fault even as I apologize.” That’s a pretty weak way to issue a correction.
What’s also galling is when Lehmann says people with Moore’s decade of financial writing experience might be part of the problem, since she and they are, “instigator[s]… of widespread public miseducation in financial matters.” He says established financial journalists like Moore are threatened by upstarts like Taibbi. (He then uses a Wall Street Journal story as the source material by which he tried to prove Moore wrong.)
Can I say, when I started in research at my first business journalism job, how daunting it was to be handed the monster tome of Barron’s Finance and Investment Handbook and be told to get familiar with it. Or to untangle even superficially simple-looking financial data, only to realize the maze underneath all the crazy numbers? Or that similar terms and acronyms can mean very different things? I haven’t been at this as long as Heidi, but finance is absurdly complicated and you need years of experience, regular talks with analysts and experts, regular study of the news and ideally a newsroom full of similarly focused people to work with, to even BEGIN to write knowledgeably on finance, let alone to make it clear to the average non-technical reader.
There’s only a handful of institutions that can provide this sort of apprenticeship in the financial media world right now, one of which is the Wall Street Journal. Heidi worked there, and I was lucky enough to work with several smart Journal reporters who imported that climate, for a short time, to my magazine. Even so, I realize that any financially complicated article that I undertake is going to take me three times as long to write as a profile about a tech startup, because there’s very little in the way of opinion that a writer can use to lead a reader through a financial article. Financial articles require analysis, based on facts, that lead a writer to a limited set of possible conclusions. And finally, that’s what’s missing from Taibbi’s screeds and Lehmann’s piece on Taibbi and Moore. In disregard, disinterest, misunderstanding or ignorance of the facts, they tee off on the personalities, the nepotism, the cronyism–anything but the numbers and analysis that actually tells the story.
Really, my training was just enough to realize how little I know about financial reporting and to insure I be triply careful when I undertake stories in that area myself. That’s why I’m disappointed that Felix Salmon is defending Taibbi, too, and in a pernicious way. He tries to hang Tim Fernholz on technicalities (and even a seemingly intentional misreading, over whether Fernholz thinks the CFPA exists), and then he goes on to let Taibbi off the hook for being “polemical.” Salmon closes by saying Taibbi is, “doing a much better job of making the policy debate relevant to Rolling Stone’s readership than anything Tim Fernholz has ever done.”
Well. If Rolling Stone readers are taking their worldview cues from Matt Taibbi, I’d rather they keep reading about Bob Dylan, John Mayer and Axl Rose. It’s not sufficient for Matt Taibbi to toss out a handful of facts, draw some suppositions in his head, and publish a story that reads like he stole it from one of those end-of-the-world-is-nigh types in Times Square, and Salmon is a good enough financial writer to know that.
I’m going to echo Fernholz, which will piss off Salmon if he reads this, and say, again, that the intersection between Wall Street and Washington that Taibbi is attempting to document is tricky, twisted, somewhat compromised and in need of sunlight. But it’s ultimately a disservice to publish screeds about these topics the way Taibbi does. Don’t allege conspiracies, make hay out of the lineage or work histories of the players or write authoritatively about their thoughts or motives when you can’t in the end deliver the goods. That is, in the end, what Fernholz (and I, and other serious journalists) want from Taibbi.And the reason Salmon can look at the blogosphere back and forth and conclude that Fernholz is full of it is because Taibibi’s writing style puts his detractors on the defensive, unfairly. He uses the most inflamatory language he can, and then dares his critics to disprove what he’s said. Except his arguments are constructed to be long on innuendo and what I’ll call “CCW” or “conventional conspiracy-nut wisdom” and short on hard evidence to prove himself. So critics are put into the position of having to prove situations are normal in order to disprove conspiracy theories. That’s why Lehmann thought he hit the jackpot with a number that proved Moore was a shill for Goldman, until our editor Ledbetter pointed out he had used the wrong number. Sorry, but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. You don’t put a number in your story unless you know what it means. It’s some sort of deep seated human nature to want to believe in conspiracy theories. Just ask Fox Mulder. BUT, it’s reckless, as a journalist, to throw those theories out and hope something sticks. Let’s put it this way, finally:
If Matt Taibbi is as right as his fans think he his about health care, Goldman Sachs and Obama’s financial team, the impact of his assertions would not be a rise in chatter on the Internet, it would be Watergate-style investigations, arrests, and resignations. If Woodward and Bernstein could get Nixon to resign without calling him a “vampire squid jabbing his blood funnel into anything that smells like power,” than Taibbi should be able to effect the change he so clearly demands of our political and financial systems by doing solid reporting rather than writing polemical screeds.