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Dec. 15 2009 - 6:10 pm | 133 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Lehmann, Taibbi, others moonlighting in business journalism: Get it right

American journalist Matt Taibbi, reporter for ...

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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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Perhaps, in a perfect world where existed a healthy population of business journos that weren’t wasting all their energy obsessing over how to maintain membership in the Church of the Savvy and doing their job (and that also had the intellectual capacity to not be intimidated by a single text), then Taibbi wouldn’t have anything to do and could pursue his dreams of being the next Tolstoy… alas, in a perfect world…

  2. collapse expand

    Wouldn’t the real story be about the substance of Taibbi’s article? You haven’t shown any effort to address that except extrapolate the mistake about Jamie Rubin, which Taibbi himself acknowledges, and say that the whole article must therefore be flawed, or that if it were true there would be more of a hubbub around town… that is quality research on your part.

    Are the appointments and work history of Obama’s economic inner circle as stated in the article, or is that incorrect? What is the make up of Obama’s inner circle, and what is their history? What is the current status of his progressive(former)advisors? Are the numbers of the bailout incorrect? Are the recipients of the bailout incorrect?

    You can easily fact him on these points, and the compositing of these main facts are what make his article relevant.

    Taibbi is easy to dislike, since he can come off as smug and dismissive, too cool for school, especially if you happen to harbor some insecurities and you feel he’s being smug and dismissive about you… but he’s done some damn fine work here, and better than be catty (yeah i said it), give him his props or refute him on the substance of his work.

  3. collapse expand

    I’m sitting here reading back and forth this little pissing contest about journalistic integrity and the value of muckraking and wondering why the business press, the ones who know their way around, are not alarmed that the reforms coming out of Washington do not address the fundamental problems of the meltdown.

    Tim Fernholz says, ” Is it the revolving door between Washington and Wall Street problematic? Yes. Does the Administration take it too easy on the banks? Absolutely. Are White House advisers too centrist for progressive tastes? Sure.”

    Now other than the last bit we seem to have a serious problem that led to the meltdown. Let me add this: Are we investgating how this happened? NO! Isn’t anyone in the business press curious?

    Glass-Stegall was put in place to prevent abuses in the financial market and the revolving door created the monster that brought the economy down in a mere ten years. Are we doing anything to end to big to fail. Glass-Stegall had a simple solution: Too Big to Exist.

    The argument over whether it is Ruben’s influence or not is meager when in the end the monster still walks the earth. So you and Fernholz and Ledbetter need to dig out that complicated Barron’s Handbook and explain to us mere mortals if enough is being done to prevent another meltdown. I doubt derivative instruments and side bets are even in the book. Nor are instant computer trading to manipulate the market. I’m sure the book defines banks as lending institutes not stock market gamblers with other people’s houses.

    So perhaps you can explain why the Fed has to have secrecy usually reserved for the CIA. Maybe you can write here and tell us why consumer laws are being diluted in a time of raging usury.

    I am just a common guy out here wondering when my small regional bank will fail, (two others have) and with them their community loans. From my ignorant position the Financial Reform Package doesn’t seem to do much and I take it personal that Goldman Sachs and Bank of America decided to phone in their meeting with Obama after they sprinted to get a hand out with only 24 hour notice.

    So it is up to you pros, you guys who were blindsided with all your insight and connections and superior knowledge to tell us if indeed Washington is on the case, just like with Healthcare and in the end the economy is safe back in the same hands that brought us to disaster.

    Your comment on Woodward and Bernstein is, in fact, an indictment of your profession and I ask you where was the press during eight years of Bush? To the run up of the war? Where were all of you when the economy was collapsing like a house of cards. Woodward and Bernstein thought there was something rotten in Washington. Taibbi thinks so to, Rolling Stone doesn’t have the clout that the Post had and doesn’t have Deep Throat or Ben Bradley. At least he is trying to get to the bottom of it, exposing what fucking ungrateful and clueless and evil these bankers are. Everyone out here in the street smell the stink and you do know something is wrong. Don’t fault Taibbi like some schoolgirl, get to work yourself.

  4. collapse expand

    No offense meant to you, or any other “busines” writer, but I’m trying to figure out how reading Barons Tome of Finance makes you, or anyone else, an expert in financial related matters.

    I work in the financial industry, and have for the past 10+ years.

    You read a book.

    Kudos

    And frankly, by adding in the shot across the bow of “serious journalists,” I think this looks to me like a case of sour grapes and/or Taibi maybe getting a little too close for comfort, for some of you.

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Smalera,

    The same “smart guys” who ran Wall Street and the whole country into the ground are same “smart guys” who are advising Mr. Obama. They are same “smart guys” organizing the rescue of the other “smart guys”. They are looking out for themselves and their friends and everyone else is getting screwed. This is the simple, short point of Mr. Taibi’s piece. Nothing in your blog, or any other criticism of Mr. Taibi’s piece by “serious” business reporters, challenges this basic point. Your criticisms are just so much hand waving and nit picking.

  6. collapse expand

    Dear Mr “serious journalist” Paul Smalera,

    Thank for your rant and your attempt to enlighten readers of Matt Taibbi’s offence for making a minor blunder. Your service to business journalism is greatly appreciated.

    Yes, Matt Taibbi made a factual error and he has admitted that a mistake was made, a “minor biographical detail”. However, that error still does not discredit the crux of his argument because it is inconsequential to what he is advocating. So why all this distracted, mountain-out-of-a-molehill strop? You admit that “Every journalist makes factual errors, including me” which inevitably is part of the continuous learning process. So move on to some REAL, SUBSTANSIVE ANALYSIS.

    You counsel that “It’s important, when doing first-person primary reporting, to know the players” of course is a welcomed reminder for any of us who may have forgotten this lesson in class. However, you just can’t allow Matt Taibb’s error to go. His crime is unforgivable and because “someone familiar with the territory in DC wouldn’t have made” and “…Not knowing this just makes me realize that Taibbi is in over his head”. In a world where experts like Alan Greenspan can admit “I made a mistake in presuming the self-interests of organisations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms”, please forgive us for thinking that anything is possible.

    Of course swallowing “Barron’s Finance and Investment Handbook” is what makes one qualified for entering the field of business journalism(!) You exclaim that,
    “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”. So it seems that Matt Taibbi and the like are unqualified to even BEGIN to write???!!!

    Unfortunately, entry to this exclusive “serious journalist” club is limited because there are “only a handful of institutions that can provide this sort of apprenticeship in the financial media world right now”. Well luck, privileged you Mr Smalera but regrettably all that your serious journalistic qualifications have produced in this post is nothing more than a snobby tirade lacking any noteworthy criticism of Taibbi. You affirm that “Financial articles require analysis, based on facts”, but it seems that you have been unable to provide any ANALYTICAL case which dismantles what Taibbi has to say. Without any focus you accuse Taibbi of using “the most inflamatory language he can, and then dares his critics to disprove what he’s said”, but what exactly is your point here? What is wrong with that? It is a positive within investigative journalism open their investigations to criticism instead of presenting the sacred White House truth.

    Your rant reeks of jealousy, snobbery and personal insecurity because what Matt Taibbi is doing is to open up a discussion which challenges the silent pact of the “old school club” journalism never to reveal the true nature of “the intersection between Wall Street and Washington”. Taibbi’s crime is violating the code of financial journalism “Thou shalt not investigate the nature of the power structure between economics and politics”. If you do, the punishment is that loyal “serious journalists” will automatically label it a conspiracy theory and dismiss it has “moonlighting” and your readers simply as “fans”.

    Mr Smalera, you say that “I’m not going into the litany right now”. However, I beg that you do so we can take you seriously.

  7. collapse expand

    As a blogger, I am keenly interested in this subject of traditional, professional journalism vs. new media.

    Conspiracy theories in ‘news’ stories sell papers (or online page views) and perhaps its been that way since the beginning of time, although online faciliates viral spread of conspiracy theories.

    However, in general, (and I’m not talking about Taibbi’s article or other articles specifically) I believe there’s a qualitative difference between fact-checked, substantive, evidence-based news – including conspiracy theories – and opinion pieces masquerading as news. Admittedly, though, the line has blurred between opinion pieces and news, especially with the proliferation of online content.

    I think there is a public policy objective fulfilled, though, by all types of news – traditional “jouralism” and new media, in getting the news to more people, in a form, format and style they prefer.

    For example, on the subject of Congress’ interest in how accounting standards are set, some folks probably read about the recent ‘Perlmutter/Lucas’ amendment (a revised version of which made its way into H.R. 4173, the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act)via Team NYT (Floyd Norris’ Nov. 16 article in the NYT,”Volcker Criticizes Accounting Proposal,” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/17/business/economy/17volcker.html?_r=1&sq=Financial%20Accounting%20Standards%20Board&st=cse&adxnnl=1&scp=6&adxnnlx=1261054868-ETJ87fyggzLInAAqELeR3A ), whereas other folks probably read about this relatively arcane topic via Team HuffPost , under Ryan Grim’s catchy headline: Civil War in Corporate America: Banks Battling the Chamber on Accounting Rules http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/05/civil-war-in-corporate-am_n_347704.html ) Some of us put equal weight in the NYT and HuffPost, some prefer one to the other. It’s all good, as long as people aren’t being overtly (or covertly) misled that something presented as ‘news’ is really just the author’s opinion.

  8. collapse expand

    I was asked to put my money where my mouth is, so I’ve followed this piece with a fact check, here:

    http://trueslant.com/paulsmalera/2009/12/17/a-five-point-taibbi-fact-check/

  9. collapse expand

    “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.”

    Yea – and all of you “established” financial journalists have done such a fine job this past decade. Why is it that in every journalism field the main argument against the new media and blogs basically consist of you don’t have the credentials.

    It just reads like a bunch of old men and women afraid of being encroached upon in their pretend (self) delineated and made up world where they choose who is good enough to write about what and when. Just shut up, quit whining and report what you need to report. There is room for everyone and I think you need to spend more time analyzing Goldman Sachs and less time on Matt Taibbi.

    Blowhard.

  10. collapse expand

    Whatever Taibbi’s and Lehmann’s mistakes of fact, Maria Bartiromo and James Cramer and the rest of you in the mainstream financial media have a thousand times more to answer for than they do.

  11. collapse expand

    If I have any ability to steer the direction of the conversation here, let me just say this post isn’t about inside vs. outside journalism. It’d be pretty laughable to call me an insider in any way, shape or form. This is about factual accuracy. No one calls someone who learns how to be really good chef an “insider” due to the years he spent apprenticing in kitchens for little pay. They call him a damn good chef who learned how to cook, and respect his dedication to his craft.

    Likewise, learning the terrain and workings of an subject you intend to write about is not about becoming “an insider.” If anything, it’s about learning what insiders are up to so that you can cut through the BS and get the goods.

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    About Me

    I'm here to participate in an experiment. I live professionally by two maxims:

    "Bad manners make a journalist." -Oscar Wilde

    "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." -Janet Malcolm.

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