Everybody sucks, except Matt Taibbi

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on November 2, 2014

From The News Desk

In the days since Matt Taibbi quit Pierre Omidyar's quarter billion dollar media startup, two things have become clear.

The first is that Taibbi's former colleagues at First Look are determined to smear him as a bullying mismanager who stormed out after failing to find a way to secure editorial independence from Omidyar. The implication, of course, being that those left behind are the opposite: People-persons who have succeeded in carving out a Passport To Pimlico style independent dukedom inside Omidyar’s empire. Lest Taibbi feel moved to rebut those claims, Glenn Greenwald, John Cook and the rest of the Left Behind were careful to throw in a few hints about gendered harassment which... well... they didn't witness (had they done, they would of course have blown the whistle!)... but one never knows, does one?

The second thing that has become clear this week is that, right up until the end, Matt Taibbi lied to me (and, by extension, to you) about the alarming extent to which Omidyar was attempting to interfere in editorial operations at First Look. Worse, Taibbi demanded his lies remain off the record in the hope that he could create a false narrative around First Look without leaving any of his own fingerprints.

How you respond to my telling you about Taibbi's off the record lies will depend on your understanding of the role of journalists, and to whom they owe their primary loyalty: Sources or readers. But let's table that Rorschach test for a minute while we recall the history of Taibbi and First Look.

When Taibbi was first hired by billionaire Pierre Omidyar to launch a new “publication focusing on financial and political corruption,” many of us were cynical that Omidyar would be able to sit back as his employee ripped apart the very same Wall Street that had made the eBay founder so wealthy. Pando's Mark Ames, in particular, has written extensively about Omidyar's ties to the US government, his company's private police force, and his involvement in influencing overseas elections. Was this really the natural employer of a journalist who made his name exposing oligarchs?

For his part, Omidyar insisted that First Look had “structured both our flagship organization and our growing network of digital magazines to provide our journalists with the kind of autonomy that is too often undermined by the demands of advertisers and investors.” But the smell of rat lingered, growing especially stenchy in July when Omidyar issued a press release recasting Taibbi’s forthcoming publication as a "digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.”

As I wrote here on Pando, the disappearance of the words "financial corruption" from the magazine's pitch was troubling given Omidyar's background. Also troubling was the fact that it was Omidyar, not Taibbi or any of the other journalists at First Look, who was describing the company's editorial priorities.

In fact, sources close to the company were telling me that Omidyar’s relationship with Taibbi was seriously breaking down and that distrust of Omidyar was also being felt at Glenn Greenwald's publication, the Intercept. From what I was hearing, Omidyar was exerting an increasing amount of influence over the editorial operations of First Look, just as he had previously done at his Civil Beat journalism project in Hawaii.  And so I wrote a short piece predicting that: “[Taibbi] will have to find another outlet for his rightly celebrated take-downs of billionaires like the one who pays his salary.”

Of course, thanks to New York Magazine’s reporting and the subsequent confessional post from the Intercept, we know that my sources were absolutely on the money. As Greenwald and co wrote earlier this week:

In June, Taibbi, Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill wrote a joint letter to Omidyar outlining their principal grievances—the lack of clear budgets and repeated and arbitrary restrictions on hiring—and making clear that a failure to resolve them would jeopardize the feasibility of both projects…

First Look continued to focus on organizational and corporate issues, and managers actively supervised and at times overruled Taibbi’s management decisions. His relationships with both First Look managers and some Racket employees who reported to him were strained. Back in July, though, none of that was public knowledge. So, before hitting publish on my post, I emailed Taibbi for comment. It was only after my piece was published that Taibbi replied, in an email headed “NOT FOR PUBLICATION,” insisting that nothing had changed at his yet-to-be-launched magazine.

What followed was an increasingly ill-tempered (on both of our parts) exchange in which I laid out my view of what was happening at First Look and Taibbi responded by claiming that I was a “lunatic” peddling a "nonexistent conspiracy" of “unsubstantiated horseshit” about Omidyar meddling with his project. Surely I believed him when he said he had been "promised total editorial freedom and a blank check to hire my own team," he wrote.

“You may still insist that somewhere down the road, Pierre will interfere in our editorial plans. That's fine, believe away, as far as the future goes. But right now, today, nothing has changed with my site, not one thing.”
And in case I wasn’t clear on his position, Taibbi insisted: “Your article was completely and totally incorrect” — and suggested, "If you don’t have any information, don’t print anything.”

Well, we now know that my information wasn’t "totally incorrect"; and that many, many things had changed since Taibbi was first hired. As New York Magazine later explained:

[Omidyar] produced a declaration of editorial independence, promising that First Look would be incorporated as a nonprofit and that he would have “no involvement in the newsroom’s day-to-day operations.” In reality, though, he was deeply involved...
In fact, we know that a full month before he emailed me insisting that nothing had changed, Taibbi had already co-signed a grievance letter to Omidyar complaining about many of the exact issues I’d described.

Here's what I wrote in my "totally incorrect" post:

Of course, in the case of First Look, Omidyar is both sole investor and publisher. And apparently he’s just realized that, even with a $250 million dollar budget and a big pile of NSA leaked documents acquired along with Glenn Greenwald, creating a serious journalistic enterprise is hard.  A platform, on the other hand, is something Omidyar has built before and clearly believes he can build again. Someone else can take care of actually fixing American journalism and delivering on all the promises he made in his weirdly Pierre-centric launch video.
Here's what Greenwald et al admitted this week:
Omidyar told employees that he was “re-tooling” the company’s focus and building a laboratory environment to foster the development of new technologies for delivering and consuming news—the idea, he said at the time, was to orient the company more toward “products,” as opposed to “content.”
It’s not hard to understand Taibbi’s motivations for lying to me. Here was some pissy little tech blogger daring to question his independence. Here was some smug little Brit, sitting in Silicon Valley, accusing him of being played by Omidyar. And worse, here was someone who was painting a — totally accurate, as it turns out — picture of a media organization in disarray, right at the time when Taibbi was fighting to keep the wheels on.

And yet.

No one forced Taibbi to lie. Certainly no one forced him to try to warn me off telling readers the truth: That First Look was a mess and that Pierre Omidyar — a man who had stumped up $250m to hire some of the best known investigative reporters in America including Taibbi, Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill — couldn’t stop dicking around with the goalposts.

But Taibbi chose to lie, perhaps out of concern that, if his fights with Omidyar became public, it might cause a total breakdown of relations.  Or perhaps so readers wouldn’t ask the obvious question: Why the hell didn't Matt Taibbi, the oligarch’s nemesis, blow the whistle on Pierre Omidyar’s attempts to fuck with the editorial operations of an organization that was created to celebrate whistleblowing?

I don't presume to understand his motives in lying. I am not Matt Taibbi. I don’t have his fan base, or likely anything approaching his First Look salary. I don’t have his sources on Wall Street, or his ironic newsie cap, or his place at the top table alongside all the other once-hungry journalists who have paid their dues and are now perfectly content not publishing anything for a few months while they argue with a billionaire about paperclips.

Perhaps if I were as rich and famous at Taibbi, I’d also share his smug exceptionalism: his belief that hypocrisy isn’t hypocrisy if he's the one doing it. Perhaps I’d believe that my first duty is to protect my access to fucking barefaced liars and my seat at the top table of American Journalism rather than to the readers who — naive fools that you are — actually trust that when we tell you something it’s actually the truth.

Because, let's be honest, even Matt Taibbi isn't Matt Taibbi any more.

In 2010, Matt Taibbi wrote a scathing column entitled “Lara Logan, you suck”  in response to Logan’s complaint that Michael Hastings had breached journalistic rules when he reported on unguarded comments made by General McChrystal and others about America’s war in Afghanistan.

Hastings, Taibbi’s colleague at Rolling Stone, insisted that the comments were made on the record. The military disagreed, insisting that the soldiers thought they were talking off-record. Military officials released emails which they claimed proved that a "not for publication" understanding had been breached, and also that Rolling Stone hadn't offered an opportunity to comment on statements made by soldiers who were drunk.

The military wasn't Taibbi's target, though. His rage was reserved for Hasting’s fellow journalists, including Logan, who questioned whether it was fair for a reporter to so gleefully stitch-up a source. For that Taibbi called Logan “the next guest on Hysterical Backstabbing Jealous Hackfest 2010!”

[B]rother, I have been there, when some would-be "reputable" journalist who's just been severely ass-whipped by a relative no-name freelancer on an enormous story fights back by going on television and, without any evidence at all, accusing the guy who beat him of cheating. That's happened to me so often, I've come to expect it. If there's a lower form of life on the planet earth than a "reputable" journalist protecting his territory, I haven't seen it...

Lara Logan [is] like pretty much every other "reputable" journalist in this country, in that she suffers from a profound confusion about who she's supposed to be working for. I know this from my years covering presidential campaigns, where the same dynamic applies. Hey, assholes: you do not work for the people you're covering! Jesus, is this concept that fucking hard? No, Matt, it fucking isn’t.

Meanwhile, the people who don't have the resources to find out the truth and get it out in front of the public's eyes, your readers/viewers, you're supposed to be working for them — and they're not getting your help.
Taibbi-who-was-Taibbi goes on, explaining to the rubes in the press corps how billion dollar corporations spend money to control the message:
On the campaign trail, I watch reporters nod solemnly as they hear about the hundreds of millions of dollars candidates X and Y and Z collect from the likes of Citigroup and Raytheon and Archer Daniels Midland, and it blows my mind that they never seem to connect the dots and grasp where all that money is going. The answer, you idiots, is that it's buying advertising! People like George Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama, and General McChrystal for that matter, they can afford to buy their own P.R. — and they do, in ways both honest and dishonest, visible and invisible.
Incredible isn’t it? Matt Taibbi totally got it. Corporations -- like, say, the one founded by Pierre Omidyar -- spend millions of dollars every year to ensure that it’s only their message that we hear, by fair means and foul. Matt Taibbi, on the other hand, completely fails to understand that by taking a paycheck from a billionaire, and then actively working to prevent readers from knowing what that same billionaire is up to, in order to protect his job, makes him guilty of the most grotesque hypocrisy imaginable.

Now.  I’m not suggesting that the story of First Look is as important as the story of what American troops are doing in Afghanistan. Not at all.

Yes, Pierre Omidyar works closely with USAID to affect regime change in places like Ukraine; and, yes, Pierre Omidyar worked to influence the general election in India. And yes, Pierre Omidyar spent a quarter of a billion dollars to buy up the people with access to the entire Snowden document cache shortly before it was reported that the national security agency had accessed user data from eBay (founded by Pierre Omidyar) and Skype (previously owned by eBay) to monitor the communications of millions of Americans. But no, I'm not suggesting any of that is as important a story as what a high ranking solider said about the Vice President while he was wasted.

But, still, Omidyar's $250m media startup is an important story. And, unlike the soldiers Hastings quoted who got in trouble for telling the truth, Taibbi tried to use an off-the-record agreement to lie about what he and his boss were up to.

Which brings us back to that Rorschach test. Your view on whether readers have a right to know how Taibbi was briefing off the record will likely depend on your answer to the following question: Should a reporter respect an off the record agreement when it becomes clear that a source has attempted to mislead readers?

Before you answer, you might want to consider the opinion of Glenn Greenwald who, in 2008, wrote this:

Last year, when I first wrote about ABC’s broadcasting of this false Saddam/anthrax story, I spoke with numerous experts in “journalistic ethics,” such as they are, and all of them — journalists, Journalism Professors, and media critics alike — agreed that while the obligation of source confidentiality is close to absolute, it does not extend to a source who deliberately exploits confidentiality to disseminate lies to the public.
Or journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote that same year:
But the only way such a system can work is when sources know: if you lie, or mislead the reporter into a false report you will be exposed. People who believe strongly in the need for confidential sources should be strongly in favor of their exposure in clear cases of abuse, because that is the only way a practice like this has a prayer of retaining its legitimacy. What's a "clear case" of abuse? Well, we have to argue about it-- and try to be clear. There's no other way. Each case is different.
Or former Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates who, as Hastings’ boss, defended his reporter's treatment of McChrystal to the Washington Post in 2010.

Up until a few days ago Taibbi could have consulted any one of those experts simply by yelling across the room: Greenwald, Rosen and Bates are all current or former employees of First Look.

Back in 2008, I made my own position clear, having been burned one too many times by liars using “off the record” clauses to prevent readers from knowing the truth, while allowing the liar to keep his hands clean. Not any more, I said. If I find you’ve lied to me off the record, the deal is off.

Still, justified as I would have been to publish every word of Taibbi’s emails to me, I decided only to share my side of the conversation. I wasn't quite ready to force Taibbi on to the record but I did want readers to understand that the reason we had no idea how bad things were at First Look was not a failure to ask the question but rather a deliberate campaign of misinformation by one of the company's top editors.

This context is important when reading the long “inside story” explanation offered by remaining First Look staffers last week, of how they, at least, have managed to carve out editorial independence. If Taibbi was lying in July, in order to preserve his Pierre paycheck, can we be sure his erstwhile colleagues are not doing the same now?

As I wrote at the time, I expected — and welcomed — the debate about when it was ok to "burn" a source. And sure enough, the great and the good of American journalism couldn't wait to tut and tsk and concern troll me.

“I share a last name, but not approach to ground rules [email protected] Sources will note, I bet."  tweeted David Carr, fresh back from his trip to profile Glenn Greenwald’s dogs in Brazil. In case you're curious, other-Carr's idea of vital media journalism looks like this:

[Greenwald] praised Mr. Omidyar, who he says is just trying to level the field with legacy media. “There’s a lot of distrust of billionaires and the oligarchic model,” he said. “People don’t believe that you’re really going to get to be journalistically independent. But you can’t complain that there’s not serious investigative journalism against big corporate and governmental outlets and then at the same time oppose every single model that lets you have the kind of funding that you need.”
“This sort of violation of basic ground rules hurts all journalists,” cried Peter Goodman, editor in chief of the Moonie-cult-owned International Business Times. Goodman even demanded that I take down my article and “apologize for violating [a] very basic rule of journalism.”

“After this betrayal of Matt Taibbi, I can’t imagine too many people will trust Paul Carr in the future,” wrote tech pundit Dave Winer. Because if you can’t trust a guy who tells the truth about liars, who can you trust?

And then yesterday, after the New York Times dared to mention the fact that I had quoted my half of our conversation, Taibbi went on the attack: “Off the record means you can’t even admit to having had the conversation,” he tweeted. “It breaks the rules.”

The rules!

There's so much, and so little, that needs to be said about Matt Taibbi -- a man who once threw hot coffee in a reporter's face over a bad book review, and who (with Pando's Mark Ames) rammed a horse semen pie into the face of a New York Times journalist in Moscow for shits and giggles -- scolding me on "the rules" of journalism.

Instead, I'll just quote Taibbi-not-Taibbi's words from 2010, per American journalism’s response to Hastings:

“[I]nstead of cheering this as a great break for our profession, a waytago moment, one so-called reputable journalist after another lines up to protest the leak and attack the reporter for doing his job. God, do you all suck!”
Yeah, Matt, everyone sucks except you.