Updated Monday afternoon:
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has a genius for putting into fun and funny prose the angers, frustrations, suspicions, and fears of a lot of folks on the Left.
He’s a good journalist. What he isn’t is a particularly diligent reporter.
He’s not much of a deep thinker either.
And without being a diligent reporter or a deep thinker, he can’t be a serious analyst. Analysis without sufficient facts and understanding of what those facts mean and what they hinge on and what hinges on them is simply opinion…or bullshit.
Hold on, there, Lance, I hear some of you saying. How can you call Taibbi a good journalist when you don’t think he’s a diligent reporter?
Technically, a journalist is anyone who writes for a journal, a definition that makes the re-write men and women at People, the restaurant reviewer at your local newspaper, and Matt Taibbi all journalists together doing the same job as the war correspondents for the New York Times.
These days, we usually use the words journalist and reporter as though they’re synonyms. But, actually, a reporter is a type of journalist. Journalists are writers who see their jobs as going out into the world, taking a look around, and coming back to the keyboard to write about what they saw. Note I said they write about what they saw. Not exactly the same thing as writing what they saw. Reporters are journalists who see it as their job to limit what they write about what they saw to no more than what they saw.
And what they heard.
Journalists, as a group, are permitted to “report” their impressions and opinions and feelings along with what they saw and heard. Reporters refuse themselves that permission.
Reporters deal in verifiable fact and keep their impressions and opinions to a minimum if not totally to themselves.
Unfortunately, down in Washington there are too many reporters who are so scrupulous about keeping their impressions and opinions to themselves that they “report” only what someone else tells them, to the point that if that someone tells them a lie those reporters won’t report it as a lie because that might be just their opinion or impression.
The best journalism is the work of writers who see it as their job to base their opinions on verifiable facts and deliver impressions that are the result of taking a long, hard look at the facts and thinking deeply and seriously about them in order to understand what they hinge on and what hinges on them.
That’s what Bill Moyers does. That’s what Joan Didion does, that’s what John McPhee does, and, when they were in their prime, used to do as well as anyone has ever done. This is very hard to do without a staff like Moyers’ or the time and space that editors and publishers gave to Didion and McPhee.
Journalists who don’t have these resources and luxuries aren’t necessarily better for sticking only to reporting. The bare facts aren’t inherently more truthful than an impression or else a snapshot in the family album is more truthful than a Van Gogh portrait.
For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to report only the bare facts, because there’s only so much space on a page, and deciding what needs to be fit and then putting that into some sort of order (not the same thing as giving them context) requires editorial decisions, which is to say, somebody’s opinion is in every news story regardless of how “objectively” it’s presented.
This is why many people prefer journalism that is openly opinionated, even when they don’t agree with those opinions. It’s more honest and it makes it easier to make decisions about why certain facts have been included, what might have been left out and why, and therefore how many grains of salt to take the story or article or book with.
It’s what makes Taibbi’s journalism interesting.
It’s also what makes his reporting less than reliable.
Taibbi sees it as his job to go out in the world, usually in a rush, and in a bigger rush to get back and start writing, and write about what he thinks about what he saw and heard.
He’s not working in the tradition of Moyers or Didion. He’s the heir apparent to Hunter S. Thompson, and Thompson wrote about almost nothing but his opinions and impressions, and those impressions were so Techincolored by his extra-journalistic hobbies and fucked up by his personal gremlins that you couldn’t trust him to tell you the color of the sky on a given day. If he wrote that Hubert Humphrey was bald or that Las Vegas was in Nevada, you were tempted to go find a photograph or a map and check.
Taibbi is not drug-addled and he doesn’t seem to be anywheres near as demon-haunted as Thompson was, but he does do his job as if that job was defined by Thompson. He “reports” his impressions and opinions in as wild and angry and personal a fashion as he can while remaining coherent.
That last part is something Thompson didn’t always worry about. Taibbi takes care to make sense---in the sense of being understandable not in the sense of being sensible or persuasive. Taibbi tends to be most sensible and persuasive to readers who already agree with what he’s about to tell them.
Did you really need Matt Taibbi to tell you the guys who run Goldman Sachs are assholes and pirates?
Like I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with journalism that is a “report” of the journalist’s opinions and impressions. Taibbi’s work---which I want to repeat I enjoy---bothers me because I get the impression (ha ha) that Taibbi doesn’t go out into the world to gather those opinions and impressions, but that he goes out to have opinions and impressions he already owns up to confirmed.
And what bothers me more is that, in my opinion (ha ha again. I’m on a roll), he’ too easily contented that he’s had those opinions and impressions confirmed.
One interview, some chance observations, half an overheard conversation and that will often do for him.
It does it for him because his first and best source is himself. He trusts himself to take everything in at a glance.
Read his book, The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion---that’s a recommendation, not a dare---and you can see this at work. Everything Taibbi thinks you need to know about the psychology of the people who make up the Christian Right he’s collected from a few out of church meetings he attended, undercover, and conversations with the three or four people he casually befriended in the course of collecting his impressions. Everything he thinks you need to know about how screwed up things are in Congress he’s gleaned from the not very much time he spent attending the meetings of one House subcommittee back when the Republicans were running the show.
Taibbi affects to have kept an open-mind, but the fact that he came away from his meetings with the Christians with some sympathy for the more pathetic of the people attending along with him doesn’t mean that the experience changed his mind. And his writing about what he sees in the committee meetings has a rote and tired quality and a feeling of forced anger, as if he’s written the same things before, several times, and he’s annoyed at having to write them again. Not surprising, as the story he’s telling is not new, and it’s not likely to have been new to Tiabbi either.
That doesn’t make what he writes in either case not true. But it makes it not very remarkable as reporting or persuasive. You’re free to think he got it right. He may have gotten it right. I happen to think that he got it right about those Christians he hung out with, but I don’t think he’s right that they’re representative of the movement. And I think he didn’t get it right about Congress because he failed to see what was going on in partisan terms. He didn’t see what was going on as an example of how the Republicans were running Congress at the time. He saw it as the way it is, always, no matter who’s in charge and what they’re trying to accomplish, and that opinion has carried over into his reporting about the current Congress and the Obama administration.
Which I’m about to get to, but first I want to point out, this is what I meant about Taibbi not being a diligent reporter. He seems satisfied with just as many facts as he needs to support his opinion, either the one he went into the story with or the one he formed shortly after starting it.
I didn’t mean that he was lazy or sloppy or careless or irresponsible.
But it appears that in his latest in Rolling Stone, Obama’s Big Sell-out, it appears that he has been at least one of the above and possibly all four.
Kevin Drum comes to Taibbi’s defense, dismissing complaints about Taibbi’s errors, which Kevin acknowledges, as “nitpicky bullshit.” And I suppose it might be, if we were talking about one or two mistakes. But that many? That’s rotten reporting and it calls into question everything else in the article, including Taibbi’s conclusions and his motives.
Kevin excuses those errors, however, on the grounds that Taibbi’s overall point is correct.
Taibbi's piece is basically about how the finance industry owns Congress and the Obama administration, and that's basically true. In fact, I have a piece coming out in a week or so in the print magazine that makes pretty much the same point. My approach is different, and my language is all PG-rated, but my conclusions are pretty much the same. The finance industry, through both standard lobbying and what Simon Johnson calls "intellectual capture," has, over the decades since Reagan was elected, convinced nearly everyone that what's good for Wall Street is good for America, and that what's bad for Wall Street would be catastrophic for America. Everything else follows from that.
But that isn’t Taibbi’s point. Taibbi’s point is that the fact that this corruption is continuing is all Barack Obama’s fault because he’s sold out to the forces of corruption.
Taibbi’s made this argument a number of times over the past year and he’s made it basing his opinion on his impression that the President has secret powers that he’s refusing to use and the only reason he doesn’t use those powers is he wants the bad guys to prevail.
As Matt Yglesias points out, to reach this conclusion Taibbi has to ignore the way Congress, particularly the Senate, works.
For example, the name “Ben Nelson” doens’t appear in the article. Nor will you read about Olympia Snowe. Nor Blanche Lincoln. Nor any of the other pivotal actors in the senate, whose decision to vote “yes” or “no” defines the limits of what’s possible.
Since it’s hard to believe Taibbi doesn’t know how things work, how power is wielded, how egos come into play, how proud and vain and corrupt men and women work their will, it’s hard not to believe that he ignores these things in his story because they’re inconvenient.
They get in the way of what he wants to do, which is to give his opinion that Barack Obama and his band of thieves are selling us out to the banksters.
I suppose he could be right. You might think he is right. But if you use his article to make your case, you’re using someone else’s opinion to support your opinion, someone else’s impressions to reinforce your impressions. Which is fine, but don’t expect the rest of us to accept this as gospel or as fact.
And be prepared to answer how if Taibbi can’t get the backgrounds, resumes, and job descriptions of the players involved sorted out, how can he be trusted to know what their motivations are?
Updated after it’s all over but the shouting: I don’t think a lot of Taibbi’s defenders get (or want to get) that Taibbi’s point isn’t that the finance and banking industries wield far too much power in Washington and the system is corrupt, corrupting, and dysfunctional. We all know that. His point is that President Obama is corrupt. But Taibbi’s proof that the President is in the pocket of the banksters rests on guilt by association and Taibbi’s erroneous claims that Obama is going back on promises he made during the campaign, along with Taibbi’s belief that Presidents can do whatever Taibbi thinks they should do, if only they had the will and the guts---the only reason Obama hasn’t done this, Taibbi argues circularly, must be because he has sold out, which is to say, he’s been bought, otherwise it would have gotten done by now.
This isn’t proof. It’s opinion. Which is fine. You’re free to have the same opinion. But like I said, don’t expect everybody else to agree with your opinion just because Matt Taibbi shares it.
Anywho, Taibbi does a somewhat better job of defending his article than he did writing it, but basically his defense is “I didn’t make the mistakes you say I made but if I did they’re minor mistakes and don’t really matter and besides you’re a fool for believing anything favorable about the Obama Administration.”
Felix Salmon defends Taibbi’s reporting on the grounds that Taibbi isn’t a reporter he’s a rabble-rouser so we should know better than to take things he says literally…,which would be fine if so many people, including most of his fans, didn’t. Also Rolling Stone doesn’t publish Taibbi’s articles as “opinion” pieces.
And I think Digby’s defense of Taibbi is pretty weak. The fact that we need voices like Taibbi’s on the Left doesn’t and shouldn’t give Taibbi a Get Out of the Facts free card. And that he’s good at working a crowd while he lectures it doesn’t say anything about his writing or his reporting, it just suggests that he may have missed his true calling as a college professor.
Meanwhile, Brad Long and Andrew Leonard point out that Taibbi’s mistakes go beyond simple misreadings of resumes. Brad is particularly tough in his post, Ten Things on which Matt Taibbi Really Does Not Know What He’s Talking About:
When an author is apparently as clueless as to what was going on a year ago as Matt Taibbi is, one has to wonder just how seriously one is supposed to take anything he writes.