Matt Taibbi Is Shrill
... or so I've heard. But not everyone sees it that way. Ezra Klein writes:
The Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman writes an able defense of Matt Taibbi against those who would drum him from journalism for using too many curse words or daring to express outrage beneath his byline. But toward the end, Starkman engages in some tut-tutting of his own, writing that "the weakness of the piece is where others might find strength, its polemical nature and its hyperbole." In particular, he says that "when you call Goldman a 'great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money,' you’re in a sense offering a big fat disclaimer—this piece is not to be taken literally and perhaps not even seriously."
But you're also doing something else: You're saying this piece is to be read. You're signaling to the readers that you are writing for them. That you have decided that the difficulty of these issues increases the responsibility of the writer, not the reader. Putting that liner in the opening of the piece is a clear message that the reader can relax. This will be interesting. This will not be homework.
I have often wondered why so little of journalistic navel gazing contemplates this question. Actually, I don't wonder at all: the last thing any writer wants to admit or even consider, is that his or her writing is boring. As a kind of-sort of writer myself, I can sympathize. But as a news consumer and as a blogger, I think Ezra is absolutely right, particularly when it comes to tough subjects like the failure of the banking system and wall street perfidy.
I was on a panel with David Sirota and Taibbi a couple of months ago about the forces that are standing in the way of the progressive agenda. Taibbi talked about the reasons for the banking failure and recapitulated the main points of his Rolling Stone article. And the audience was totally captivated. They crowded around him after the panel not to ask for his autograph, but instead peppering him with questions about the bailouts and wall street, many of them commenting that this was the first time they really understood what had happened.
As I listened to him speak, I realized it wasn't just that he had attitude (which he has) or that he takes a point of view (which he does.) A good part of his talk was spent explaining the arcane mechanisms that fueled the crisis, much of which I think is terribly confusing to lay people and makes it hard to grasp exactly what happened and why we should care. And I realized that in all of his discussion, Taibbi didn't use any of the usual journalistic conventions and he never uses jargon, ever, in his speech or in his writing. Yes, he's funny and profane, but he's also very, very clear.
As those of you who have read this blog for a while already know, one of my pet peeves about modern reporting is that the conventions have become so arcane that you can't decipher what's really going on. In their quest to protect sources, be "professional," "balanced" and maintain "objectivity" they've created a style that's often indecipherable to the reader. Without insider knowledge you have to read between the lines or put together several different articles to get a sense of what's happening. When it involves complex, technical issues it's even worse.
The reason so many people read Taibbi's work on the banking crisis is not simply because he calls a spade a spade, but because he does it by writing (and speaking) in such a way that makes the issue itself comprehensible. His conclusions about motives and guilt are obviously open for criticism. Anyone's are. But his explanations of what happened, how these financial instruments worked, what precipitated the crisis and how the industry is constructed are clear, informative and comprehensive. Unlike so many others who write on this topic, he has fulfilled his duty as a journalist without making it "homework," as Ezra says, or effectively helping to obfuscate the issue on behalf of those who seek to keep people in the dark.
Naturally, the powers that be don't like critics and call them "shrill." Same as it ever was. The last thing they want is for people to actually understand what's happening. But journalists, (many of whom loathe Taibbi for "lowering the discourse") by perpetuating this ever more ritualistic form of writing, are helping them. And I believe they are losing a fair portion of their audience because of it.