Raging Against Hacks With Muckraker Turned Magazine-Maker Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, photographed by Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Matt Taibbi, the ­former enfant terrible of ­political journalism, limps into a cozy diner on ­Chambers Street, in Tribeca a ­Russian-style fur cap pulled over his ears, a half-formed apology for his lateness already on his lips. “I am—I must have—did I keep you waiting?”

Informed he is actually seven ­minutes early, his shoulders slump in relief. “Okay,” the lanky 44-year-old says, with a toothy grin. “Good. You’ll have to excuse me. It’s been a crazy time for me.”

This is Matt Taibbi, circa 2014: ­deferential, polite, very busy. In mid-­February, shortly after the birth of his first child, Taibbi announced he was leaving Rolling Stone, where he has worked for almost a decade, to start a digital magazine for First Look Media, the company owned by eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. The last few weeks have been consumed with business matters—hiring editorial staff, signing off on designs. Taibbi won’t discuss the exact format of the new venture, nor its name—that’s still being worked out, too—but he sees it focusing, in part, on the same matters of corporate malfeasance he’s been covering for years.

What I’m hoping to capture is the simultaneously funny and satirical voice that you got with Spy magazine,” he says. “The whole thing will probably be a little different than what a lot of people expect.”

What people expect, of course, is the ­ribald, loudly antagonistic voice of a writer who is, in his own words, “full of outrage.” The guy who compared Goldman Sachs to a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” The reporter who dropped acid, donned a Viking hat and wraparound ­sunglasses, and had a nice casual chat with the former deputy head of the Office of National Drug Policy, the same policymaker responsible for the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” advertising campaign. And the person who, as the editor of a Moscow paper, marched into the local offices of the Times and slammed a pie filled with horse semen into the face of a reporter he deemed a “hack.” The ­unfiltered, uncowed Matt Taibbi who once dumped coffee on an interviewer from Vanity Fair and then chased him down the street.

But despite his newfound personal courtesy, none of Taibbi’s anger at the “toothlessness” of the media has dissipated. “I think it’s a lost art in this country—developing that narrative voice where readers connect with you as a human being,” he says, harpooning a stray piece of scrambled egg. “They want to see how you react individually to things. And if you think something is outrageous, and you write about it in a tone without outrage, then that’s just deception, you know?”

Taibbi says his decision to leave Rolling Stone was predicated in part on the need to make a change and “keep from falling into a pattern,” and partly by his desire to “be on Glenn’s side.” Glenn being Glenn Greenwald, who, along with Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill, is currently editing another First Look property, the national-security-centric The Intercept, which has been live since February. “Glenn’s in this position of being a reporter trying to put out material that came from a whistle-blower, and now they’re both essentially in exile. It’s crazy. If the press corps that existed in the ’60s and ’70s had seen this situation, they’d be rising as one and denouncing the government for it,” Taibbi says.

Like former Washington Post scribe Ezra Klein, who recently moved to a new venture at Vox Media, Taibbi sees hope in the foundational, start-up mode of journalism. “You’ve got this widespread mistrust of media organizations,” he says, “and the feeling, from people on both sides, that the networks are in the tank for one political party or another. I think people are more willing to trust individuals than they are organizations.”

Taibbi grew up on the South Shore of Boston, where he was by his account a “depressive” kid, content to spend the day burrowing into old Russian novels. “I must have read Dead Souls a hundred times,” he says. “I had this fantasy that I was living in 19th-century Russia.” (It was his Russophilia that led him, in 1992, to move there, where he remained until 2002, working first at the Moscow Times, and then at the eXile, a news­paper he helped found with fellow expat Mark Ames.)

Taibbi’s father is the Emmy Award–­winning NBC reporter Mike Taibbi—and along with Gogol and Tolstoy, he also idolized the “middle-class, working-class people” who then populated newsrooms. “They relished their role as jerks who wouldn’t let anything slide. And I was attracted to that,” he says. “I mean, ­journalists should be dark, funny, mean people. It’s appropriate for their ­antag­onistic, adversarial role.”

Contrast that with today, he argues, when for a lot of reporters, “the appeal of the job has more to do with proximity to power. They want to say they had a beer with Hillary Clinton or whatever it is.” Espe­cially offensive to Taibbi: the ­ten­den­cy of his peers to go to great lengths to always give equal weight to opposing arguments. “If there’s one way of looking at things, and there’s another way of looking at things that’s totally ridiculous, you don’t have to give the latter point of view as much ­quarter as some contemporary journalism professors might tell you.”

He stands up. Time to leave—the day is full with appointments, and at home, in Jersey City, his wife, a family doctor, and his son are waiting. But first he wants to take a look at the waitress’s tattoo. She holds her hand ­forward: I FUCKING LOVE YOU, reads a line of blue cursive script. “Very nice,” Taibbi says appreciatively.

Outside, the temperature has dropped to 19 degrees. Taibbi, tucked into a boxy old coat, says it isn’t as cold as it was when he lived in Moscow, and it’s ­pos­itively balmy compared with the climes in ­Mongolia, where he, at age 25, had spent a season playing professional basketball. The team was the Mountain Eagles; Taibbi was a small forward. “I’d met this kid playing street ball in Moscow, and he told me about a pro league in Mongolia called the MBA. So I quit my job and took a train to Ulan Bator. They called me ‘the Mongolian Rodman,’ ” he says. “I would have stayed. I was having a blast. But I caught pneumonia and I had to go back to Moscow.”

Taibbi lopes southward, toward the cloistered streets of the Financial District. I wonder aloud if he feels that the work he did about Wall Street—on subprime mortgages, and the student-loan apparatus, and the “teeming rat’s nest of corruption” that led to the 2008 meltdown—had made a difference.

I think the first clue I had was when Occupy happened,” he says. “And I could see that a lot of the stuff that I wrote about was in the background. People carrying papier-­mâché squids at some of the protests, which was cool. I think that’s part of what every journalist wants: to have an impact.” Still, that impact has only gone so far. None of the operators Taibbi regards as criminally liable for the crash has been punished; meanwhile, movies like The Wolf of Wall Street are, in his view, idolizing bankers in a way he finds unseemly. “It’s kind of the same way they glamorized the Mafia once upon a time,” he says. “But at least with the Mafia, there was always this lesson that you got at the end, that crime didn’t pay.”

Taibbi pauses at the top of the steps of the Fulton Street subway station. “Big companies like Goldman Sachs have billions to spend on their own publicity. They don’t need us to do that for them. And everyone else in this world does need us to do that for them,” he says, waving good-bye. “I think about that a lot.”

*This article appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Raging Against Hacks With Matt Taibbi