Talking priorities with Matt Taibbi

Wow, did I ever use to admire Matt Taibbi.

Nobody exposed skullduggery better, or with more enthusiasm. He relentlessly identified, investigated and eviscerated those who abused their power. And he was so fun to read. His prose leapt off the page and sizzled in your brain.

But now he’s turned into something more like your crazy uncle. He sees liberal illiberalism around every corner. He provides succor to those he used to skewer. He’s not always wrong, but who wants to dig through that much overheated dross to find the nuggets of truth? (Well, evidently a lot of people on Substack, if you believe their numbers.)

I’ve long intended to write something about what happened to Matt, and even more so to my friend Glenn Greenwald, to turn them from among the bravest, smartest, clearest-eyed and most ethically consistent journalists I knew into something closer to apologists for the loony right. For those of us who admired them, it’s really crushing.

But I don’t have the answers. (I’m hardly the first to ask. Ross Barkan, in a New York magazine piece headlined What Happened to Matt Taibbi?, included speculation that Taibbi’s fury at being accused of sexual harassment precipitated his fierce attacks against the left.)

I think it has something to do with being addicted to attention, but I’m still trying to figure that out.

Matt reached out to me via Twitter on Monday to talk about the piece I published on Friday about that day’s painfully clueless editorial about free speech in the New York Times. It turns out he was among those who felt I went a bit far by calling on the entire editorial board to resign. (I have no regrets.)

Later on Monday, Matt published his response to the editorial, mocking those he felt overreacted to it, like me. He included a few quotes from our exchange.

My hope is that the full exchange will offer some insight into what drives him, as well as let readers more fairly judge the relative merits of our positions:

TAIBBI: So, Dan, read your piece about the Times editorial – I get that they were wrong call it a “right” to not be shamed or shunned, but does that make shaming or shunning a good thing? I mean, demanding resignations over this? Also, why identify [opinion editor Kathleen] Kingsbury and [deputy opinion editor Patrick] Healy, unless you’re hoping people will demand their resignations? And wouldn’t that mainly just be hilarious, given that Kingsbury was hired to replace the last beheaded Times editor, Bennet? Is the idea to cycle through editorial page editors until you get one who’s appropriately focused in the direction you like? Lastly, responding to an op-ed opposing shaming and shunning with more calls for shaming and shunning – aren’t you making their points for them?

FROOMKIN: Hi Matt. Thanks in large part to Trump, there’s been a resurgence of people saying horrible, racist, hateful and hurtful things to make themselves feel better at the expense of others. Now they’re passing laws. Isn’t it appropriate for us to try to shame and shun them back to where they think maybe they should shut up? And my demand for resignations was not because I found something they said offensive, it was because their manifesto further and definitively proved signified how clueless and unfit they are to operate such a crucial forum for public opinion. Kingsbury and Healy are in charge, and damned right I think they should be shamed and leave. What’s “hilarious” is that Bennet’s replacements are just as bad as he was as far as creating a culture that values lib-trolling over all. And yes, I would like them replaced with people who stake out bold, defensible, not-brainless positions, while publishing a very wide range of perspectives from others. (See, by the way, I will not be satisfied until that happens;  I don’t find that hilarious at all. And your final statement is trite and cheap. You have to ask yourself what’s anecdotal and what’s systemic. And then you can choose between being a drama queen or a hero. You used to be one of my heroes. Please go back to fighting the vampire squids of this world instead of hyping Trumpian claptrap to get attention. P.S. I liked the top of your piece on neocons! I just hope that beyond the paywall it doesn’t devolve into a paean to America First.

TAIBBI: Yeah, Dan, I wrote that piece on neocons because Podhoretz thought it was up to him to decide who’s American and who isn’t. Now you’re saying I promote “Trumpian claptrap” because what, I’m pro-speech? Because I don’t think Bennet should have been fired? SMH.  When someone like Podhoretz or Bret Stephens says I’m anti-American or pro-Putin for being anti-interventionist, it’s absolutely the same as you calling me Trumpian for being pro-speech.  You can’t see how much like the Republicans you despite you’ve become.

Also, does the “wide range of perspectives” you’d like to see encompass any that would support the Republican Party?

FROOMKIN: Sigh. Your main goal these days seems to be to attack the left. I probably agree with you about most of your individual (anecdotal) concerns and I agree that fighting censorship is crucial work. I think the modern Democratic Party is a corrupt and inept mess. But by focusing so much on those problems, rather than the so much greater (systemic) threats from the GOP, you’ve undermined your credibility. You’ve effectively thrown in with the smug and the right, who consider “cancel culture” (whatever it is, as the NYT so artfully put it) more important than book-banning, barring discussions of inequality in schools, criminalizing transgender, limiting the vote and only honoring the results if they win. I remain a steadfast progressive, fighting the good fight, happy to be unoriginal in its pursuit. I worry that you have become addicted to trolling, rather than to brilliantly afflicting the powerful, which I always felt was your superpower. (Keep sticking it to the neocons!)  As for whether I would publish a “wide range of perspectives,” yes I would, and that includes Republicans, fascists, racists, you name it – as long as there’s a good reason to do so. You’d know that if you’d clicked that link!  Anyway, I’m hopeful we’ll both be and feel like we’re on the same side again someday. D

TAIBBI: Your link basically suggests that any “exceptions” to the “reasonable debate” standard be appended with warnings, corrections and circles and arrows pointing to “bad faith” and places where the argument is “morally abhorrent.” Basically, you are proposing an op-ed page with Surgeon General’s warnings when people are wrong. I’m asking if your idea of a “wide range of perspectives” includes, say, an un-annotated, non-“corrected” op-ed in support of Republicans. I ask that as someone who’s never voted Republican and never will. And as for me “throwing in with the right,” it’s fascinating that you can say that without identifying any actual right-wing positions I’ve taken, unless saying I like Thanksgiving counts. As for “afflicting the powerful,” who do you think is in power in this country? I think Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and the banking and pharmaceutical sectors acting in concert are a lot scarier than the Texas Department of Education. You use the term progressive to describe yourself because you know “liberal” doesn’t fit anymore. “Liberal” is what I am and always have been. The Republicans have always been illiberal. If the Democrats go that way (and they have, in a massive way) there’s nothing left. It’s over. So I focus my energies that way rather than stumping for the less moronic, more sophisticated forms of illiberalism. But thanks for calling me right wing anyway.

Also, by the way, there are actually some Republicans who are sincere on the civil liberties front and on the government oversight front. I haven’t seen too many Democrats in the last six years worrying about abuse of power by the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Yes their interest in the issue is self-serving, but at the moment, who else is even looking that way?

FROOMKIN: I absolutely believe that Republican views based in reality, argued in good faith, and not preaching hate or violence should be part of any op-ed page. That’s very much what I call “reasonable debate.” What I’m saying is that sometimes it’s even worth printing views that violate those standards and are highly offensive to some people, if they are an important part of the public discourse; I think the best way to do that is with complete transparency, i.e. explaining why. I said you’re throwing in with the right because you share their talking points about the existential threat of the illiberal left. I totally agree that Big Tech, Wall Street and PhRMA are hugely powerful and threatening and are engaged in censorship. I think that’s systemic and worth writing about a lot. But that doesn’t excuse minimizing the overt and material threats posed by GOP-run states and, potentially, a U.S. government controlled by Trumpists. That terrifies me so much more these days. And it doesn’t excuse getting hyperbolic about anecdotal evidence of excesses by groups trying to right the balance in academe and elsewhere between cis white men and everyone else. What about all the people who get fired for supporting unions? If I saw the Democratic Party “going the way” of censorship and banishing people like AOC, yeah, I’d be right there with you. And yeah, I find their cozying up with the IC to be super alarming. That’s one of the points you and Glenn are making that I support hugely – and I think it sucks that you guys aren’t taken seriously about that because of the other stuff you write. Anyway, despite your unmerited attacks on me in this discussion, I also see a lot of what I know and love about Matt Taibbi, and I hope to see more of that side again.


  1. I judge in favor of Matt. You simply label your enemies’ efforts as systemic in order to make a distinction. Your last line reads as if you’re good with Matt when he’s attacking your enemies.

    Would love to hear some examples of Matt’s right wing positions.

    • Example: Just read a comment to that NYT Mag article “What’s the Matter with Matt…” article that alleges by the poster that last Fall, Taibbi went on Bill Maher’s show (on 11/1/21) to say that Putin never helped Trump at all in 2016. Now I haven’t read the transcript to verify; but if true, shows Matt completely contradicts what I understood to be the consensus of US Intelligence reports, as well as the bipartisan Senate Intelligence report on the subject.

      Putin helped Trump win in 2016. To push that as a falsehood reflects either: pretty extreme gullibility, partisan bias, or having been compromised by the KGB after an exceptionally wild night at the Drunken Duck.

  2. “I just hope that beyond the paywall it doesn’t devolve into a paean to America First.”

    …Oh, dear. We can at least tell how tragically effective the bullshit cannon drive is, when even you think you actually already know – by reputation and indirect review – that there’s a good chance Matt devolves into a fascist maniac — just after the paywall on substack.

    I.e., the probability that substack is a front for a new wave of America First, where individuals who said goodbye to mainstream press opportunities for various reasons having to do with their “character” revel in their fascist tendencies to farm right-wing click-masturbation money — is very real to you, even though you have not read the pieces in question.

    I subscribe to the list, I’ve read the rant. And I assure you that it doesn’t devolve into an America First hageography of our wonderful leaders and country. Or anything of the sort, whatsoever.

    You don’t know me, Dan — but I “know” you by reading your WHB, and following you here and on nieman watchdog later. I do admire you very much, along with literally an amount of journalists I can count on one hand, for keeping us sane during the Bush&Blair show. And it so happens that Greenwald, Taibbi(later on), and you are on that extremely short list. Of course, everyone on that list have, obviously, some blindsides you all run into. Greenwald had his issues, as he has always had, where it sometimes becomes more important to criticise specifics in what is immediately nearby than it is to draw some larger lines. I think you feel Taibbi shares that problem. Where, even if the point is entirely salient, and related to the general point that you would probably have focused on, that the ire shouldn’t be primarily directed against the people who at least don’t overtly advertise that they want to upturn any legal precedent, rule or procedure against the interest of the people who somehow vote for them, etc.

    We all know this happens. But that’s why it becomes even more important to actually point it out when the situation you can relate to the closest starts to dabble in the same thing. I’ll happily give you that those of us who followed the 2001-6 years in absolute horror of what was going on should not avoid pointing out how absurdly manipulative the GOP is, and how readily it lends itself to anything whatsoever with no standard. But – and I’m saying this to you as someone who had many runins with Biden’s creatures in the foreign service – to be blind to the fact that the same bullshit fuckery, just without the Boltonesque personal death threats, is going on now under the Democrats — you can’t justify that when there’s a guy in the White House who until recently was the sole distributor of Uighur genocide propaganda, who stoked an anti-Chinese sentiment out of sheer populistic domestic concern, and whose involvement in Ukraine and Belarus is deeply important to understanding what happened there before and after 2014.

    You can’t then just turn around and go: “Well, since I can’t possibly be seen to adopt any position that, say, Tucker Carlson may have stated on air as eruditely as a 14-year old, according to sources – then I’m just not going to consider that the Democratic party of Kinte cloth, Uighur genocides, Syrian nerve-gas and benevolent Ukrainian nazi-coups — is somehow excempt from all criticism”. Do they mean well?

    That’s fucked up, Dan.

    I still genuinely admire you for staying on this kind of beat, even after you literally got the Greenwald-treatment after you were “non-fired” from the Washington Post. I honestly have close friends who fell on hard times that I think less about than I’ve worried about you. But do understand that the amount of bullshit coming from the DNC cannon, in perfect sync with the GOP cannon, is as massive as it’s ever been. And it penetrates to the point where – and I’m not making this up – I’ve been called out for being a fascist for preaching UN Charter principles — I just didn’t choose the right introduction with the rhetoric of choice at this moment. You know this is the same that what happened in 2003. Right now, if you don’t dance with the war-drums, it’s maybe even worse than it was in 2003; we’ve just dispensed with even a pretext of international law now. And I’m not sure you see that it’s being done, just this once. Because it is done by the well-meaning “good people” this time, rather than the kind of politician who would sneer and call for increasing amounts of torture to “assert dominance”.

    Torture that, incidentally, is still going on. Where no party seems overly concerned with the fact that people are legally tortured in the service of getting “actionable intelligence” out of prisoners who have been sitting 20 years in solitary confinement.

    You can’t go “but they mean well” then. Or that the Republicans somehow didn’t take responsibility when voted in or out – as the Democrats sat on a majority. That’s just not going to fly.

    • ” Right now, if you don’t dance with the war-drums, it’s maybe even worse than it was in 2003…”

      I’m not seeing that. Biden seems determined to stay out of direct conflict with Russia.

      “…we’ve just dispensed with even a pretext of international law now. ”

      Huh? Putin has dispensed with international law. Biden seems to be trying very hard to toe the line, despite the inevitable hawkish voices. You’re confusing US policy with the rhetoric of individual politicians.

      • “I’m not seeing that. Biden seems determined to stay out of direct conflict with Russia.”

        He doesn’t have a choice. Bush jr. didn’t either: “The US doesn’t want a war”. But I’d like to remind you that until the Pentagon put the brakes on last week – a possible hint that things are about to go past the point of no return, if there ever is any – his secretary of state, Blinken, along with every “allied” government, has already declared they will be on “Team Europa”, and have politically determined they will all send military material support to a conflict area. We still do that, up to the point of transferring planes and tanks. That’s when the Pentagon said stop. Not before.

        And every single one of these governments are now getting into trouble in the same way as the US: the legal framework involved, and any semblance of international law, allows us to send non-military support without any ceremony. We might also transfer war-material to allied nearby states for defensive purposes (although also unwise). But we can’t send military gear to military conflict without being an active participant. If nothing else, invoking Article 5 at a later point disallows us from the previously having engaged ourselves actively. (Which incidentally is why the narrative is now going full burn on how “It is clear, that Ukraine is not the initiator, or even a participant, in the conflict. At least they’re not the aggressor”. It’s so trite – but it’s in that context – of an excuse to manufacture a later excuse to threaten with force).

        My own government just had the civil service under the ministeries go amok with leaks, not because they’re worried about starting world war three, of course. Apparently we would love that, being on “the front” against “the Evil Putin” – but because they don’t see enough movement on sending war-material to Ukraine, like our allies (minus the Pentagon) supposedly wants. So we are in the same situation as the US: the official policy, the declared policy in fact – is different from what we actually can do.

        This is completely fucked. The mention of international law is as a comparison to the five other still ongoing war-scenarios we are still involved in. In Ukraine, we’ve dispensed with that. There’s no argument here, there’s no “whataboutism” about how much worse Putin is: we don’t care about international law. And I’ve been called out as a fascist supporter of some Putinist empire by suggesting we should not go to ww3. That’s where the rhetoric is now.

        And frankly, if you stepped back and realized that Russia has put regime change off the table — who is to blame for this circus again? Fucking remind me of what has happened since 2001, very briefly?

        “You’re confusing US policy with the rhetoric of individual politicians.”

        No. The US foreign policy is demonstrably the rhetoric of a selection of foreign diplomats. The rhetoric that a select amount of senators on a trip to Ukraine had in 2014 and 2016 /is/ the US’s policy on Ukraine – in spite of attempts to bar weapon sales and military support to certain “parts” of the militia-service in Ukraine. They want a proxy-war with Russia. And the funding and military elements have been facilitated. This is practically and demonstrably the case. That is therefore the US foreign policy in practice. You cannot possibly deny that.

        Meanwhile, on the political arena — when my government is literally sacrificing a non-participation-principle in military conflict, that has lasted since before we had a constitution (which is older than the US has existed, incidentally) literally because of requests from “our closest ally”, which is the US — then you can’t say that this is not the foreign policy of the US.

        You cannot possibly argue against that. It is the official political stance, and it is what has been done in practice: it is the USA’s foreign policy.

        I also mentioned Biden’s creatures during the Obama-years. Do not even get me started. They are not trying to seek a compromise with international partners. They are trying to find a domestic political solution to an international problem. This is identical to what happened during the Bush years. Indeed, many of the people who are now reformed neoconservatives, on account of being well-intentioned for “progressive” goals of various sorts that rhetorically mesh with Democratic “values” – are calling for a no-fly zone and ww3. On the behalf, and to great support, from Demoncratic politicians. Who see that the popularity of the humanitarian angle here is good politically.

        That it would start ww3 – who the fuck cares, right? It’s identical to the Iraq situation, just worse, with higher stakes.

        So I implore you to try to understand that actual policy decisions are made on the vapidest of domestically salient political sound-bites.

        That I have to insist on on this even after Iraq, gods knows how many years of “war on terror”, patriot acts sunsetting and a still open Guantanamo bay – where people have been for so long that FOI-requests are granted for people who are still in there, still getting tortured.

        Not a good form, ok? The bullshit cannon is real, and it has an effect. And if you don’t see that, or you’re willing to look the other way. Then you’re willing to excuse the bullshit pelting you on your left side, while criticising the bullshit coming on the right side – because the colour of the crap pelting you on the left is more palatable, and the cannon has more rainbows and gay people painted on it. Maybe you’re turning your face a bit so one cannon shoots you in the back of the head, and the other one blasts you in the mouth and eyes, and that’s your excuse.

        Perhaps it’s also not quite as intense from the left, I’ll give you that. But it’s still a bullshit-cannon that hits you hard in the face. You can’t escape that.

    • Wow! I have seldom seen such a farrago of ad hominem snark, semi-informed opinionizing, and unjustified conflation of the Democratic Party, progressives, middle-of-the road liberals and moderate Republicans. Yet I persevered, reading through each confusing sentence, until I reached the offhanded reference to “…a guy in the White House who until recently was the sole distributor of Uighur genocide propaganda.” That’s a new one on me! I can only imagine how much fun it must be to trigger the libs by coming out in favor of the most repressive government on earth and against an embattled minority. Have you considered running for the Senate in Texas?

  3. “When someone like Podhoretz or Bret Stephens says I’m anti-American or pro-Putin for being anti-interventionist, it’s absolutely the same as you calling me Trumpian for being pro-speech.”

    No, calling someone anti-American is implying they don’t belong in this country.
    Calling someone Trumpian is implying they don’t belong on the Left.

  4. I agree with Matt that you were way over the top to ask for the NY Times editorial board to resign. They are attacking a pressing problem, and their first attempt could have been better. If you really want them to be tougher on the cancellers (which I agree with), praise them for what they got right. You have very little (an after your tirade, even less) leverage against the mighty NY Times, so using a carrot rather than a cannon might possibly get better results.

  5. What nobody is talking about is the 800 pound gorilla in the room called FOX News (and its smaller imitators).

    FOX–and the rest of the RW propaganda machine–literally invented CRT as something actually being taught in public schools to shame white kids. I literally had an argument last summer at a party with a women who was literally in tears about how terrible it was that tens of millions of white children were being shamed on a daily basis for what their ancestors did to Blacks hundreds of years ago. My own FOX-watching stepmother was convinced during the BLM protests that rabid Black mobs were burning and looting every city in America.

    When THOSE kinds of falsehoods and distortions are not immediately flagged as lies by MSM journalists (like Taibbi); or get validated as political phenomenon that as such are somehow ‘true’, then our democracy has a serious problem with the 4th Estate. THAT is my understanding of Froomkin’s position.

    • What you aren’t talking about is that Fox is the only prominent media outlet that’s not completely liberal. You have the New York Times, the Washington Post, Associated Press, just about every metro “newspaper,” ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, MSNBC, Bloomberg, and CNN. Nope, not enough: You demand a monopoly. You know like the Soviet Union, North Korea, China?

      As for Critical Race Theory, I laugh at your denials. As for BLM, they’re corrupt, violent, communists. Antifa? Riots in a dozen major cities. You call this false? Just wait. Plenty of people will be voting not just against Biden and the Democratic Party but against the media, the vast majority of which is an arm of the Democratic Party, and which hate this country and everything it has ever stood for.

      Yammer all you want. After all, you’re smarter and morally superior to everyone. It oozes from every pore. If there’s one thing that Americans of all persuasions despise, it’s the tidal wave of smug, condescending arrogance and self-righteousness that the “progressives” have inflicted on the country they despise. It takes a long time for Americans to get angry, but when that happens — watch out. See ya in November.

      Of course, when you are crushed, you’ll do two things: Try to deny it, and then blame it on anyone who’s not a radical. The “progressives” will follow in the footsteps of the post-1968 Democrats. They’ll cement their control of the Democratic Party; nominate McGovern II; get squashed in 2024; and be out of power until at least 2040. No matter: They will never, ever once seriously question the genius in the mirror. Ever.

  6. The bad news is that the “progressives” eat their own. The more it happens, the more you lose whatever weak connection to reality you might’ve had. The good news is that Froomkin’s dream continues to crumble, as the leftist legacy media loses credibility and influence. Fewer and fewer people believe any of it. And Froomkin wants his friends to be even more blatantly communist. LOL

    Mr. Froomkin, shouldn’t you return to Venezuela with Bernie Sanders and Joe Xiden, to beg for oil and build “democratic socialism” as an example to all?


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