I just heard that Matt Taibbi has left First Look Media. It is sad because the magazine he was creating, Racket, sounded like it would be a lot of fun, “His vision was a hard-hitting, satirical magazine in the style of the old Spy that would employ Taibbi’s facility for merciless ridicule, humor, and parody to attack Wall Street and the corporate world.” And apparently, First Look was completely behind that vision. The problem was a clash of cultures that I thought was very funny.
According to the big guns at The Intercept (also a First Look Media publication), it was, “A collision between the First Look executives, who by and large come from a highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment, and the fiercely independent journalists who view corporate cultures and management-speak with disdain.” I’m really struck by this because this is correct, but the Silicon Valley folks don’t think it is. They think of themselves as incredibly open-minded. They think that all that matters is getting the work done and being skilled. My experience in Silicon Valley is that these firms are more ossified than the stodgiest of corporate behemoths of the past.
I discussed this last year, Unstable Weirdos and Business Success. Businesses do not like brilliant and creative people. They want “team members” and people who don’t upset things. The reason that the business community spends so much time talking about “innovation” and “disruption” is because they don’t actually do these things. Their fascination with the concepts is indicative of their desire to harness them without being affected by them. They want, for example, an employee who will work until two in the morning — but not if that means he won’t be clean-shaven at his desk at nine each morning.
So I can well imagine that Taibbi and First Look was always a questionable idea. For one thing, Taibbi does not strike me as the management kind of guy. He seems more like the kind of person who is completely useless as a leader and a follower. Those two attributes tend to go together. People have the wrong idea about leaders. Great leaders are normally great followers because they accept the idea of hierarchy. But truly idiosyncratic people are usually hopeless as leaders because they have no use for hierarchy. So if First Look really wanted to work with Taibbi, it should have set up a kind of “round table” where he was first among equals.
It’s funny that this is more or less what happened at The Intercept where Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Jeremy Scahill are running the show with John Cook as editor-in-chief. And even they admit in the article that they had problems of this sort with First Look Media. In fact, Cook and Taibbi seem to have been going through a lot of the same stuff, including a three-month hiring freeze last April — a strange move for a magazine that is being built. (The Intercept launched two months earlier, so it wasn’t quite as big a deal for Cook.) But this was apparently worked out. And then came another decision that strikes me as totally Silicon Valley and very funny:
Let me translate: “We don’t know what to do so we are throwing out a bunch of jargon to justify taking control away from the people doing the work; the hope is that things will somehow work out.” So eventually, First Look Media used an employee complaint (that is widely disputed) about Taibbi yelling at a worker to fire him.
The article — written by Greenwald, Poitras, Scahill, and Cook — took pains to say that they were all happy at The Intercept. But the whole thing doesn’t speak well of the enterprise. I’m sure that as long as The Intercept is growing and profitable, there will be no problem. But fundamentally, it will be treated the way that all media companies are treated. Clearly, the brand is “speaking truth to power.” I’m not sure how profitable that will be. And that is all that matters in Silicon Valley, just as surely as it is in the clothes hanger industry. The only thing that is different is that the people in Silicon Valley are so deluded they think they are different.