Matt Taibbi and the Delusion of Silicon Valley

Matt TaibbiI 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:

A few months later, over the summer, Omidyar told employees that he was “re-tooling” the company’s focus and building a laboratory environment to foster the development of new technologies for delivering and consuming news—the idea, he said at the time, was to orient the company more toward “products,” as opposed to “content.”

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.

2 thoughts on “Matt Taibbi and the Delusion of Silicon Valley

  1. The WSJ had Thomas Frank on the payroll for a short time. Then, they didn’t; probably because he kept writing exactly what he always does. If you regard “independence” and “originality” as branding concepts, not actual principles, it’s probably easy to assume anyone with a hard-earned reputation for snarling at dumb authority is just building that rep to cash in on it.

    I remember at my very privileged high-school the outgoing headmaster (yep, we had a headmaster) giving a “think different” speech. This after some students had put a year into a very intelligent, very persuasive campaign to get the school to give more scholarships to poor students, particularly students of color. Most of the teachers were convinced by the quality and dedication of the campaign to sign on; including our chaplain, who had been Desmond Tutu’s right-hand man in South Africa. Guess who shot the notion down, speaking with the full authority of the board of directors? You won’t have to guess hard. After the chaplain resigned in protest, the headmaster did his “think different” sermon jive. I immediately saw it as bunk and regretted not being more involved in the campaign (I was a poor student on scholarship, but white, so I hadn’t cared much.) I still feel guilty about that.

    It’s funny. We fought so long against the dragon we’ve become a dragon ourselves. Communism was this great evil because it substituted control by an exclusive elite for control by innovative individual minds, champions of freedom like Ford, Hearst, Carnegie. Now some super-rich asshole who wants to build his new HuffPo is dominated by groupthink B-school grads who mutter seminar-quality gibberish. Hell, our politicians are, too. Remember reading about ’40s right-wingers screaming how FDR’s Brain Trust was running the country? Some of those guys actually went out and did field research, talked to farmers. They made mistakes. They also acted like elected representatives. If there’s anything more insular, more impervious to outside criticism, than the reigning B-school dogma of how to run everything even remotely connected to commerce, I don’t know what it is. ISIS, maybe, or perhaps they’re tied.

    Everyone’s capable of everything, so it’s possible Taibbi was a sexist dick. I highly doubt it, as he often quotes female sources he clearly respects. He may have used his felicitous talent for language to go off on a company tool in a way that made her feel attacked by a sexist. Or, more likely, the company wanted to get rid of him and coached the aggrieved worker on what words to highlight when they had the “you’re being let go” sit-down; say, if he called her a “pussy,” a term I can readily imagine Taibbi slinging at company tools of every sex, age, ethnicity. Who knows.

    All credit to Scahill/Poitras/Greenwald/Cook for airing the dirty laundry here. I wouldn’t have been disillusioned if they kept it quiet to try and focus on what they’re up to; it’s not easy to do what they do and get backing for it. Nice job by them coming clean, and also smart. Taibbi will end up somewhere, and if First Look didn’t allow its people to mention why he left, he might have later and embarrassed them.

    • I thought they did a very good job on the article, but maybe that just proves that it is great propaganda. I really think the correct thing is for them to never have anything to say about First Look Media. The truth is that as much as they try, they can’t be objective. But they probably felt they had to say something; why are they still there and he isn’t? The sad thing is that as compromised as they necessarily are, that was probably the most objective reporting we will see on the subject.

      As for the media and politics, I’m to the breaking point. The New Democrats have done more to radicalize my thinking than any radical ever could. If the “liberal” party is committed to enriching the rich at the expense of the poor, there really is no respectable way to move forward. It is time to start talking to people about the evils of capitalism. If it won’t police itself, I’m afraid the people will have to. And sadly, that’s going to require that things get even worse.

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