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Matt Taibbi, and polemic journalism in the modern era

January 6, 2013

In case you missed it over the weekend, Rolling Stone's rock-star journalist Matt Taibbi is at it again: ranting and raving against Wall Street, against a financial system that he is wholeheartedly convinced exists primarily to stick it to everyone else.

His latest diatribe was published on Friday, and it's not light reading. Clocking in at well over 7,000 words -- 7,304 by my count -- it's a tour de force capturing emerging populism and continuing the narrative that tends to permeate all things Taibbi: banks are screwing the Ordinary American™, while our government is complicit in the act, if not outright co-conspirator.

Irrespective of beliefs, you've got to give Taibbi some credit: his writing style might madden plenty of traditional journalists, but Taibbi isn't a traditional journalist. Never was. More than anyone else, Taibbi has proven that there is a role for polemic journalism in modern-day American society -- and he's part of a trend that suggests that polemic journalism is perhaps the fastest-growing part of the news business these days. (And maybe the only growing part, too?)

Back to Taibbi's latest rant: in it, he claims that pretty much everything about the bailout has been a lie, a classic "them vs. the rest of us" moment:

To listen to the bankers and their allies in Washington tell it, you'd think the bailout was the best thing to hit the American economy since the invention of the assembly line. Not only did it prevent another Great Depression, we've been told, but the money has all been paid back, and the government even made a profit. No harm, no foul – right?

Wrong.

It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. 

Much of the latest column actually hems along the same themes put forth in Neil Barofsky's book Bailout, published in the middle of last year. (Barofsky, for the uninitated, was the the special inspector general in charge of oversight of the spending of the bailout money and has been a staunch critic of the entire program.) So there isn't actually a ton of new material in Taibbi's latest missive, although there is certainly a lot more color -- and, of course, a lot more colorful language.

Equally unsurprising, then, is that Taibbi leans pretty heavily on Barofsky as one of the few quoted sources in the story.

And while Taibbi's work should be appreciated for the high art that it is, I'm in the camp that says the world view of any polemic journalist -- whether Taibbi, Morgenson, Ratigan, and a growing list of others -- should be taken with a pretty large grain of salt.  

I'm not alone on this, either. It appears people on both sides of the aisle have some reservations of their own. Here's what Tony Fratto, Dubya's deputy assistant and deputy press secretary, had to say:

Meanwhile, over at left-leaning Daily Kos, a poster was grumbling about Taibbi's playing loose and fast with some facts about the bailout:

In fact, the auto rescue, by far the biggest use of TARP funds by Obama's Administration is never mentioned in Taibbi's article.  Never mentioned- like it didn't happen. Of course the Treasury under Tim Geithner did not just rescue the auto industry, it rescued the credit unions, provided billions of dollars of TARP loans to small banks, including labor union owned banks, and retrieved almost all the money Bush and Paulson had given to the big Wall Street banks.

(Definitely read the comments on the above linked post, if you're into that sort of thing. This post on the Daily Koz had the most comments on any story on the site posted over this past weekend.)

So, since it was brought up, just how big was the auto bailout? For starters, it saved some 1.5 million jobs by some estimates; but far more importantly than the $30 billion it cost, it is what ultimately propelled Obama to his second term as President.

That's big. Really big.

So big that it clearly would deserve a mention in any serious news coverage attempting to get inside the bailout soup-to-nuts, and the fact that it's missing from Taibbi's 7,000+ word account of the same only underscores the real purpose of his writing.

Taibbi is a high practitioner in the art of polemics. Appreciate that, and understand it. Just don't go confusing everything Taibbi writes for blind, unadulterated truth: it's instead best interpreted as a version of truth.

And we all know the old saying about there being three versions of the truth, right?

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