American Culture

Why, oh why, did you sell out, Matt Taibbi?

taibbi.jpgBy Martin Bosworth

We’re big fans of maverick political writer and gonzo journalist extraordinare Matt Taibbi here at S&R. I’ve quoted from him extensively in articulating my political philosophy, and my fellow scholarly rogue Mike Sheehan scored a hilarious interview with him not long ago. We admire his brazen crass ruthlessness and willingness to say what people don’t want to hear, regardless of where we stand.

That’s why it broke my heart to find out that Taibbi recently crossed the Writers’ Guild of America picket line to appear on the Colbert Report, and that he might do so again for Bill Maher’s show.

Jesse Wendel at the Group News Blog has excoriated Taibbi as an unfunny sellout punk. I disagree with the “unfunny” part. Taibbi’s skill as a humorist is peerless in his venue, and as a Jew, him making fun of a dying Pope didn’t phase me in the slightest. But a sellout? Yes, I’d have to say so. For him to cross the line and ignore the writers as he has done is a major slap in the face.

I’m not an entertainment writer or screenwriter, but as a working writer myself, I support the WGA’s desire to not be shut out of the new media and the potential profits it can bring. These people are working hard to feed their families and build a career doing what they love, in the face of a pitiless corporate empire that is trying to crush what few creative voices there are in Hollywood, and squeeze every last drop of profit they can out of the hard work of the creative class for their own enrichment. Fuck that.

For Taibbi, a guy who has made his career slaughtering sacred cows and speaking truth to power, to cross the line is a serious jab in the eye to the writers and their supporters. It doesn’t bother me if some no-name actor or D-list celeb does it, because these people are about nothing but promoting themselves and hawking whatever crappy movie they’ve got going anyway. But someone like Taibbi should know better. He may not care about it, but to every writer that’s refusing to play the game any longer and doesn’t have the spotlight like he does, his appearances say “Yeah, I don’t give a fuck about you and what you’re doing. I got mine, and that’s all I care about.”

Writers are a notoriously fickle, independent bunch, so when we band together for a cause, it means something. Taibbi should understand this, and should show some more respect to the people who are fighting for the rights he’s already earned. That he doesn’t makes me a lot less inclined to want to read his work and support his antics in the foreseeable future.

It’s a damn shame when your idols let you down, let me tell you.

40 replies »

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  2. It’s strange – as a writer and (finally) start-up author who’d absolutely love to be paid to write, I support the writers. But at the same time, I’m not a huge supporter of unions in general, and so I don’t have a problem with people crossing the picket lines (and I’ve crossed a few of the years myself). So I understand why you’re dissappointed, but I guess I just don’t feel the same level of outrage over this that you do.

  3. That’s okay, Brian. You’re wrong about Social Security, so you can be wrong about this too. 🙂

    Unions are by no means perfect, but every major concession to health and safety in the American workplace came from their efforts. 40-hour workweek, thank a union, as they say. Because of that, it’s especially glaring that someone like Taibbi, who has made his bones on exposing corruption and malfeasance, would stick a fork in the writers’ eye like that. He should know better.

  4. Come on……unions as we know them today are just another big business exploiting the working class. I had to join on of those join or else unions and all I ever got for my dues was mealy mouth excuses and tempest in a tea pot issues created by the union to justify it’s existence . Taibbi is a excellent writer and I could really give a shit about his union activitys or this articles authors inane idealism.

  5. Muffy,

    Idealism is never inane. If you agree that big business is exploiting the working class, then unless you’ve got a radically different alternative in mind, getting organized and working together to make change happen is the way to go.

    Besides, I’m not saying Taibbi’s not an excellent writer–he is. I just expect better from him than this.

  6. See, Martin, my problems with unions is similar to what Muffy said. I don’t deny that they were vital to the protections I have. But what have they done for me recently? I know of teachers unions that screwed their members over so badly that they had to be in bed with the district administration – why should I support a union that exists to exploit their members instead of represent them? And given our global economy, how do we compete as a nation when union contracts dictate payrolls that our competitors simply don’t have? A friend asked me whether the problem was too much union presence here in the US or too little overseas (too little overseas, IMO), but most of the unions either don’t publicize their overseas organizational efforts or don’t care to fight the union battles in places like China, Malaysia, et al.

    In this case, the writer’s union has a point – their members should be paid for their work when it’s distributed on new technologies. And I’m not sure I’d actually cross this particular picket like I have others in the past, because I actually agree with their point when I’ve disagreed with the others. I guess I’m trying to point out that it’s just not as simple as “never cross a picket line” – reality is a whole lot greyer than that.

  7. Irregardless of you expecting better of him or notit sounds to me as though you feel because you are a writer and the striker’s are writers he should put his career and livelihood on hold for their betterment. This strikes me as very self centered and almost as unrealistic as the saying that Unions of this day and age represent their members.

  8. Brian,

    Oh, no argument! Don’t assume that I think unions are the panacea to cure all ills in the workplace by any means–I live in D.C., remember. I’ve seen firsthand how unions have bettered themselves at taxpayer expense for a good long time.

    What we need are *better* unions and collective bargaining structures that can maximize the power of people to fight for their rights, while *minimizing* the typical greed and corruption that comes with a collective bargaining structure.

    As far as globalization of the economy goes, we’ve seen the results of corporations’ race to the bottom by outsourcing to nations with lower wages–cheaper (and often unsafe) products, lost domestic jobs, soaring CEO compensation, and the starving of the middle class’ ability to build wealth and stable lifestyles. These things were made possible by the power of unions to stand up and say “No.”

    All things being equal, I will always side with the entity that supports the common man over the money machine.

  9. Rho,

    For a guy like Taibbi to do what he did isn’t bettering his career. It’s hypocritical. You can’t expose corruption and slag people for their greed and then do something like this.

  10. Martin,
    So your complaint isn’t just that he crossed the picket line but that he showed he was “hypocritical”. I can accept that but it brings up another question for me. Do you REALLY expect any celebrity to practice what they preach?

  11. For the record, Martin, I’m with you. Not as emotionally involved, perhaps, but disappointed. And should we really expect any celebrity – any human – to practice what they preach? I don’t know, but until they demonstrate otherwise, why can’t we hope?

  12. So what you are saying in essence is “slaughtering sacred cows ” is cool, as long as it isn’t your sacred cow. You will have this kind of behavior in mavericks like Taibbi it is what he is known best for and what I for one would expect of him.

  13. Euphrosyne,

    Damn right. Being a celebrity (even a relatively minor one like Taibbi) doesn’t give you license to be a hypocrite.

  14. Muffy,

    Maybe so. Each person has a line they won’t cross, and others who cross it can expect judgment accordingly. Some people got pissed at Taibbi slagging the Pope. In this case, I’m mad at him for being a scab. That’s how it goes.

  15. I thought the unions were mad becasue they were not getting a fair share on DVD sales. The Daily Show and Colbert Report both don’t sell DVD’s and are avaliable on the internet for free.

    It’s not quite the same as a regular show, becasue it’s “news”. Maybe they’ll be a “greatest” hits dvd one of these days, but as far as news programs, there’s no DVD sales. i’m not 100% sure of all the details of the strike, but I believe DVD sales was the huge issue.

  16. C’mon! The guy’s not crossing picket lines to perform material written by scabs or something. He’s appearing on shows where he extemporaneously shares his opinions. I don’t see how that works against the striking writers. Despite what Martin says above, Taibbi is NOT a scab himself — that’s preposterous. A scab is somebody who crosses a picket line to take the job of a striker. If he were crossing the picket line to write jokes for Colbert, that would be one thing, but obviously that’s not what he’s doing, so calling him a scab is either ignorant or a lie.

  17. Darrell –

    You’re mistaken about a couple of things there. First of all — and I might be wrong about this — I believe that there is a Colbert Report DVD, at least. If memory serves, it was sort of a best-of compilation of the program’s first year.

    Second, just because the ‘Motherload’ content is free for you doesn’t mean Viacom makes no revenue by having it online. There are ads on the site, aren’t there? They get paid by advertisers, and the people who wrote the content you get to enjoy for free online get nothing out of that deal.

  18. “ignorant or a lie” was a bit harsh of me to say. I should have said “a dramatic exaggeration”.

  19. Dave

    I agree, and I’m not sure the entire details of their contracts, and I think writers should get their fair share of dvd/ad sales etc. However programs like this are a little different. I can forgive someone for crossing the picket line and going on a “news” show a lot easier. At least it’s not like the 80’s when Coy and Vance replaced Bo and Luke.

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  21. “and given our global economy, how do we compete as a nation when union contracts dictate payrolls that our competitors simply don’t have?”

    That’s the root of the problem right there.. Global Economy.. That’s a failed model, it can’t work, you can’t expect a failed model to fit into successful patterns.

    I’m sure you understand the position on this matter from Kucinich and Paul, correct? KILL the “global agreements” we have, become SELF sufficient.. That wasn’t a problem for a LONG time, then the Mega Corps successfully lied to the masses and told them “you can get more STUFF FOREVER if you let us do this!”..

    The powers behind it are the World Bank and IMF..they are making a HUGE killing on this, and represent the “central bank” of the central banking world. It survives by exploiting everyone it can, and we have to tell them “not in my back yard”.. but, they own our leaders, so that’s not going to happen any time soon.

    With regard to Unions.. it’s not “unions” that are “bad”, it’s their leadership. The wrong people get into the job for the wrong reasons, and the Corporations buy them off. Corruption is preached from the TOP, and rewarded.. so it flows down hill and spreads it’s rot into the lowest of the cracks.

    What fixes it is MORE oversight.. that means MORE individual involvement by citizens. But, we’re all glued to that TV (by those writers, no less.. catch-22 there!) and suck up the “gimme gimme gimme! MORE MORE MORE!” mentality that’s being pushed by the Mega Corps. You DO realize they spend BILLIONS every year on psychologists and “experts” and “research” (like going into public schools and taking our kids out of classes to find out what THEY think would make them want to buy MORE stuff). We’re literally being abused by “professionals”, all for the same end.. GREED.

    Until the MASSES -demand- that -all- violators of law, including those hiding behind their “job” and paper, are prosecuted, and we SEE that there truly IS -zero- tolerance and crime does NOT pay, we’ll have these problems. Corrupt leaders are allowed to keep getting rich even after they abuse the public. Why should they stop? And why shouldn’t it permeate -everything-?

    Don’t blame the victim in all of this. Unions are an idea, and the idea is “good”.. it’s implementation by bad people is the problem, not the idea.

  22. What have unions done for you lately? I don’t know, what has penicillin done for you lately? If nothing, should we throw it out? Unions are the only way for workers to overcome the huge advantages most employers have over them. If someone else signs your paycheck (and you’re not some managerial weasel), you’re a sucker if you don’t support unions, at least in theory.
    Also, it’s naive to say that the solution to poor union management and globalization is more oversight; the corporations have stacked the deck against ordinary Americans. Bushco’s Labor Dept., and Bushco in general, are utterly hostile to workers, and decades of anti-union propaganda have led millions of Americans to become hostile to their own best interests. Actually, one of the best ways to invigorate unions, and by extention American politics, is by joining a union.

  23. I’m really disappointed in Taibbi, I started reading him in 1997 in Moscow and have been a big fan when I rediscovered him in Rolling Stone.

    He does appear the hypocrit, I’m sure he would object if someone was selling one of his articles without giving him royalties.

    Globally countries like Germany and England, with very strong labor unions, are beating our ass at everything. But people I know constantly jump to defend overpaid CEO’s and the Walmart heirs over people who earn their money.

  24. Taibbi deserved to be flushed when he jumped on the attacking 9/11 straw men bandwagon. Rather than investigating what is perhaps the most glaring cover up in US history, where not even the chairs of the commission believe they are telling us the whole story, Taibbi went on the rampage with trying to discredit 9/11 skeptics, period. The man lost all credibility, and showed his true colors along with several other prominent lefty “alternative” types.

    Senator Bob Graham tells us of “foreign governments” assisting the alleged hijackers, and the nation goes back to sleep? Senator Max Cleland tells us of a disgusting cover up and “national disgrace,” and nothing happens. Revelation after revelation of possible high treason is brought forth, and nothing is done, no one is accountable. It appears to be sanctioned by both criminal political parties.

    FBI special agent Robert Wright uses the word “treason.”

    FBI translator Sibel Edmonds describes treason and a host of other crimes leading right back to the white house. She’s gagged, more than anyone in the nation’s history, but is starting to spill the beans now.

    And a lot of smug, ignorant stuffed shirts refuse to investigate, or even acknowledge the cover up as the elephant in the room, while we do not know, still to this day what happened on 9/11. The investigations were frauds, cover ups, fictions from government payroll operatives and supposed terrorists subject to infinite torture who were also reported dead before they became the authors of our modern fiction (KSM). These black holed sources have never been shown, or proven to be alive at all.

    And they get away with it in broad daylight.

    70 disturbing facts about 9-11

  25. The global economy is a failed model? As it’s currently incarnated, it has major problems, that’s true. But ultimately our economic success is fundamentally dependent on the rest of the world. It’s simply not possible, without taking a massive step backward along the technological road we’ve been traveling since at least the industrial revolution, to be self-sufficient in the way that you’re suggesting. The fact of the matter is that we need trade with the rest of the world for raw materials if nothing else, and economies of scale mean that it really does make sense to manufacture (or grow) certain things certain places. When waste products (like CO2) are included, the economies will shift some, but the fundamental economic laws won’t change until we can eliminate the economy a la the utopian Star Trek model.

    You have a point about the difference between the union leadership and the union members, but it’s a small point. Union members are the ones allowing themselves to be duped into voting for sleazebags to lead them, and they’re the ones letting themselves be manipulated into voting for bad contracts by corrupt leaders. Even the good union leaders (and I suspect there are a lot of them) are stuck with crummy executive leadership or an “I want mine, screw everyone else” mentality in too many of their members. I’ve directly observed that mentality lead to short-sighted decisions by at least one union.

    I actually agree that unions are a great idea – they’ve done a ton to give workers the protection they have – but the global economy (or some form of it) is here to stay for a long, long time and unions will have to adapt. Thus far the majority of them seem unwilling or unable to do so.

    Unions would probably serve their members long term interests best by pushing for more investment in foreign economies, collective bargaining laws in other nations, human rights and freedoms around the world, and general push toward democracy and the rule of law than by lobbying for protectionism here in the U.S.

  26. BTW, I used to read Taibbi a fair amount in the NY Press. I took him to be sometimes good, i.e. insightful and clever. The rest of the time he seemed to me to be kind of a loose cannon — not funny, not accurate, and simply obnoxious.

  27. World Bank and IMF are the root of all evil? Lets look at what those 2 organizations were designed to do and decide if they fulfill their stated purposes. After WW1 the country fell into the great depression and the entire world joined in. As WW2 was drawing to a close the leading economists in the world got the countries with the leading economies in the world to agree to the creation of the IMF and the World bank to insure another global great depression did not occur. Well let’s see, since they were created many countries have experienced depressions and economic slowdowns but none of them succeeded in dragging the entire global community along with them. Not even when the second largest super power at the time the USSR imploded did the whole world economy crash. Sounds to me as thought hey have fulfilled their purposes and I say we should all be thankful, our comfortable standard of living is a direct result of the world’s economy not repeatedly crashing.

  28. corporations are groupd of individuals who have banded together for economic gain with lower personal risk. I fail to understand how anyone, except corporate pawns, would even suggest that workers shouldn’t band together to bargain with corporations. It seems inherently fair to do so…and the most reasonable way for workers to reduce exploitation.

  29. Separating the entertainment writers from the union issue, here’s what my friend Chris Ketcham had to say. He writes on mostly environmental issues for top magazines (Men’s Journal, National Geographic):

    Dear Entertainment Writers on Strike: Recently returned to so-called civilization from the canyons of Utah, I had the opportunity, after long hiatus, to enjoy the product of some of your writing as it gets shoveled into the American maw via television (no TV in my house). What a feat, this writing. It evidenced so much that was stale, false, crass, violent, foolish, salacious, gimmicky, irrelevant, sycophantic, complacent, compliant –it was, in short, the perfect distraction in a dying republic fast on its way to tyranny, the gift that keeps on giving to a government that would hope to turn the screw on free-thinking citizens. In other words, writers–you keep on striking!

    Behold: The entertainment will grow cold and grey as the corpse that it already is, with no new cadavers to puppeteer for the newness of each season, where nothing is as new as the recycled dead from the last season. Like Plato’s chained slaves in the cave of shadows, let the viewers wake up, walk into the light, starved for reality–oh writers, let no new entertainments issue from your minds! You may just save the Republic.

  30. I don’t know Matt Taibbi’s work, except for an occasional blog post that links to him, so I cannot offer an opinion on how funny or smart he really is. However, I saw his interview with Colbert and thought he contributed nothing to the show. If anything, I thought he provided nothing more than color commentary to Colbert’s schtick. Maybe if there were writers, Colbert and Taibbi would have had something of substance prepared.

  31. My comment was going to be precisely the same as Greg @ #28. He just kept laughing like a little schoolgirl at Colbert’s (relatively weak) material. It was like watching Robin Quivers and Howard Stern. I had to shut it off before the ‘interview’ ended.

  32. I think Matt Taibbi is a decent guy who has done some extraordinary reporting.

    I think he appears to be wrong in this instance based on his position as a writer for a magazine.

    However, I also think we should all take a chill pill. Let’s not crucify someone for one mistake.

  33. I don’t get it. Taibbi didn’t do any writing for either show, so how is he a scab? Are all of the various crew–cameramen, lighting people, control room, etc., who are obviously working on these shows, scabs too?

  34. In economics it’s called “first mover advantage” – he gets some premium airtime amongst people starved for entertainment and he builds his brand. Even better, by crossing a picket line he proves his contrarian independence. Good marketing for him. Only matters if the only people paying for his work are other writers.

  35. Regarding IMF/WB:

    “Sounds to me as thought hey have fulfilled their purposes and I say we should all be thankful, our comfortable standard of living is a direct result of the world’s economy not repeatedly crashing.”

    Are you kidding? This is the view of a nation that benefits from the debt slavery of the rest of the world. Their wealth flows into our economy and inflates our standard of living. This is the post WW2 plan for economic domination of the world, which was spelled out and implemented deliberately.

    “All that we had borrowed up to 1985 was around $5 billion, and we have paid about $16 billion; yet we are still being told that we owe about $28 billion. That $28 billion came about because of the injustice in the foreign creditors’ interest rates. If you ask me what is the worst thing in the world, I will say it is compound interest. ” –President Obasanjo of Nigeria

    Why is Iran Still in the Cross-Hairs?
    Clues from the Project of a New American Century
    by Dr. Ellen Hodgson Brown

    I guess if rape and pillage makes you feel comfortable…

  36. yeah, it’s OK to insult the Pope…but to go against the writers??? OH NO!!!

    you are in the dark.