So Matt Taibbi is officially out at First Look Media. Yesterday, the outlet's founder Pierre Omidyar -- the tech billionaire responsible for eBay -- released a statement confirming what many had begun to surmise given Taibbi's extended "leave of absence" from the project. Starting off with a standard, "We wish him well," Omidyar tersely explained that the reasons for Taibbi's departure have nothing to do with issues of "editorial independence," although he refused to divulge what it does have to do with. Some have read between the lines over the last few months of First Look's development and might have figured out what the problem is, though.
From the very start I couldn't understand why a guy like Matt Taibbi would willingly leave a platform with the cultural authority of Rolling Stone to go set up shop at First Look. This isn't because First Look hadn't made the case that it wanted to produce worthwhile journalism or that it didn't have the financial backing to do so, but rather because of who was providing that financial backing. Pierre Omidyar is precisely the kind of fat-cat oligarch Taibbi made a name for himself eviscerating -- and if he thought his new boss would simply roll over and allow him to continue tearing down the kinds of people who hand him a paycheck, he's much more naive than anyone would've imagined. Greenwald using First Look's The Intercept to go after the evil federal government is one thing, since the staunchly pro-free market Omidyar would consider that a common enemy. But to launch blistering attacks at big business is shitting where you eat.
On Tuesday Andrew Rice over at New Yorkpublished the first piece revealing Taibbi's lengthy leave-of-absence and it recapped many of the other recent developments at First Look. Originally, Taibbi's online publication for FLM, Racket, was going to be a vicious and funny take on financial and political corruption in the vein of the old Spy magazine. But over time that seemed to change, with Omidyar himself redefining the publication's mission, calling what was to come "a satirical approach to American politics and culture." That should have signaled trouble.
But it doesn't stop there...
Omidyar originally conceived of First Look as a network of interlinking sites run by "independent" journalists, many of whom took a similarly adversarial approach to journalism. Over the last year, however, the center of gravity of the organization has shifted, as Omidyar and his Silicon Valley braintrust have exerted control over budgets and vacillated over the journalistic mission. Over the summer, Omidyar appointed a longtime confidante, John Temple — a former newspaper editor who previously led an Omidyar-financed civic journalism venture in Hawaii — to be the president for audience and products, putting him in a position above Eric Bates, the former Rolling Stone editor who was brought on as a First Look editorial director, who is close to Taibbi. The confrontational approach that made Taibbi's name at Rolling Stone — and before that, as the founding editor of the gonzo Moscow expatriate magazine The eXile — appears to have contributed to internal trouble at First Look.
Considering all this new information -- and admittedly no one knows exactly what was going on behind the scenes -- it's easy as hell to see how somebody like Matt Taibbi could become disillusioned. This is a guy who once said that "journalists are supposed to be assholes" and who reveled in his willingness to "punch holes in walls" and upend the status quo and here he may have been getting the rug pulled out from under him. He had editor status at First Look which means that it was his "vision" the publication was going to be based around, so if Omidyar suddenly decided he didn't want to go in Taibbi's direction, it would no doubt be an insurmountable problem.
On a personal level, I won't bullshit on this: I'm glad Taibbi left First Look. From the beginning I felt like he was going there to die, that the questionable ethics and self-marginalization FLM seems content to wallow in were going to take down one of the most vital and iconoclastic journalists around. I was eager to see what Taibbi could produce when he was given free rein and I could see how the opportunity would be alluring, but I think he's made enough of a name for himself to where a lot of publications would give him that same creative control. While most major media outlets these days have some sort of corporate ownership, not all of them serve at the pleasure of one particular billionaire mogul. First Look Media does, no matter how strongly the company insists that Pierre Omidyar has given the people who work there editorial freedom, and that feels antithetical to everything Taibbi purports to stand for.
Regardless, we haven't seen the last of Matt Taibbi. Not by a long shot. And thank God for that.
Update 10.30.14:The Intercept has just published a lengthy piece that it claims details what went on behind-the-scenes at First Look Media leading up to Matt Taibbi's departure. The byline on the piece is a hit parade of Intercept stars: Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and John Cook. According to them, Taibbi didn't take well to the strict managerial oversight by First Look and Pierre Omidyar, which the authors maintain -- to a noticeably ridiculous extent -- didn't extend to direct editorial interference. The picture The Intercept paints is that Taibbi was "abrasive" as a manager and was routinely complained about by his staff, including one complaint of workplace sexism. (If this is true, it in part confirms the concerns I voiced when I first wrote about this back in February, namely that it requires a different temperament to be a manager than it does to be an iconoclastic journalist.) The piece seems at first glance to be free of a lot of pro-Omidyar propagandizing, but honestly who can tell? It does actually admit that Omidyar moved the goalposts once he got a team together. Regardless, Taibbi made the right decision to leave, whether it means going back to doing what he does best -- being a muckraking madman -- or simply moving out of a self-marginalizing and, I still believe, ethically compromised outlet like First Look.
Update 2 10.30.14: Alex Pareene, whom Taibbi brought in as his executive editor, is indirectly pissing all over the crew of The Intercept for pissing all over his former colleague. More than that, he's eviscerating Pierre Omidyar. All of it comes by way of an official response to the Intercept piece:
Working with Matt Taibbi was one of the best experiences of my career and I’d be thrilled to have the opportunity to do so again. From my perspective, the management of First Look Media repeatedly took incidents that should’ve been minor hiccups of the sort experienced at any media company or startup and, through incompetence, escalated them into full-blown crises. Having worked closely with Matt since he hired me, I witnessed no behavior on his part that I would characterize as “abusive,” and his hostility was reserved for his superiors, not his subordinates. He certainly was no more “combative” than any number of other editors I’ve worked with, including Intercept editor-in-chief John Cook. I also categorically reject the allegation that there was a gendered component to his managerial issues. We were successfully working to address those issues when First Look once again stepped in to fuck things up. I regret that the world won’t get a chance to see Matt Taibbi’s Racket.
Bottom line: First Look Media is a fucking disaster. But it's admittedly kind of fun to watch this absurd soap opera. Also, if I were Taibbi I'd have hired a lawyer by now to take on what's being written about him. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't -- but it's pretty defamatory.
Adding: You've gotta love that this is the first interesting story The Intercept has published.
RELATED: When the company that would eventually become First Look Media was initially announced, we thought there were a few questions that needed to be answered by Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald. You can read that here.