(Photo: Robert Johnson/Business Insider)
Part of what we do here is write about the media and there’s nothing more inside baseball than writing about the media. There are more jokes than I can count that involve journalists breathlessly detailing the comings and goings of other journalists as if any of it really matters, because the truth is we’re an arrogant bunch who believe our business is so damn fascinating that others should not only be required to know about it but will actually enjoy the experience. I thought about this a lot yesterday as everyone here, myself included, freaked out at the news that Glenn Greenwald and the rest of the Intercept all-stars were effectively throwing Matt Taibbi under the bus then backing over him a few times.
There are admittedly some soap opera-like twists and turns to the story that almost anyone can appreciate, though. At least I think. In addition to the undeniable fact that what happened yesterday makes it look like First Look Media — which you’ll remember was supposed to be this new, non-hierarchical model of utopian journalism — is a fucking mess inside and out, it’s really something to see an ostensible news operation issue what’s basically a press release trashing a former colleague (and doing it under the guise of simply being transparent). The fact that this press release also steps right up to the precipice of insulting the founder of First Look and the man holding the purse strings, Pierre Omidyar, while being careful not to cross that line is also noteworthy. What the Intercept crew did may have called out Omidyar a little, but not enough to get them in any kind of real trouble. In fact, by going only as far as they did, Greenwald & Co. get to shore up their independent bona fides while not actually putting their jobs in any kind of jeopardy.
The same, of course, can’t be said for Alex Pareene, who in defending his friend and former coworker from the Intercept attack just came right out and went full scorched earth on First Look, saying that its management “stepped in to fuck things up” just as they were coming to a solution to all this nonsense involving Taibbi. Pareene by the way disputes most of the allegations made by The Intercept regarding Matt Taibbi’s supposedly “abrasive” dealings with his staff, up to and including the publication’s potentially actionable claim that Taibbi worked over one of his underlings because she was a woman. Pareene, probably understandably at this point, is either so frustrated or so over it all that he’s willing to torch his bridges at First Look. If I were him I’d position myself with Taibbi wherever he goes next, because right now that’s a hell of a better connection to have than being attached to First Look, which feels more than ever like a plane going down.
That First Look is having these kinds of problems shouldn’t surprise anyone. From the very beginning its model was complete pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. You can’t reinvent decades of journalistic process just because it sounds good to say it out loud and it makes you feel like you’re sticking your thumb in the eye of the establishment when you do. You also can’t have an organization that has no actual leaders, where everyone is essentially at the same level. That’s a wonderfully Garden-of-Eden-like fantasy but that’s about all it is. And again, anyone who believed that Omidyar wasn’t going to exert control and begin moving the goalposts once it became apparent that, as Bob Cesca put it yesterday on the podcast I do with him, he couldn’t herd the cats he’d brought in, that person is completely oblivious to reality.
As for Taibbi, he’ll be fine because he’s a damn good journalist and he’s got a strong reputation no matter how hard the Intercept crew — many of whom were his friends — worked to tarnish it yesterday. (Update: Kind of as expected, at least for the time being you’ll begin seeing his work again in Rolling Stone) I can’t speak for the man but if I were him I know I’d be kicking myself for being naive enough to fall for a pipe dream like First Look, but what’s done is done. What I’d definitely be doing if I were Taibbi right now is hiring a hell of an attorney, because he got smeared hugely yesterday and he can make the legal argument that it has the potential to impact his future employment. Regardless of whether he signed an NDA, I’m going to assume he wasn’t dumb enough to sign one that wouldn’t be voided the minute he was attacked publicly by the company he left (although he wasn’t officially terminated so that might enter into it). He has every right to fire back in court and it’s hard to imagine him not at least giving seriously consideration to doing so.
Tangentially but while he’s at it, he should sue gossipy high school-girl J.K. Trotter over at Gawker for this headline: “Matt Taibbi Left First Look Media After Female Staffer’s Complaint.” If you’ve ever wondered why news reports take great pains to attribute accusations and why they use admittedly slippery words like “allegedly” when describing crimes or bad actions it’s because it helps prevent them from being sued. They can make the argument that they’re simply reporting what someone else said. As expected, Trotter did no such thing — he wrote a screaming headline that essentially accused Matt Taibbi of harassing a female subordinate. Not only that, but out of a lengthy piece at The Intercept detailing First Look’s back-and-forth with Taibbi that’s what Trotter zeroed in on, because he’s a fucking hack. He didn’t even add Pareene’s rebuttal to the body of his piece until commenters and Twitter users called him out on it.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, Trotter’s the guy who’s so desperate to “out” Shepard Smith that he stalked him to a party last March and had to be thrown out. Don’t ever let it be said that he isn’t willing to literally chase down the big stories.
One final thing: Intercept editor-in-chief John Cook’s name was on the byline of that lengthy screed yesterday, the one that took great pains to make Taibbi look like an intolerable presence at First Look. He cosigned it. This is interesting because one day previously he posted this to Twitter:
what has happened is bad and dumb and needless and not matt taibbi’s fault
— John Cook (@johnjcook) October 29, 2014
So which is it? I’m not sure we’ll ever really get the answer — just more round and round and round from inside the depths of an organization that, right now at least, looks like a slow-motion trainwreck.
RELATED: When Pierre Omidyar and Glenn Greenwald first disclosed the details of First Look Media, there were questions that needed to be answered. You can read those here. Also, Shepard Smith exclusively revealed to us his response to one of J.K. Trotter’s many stories about him. That’s here.