Interview with Matt Taibbi ’92
by William Stavru ’87
Originally appeared in the Bardian
Over the past decade, journalist Matt Taibbi ’92 has emerged as one of the shrewdest, most tenacious reporters of our nation’s financial system and politics. For someone with an international reputation as an agitator extraordinaire, he is disarmingly soft-spoken, affable, and polite. Taibbi began his writing career in Russia, his first destination after leaving Bard, then spent time in Uzbekistan and Mongolia, where he enjoyed a short stint as a professional basketball player. After 10 years abroad, Taibbi returned to the United States. Settling in New York City, he began writing for the New York Press, an alternative free weekly, now defunct. Taibbi’s merciless, wicked style got him a job at Rolling Stone; his long, in-depth pieces on Wall Street reform and other troubling financial policy decisions earned him a rock star’s level of notoriety that has been amplified by his frequent appearances on news and opinion shows such as the Rachel Maddow Show, Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Fox News. Whether or not one agrees with Taibbi’s point of view, his work inarguably has helped reaffirm the importance and merit of political reportage.
In his books—Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007); The Great Derangement (2008); and Griftopia (2010) —Taibbi takes to task the elected officials, government agencies, and financial institutions at the root of our current economic crisis. (“You win the modern financial-regulation game by filing the most motions, attending the most hearings, giving the most money to the most politicians and, above all, by keeping at it, day after day, year after fiscal year, until stealing is legal again,” he wrote in a scathing Rolling Stone article, “How Wall Street Killed Financial Reform.”) His pieces synthesize picaresque narratives and a policy-wonkish intimacy with finance and banking regulations and legislation, with the effect of making his readers’ indignation almost palpable. Bardians may remember him also for his 2011 Town and Country article—“Is Bard the New Brown?”—in which he examines his own feelings and nostalgia for Bard, which means many things to many different alumni/ae. I had the chance to chat with him right before Bard Commencement and just after his article on the LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rate) scandal appeared on his Rolling Stone blog. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.
Bill Stavru: Can you recall a single event that served as your political awakening?
Matt Taibbi: I was raised in a household in which both parents, especially my mother, were politically active, so I thought about politics from an early age. My mother was a social worker and she would tell me stories about what her clients were going through, so some of my point of view must have come from her experiences.
Did you study economics at Bard? You have an incredibly good understanding of how the machinations of this economy work.
I didn’t study economics. I never thought I’d be doing this type of reporting for a living, so I have absolutely no finance background. But I don’t look at what I do as really covering economics. When I’m assigned a story or somebody approaches me with an interesting angle on an issue, my job is to get up to speed as quickly as possible. With banking and finance, there’s no way to do a story without a lot of studying. It’s like crime reporting, but cloaked in camouflaging professional jargon.
Can you discuss the research you do for your books and articles? Because you have such a strong voice, people may underestimate how much research you do to make these stories credible.
The first thing I do, particularly with all the financial stories, is to narrow the scope of the story down to a single concept that I’m trying to understand and express. It can be something like, How does LIBOR work? How do they come up with that benchmark interest rate and how could you manipulate that? Then I call people until I’m satisfied that I understand that one thing. Obviously, a reporter has to call people on all sides of the issue before writing the background for the story. If you look closely at the stories I write, they have one single concept and then the rest is background. Who are these people? What led up to the event and what was its resolution? The main part of the research is just figuring out how a thing works, which requires finding somebody who can communicate that to you in terms an outsider will understand.
Do you think we’ve come too far to ever get back to a well-regulated, workable, and ethical financial/banking system?
That’s a difficult question. I feel strongly that we can’t regulate all these problems away. The solutions have to come from within; there’s no way to be on top of everybody all the time to make sure that they’re not stealing. You can’t have a policeman every five feet on a city block. It’s the same with the financial system. You have to rely on people to have ethics. That’s what’s gone wrong in this situation; I don’t think it’s a lack of regulation or even a lack of police presence—the lack of ethics has just been so widespread. Say you work for one of the megabanks and you’re going to sell a packet of crappy subprime bonds to a pension fund in Minnesota. You’re basically going to rob the life savings of state workers so you can drive a nicer car? We have to restore a sense of patriotism, or responsibility.
What political events and/or policy changes have given you more hope in the past few years, if any?
There are a lot of signs in Washington that the regulatory establishment has come around to the idea that the “too-big-to-fail” situation is not tenable, and that they have to break up these financial institutions. Legislation in the Senate sponsored by Sherrod Brown [D-Ohio] and David Vitter [R-Louisiana] to break up the banks got a fairly hysterical response from the banking industry, which to me indicated that it had a chance of going somewhere. When banking reform amendments were filed in the past, the banks would just ignore them, but now I think they’re worried. And some of the federal reserves—the Dallas Fed, St. Louis Fed, New York Fed—are talking about how “too-big-to-fail” is unsustainable. It would be revolutionary to go in and break up these companies.
It would be. These are not people who are unfriendly to big banking or business in general. Even some CEOs and ex-CEOs were saying, “Well, actually we are getting too big to manage.”
Yes. Sandy Weill, the former CEO of CitiGroup, which was the first of what they call the supermarket banks, said in 2012, “This doesn’t work.” The  repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act [the 1933 law that separated investment from commercial banking to lower the risk of financial crashes] created CitiGroup. There’s really no intellectual argument in favor of “too-big-to-fail” anymore. It would make these banks less competitive but that doesn’t have much to do with American business. A functioning American corporation will be able to get financing from somewhere. The only thing that would be different is that a few banking executives won’t make as much money, and people are slowly coming around to that realization. I think there’s hope.
You’ve been fearless in your quest for a story. Has there been any situation in which you’ve contemplated taking a certain action and then decided that you couldn’t follow through with it?
When I lived in Russia, I knew Russian reporters who faced real risks when they researched and wrote stories; some of them were shot or attacked. I didn’t have that same problem. The physical safety aspect of my work has never seriously crossed my mind, but there are people who are irrational and will respond very aggressively to even being mentioned in a story.
We have a Republican Party that seems unable to reconcile itself on many issues, including immigration reform and gay marriage. We also have a Democratic Party that’s splintering over national security and other stands. Do you think America is ready for a multiparty system?
People are ready, but it’s not going to happen, because there are so many powerful interests who want to keep things the way they are. The two-party system is an incredibly effective mechanism for political conservatism. It has managed to continually move the needle in the direction of wealth and power for 30 or 40 years. I don’t think anybody within that system has any appetite for creating a third party; so the impetus will have to come from somewhere else. Whoever tries to do it is going to end up targeted by the entire political mechanism and discredited somehow; so I just don’t see it happening. Also, where would the money come from?
How do you decompress from all the grim news that you report on?
I follow a lot of sports and over the years I’ve gotten a lot better at keeping my home life and my professional life separate. People overestimate how depressing this job can be for me. The work is a real intellectual challenge, and there are very attractively horrible characters to write about.
In 2008, you wrote in The Great Derangement, “If there’s a villain in this book, I might offer some of the congressional representatives. . . but really the best selection might actually be me. And I have no idea what that means, but it’s probably not good.” Do you have any idea what that means now?
[Laughs.] At that time, I was covering the presidential campaign and was really conflicted about what I was doing. I had a deep sense that all of the glitzy campaign coverage was a distraction from some larger, more important issue that we weren’t looking at. And that turned out to be true: the economic crisis. I don’t have any existential angst about what I do for a living anymore, because now I’m really covering the complicated reality—these finance issues—that had been hidden from me. Back then, I was flailing around trying to make this sideshow funny, or do something with it, and so I was experiencing a lack of self-confidence.
How do you feel about the profession of journalism today? Do you think it is doing what it’s supposed to do?
The Internet has radically changed the possibilities for this profession. One of the reasons people became cynical about journalism years ago is that it had become very homogenized. Everybody wrote in the same detached, faceless, third-person voice. We had that incredible period in the 1970s with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and others. But then, except for a few publications here and there, the whole concept of advocacy journalism really disappeared. Now we’re getting back to that type of investigative reporting, largely, I think, because financial interests don’t have control over the whole journalistic landscape anymore. There are people on the Internet—which isn’t under that control—who are doing really cool things. People are doing their own investigations or document dumps, so journalists have access to information that was never available before.
At the same time, the mainstream media has a lot of the problems it has always had. It’s still locked into a fake narrative about our political system; if you travel across America you’ll find 70 percent of people are still completely obsessed with this blue/red, football-game concept of how politics work. That speaks to some kind of failure, on the part of the media, that the country hasn’t gotten past that divisiveness. I think we’re going in the right direction, but there are still problems.
Another thing is that technology and the media have worked to shorten our attention span, so it’s gotten harder to do what I do for a living and have any success. There aren’t a lot of people willing to read a 6,000-word article about a serious issue unless you make it really entertaining. It’s an uphill battle for most readers. That means fewer publications are going to pay for that story because the audiences are smaller.
Would you like to comment on recent news stories about government surveillance and freedom of the press?
People are missing the larger significance of these stories. It’s much more serious than a pattern of targeting journalists. If we get used to the government approving things like extralegal drone assassinations and torture on a mass scale, then pretty soon we stop being squeamish about things like illegal surveillance, wiretapping, the use of regulatory agencies to collect data on political enemies, etc. As much as people would like to think that their leaders are smart, the reality is that politicians are often too stupid, too lazy, and too paranoid to handle that kind of power responsibly. Giving presidents the power to assassinate without real legal review, and then expecting them to not use technical tools available to them to spy on/pressure their political enemies, is just naive. The abuse of journalists that we’re facing now is the inevitable consequence of our failure to react properly to Abu Ghraib [the Baghdad prison where human rights violations occurred], Bradley Manning [U.S. soldier arrested in 2010 for passing classified material to WikiLeaks], and so on. We created this monster and now everyone, not just journalists, has to figure out a way to tame it.
You played professional basketball in Mongolia but you don’t write or talk about it much.
I did play there when I was in my mid-20s and I was only just starting in journalism. I wrote a short piece about it for the Boston Globe Magazine. It was a crazy, wild experience. I was a celebrity in Mongolia. I was known as the Mongolian version of Dennis Rodman. I dyed my hair different colors and I got into fights in almost every game. I was actually ordered by the team owner to play to the crowd. We had a player on our team who was like the Mongolian Michael Jordan; he was a great player. We would walk around town together and people would come up to us and get our autographs. But I had a really bad experience at the end—I caught pneumonia and almost died. I had to come back to the United States and I was in recovery for months, so I just never got around to writing about playing basketball.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up a book that is a compare-and-contrast exercise on how justice is served differently among rich people and poor people. I have a bunch of Wall Street crime stories in it, and stories about regular criminals in the system, and how easy it is for the non–Wall Street criminals to get arrested. There’s a lot of material in there about inner-city life and jails. It’s new territory for me.
That’s timely; the whole prison system seems to be in question. We’re spending a lot of money keeping people incarcerated when maybe they shouldn’t be.
That’s the premise of the book. Violent crimes actually decreased rapidly in the last 20 years, but we’ve doubled the prison population during that time, thanks in large measure to the increased length of sentences, drug convictions, and “three strikes” mandatory incarcerations. More than half of federal prisoners are serving time for a drug offense, but only 11 percent are being incarcerated for a violent crime. There’s a correlation between the length of sentences, race, and class. There’s something going on that has nothing to do with crime. The book is an attempt to get to the intrigue, the mystery, of what’s going on with our prison population.
Is there a TV show in your future?
I could never do a TV show. My father was a television reporter and my stepmother was a CNN anchor so I grew up around TV my whole life and I know how hard it is. It requires a skill set that I don’t have. You have to be quick on your feet and also radiate a consistently positive, cheerful presence. People underestimate how hard it is. The older I get the more I realize that I should just stick to what I do.
But it looks like everyone is having a lot of fun on Real Time with Bill Maher.
That’s because shows like his are moderated by professionals. When you’re a guest on those shows you see how people like Bill Maher or Rachel Maddow earn their money. They have to get guests, who aren’t always professional performers, to stay within the confines of a 45-second hit. It has to be light enough for the advertisers, but heavy enough to be interesting. It’s a delicate line to balance, and they’re really good at it.
You visited campus in spring 2013 to be part of a public conversation on the U.S. financial system with Sandy Lewis. [Lewis is a former broker who pleaded guilty to stock manipulation in 1989 and was later pardoned by President Clinton. He has been a formidable critic of Wall Street.] The event was packed; people couldn’t get in to the auditorium. How did it feel to come back to campus as a media star and as someone who’s an expert on some of the most serious economic policy failures in our nation’s history?
I love coming back to Bard. I spoke on campus once before as an alumnus, a long time ago at a Commencement Week event. I’m proud to have gone to Bard and to see how well it’s done. [Professor of English] Ben La Farge was really good to me. I was having a hard time, and Ben wrote letters to me, even during summer vacation. He really encouraged me in my career.
Do you have any advice for undergraduates who want to be journalists?
I have a standard line I tell young people who want to get into the business: Move overseas, learn a language, and study something else. Have expertise in something, whether it’s botany, medicine, or whatever. In my case, I spoke Russian, and became thought of as an expert in Russian politics. That enabled me to get work. In my opinion, life experience is more important than going to journalism school.
Living overseas when you’re 22 or 23 is fun. There’s so much pressure in this country to succeed and have money, and to not be a failure. I think it’s good for young people in their twenties to get away from that. Go to Southeast Asia or wherever and just live for a while. The number one thing you need as a journalist is life experience so you can develop your own point of view. Once you get older and have kids or get locked into a mortgage, your ability to pick up and move is limited. When you’re 22 or 23, life is an open canvas—go do whatever you want.