If you happened to be in Manhattan’s Financial District on December 12, 2011, you would have witnessed a herd of giant squid floating toward West Street. The papier-mâché puppets, complete with white canvas tentacles and bulbous, golden heads, and upheld by a half-dozen or so Occupy Wall Street protestors, served as the dramatic final act in one of the more dramatic days of the Occupy movement, which grew into the New Year and around the world. Accompanying each squid were hand-painted signs that read variations on the slogan “Goldman Sachs CONSUMES” held up by a coterie of activists marching to the investment bank’s headquarters.
The squids were a reference to a 2009 Rolling Stone piece by journalist Matt Taibbi entitled “The Great American Bubble Machine.” The essay eviscerates Goldman and its alumni network of Fed chairs and Treasury secretaries as the architects of “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression.” Describing them collectively as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” Taibbi rattles off a damning trail of hundreds of millions in bailout tax dollars that had been dispensed to and from Goldmanites under the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. In 2023, it’s hard to imagine a two-year-old piece of magazine writing inspiring the iconography of a street protest; harder still to imagine a political reporter referring to John Thain as Merrill Lynch’s “asshole chief” in print. Taibbi’s brash and prolific writing secured him darling status on the reenergized American Left.
Taibbi’s career has been long and varied. He began in his twenties as an expat reporter in Eastern Europe during the waning years of the Soviet Union, first in Uzbekistan and then in Moscow, where he was a founding editor of The eXile with Mark Ames. The two American drifters pumped out a tabloid that was as critical of post-Soviet kleptocratic dysfunction as it was crass and boozy. Pieces by Taibbi—about IMF policy in Russia or Putin’s early salvos in the Chechen War—would run alongside Ames’s ribald stories of Moscow nightlife. Taibbi came to be feared and respected in equal measure by the many American bureau chiefs in Moscow at whom he often aimed his scorn, and by 2005, back in the states, he was hired as a contributing political editor at Rolling Stone.
Now, nearly two decades and ten books later, Taibbi has no editorial home but his own Substack newsletter, Racket News (formerly TK News), one of the highest-grossing publications on the platform. This new independence indicates a news media ecosystem that’s shifted beneath Taibbi’s feet. The same progressive corners that once idolized him as their generation’s Hunter S. Thompson, a gifted stylist sharing their rage at the banality of American political corruption, now tend to mutter his name dismissively alongside Glenn Greenwald’s—onetime investigative wunderkinds who’ve since lapsed into paranoid screeds against wokeness and cancel culture. “Now I just don’t know what the hell he’s going on and on about,” progressive journalist Doug Henwood said of him, speaking to Ross Barkan for a 2021 profile of Taibbi. “He’s obsessed with stupid shit.”
After winning the 2008 National Magazine Award for his work in Rolling Stone, Taibbi began edging away from traditional news media outlets, and his massive public profile diminished. Between 2010 and 2020, he wrote four books and numerous essays about cancel culture, identity politics, and the media. Then, on December 2, 2022, he published a thread on Twitter entitled “1. THE TWITTER FILES,” which presented a collection of dozens of internal Twitter documents and emails pertaining to the company’s decision, in November 2020, to suppress the New York Post’s Hunter Biden laptop story. The thread erupted on the platform, soon amassing millions of unique engagements and a quarter of a million likes.
The Twitter Files series currently has 19 installments. Taibbi has published over half of them himself, each framed around a theme but all revealing email correspondences between various government actors and the employees at Twitter, under Jack Dorsey’s ownership, who were responsible for making decisions about content moderation and account discipline. The FBI, for one, was in the habit of sending the company lists of accounts that it requested be banned, suspended, or otherwise actioned, typically on the grounds that said accounts were meddling Russian bots or state-sponsored propagandists. We now know that the FBI’s estimation of Russia’s presence on Twitter was inflated, and that many of the accounts it targeted belonged to ordinary civilians tweeting about politics. Congressman Adam Schiff and his staff appear numerous times in the emails, regularly passing along moderation requests. One particularly damning recent document shows a revision to Twitter’s internal moderation guidance that appears to cede ultimate moderation authority to “the U.S. intelligence community.”
Taibbi and the Files have been met, in the press, not with journalistic curiosity but scorn, apathy, and silence. The Nation referred to Taibbi and Bari Weiss as Elon Musk’s “pet journalists” in a piece that goes on to dismiss the investigations’ findings as “garden-variety content moderation, notable mostly for its staidness and bureaucratic jargon.” The only large outlet giving the story much coverage is the New York Post. The New York Times gave a skeptical review of the first document trove back in early December and has instead focused most of its Twitter coverage on Musk’s supposed blunders.
It became harder to ignore the Twitter Files on March 9, when Taibbi and his co-reporter Michael Shellenberger sat down in front of the House Judiciary Committee for four hours of hearings convened by the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. In her opening statement, Ranking Member Stacey E. Plaskett (D-U.S. Virgin Islands) introduced Taibbi as a “so-called journalist,” and referred to the two witnesses—both registered Democrats—as “biased talking heads.” Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Florida) offered a particularly scorched-earth line of questioning that focused entirely on Taibbi’s credibility and accused him of profiteering from “cherry-picked” evidence selected for him by Musk. The hearings, by and large, resembled much of the online vitriol that Taibbi has received from liberal corners since the first installment was published: a lot of deflection, distraction, accusation, and rage, and very little engagement with the specific, and grave, revelations about how our government illegally intervenes in public discourse.
A quick scroll through Taibbi’s Twitter page today shows a man tirelessly committed to fighting back against an onslaught of these dismissals and allegations of bad faith. “I think there’s a clue,” one user said, “in the fact that Taibbi and Greenwald both work for the same Republican benefactors and are extremely well compensated for doing so.” When the Twitter Files revealed that Hamilton 68—an online dashboard dedicated to identifying and stifling supposed state-sponsored Russian propaganda on Twitter—was almost entirely fraudulent, Taibbi was accused of stumping for Vladimir Putin.
Yesterday, Taibbi appeared on MSNBC opposite host Mehdi Hasan, a contentious segment anticipated by a series of clashes the two had on Twitter since the publication of the first Files installment. The spar ran for nearly 20 minutes and focused on a select few errors Hasan and others had observed in Taibbi's Twitter reporting; specifically, that his figure of 22 million Tweets flagged as misinformation in advance of the 2020 election was dramatically exaggerated, and that he confused the CISA (The Cybersecurity Infrastructure Agency, a government body) with the non-profit Center for Internet Security, or CIS. These were true errors, and Taibbi appeared to be learning of them live on air. However, they pertain to individual sections of individual installments, and Hasan, like so many other gleeful detractors, appeared uninterested in the larger and more rigorously reported sections of the Twitter Files. In the hours after, gossipy headlines and Tweets began cropping up—"MSNBC Host Makes Matt Taibbi Squirm" —that, given the breadth of the Twitter Files' revelations and the relative narrowness of its detractors' focus, read as little more than desperate attempts to sandbag Taibbi and his team out of spite, or even self defense.
How does an unapologetic lampooner of Russian oligarchy, big bank malfeasance, government corruption, and systemic police violence become an enemy of the Left? One answer: his targets aren’t as clearly defined as they were back in 2009 or 1996. “The real story emerging in the Twitter Files,” wrote Taibbi in February, “is about a ballooning federal censorship bureaucracy that’s not aimed at either the left or the right per se, but at the whole population of outsiders, who are being systematically defined as threats.” During Occupy Wall Street, those outsiders were the 99%, rallying in global solidarity against the 1%; in the Twitter Files, the outsiders appear to be anyone with the temerity to question just how much influence we want the government to have over our public discourse.
The coalition of investigators that Taibbi has assembled, including Shellenberger, Bari Weiss, Lee Fang, and Leighton Woodhouse, call this bureaucracy the Censorship-Industrial Complex, and implicate in this coordinated effort a number of sitting U.S. representatives (most, but not all, Democrats) and government agencies. In effect, what we watched on March 9 was an entrenched censorship apparatus attempting to ward off a threat. Or, in Congressman Dan Bishop’s words during the hearings, referring to his colleagues across the aisle: “That hostility shows you what we’re up against. . . . And you’re seeing the Left move to crush you and anybody else who tries to expose this.”