As reader Christopher put it, this got ugly fast.
Yesterday, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill, and John Cook issued a joint “inside story” on why Matt Taibbi left First Look. Let us note that it is pretty much unheard for journalists to report on personnel matters at their own employer, particularly so rapidly after a story breaks. The reason for the haste, and the focus on l’affaire Taibbi, appears to be to get out in front of an article coming out in New York Magazine about their patron, Pierre Omidyar.
The real issue, as we discussed in our earlier post, is whether this account supports the claim made in Omidyar’s press release about Taibbi’s departure: that it has nothing to do with editorial independence. As we’ll discuss, this story does not lay that issue to rest; in fact, it attempts to draw a bright shiny line between “corporate” matters like overall direction, editorial philosophy, mix of stories, as well as routine matters like expense controls, and “editorial freedom”. The distinctions aren’t that tidy. The degree of retrading of Taibbi’s deal for The Racket, his publication, and ongoing pressure to keep refocusing his the initiative looks like bad faith. And one reads between the lines that Omidyar might have cooled on Taibbi’s plans to foray out of satire into more costly and more disruptive investigative reporting.
The article attempts, not exactly convincingly, to depict the row as a result of a culture clash between a controlling billionaire (read boss from hell) and a writer used to more free rein. The Intercept writers and editors say they also chafed from the interference, including what both fledging publications took to be a three month hiring freeze after Omidyar scaled back his ambitions for the venture. However, the Intercept team managed to work out an accommodation with their billionaire backer.
The scurrilous part of this account is that Taibbi allegedly blew up at a female staffer, who then complained to management, and suggested that his action might be sexist. That led to an internal investigation. You have to love the “throw him under the bus” formulation:
These simmering problems came to a head this month when a Racket staffer complained to senior management that Taibbi had been verbally abusive and unprofessionally hostile, and that she felt the conduct may have been motivated, at least in part, by her gender. [President John] Temple conducted an investigation, and First Look determined that while none of the alleged conduct rose to the level of legal liability, the grievance bolstered their case that Taibbi should not be the manager of Racket. Among their concerns were the staffer’s claims that Taibbi had been privately criticizing First Look managers, particularly Ching, that Taibbi’s abrasive demeanor was alienating some on his staff, and that Taibbi instructed Racket staff to resolve any grievances directly with him rather than going to upper management.
Let’s translate: “Did not rise to the level of legal liability” means “the staffer had no case”. A deep pockets organization, which is normally a plum litigation target, didn’t even bother hiring an outside law firm. But notice also she accuses Taibbi of bad-mouthing upper management, making staff unhappy, and telling his direct reports to “resolve any grievances directly with him”. Um, in a normal hierarchical structure, you do go to your manager first with complaints. It’s only when you can’t get them remedied that you escalate.
Then we get this section:
On October 10, according to Taibbi’s account, Temple and Ching told Taibbi that he would be immediately stripped of all managerial responsibilities pending their investigation. (First Look managers dispute this account, claiming that Taibbi was never stripped of any duties.)
Taibbi was adamant that the complaint had no merit, and rejected any demotion or change in his responsibilities. On the day he was confronted by Temple and [chief operating officer Randy] Ching, Taibbi left the office and—aside from one staff meeting he attended, after which he was instructed by Omidyar not to come back until they reached agreement on his role—did not return. He repeatedly told First Look that he would resign if it did not reverse the decision to reduce his managerial duties, and was insistent that he would accept no changes that could be construed as an acceptance on his part of the validity of the employee complaint.
Now, if Taibbi’s behavior were so objectionable that it warranted action, the right action would not be a demotion. It would be to fire him. If you’ve got an employee where you find their conduct towards subordinates to be unacceptable, unless you demote them to the bottom of the hierarchy, you haven’t fixed the problem. They still have lower level staff, such as technology and production support people, who are junior to them and thus at risk of being on the wrong side of their moods.
The friction between Taibbi and the First Look adminisphere had apparently gotten so bad that it did not take much to push it into a formal rupture. Whether Temple and Chiang were looking for an excuse to push Taibbi out, or whether the staffer’s claims of mistreatment and bad-mouthing the higher-ups hit personal buttons is moot. This is either not-very-seasoned management reacting badly to an already fraught situation or the management team seeing the dispute as an opportunity to deal with a festering problem and make the proximate cause look like Taibbi, not the ongoing power struggle about where the publication was going.
In other words, the response doesn’t add up. That means that the row over the female staffer was trumped up charges.
It is also not pretty to see personal allies of the authors fanning the flames. Shortly after the Intercept piece ran, Gawker ran a post by J.K. Trotter titled, Matt Taibbi Left First Look Media After Female Staffer’s Complaint. The piece is tightly focused on the headline issue. Now you could say that is just Gawker being Gawker. But John Cook, one of the authors of the Intercept story, was recently the editor-in-chief of Gawker, and he hired J.K. Trotter as a gossip reporter. In other words, this looks awfully insider-y.
But what about the bigger potential issue, that of interference by Omidyar or the First Look execs in the editorial content? It appears that the First Look team, at least as far as Taibbi is concerned, tries to define it narrowly in order to frame the dispute as solely about the freedom to do one’s job, as opposed to control over work content. But those aren’t separate when you are talking about the individual creating and leading a publication.
This is the claim made in the story:
Omidyar has publicly and privately pledged multiple times that First Look will never interfere with the stories produced by its journalists. He has adhered to that commitment with both The Intercept and Racket, and Taibbi has been clear that he was free to shape Racket‘s journalism fully in his image. His vision was a hard-hitting, satirical magazine in the style of the old Spy that would employ Taibbi’s facility for merciless ridicule, humor, and parody to attack Wall Street and the corporate world. First Look was fully behind that vision.
As Paul Carr of Pando pointed out in July, this is a significant departure from what Taibbi said his vision was in February. From the New York Times:
Mr. Taibbi will start his own publication focusing on financial and political corruption, he said in an interview on Wednesday.
Contrast that with Omidyar’s remarks in July:
And we’ve partnered with the talented Matt Taibbi to plan and launch this fall a new digital magazine with a satirical approach to American politics and culture.
Now admittedly that statement also talks about a deep commitment to investigative journalism, and a contact who spoke to Taibbi after that date said that Taibbi described his publication incorporating humor, in particular skewering plutocrats, as well as serious reporting.
Here is the First Look account of how the drama played out:
When First Look was launched last October, it was grounded in two principles: one journalistic, the other organizational. First, journalists would enjoy absolute editorial freedom and journalistic independence. Second, the newsroom would avoid rigid top-down hierarchies and instead would be driven by the journalists and their stories.
But First Look and the editorial staff it hired quickly learned that it is much easier to talk about such high-minded, abstract principles than it is to construct an organization around them…
Taibbi and other journalists who came to First Look believed they were joining a free-wheeling, autonomous, and unstructured institution. What they found instead was a confounding array of rules, structures, and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers on matters both trivial—which computer program to use to internally communicate, mandatory regular company-wide meetings, mandated use of a “responsibility assignment matrix” called a “RASCI,” popular in business-school circles for managing projects—as well as more substantive issues.
Omidyar, in the memo we mentioned earlier, in July curtailed his ambitions and stated he wanted to focus the company on “products” rather than “content”. As a writer, that would set alarms off in my head.
But the article finesses the sequence of events. It mentions the refocus first, with a link but no date, and then has this section two paragraphs later, implying that it happened later, when it took place at least a month earlier:
In June, Taibbi, Greenwald, Poitras, and Scahill wrote a joint letter to Omidyar outlining their principal grievances—the lack of clear budgets and repeated and arbitrary restrictions on hiring—and making clear that a failure to resolve them would jeopardize the feasibility of both projects.
The article then states that after a lot of to-and-fro, matters were resolved well for The Intercept. Nevertheless, the cutback of Omidyar’s ambitions and funding seems to be the direct result of a mini-revolt by his talent.
And here is where the veil is pulled over exactly what happened with Taibbi:
For a time, it appeared that Taibbi’s project had also found the right path. It, too, received its own multi-million-dollar budget, began to hire more reporters, filmmakers, and editors, and set a launch date for September.
But because the site had not yet launched, First Look continued to focus on organizational and corporate issues, and managers actively supervised and at times overruled Taibbi’s management decisions.
Notice that these disputes were so serious that the launch date was missed. And what does “overruling Taibbi’s management decisions” consist of? We are unlikely to hear much from Taibbi, since it is normal in ugly personnel divorces for the departing party as part of a settlement and mutual release of liability to a an agreed-upon statement of what happened, with restrictions on any other remarks, such as a non-disparagement agreement. If the employee has a decent lawyer, the company is held to the same standard. Saying that First Look interfered in editorial matters is hugely damaging in media-land, so the odds are high that if that was an issue, even if it was a secondary issue, First Look would take vigorous steps to make sure Taibbi would not be free to talk about it. You can say all you want to about personal courage, but Omidyar could litigate Taibbi into the ground if he were to violate a separation agreement. It’s not a fight worth engaging.
So Taibbi’s silence or affirmation of the First Look account does not mean that there was no meddling on the level of types of stories and potentially even specific story ideas, even if the main power struggle was over Taibbi’s authority. Hopefully the forthcoming New York article will give a clearer picture of what transpired.