The Destruction of Matt Taibbi

How the alt right and sloppy reporting smeared the 'Rolling Stone' journalist

Politics Features Matt Taibbi
The Destruction of Matt Taibbi

Recently, it was announced that MSNBC would not be renewing commentator Sam Seder’s contract. As it turned out, the sudden departure was the result of an orchestrated effort by right wing agitator and #Gamergate veteran Mike Cernovich. Cernovich had uncovered an eight-year-old tweet from Seder sarcastically attacking Hollywood liberals for defending famous director and accused child rapist Roman Polanski.

“Don’t care re Polanski,” Seder’s tweet read, “but I hope if my daughter is ever raped it is by an older truly talented man w/a great sense of mise en scene.”

He and his following then spread the tweet out of context, calling for the pundit be fired. They succeeded.

Immediately, the firing drew backlash from journalists and pundits, who successfully lobbied MSNBC to rehire Seder. This reaction however, was in stark contrast to what had happened just two months earlier when another well-known progressive journalist found himself in a similar situation.

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, known for his hard-hitting reporting on Goldman Sachs in the wake of the 2008 Subprime Mortgage Crisis, fell from grace this October after controversial passages from an old book he’d co-authored, The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, resurfaced and were spread online.

eXile purports to be the memoirs of Taibbi and co-author Mark Ames, both of whom headed the notorious tabloid magazine by the same name in Moscow in the ‘90s. Indeed, a disclaimer on the copyright page calls the work nonfiction. However, this is not entirely true.

Emails obtained by Paste from Oct. 31 show that when the book’s publisher, Grove Press, received an inquiry from The Guardian about the disclaimer, a representative responded that ”[t]he statement on the copyright page is incorrect. This book combines exaggerated, invented satire and nonfiction reporting and was categorized as nonfiction because there is no category for a book that is both.”

Put simply, like the original magazine, much of eXile was made up for the purposes of satire.

This includes the controversial passages in question—all written by Ames—in which the authors joke about sexually harassing two of their female employees (Masha and Sveta), and in which Ames describes having sex with a 15-year-old girl (Natasha), coercing a woman (Katya) into having an abortion, and raping other Russian women.

There were two women who went by Masha at The eXile at the time. Both told Paste that the passages were fictional, but requested their last names not be included. One wished not to be quoted directly.

“I was never harassed by Matt Taibbi, nor did I see him sexually harass anyone at work or outside work either,” the other Masha told Paste in a phone interview. “It was a ridiculous passage written by Mark.”

She and Taibbi, whom she described as naturally shy, would end up dating for seven years—a relationship she recalls fondly despite a “bad breakup.”

“These claims that Matt would do this stuff are ridiculous,” she said. “I left The eXile because we started dating, and Matt was worried about impropriety. He didn’t even ask me out at work! Matt is a fundamentally decent and kind person.”

The woman referred to as Sveta (whose last name has also been omitted for professional reasons) also told Paste that the encounter described in Ames’ passage never happened, and that neither Taibbi nor Ames ever acted inappropriately towards her or any other woman in the office.

“It never happened,” she wrote over email.

When asked if the two editors ever ignored impropriety by other male staffers, she told us there was nothing to ignore. In other words, The eXile’s work environment was not hostile for women.

Multiple former staffers we spoke to told us that Ames did have a young girlfriend named Natasha, but none believed she was 15. The common explanation we heard was that her age had been lowered to satirize the fact that in 1998, Russia changed its age of consent from 16 to 14.

Masha, Taibbi and Sveta told us that they believe Katya to be a fictional character.

Paste was able to trace the effort to cast eXile as a factual memoir back to an alt-right author named Jim Goad in 2011. Goad, whose magazine, ANSWER Me!, had been parodied by The eXile, began tweeting about the Natasha passages, and tagging the outlets that hosted Ames work or had him on as a contributor.

Despite his efforts, only Breitbart picked up the story, and that was after Ames published a damning report about the Koch Brothers’ political influence. And so, in April 2012, Goad posted a long-form attack on Ames on his website, accusing him of being a pedophile and citing the non-fiction disclaimer at the beginning of eXile.

However, the narrative that the book was an accurate portrayal of the lives Taibbi and Ames led in Moscow wouldn’t really take off until October of this year—ahead of the book tour for I Can’t Breathe, Taibbi’s look at the death of Eric Garner and its aftermath. Jessa Crispin of The Guardian included a reference to eXile passages in a piece about liberal misogyny on the Oct. 19. Days later, the news was appearing everywhere, from The Daily Beast to The Daily Caller; Jezebel to Newsweek; Reuters to Newsmax; The Nation to Breitbart, and so on. Even Cernovich got in on the action, writing a Medium post titled, “Matt Taibbi Confesses to Forcing Employees to Perform Sexual Favors.”

Following the media storm, Goad sent Taibbi a bizarre message gloating over the Rolling Stone writer’s misfortune. “I can’t imagine the pain and heartache you’re going through as a result of attempting to do a shitty, rich-kid imitation of me,” he wrote. “We both know I will always be better with words than you are. No one believes your alibis. You’ve committed credibility suicide. Cute newsboy cap, though!”

Despite how widespread the story was, not a single journalist or editor contacted the women named in the controversial passages. Crispin, whose Guardian piece appears to have set the train in motion, justified the decision by telling Paste over Twitter direct message that, “I have not written about these accusations as a journalist.”

Incredible as that acknowledgement is, before long it had become an accepted part of the national discussion that Taibbi and Ames were misogynists who had bragged about sexual harassment and horrifying treatment of women. Ames defended the work, Taibbi issued a public apology. The matter was settled, and careers marred. Book sales for I Can’t Breathe suffered as multiple venues cancelled on during Taibbi’s tour.

How did this happen?

Simply put, for most Americans today, the culture and stereotypes Taibbi and Ames were lampooning are completely foreign and unfamiliar. For that reason, eXile does not really connect, or perhaps hold up as well as a show like “South Park,” which also delights in vulgar satire but deals in stereotypes widely understood by American audiences.

“The paper was to be a mirror of the typical expatriate in ‘exile,’ who was a pig of the highest order,” Taibbi explained. “He was usually a Western consultant who made big bucks teaching Russians how to fire workers or privatize markets in the name of ‘progress,’ then at night banged hookers and blew coke and speed. The reality is most of the Westerners in town were there to turn Russia into a neoliberal puppet state by day, and get laid and shitfaced by night. So the paper was a kind of sarcastically over-enthusiastic celebration of this monstrous community’s values.”

The ‘90s were a unique time in Russian history. Taibbi described it as “crazy, poetic, anarchic, insane,” with “no right angles anywhere.” The immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse was violent and lawless, but it also gave a historically oppressed people their first taste of real freedom. And it was that freedom that captured the 20-year-old writer, and made him wary of the foreign powers which were circling like vultures—chief among them, The United States.

“I saw nine dead bodies just going back and forth to work in my five years there,” Taibbi recalled, sounding almost as if he’d been woken from a dream. “It was like another planet. Oddly enough, though, it had a very vibrant free press for the first and only time in Russia’s history.”

For added emphasis, Taibbi directed us to a February 2010 Vanity Fair article titled, “The Lost Exile,” describing one of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, Hungry Duck nightclub:

According to Doug Steele, the bar’s Canadian owner, “at the Duck you got laid even if you didn’t want to.” On Ladies’ Night, the doors opened at seven p.m., but the only people let in were women, as long as they were at least 16 years old. They’d drink for free. At nine, the men were allowed in. It wasn’t until the metro stations opened the next morning that it ended, and in the meantime, anything went. “Orgiastic” is an insufficient description. The only appropriate word seems to be Caligulan, and not just because the Duck was situated steps from Lubyanka, the former prison and Soviet torture chamber that now housed the F.S.B. The action was mostly elevated, according to Vlad Baseav, an early Exile general manager, with women and men alike dancing on the bar and on the tables, disrobing on the bar and on the tables, having sex on the bar and on the tables, fighting on the bar and on the tables, and then crashing in various states of undress onto the floor scrum.”They would get up and continue dancing, blood everywhere,” Baseav says. Steele recalls a night when the deputy head of a Moscow police unit, drunk beyond all reckoning, emptied his pistol into the ceiling and made everybody lie on the floor for three hours. Lavelle claims he saw a man stabbed to death next to him one night. “No one thought it was unusual.”

Taibbi and Ames seized the opportunity presented to them, and through a unique combination of shock, satire, hard-hitting reporting on corruption, and childish pranks—all enabled by the fact that neither advertisers (mostly nightclubs) nor governments were looking over their shoulder—The eXile did its best to snap people awake to the possibilities of this new freedom in the hopes that perhaps they’d guard it jealously against encroachments by “the good colonialists.”

During its short run, the magazine and its editors—whose public personas were crafted to be as grotesque as possible to add to the mystique—became infamous for their hijinks. On one occasion, they wiretapped Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, for a week and ran a story on it. They also regularly featured a “death porn” section containing graphic crime scene photographs. But for all the absurdity and over-the-top vulgarity, at its heart, The eXile had a message and a purpose.

“We wanted Russia to preserve its own identity, and also wanted America to live up to its sales pitch,” Taibbi confessed. “Like if we believed in a free press, why were we supporting Yeltsin, whose buddies murdered reporters in bundles? Russians believed in us deeply when I first went there—they believed in all the Radio Liberty propaganda. Having a blue passport made me a hero in 1990 Leningrad. By 1999 we were considered swindlers, and a big part of Putin’s rise was that he was seen as a nationalist standing up to the West.”

“Matt was appalled and indignant at the hypocrisy around him,” Masha recalled when asked about why eXile took the form it did. “I think Mark was the same way, and I think that came out in their writing. Matt was also influenced by Hunter S. Thompson and Gogol’s absurdism.”

Given the current political climate, where there is finally a desire and willingness to hold powerful men accountable for their abuses but uncertainty as to how best to do that, it isn’t hard to understand why, rather than defend his old work, Taibbi chose to issue a public apology. By his own admission, he’s embarrassed by some of the work he did in his twenties, and is not altogether without regrets at some of the “meanness” of the pranks he pulled.

But what are the implications of his apology?

Matt Taibbi has never been accused by any woman of sexual assault or impropriety. The women he is accused of harassing (those who weren’t fictional) based on satirical passages from a book he co-authored nearly two decades ago, have all denounced the allegations. It’s the same with Ames, who actually wrote the passages.

And yet, as soon as the baseless claims went mainstream, people were quick to try to connect them to an unrelated office conflict from Taibbi’s days at First Look. The speed with which this narrative formed and solidified in the national consciousness should give every reader pause.

This was clearly a case where old satire aged poorly because it had originally been tailored for people living in a certain place at a certain time, foreign and unrelatable to those judging it today. This situation raises the question—what are we to do with old humor that time strips of context? Moreover, what do we do with the satirical writings of individuals who go on to pursue more serious literary or journalistic forms? Had Taibbi kept doing satire, would his career be on the chopping block now? Probably not.

“I think what the really key thing is here, is that we have to look at every single case individually and evaluate the evidence,” noted feminist and congressional candidate Brianna Wu told Paste. “I would never tell anyone how to interpret these charges against Matt Taibbi, but if you look critically at them, in my opinion, they don’t hold up.”

Alayne Fleischmann contributed reporting to this piece.

Mark Ames, Michael Cernovich, Jim Goad, did not respond to requests for comment. Crispin and Newsweek’s Nina Burleigh were the only reporters to provide comment. Edit, 12/11: The author did not reach out to Breitbart and The Daily Beast

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