Matt Taibbi and Occupy Wall Street were pretty much made for each other. The Rolling Stone polemicist's writing gives Occupy talking points for its critique of Wall Street, big business, and government, and Occupy's high-profile actions last year validated the hell out of the causes Taibbi's been championing for years. This symbiotic relationship has only deepened as the activists find a mouthpiece in Taibbi, and the writer gathers more people eager to put his ideas into practice. Neither Taibbi nor organizers of Occupy choose to describe him as a leader of the movement but he's clearly become one of their highest profile allies. The general unwillingness to mark Taibbi as a leader at all is very much in keeping with Occupy's nonhierarchical structure. After years of beating up on the financial industry, the "dissolute, drug-abusing anarchist," as he once described himself to Mother Jones, might just become Occupy Wall Street's Gloria Steinem, going from journalist to social movement figurehead.
Taibbi described his relationship to Occupy as that of "an outside consultant." He told The Atlantic Wire that he sees his role in the movement as someone who helps educate people on the issues they already care about. "These people pretty obviously aren't protesting because of my articles, they're protesting because they were mad already, about things they should be mad about," Taibbi wrote in an email. But his coverage has helped people stay mad, and to understand exactly what they're mad at. Max Berger, an Occupy organizer, said Taibbi was part of a contingent that included Naked Capitalism's Yves Smith and the Roosevelt Institute's Mike Konczal that kept up a "steady drumbeat" of coverage after financial crime faded from the headlines in the wake of the financial collapse in 2008 and the Dodd-Frank debates in 2010. "It was like Paul Krugman before the Iraq war."
"I think what people respond to is Matt’s well-earned sense of outrage," Rolling Stone executive editor Eric Bates said. "I think when people read Matt’s work, there’s that sense of saying, 'at last not only is someone explaining this to me, but someone is putting their finger on why I, as a reader am feeling so pissed off.'" Bates pointed, as an example, to Taibbi's March 2009 feature, "The Big Takeover: How Wall Street Insiders are Using the Bailout to Stage a Revolution," in which Taibbi wrote: "There is a reason it used to be a crime in the Confederate states to teach a slave to read: Literacy is power. In the age of the CDS and CDO, most of us are financial illiterates."
This kind of deep-dive coverage, bordering on earnestness, is something of a departure from Taibbi's scurrilous past. He joined Rolling Stone as a contributing editor after a 2005 New York Press column, 52 Funniest Things About the Upcoming Death of the Pope, either got him fired or inspired him to quit, depending on whom you ask. (His editor, Jeff Koyen, also quit.) "I think he’s evolved as a reporter," Bates said. "He realizes the stuff he’s doing now hit the powers that be where it hurts a lot more than any stunt of prank ever would."
That stuff includes getting out from behind his desk and joining the movement. "He came to us a couple months ago and was interested in doing a story about Bank of America," said Logan Price, an Occupy activist who's helping organize the campaign against the bank. "He’s been helping us with research. We set up a research team with his help, and that’s been able to inform our action strategy." Taibbi joined the group in its Feb. 29 action against Bank of America and gave a teach-in at its rally in Bryant Park, which you can see as a video here or read a transcript here.
Occupy protesters have also latched onto some of the concepts Taibbi had been using to describe Wall Street for years. Take squidding, in which activists put a giant "squid" on trial as a corporate criminal: That comes from the infamous lede of Taibbi's April 2010 Rolling Stone piece, The Great American Bubble Machine, in which he calls Goldman Sachs "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." The day after the action, Taibbi wrote to the occupiers, "Folks, if you do this again, please let me know, and I promise to put some serious man-hours into designing a squid costume."
Taibbi's past points to someone clearly at home with Occupy's prankish, humor-filled tactics. While living in Russia in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Taibbi edited an expat newspaper called The eXile where "all we did was pranks," he told The Atlantic Wire. The best know was the time Taibbi and his cronies threw a cream pie mixed with horse semen at New York Times Moscow bureau chief Michael Wines.
Attacking an establishment journalist fits in with Taibbi's self-styled outsider pose. In 2008 he told the New York Observer he didn't know the American Society of Magazine Editors existed until he was nominated for a National Magazine Award (which he won), but in reality, his father, Mike Taibbi, has worked as a broadcast reporter for about 40 years, most recently as an NBC News correspondent. The younger Taibbi attended prep school at the Concord Academy, in Massachusetts, and then Bard College. "Matt’s fate all along was to end up in a privileged space," Mark Ames, Taibbi's former eXile partner, told Vanity Fair in 2010. "He knew that and realized that if he could take an unconventional route there it would make him much more interesting once he arrived."
Arrive he has. In addition to his Rolling Stone duties, Taibbi has been a regular on Real Time with Bill Maher and is represented by a speakers' bureau, the Lavin Agency. In his embrace of Occupy, Taibbi has shown a willingness to go deeper into the movement than other high-profile types who came to Zuccotti Park like Michael Moore, Russell Simmons, and Naomi Klein. According to Price, Taibbi is "a good example of someone who has set aside other priorities to join us at the table, and he is doing so at a time when it is somewhat less popular to do so."
"My biggest worry is that he may somehow be construed as a leader, simply because of his notoriety. It's not the case," Price continued. Taibbi agrees. "I think if I did try to assume that kind of role, it probably wouldn't work out. I don't have the best people skills and I have a pretty lousy record both as a boss (i.e. editing a newspaper) and as a team player in general," he said in an email.
He'd bristled at the comparison, but in some ways Taibbi's move from writer to activist has a familiar ring to it. In the sixties, Gloria Steinem worked as journalist. Her 1969 article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation," made her a national feminist figure, and Steinem testified before Congress in 1970 in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, helping lead the Women's Strike for Equality in New York that same year. "After Black Power" laid out the women's rights movement in similarly stark terms to Taibbi's writing on Goldman and Wall Street at large, and she followed it up by getting involved on the ground, like Taibbi has tentatively started doing.
For Taibbi's part, he finds any comparison to Steinem "funny"—and one that should be dismissed. "I can't imagine anyone seriously describing me as the Gloria Steinem of Occupy. Not that I don't think that's funny, but it's a complete misread of my attitude toward all of this. I'm sympathetic to Occupy and I'm happy to give a talk when asked, but privately I'm about a thousand times less political than Gloria Steinem." But some Occupiers were warmer to the idea. "The Gloria Steinem comparison is interesting. I think you’re right that [Taibbi] has, as a journalist, come into the fray," Price said.
Whether or not he wants to be the face of the movement, Taibbi's journalism and Occupy's actions continue to move ahead in mutually beneficial ways. Eric Bates, his editor at Rolling Stone, said he was editing a new Taibbi piece on Bank of America this week. At the same time, Occupy is planning to hold another Bank of America demonstration on March 15. "I think it’s possible he’ll create materials that help us explain what this campaign is about and why people should care," said Price.
"But I don’t think we want to make him the leader of the campaign or the figurehead of the campaign. And I don’t think he wants that. I think he’ll be someone rallying folks from behind and encouraging them to run to the front.”