Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Matthew Taibbi: Well-Traveled American Journalist

American journalists would be envious of the opportunities that Matthew Taibbi has already experienced in his young adulthood. At the age of 37, Taibbi is currently the contributing editor of Rolling Stone magazine, or as he calls it, a “fancy way of saying I’m someone who contributes without technically being staff.”

A coin would represent Rolling Stone magazine most accurately: one side being politics, the other entertainment. Taibbi focuses on the former, having a natural affinity for dark humor. Being a political correspondent, Taibbi covers electoral politics in campaign years, and when there isn’t a gallop to the White House, he writes about major political events.

Rolling Stone gives Taibbi privileges that most journalists do not receive.

“Most (journalists) do not get seven to eight thousand words to spend on a topic as arcane, convoluted and unsexy as congressional procedures,” he explained.

Taibbi is never censored with his affiliation, either.

“I get to use language that is more colorful and I have a lot more leeway to describe politicians in a way I see fit,” Taibbi said. “There is no pressure to adopt other political tones.”

Hailing from a family of journalists, Taibbi had a broad sense of the field he was out to pursue.

“My father, godfather, stepmother, and almost everyone I grew up with was into journalism; it was like the family business,” he said.

Taibbi initially wanted to be a writer in high school when he immersed himself in books written by Russian comic novelists such as Mikhail Bulgakov and Nikolai Gogol.

“I wanted to be a comic novelist but it didn’t work out so I ended up in the business I knew,” recalled Taibbi.

His appreciation of Russian works set him up for an elaborate decision his senior year of college to transfer to a school in present day St. Petersburg, Russia. It was merely the beginning of a long, unusual path to becoming an established journalist. After graduating, Taibbi stayed in Russia and began freelancing very early in his career.

“I was what was called a stringer,” Taibbi said. “A stringer is a type of freelancer who lives in a remote area and contributes to various news organizations.”

After writing for the Associated Press and newspapers like The Moscow Times, Taibbi veered off onto the surprisingly unexpected path of pro-basketball. While playing for a team in Mongolia, Taibbi contracted a serious case of pneumonia and had to return to Boston. After recovering, he flew straight to Russia and didn’t look back.

With the help of another American journalist living abroad came the controversial English- language, Moscow-based newspaper, The eXile. Produced by Mark Ames and co-edited by Taibbi, the newspaper gave the two writers absolute freedom from American libel law. After writing for The eXile for six years, Taibbi’s reputation had increased exponentially.

“It allowed me to attempt journalism that was not run-of-the-mill. I was overseas; I lived somewhere that wasn’t expensive,” he said. “Even though I wasn’t making much, I was able to survive, and it eliminated the pressures that a lot of Americans have in this country where they can’t just sit around and write in their blogs, because they need to make a lot of money to live. I didn’t have that problem in Russia.”

Just as any journalist isn’t perfect, Matthew Taibbi has encountered ethical problems before.

“If someone never encounters an ethical problem, they’re probably not doing their job very well. A journalist will have to do things that are difficult and sources/bosses can and will sometimes put you in uneasy situations.” he said.

Taibbi recalled a time when he had a source that believed Taibbi had made a promise to him, but for Taibbi, the promise was of a different character.

“I consulted various experts on journalistic ethics, lots of non-profit organizations help in those situations, and I did that before I spoke with my own bosses.”

Taibbi’s advice for young journalists is to always try to work it out themselves before talking to who they work for.

“A boss might do what is in their interest and is not always the right way,” he said.

Every writer always has a favorite, and for Taibbi, one of the pieces he was proud of journeyed into the lives of four high school children who lived in a Russian ghetto. What Taibbi referred to as being like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the story involved the relationships between the teens, and Taibbi followed and checked on them for the next two to three years.

“It was a really fun story,” he said. “It was more like writing a novel.”

Taibbi looks towards the future with an intent on changing the decrease of readership in America.

“One of the things that is sad about modern America is that not many people read, and I think I’m eventually going to try to get into television or film to reach a wider audience,” he said.

Taibbi didn’t seem completely thrilled about the venture into the domain where entertainment reigns dominant.

“From an impact and financial standpoint, all reporters will have to make that move eventually,” he explained. Taibbi plans on resurfacing some old high school dreams as well.

“In the future I will try [my] hand at writing fiction again,” he said, “but I don’t think I can afford to do that yet.”