03:05 AM

Matt Taibbi: 'Emotional Language' Is Important In Reporting Outrageous Events

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Clara Jeffrey, Co-Editor, Mother Jones interviews Matt Taibbi.

Matt Taibbi, the former Wall Street beat reporter for Rolling Stone, and now heading a digital magazine for Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media, spoke at the Commonwealth Club’s Inforum event Thursday in San Francisco.

Taibbi was promoting his book, “The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap” described by Timothy Noah in the New York Times, “as infuriating as it is impossible to put down.” Here are some of my notes from the evening: 

- Taibbi described some of the scenes he’d witnessed in New York courts where “tricks” such as setting bail amounts, and over-loaded courts resulted in poor people forced to admit to crimes because otherwise they would sit in jail for many months awaiting trail.

- The controversial “stop and frisk” in New York ends up entangling many young people because they have to empty their pockets. If pot is kept inside a pocket it is legal to carry.

- The “vampire squid” name he used to describe Goldman Sachs’ outrageous practices was originally used at the end of a piece and his editors put it into the headline.

- Using colorful language is justified when writing about dry subjects such as Wall Street’s corrupt financial practices. 

- When writing about outrageous events it is necessary to use emotional language otherwise it doesn’t look right.

- Using fiction writing techniques is fine because it makes subject matter accessible and it can mean the difference between a story that is read and one that is skipped. When reporting on some events a voice of outrage is important.

- It took Taibbi more than three months to study derivatives and the complex financial instruments used by Wall Street. He says that’s what journalists do, they have to learn new subjects all the time, they are great at cramming for exams.

- He liked the Occupy movement. At first it was frustrating because it was so broad in its scope but later he appreciated that it represented a wide range of discontent. But it wasn’t able to capture the anger he saw in courts as huge numbers of families were evicted daily. If Occupy were able to marry that anger with its activities it would be a dangerous political movement.

- The financial press has failed the general public, what he does is translate what happens on Wall Street. It’s like the first translations of the bible into English caused a big storm.

- The reporters on CNBC are enamored by the CEOs of Wall Street firms, you can almost see cartoon hearts jumping out of their chests.

- Restitution on Wall Street is out of line with the billions of dollars made in profits .A $1 billion fine means that probably $30 billion in profits was made illegally. Yet if a welfare mother is accused of cashing a check for $800 they have to repay 100%. White collar crime repays a fraction. 

- Legislation on breaking up “too big to fail” companies is important. Wall Street won’t reform if there are no consequences.

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Commonwealth Club’s Inforum was established to engage young professionals in civic discourse yet most of the people in the room were probably 50 and above. I hope that’s not a reflection of the Inforum’s younger members lack of interest in Wall Street’s flagrant and illegal practices.

I managed a few quick words with Taibbi about his next venture at First Look Media. I asked him if he thinks he will have the same kind of large audience that Rolling Stone was able to provide? He said, “I think so but I’ve only been there six weeks.” He is still hiring people and expects the launch at the end of summer.

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‘The Divide,’ by Matt Taibbi - NYTimes.com

Taibbi wrote “The Divide” to demonstrate that unequal wealth is producing grotesquely unequal outcomes in criminal justice. …Taibbi believes that, just as income disparities are growing ever wider, so, too, are disparities in who attracts the attention of cops and prosecutors and who doesn’t.

Violent crime has fallen by 44 percent in America over the past two decades, but during that same period the prison population has more than doubled, skewing heavily black and poor. In essence, poverty itself is being criminalized.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the income distribution, an epidemic of white-collar crime has overtaken the financial sector, indicated, for instance, by a proliferation of record-breaking civil settlements. …Wall Street has come, under President Obama, to enjoy near-total immunity from criminal prosecution. It had more to fear, ironically, when George W. Bush was president.

… what Taibbi shows off to especially good effect here — is what a meticulous reporter he can be, with a facility for rendering complex financial skulduggery intelligible.