Taibbi's Blasphemy Against "The Church of the Savvy"

by: David Sirota

Mon Dec 14, 2009 at 17:11

There's been some back and forth in the liberal blogosphere about Matt Taibbi's latest masterpiece in Rolling Stone - the one about how Obama stuffed his administration with Wall Streeters. Taibbi, indeed, has two tiny things wrong: 1) He confused two guys named Jamie Rubin in one sentence and 2) He seemed to imply that Karen Kornbluh was a non-Rubinite, even though she was actually Bob Rubin's former deputy chief of staff. The former is a minor screw up that doesn't negate the thrust of the piece, and the latter actually gives Obama a benefit of the doubt he doesn't deserve.

Of course, the criticism of Taibbi from liberals and conservatives in the Washington Establishment runs much deeper than a few non-germane factual errors. And it is telling - not about Taibbi, but about the rot, corruption and elitism that now defines Washington Establishment.  

David Sirota :: Taibbi's Blasphemy Against "The Church of the Savvy"
When you read criticism from the American Prospect, you see the magazine acknowledging the factual accuracy of everything Taibbi has reported (accuracy which Reuters verifies and that Taibbi himself defends) - but you see some other stuff, too. You see an ugly form of jealousy at a reporter who doesn't feel (as the Prospect so often does) the need to obsequiously worship Democratic politicians. You also see rage at a writer for being way more talented than almost any other writer in journalism. Even more important, you see an obnoxious Beltway elitism that suggests Taibbi doesn't get it.

This elitism has been echoed by everyone from Matt Yglesias to Andrew Sullivan. It is an elitism best summed up by the American Conservative magazine in its criticism of Taibbi:

Some progressives are just as invested in the idea that Obama has "sold out" to corporate and financial interests as neoconservatives are committed to the fantasy that Obama's foreign policy has recently undergone dramatic change. The reality is that Obama never had to "sell out" to these interests, because he never challenged them in any serious way in his national political career before he became President. We are not witnessing "one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history." We are seeing Obama do pretty much exactly what he did during the general election and the months before his Inauguration: he has been careful to position himself squarely as a conventional center-left politician, and he has done this most of all as far as it concerns the financial sector.

The American Conservative and the Taibbi critics aren't totally wrong on this narrow point. As I reported way back in 2006 in a cover story for The Nation (and took a lot of shit for it at the time), Obama has never been a power-challenger in his political career. And Taibbi critics generally seem miffed at Taibbi for (allegedly) not getting that point* - specifically, for writing his piece from the assumption Obama is a progressive and that therefore his Wall Street appointments and Wall Street-coddling policies are a betrayal. Taibbi's critics have a fundamental problem with that frame because they essentially insist it is naive. They essentially insist that Obama didn't really sell out or change, because he's never been a progressive or a populist.**

But what are those critics, then, really saying about how we should look at Obama's campaign promises? Last I checked, even though Obama's past political actions never suggested he was a power challenger, he did campaign for president as a solid progressive populist. Read his campaign documents, listen to his campaign speeches - that reality is absolutely undeniable, from his promise to reform NAFTA to his promise to take on the health insurance and financial special interests. Sure, he might not have been John Edwards, but he definitely wasn't Tim Geithner, either. And sure Obama may never have "challenged (special interests) in any serious way in his national political career before he became President," but his presidential campaign platform - the platform on which he was elected and on which his presidency should be judged - most certainly did.

As a reporter, Taibbi did the most objective thing a reporter can do - he compared the campaign rhetoric and promises of candidate Obama and put it up against the actions of President Obama. The idea that a reporter shouldn't do this because it is unacceptably naive is beyond cynical - it asks reporters (and activists and citizens) to simply accept that we should never hold a politician to their words, because we must implicitly assume their words mean nothing.

It's certainly true that a lot of politicians' words mean nothing - but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke - a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like "charisma" and "charm" and "toughness" and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy. In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises. If we now must assume their promises aren't true, and attack people for being "naive" for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we've made a joke of our whole political system.

Renowned media critic Jay Rosen calls this kind of cynical that we're seeing in the Taibbi criticism "The Church of the Savvy." Basically, he asserts that the Washington chattering class believes that the political savviness of reporters - their ability not to be "naive" - is what must be valued.

To them, Taibbi has committed the high crime of not being "savvy" because instead of being cynical and assuming all politicians lie, Taibbi did a straight reporting piece that took candidate Obama at his populist campaign word and then matched his words with his presidential actions. And just as bad from their perspective, he did it from a progressive perspective - which is simply not allowed in the Washington chattering class. Indeed, the fastest way to get respect in D.C. media circles - to get promoted to the Washington Post from the American Prospect, to get accolades from New York Times columnists, etc. - is to bash "the left" from the so-called "center" (not the real center of American public opinion, but from the D.C. "center"). That means, in this case, bashing Taibbi for his supposed crimes.

The "savvy" establishment reporter - for instance, some bumlicker like Ryan Lizza, who the American Conservative cites in its Taibbi criticism - would never report a story like Taibbi's, because the "savvy" establishment reporter already assumes the politicians have lied. To that "savvy" establishment reporter (and sadly, to an increasing number of citizens in our celebrified world) the only thing that matters is the supposed value (smarts, intellect, good-heartedness, toughness, etc.) of the individual politician (especially the conservative/corporate/left-defying politician), regardless of whether that politician has blatantly lied to voters. And therefore that "savvy" establishment reporter just accepts the lies without question, outrage or even coverage.

Taibbi doesn't - and that is why he is being attacked. He dares to do objective reporting - and for that the Beltway hates him. But the Rest of Us should treasure him.

* By the way, I think Taibbi most definitely got this point. But he rightly didn't let it color his writing in comparing candidate Obama to President Obama.

** There's an assumption here, too, that not only should we have known Obama was going to sell out and that its naive to have thought (or reported from a frame) otherwise, but that further - we have to accept that its actually OK that he's selling out because he's always been a sellout. This is ridiculous too - should we have simply accepted that it was OK for George W. Bush to try to privatize Social Security because he promised to do it on the 2004 campaign trail?

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A case of the Emperor not wearing clothes? (4.00 / 8)
With Taibbi the kid who dares to point it out and the beltway "journalists" as the nobles of Versailles, rushing to claim that everyone knew the  emperor was a committed nudist, so whence the outrage?

Reason for the Church of the Savvy (4.00 / 13)
If the general public gets wind of the variance between the branding and the policy, then the administration has a problem.  

I think the public's figured it out (4.00 / 6)

  And it will be reflected in next year's midterms.


"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

[ Parent ]
But because they only have two choices (4.00 / 5)
the feed back loop of the circuit allows DC to read that as "they wanted you to be more conservative" rather than 'You fucked up and it had nothing to do with ideological believes." As I said before, predicting this is like predicting the scorpion will sting you.

[ Parent ]
Yup, David, it's really the "serious people" on a rampage. (4.00 / 10)
Sad to see that even liberal bloggers are infected by the desease. And that this seriously hampers their ability for logical thought. Most of the criticism dircted at Taibbi is simply ridiculous.

However, good to see that reliable authorities like Jay Rosen are fighting back. Also shows who are the intellectual heavyweights in the Blogosphere, and who the pretenders.

So their basic point is that Obama (4.00 / 13)
didn't sell out because he had already sold out.  

You are right about how he campaigned.  I call it a huge lie.    Taibbi and Scahill make the rest look like interns. Thanks for backing him up.  

Yet interestingly, (4.00 / 9)
none of them were saying this during the campaign.

Harper's Magazine did, in an article written in 2006, but they were the only ones who seemed to notice. The cool kids said nothing.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
Kudos where kudos are due: David repeated the warning, in 9/2008 (4.00 / 8)
Obama has raised $9.8 million from investment houses (more than McCain). For economic advice, he relies on people like Bob Rubin - the NAFTA architect who gutted market regulations as Bill Clinton's treasury secretary and who then tried to rustle up government favors for Enron as a $17-million-a-year executive at Citigroup, a bank embroiled in today's implosion.

Under such influences, Obama sends Wall Street hints that his "change" mantra might be empty rhetoric. This month, his adviser Cass Sunstein told the New Republic's establishment readership that the senator is merely "a minimalist." In a recent New York Times interview, Obama himself reiterated his loyalty to free-market fundamentalism, even as it birthed the current emergency.


Respect, David.

However, Taibbis critics distort the point: "he [Obama] has been careful to position himself squarely as a conventional center-left politician, and he has done this most of all as far as it concerns the financial sector." That's not a center-left position! This is evidence of a solid center-right stance on the economy and finances.

[ Parent ]
True. (4.00 / 7)
If reading kos is supposed to be like getting the paper six months early, OL is like getting the paper a year or more early.

Montani semper liberi

[ Parent ]
The blog I knew and loved is no more... (4.00 / 1)
dkos seems to have gone from the biggest, bad-assed reform blog in town to a replica of the HuffingtonPost, only overrun by party loyalist.  Maybe when Kos comes back???  I can only hope.    

[ Parent ]
Well Kos is certainly not accepting the elected (0.00 / 0)
DC Dem position on the latest Lieberman HCR "compromise"...  By that measure of "party loyalism" Chris Bowers is more guilty (though I agree with him over Kos).

[ Parent ]
Curious, isn't it (4.00 / 4)
how all this raging debate about whether or not Obama "sold out" or lied and to what degree he ever was or presented himself as a true progressive takes away from the fact that he's NOT governing as a true progressive. The real debate isn't about Obama's degree of not being as progressive as he supposedly pretended to be during the campaign, but his degree of not being a progressive as president.

I'm sensing some deliberate misdirection by the bots in order to keep people from engaging in the only meaningful debate at this point. Because whoever would have won the presidency, and whatever they would have run as along the ideological spectrum, we would still have been pushing for the same core set of progressive policies. And this whole silly debate about whether or not Obama lied is secondary to that.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

[ Parent ]
In politics, as in daily life (4.00 / 1)
it's not the we discuss silliness not despite the fact that they don't matter, but because they don't matter. While some people may be seeking to get us on track deliberately, I suspect most just tend towards this sort of nonsense because that is what our politics is largely about.

Politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity.

[ Parent ]
I don't get it. (4.00 / 1)
The fact that Obama had loads of Rubinites on his team was always troubling to me.
The fact that people that are supposed to be on out "side" won't acknowledge it is perplexing.
It's like a flame war on steroids because of Twitter.

Still waiting for the great leap forward.

love me love me love me I'm a liberal rag (4.00 / 3)
You see an ugly form of jealousy at a reporter who doesn't feel (as the Prospect so often does) the need to obsequiously worship Democratic politicians.

Jealousy? Maybe. But I suspect that, as with all other mainstream media publications, left or right, the sin Taibbi committed was exposing the systemic link between the Democratic Party leadership and the crony capitalist agenda that links them in turn to the Republican Party leaderhip, the White House, Wall Street, K Street, Bilderberg, the CFR and all other tentacles that make up the octupus that is America's ruling class.

The American Prospect, Time, Newsweek, The New Republic, Politico, Foreign Affairs, Washington Monthly. And their conservative counterparts. The narrative they embrace is that the world is divided between the Democrats and the Republicans, between the liberals and conservatives. In particular, the divide is embedded in the conflicting political ideas they espouse.


Does Wall Street make this distinction when funding political campaigns? Is Bilderberg and the Council On Foreign Relations comprised mostly of one "side" over the other?

In his own way, Obama is just another intellectual like George Will and David Brooks. Above all, he is as far removed now from the embittered denimistas on Main Street as any inside the beltway politician is likely to be these days. He feels enormously comfortable around people like Rubin, Geithner and Summers.

Many left wing intellectuals helped to sustain Obama's campaign persona because they wanted to believe he was one of them. Indeed, I was "blocked" from participating over at The New Republic precisely because I kept exposing their White House Correspondent Dinner mentality about this grifter in chief.

Phil Ochs wrote a song about the folks over at The American Prospect.

He called it, "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal".

Give it a listen.

I read New republic and Nation ... (4.00 / 2)
I've learned to take every view
You know, I've memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I'm almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea
There's no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

Full Court Press!  http://www.openleft.com/showDi...

[ Parent ]
Sirota hits the nail on the head (4.00 / 7)
Sure, he might not have been John Edwards, but he definitely wasn't Tim Geithner, either.

I totally agree with this.

I wasn't under any illusions about Obama being a full-fledged progressive.  But Obama did display a legitimate talent for straddling the progressive and Wall Street communities.

On the campaign trail -- even while Hillary had Burson-Marsteller' Mark Penn as a chief strategist -- Obama was able to speak out about labor abuses in South America without scaring Wall Street into thinking that he was Kucinich.

What I expected, frankly, was a guy who would use market-based approaches to solve liberal problems (e.g. cap-and-trade solutions to address pollution rather than regulations).  

I hoped that Obama brought the best of both worlds:  A liberal's heart and a centrist's pragmatism.

Instead he has shown the worst of both worlds:  A centrist's principles and a liberal's balls.

Edwards (4.00 / 7)
Of course, John Edwards was never John Edwards either, so it all gets confusing very fast.  :-)

[ Parent ]
No he wasn't- what makes it very confusing is that.... (4.00 / 2)
Obama used to be 08 John Edwards but now is 04 Edwards.  

the funk can move and the funk can remove- dig?

[ Parent ]
Obama had no plan (4.00 / 2)
He just borrowed everything else from Edwards and Clinton.

But what troubles me is that Obama is becoming more Clintonesque and possibly has embraced the unity executive position.  

[ Parent ]
I never expected Obama to be a raging liberal (4.00 / 7)

 But I did expect him to be a Democrat.

 He's made Bill Clinton look like Henry Wallace. Heck, he's made Richard Nixon look like a progressive.  

"We judge ourselves by our ideals; others by their actions. It is a great convenience." -- Howard Zinn

[ Parent ]
We expected Obama to at least have a little INTEGRITY, (4.00 / 2)
but instead, we find him to be just another sociopathic politician.

[ Parent ]
Well said, David. (4.00 / 7)

I love one of the blog comments criticizing Taibbi's piece that I ran into yesterday...

Well, he only writes for a MUSIC magazine. [emphasis original]

What's so weird about all the criticism is Taibbi has built this case brick by brick.  Many/most are willing to agree that Taibbi got the facts right, but they want to challenge a lot of his interpretation.  Bullocks!  Taibbi has been laying the groundwork for his assertions since March.  A handy link by which to check it out.

I say good on Taibbi.  I'm about ready to begin subscribing to that MUSIC magazine just to help ensure they keep him writing.

Drum on Taibbi (4.00 / 2)
No one would ever consider Kevin Drum to be a radical lefty, but I really liked his defense of Taibbi here and here.  He acknowledges Taibbi's true problems, heck, even dwells on them, but then gets to the real point:

Matt Taibbi is a hard guy to defend.  He exaggerates, he misinterpets, and he uses bad language.  Sometimes he gets his facts wrong.  If I knew what was good for me, I'd just leave it at that and jump on the bandwagon that says his brand of journalism is beyond the pale.

But I'm an idiot, so I won't.  For example: Taibbi says that what unites Obama's economic team is that they're all proteges of Robert Rubin.  I've already said that I think this is a bad interpretation, but Taibbi's underlying point is still a good one: this is a very mainstream group that's overly sympathetic to Wall Street and unwilling to push for really substantial regulatory reform...

So sure: Congress is a problem.  But so is the White House.  So is the Fed.  So is the SEC.  And that's the whole point.  They're all problems.  Taibbi chose to illustrate this colorfully, and sometimes that color gets in the way of a coherent narrative.  But dammit, at least he's telling the story, and there are damn few others who are even trying to tell it in popular, long-form venues.  As soon as they do, maybe we can all toss Taibbi on the ash heap and take turns raining down curses on him.  Until then, he's what we've got.

Kevin Drum is right about two thing. (0.00 / 0)
He's an idiot, and Taibbi's writing is necessary in this toxic enviornment.

[ Parent ]
Church of the Savyy - a transcript (4.00 / 5)
from David's youtube link to "The Church of the Savvy" in the following portion of his essay:

Renowned media critic Jay Rosen calls this kind of cynical that we're seeing in the Taibbi criticism "The Church of the Savvy. Basically, he asserts that the Washington chattering class believes that the political savviness of reporters - their ability not to be "naive" - is what must be valued."

i offer this transcript of the youtube clip. it's of Laura Flanders interviewing Jay Rosen on GritTV (please excuse my typos):

Jay: One way to decide if it's practical is to go and visit the places they have it and to report back to this country what goes on in those countries.

It's a perfectly reasonable way of proceeding, but it is expensive and it might be expensive to certain political illusions here as well. But that whole sense that you really can't talk about, single payer for example, because it's not politically viable is an interesting case of what I call the Church of the Savvy. It's not that journalists are against a single payer system. They wouldn't say that. It's probably not true.

They just think it's not going to happen, so why should we talk about it? Whereas, if they talked about it more that would widen the space in which it can happen.

Laura: But it might limit their contacts. And that's the other thing -- your contacts in Washington, your access.

Jay: hmm. (nodding)

Laura: If you start criticizing your sources, how are you going to keep your job? That's what we here from a lot of people in Main Stream Media.

Jay: Well, I don't think that's actually it. It's not so much that if you suddenly started talking about single payer that you would lose all your sources.  It's subtler than that. It's more that you want to be seen as part of the savvy inside crowd who knows the score, and knows how to be realistic.

And it really has more to do with membership in a class than it does with actual sources. If you have readers and viewers and people who listen to you, you'll have sources because you have power. That's a better way of getting sources, than to pretend to talk like the insiders.

offered without comment, other than my bolds.

Even if Obama hadn't flip-flopped or "sold out" (4.00 / 5)
in a relative sense with respect to what he promised or implied during the campaign, the fact remains that he has nevertheless sold out to corporate and Wall St. interests as president, and even as a candidate over FISA.

There are two separate questions here. One, has Obama betrayed the progressive values and policies that he espoused as a candidate? And two, has Obama betrayed the progressive values and policies that define the progressive movement?

The answer to the first question is, I think, a qualified yes, qualified in that he never really was a true progressive, which anyone who paid close attention to his words and actions should have known. However, he did run on a "progressive lite" platform, and he's betrayed even THAT.

But the answer to the second, far more important question, is clearly YES. And who cares what he ran as? We want progressive policies, we're not getting them, and we're understandably upset. Whether or not Obama "betrayed" us by lying to us is less relevant than whether he's betraying us--and the country--by putting in place anti-progressive policies--which he is. In an objective sense, we're as upset with Obama for not promoting progressive policies as we were with Bush and would have been with McCain, for the same reason, irregardless of what he ran as.

"Those who stand for nothing fall for anything...Mankind are forever destined to be the dupes of bold & cunning imposture" -- Alexander Hamilton

But, umm… (0.00 / 0)
...Obama's actions don't really represent an "about-face", do they? Considering the number of sources that had Obama pegged as a centrist while he was on the campaign trail (and let's not forget that in some ways that perception was strategically employed--even picked up by jerks like Bill O'Reilly), it's kinda disingenuous to frame it as a 180 degree turn, no? No quibbling with a lot of Taibbi's facts, but the framework's a bit grandstand-y.

"This ain't for the underground. This here is for the sun." -Saul Williams

you don't understand the argument (4.00 / 1)
THe argument is not that there was a change, but that the reality was hidden under image.  

[ Parent ]
Do you use Dvorak keyboards? (0.00 / 0)
You accidentally capitalized both the T and the H in the first word---as sign of fast typing on a Dvorak keyboard.

[ Parent ]
Another term for Savvy DC Insiders... (0.00 / 0)
is bought and paid for whores.  

"Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it." - Mark Twain

Thank you for calling out the Am Prospect. (4.00 / 3)
Thanks for calling b.s.  Thanks as always for speaking truth to power.  Taibbi, Naomi Klein, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, and you David are our truth tellers in a sea of Third Way tripe to power sellers.

I was Never a fan of Obama and lost friends over it although lately some of them have made up with me.  I take no pleasure in being right.  But the reason I was is that I read blackagendareport.com (Glenn Ford, Bruce Dixon, Margaret Kimberlely), Kevin Alexander Grey's devastating book review of "The Audacity of Hope", Adolph Reed JR and, of course, Paul Street. I read Ken Silverstein's "Barack Obama, Inc. in Harpers.  Oh right, we are all naive because we just don't get the power structure of the court of Versailles.  We aren't "savvy".  I call bullshit.  You know what we aren't?

Spot on, David (4.00 / 1)
I would only slightly disagree with labeling the whoel Amercian Prospect as suspect, because I love Dean baker's beat the Pres and Robert Kuttner.

Tim Fernholz himself and his naivete as a wannabe financial analyst and economist while simultaneously being an Obams/Geithner too big to fail apologist explains that piece, though I know many in the beltway are guilty as well

So let's talk about Tim Fenrholz ineptness:

As polemic as Taibbi is, his pieces have been some of the best, especially the one about Goldman Sachs the great bubble machine and the Great Takeover. You actually learn where the CDO came from via J.P. Morgan among other things; of course many people are turned off by Taibbi's style, though I am not one of them. I think we make mistake in thinking that the ability to persuade should go by the wayside, because the right has been more persuasive and simplistic with their arguments, and yet Taibbi has the ability to break ground there, so despite one mistake Taibbi deserves the kudos you mention and more for his ability to speak about this crisis in ways that are appealing to even people who have a hard time understanding all of this like average people do.

Every piece Tim Fernolz writes lately has been an Obama/Geithner apologist piece discounting the basic facts that the repeal of Glass Steagall although not the only factor in the crisis was a significant one. Fernholz has tried to do this with people whom have more credibility than Taibbi, such as Dean Baker who wrote a paper about the bubble in 2002 when almost no one else did. This is not to demean Taibbi, but Taibbi gets this and has shown so in his work.

Tim Fernholz doesn't get the basic fact that the removal of the wall between commercial and investment banking has allowed wall Street to gamble with our FDIC insured deposits putting a strain on the FDIC as it is strained now which should be worrisome to anyone who has bank deposits and nothing else, like myself, because I don't want to play Wall Street casino games and want to keep the spirit of FDR in our financial system. This is a much more dangerous error than one or so error about a James Rubin who was a diplomat in the Clinton White House, and that James Rubin not being in the James Rubin piece.

Fernholz also doesn't get the difference between the U.K and the U.S(he says, "the U.K has big banks? Why can't we?), the Tobin tax(which we need) is one key difference, but also 50% of bank executives bonuses are now being taxed. This enables England to have bigger and less risky financial institutions Some basic research would also lead one to recognize that Mervyn King, the leader of England's central bank wants to end too big to fail. And yes we get that it's not juts the size but the risk and interconnectedness, but market share and the ability of firms to merge and consolidate also comes into play. Paul Volcker is right. Dean Baker is right. Tim Fernholz doesn't know what he is talking about.

I can't even stand to read Tim's pieces anymore, though I like the American Prospect where Dean Baker and Robert Kuttner post(the best).


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