|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?