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‘It’s the Wild West right now’: Journalist Matt Taibbi talks Elon Musk, the Twitter Files, and the state of media

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Podcast & Video

The following is a special presentation of the Hub Dialogues with executive director Rudyard Griffiths in conversation with independent U.S. journalist Matt Taibbi about the Twitter Files, the state and future of Twitter, mainstream media, and the future of democracy in the upcoming 2024 U.S. presidential elections.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, and YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Matt Taibbi, welcome. 

MATT TAIBBI: Thanks for having me, Rudyard.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, great to be back in conversation with you. We met in person and had a wonderful evening together at Roy Thompson Hall late November 2022 when you were on stage for our mainstream media debate. Little did we know, Matt, that that was a pretty crazy week for you. You were spinning a whole bunch of pie plates and more than just appearing on our stage alongside Malcolm Gladwell up against him and Michelle Goldberg from the New York Times with Douglas Murray as your sparring partner. Why don’t you just as a kind of to open up this conversation with our listeners, why don’t you just remind us what was happening that week and what you suddenly got pulled into, literally the moment you got off the Munk stage at Roy Thompson Hall?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, thanks for the question. Yeah, that week, it was the end of November 2022. I got a direct message on Twitter basically asking me if I would like to dig into the internal memoranda and emails of Twitter. And in fact, I think you asked a question on stage about that because Elon Musk had mentioned something about material coming out that week and I had to kind of play it cool and pretend I didn’t know what that was about. I actually deflected the question to Douglas, but I already knew that I was headed to San Francisco right after the debate and that I was going to have a few days to do the first story. I hadn’t actually looked at any of the material yet, but basically I found out just before the debate that the Twitter files was going to happen.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: And Matt, as a journalist, how did you approach this opportunity? Because it’s a pretty unique circumstance. You have this company that’s been acquired by Elon Musk, it’s since been taken private. He clearly has an agenda that he wants to push. How did you engage with him? What were the kind of parameters and how did you feel in the end okay with putting yourself into the kind of lion’s den here with this very sensitive information—we can go into that in a sec—that really exploded across the mainstream media in the ensuing weeks?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, that’s a good question too because I think it was a unique situation, probably ethically in journalism. There were so many different moving parts involved, so many different questions that there really wasn’t an analog for. So I asked a lot of people for advice about this. But basically, you have a CEO who’s coming forward. He is a very wealthy, very powerful person, at the time, the richest man in the world, and wants to share the internal correspondence of one of the world’s most powerful companies. And you’re told that you’re going to have basically free rein to look at anything you want, that you can enter any search terms you want.

The only condition that I was asked to agree to, well one was on attribution which was just sources of Twitter, and the other one was that the material had to come out on Twitter first, which I was fine with. I mean, I think as long as my subscribers were okay with it, and they were for the most part, I thought it was worth it. After that, I thought the test was once I started to see the material, the test was is this stuff true? Can it be confirmed? Are these self-contained news stories? I think what I decided I was going to do was that I was only going to run material that I could independently confirm somehow and that by itself was a news story. So that there wasn’t going to be some kind of additional context that would come out that would completely change the nature of the stories.

So for instance, we found emails about a communication route between Twitter and the FBI and the DHS and how that worked leading up to the 2020 elections. No matter what else came out, if there was another side to that story, what we were putting out was still true and it was at least part of a story. So that’s what we tried to do. It got more complicated as time went on. And that ultimately is what I think sank the project is that there were just too many different issues that were too difficult for all the parties to balance at the same time. But for a while it was unique.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: And to, again, just the serendipity, let’s frame it in the positive, leaving that Munk debate stage, be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media. And then as an independent journalist getting kind of shoehorned into what became the biggest story, I think to close out 2022. How did you respond to, I’m just thinking the mainstream media rebuttal, which would be, “Hey, we’re the New York Times, we’ve got an editorial staff”—I don’t know, what is it, 3000, 4,000, 5,000 journalists—”We’re equipped to deal with this. We have the depth in the bullpen and the resources to handle this. You’re an independent investigative journalist out on your own with Substack and great network and contacts.” But how did you push back Matt, against that argument that really this was or should have been a job for a big incumbent media player who could have brought all those different resources to the table?

MATT TAIBBI: Well, again, I think under normal circumstances, absolutely that’s what you would expect. But the subject of the Munk debates I think answers that question. Elon Musk, I think very intentionally chose only independent journalists. I think he was trying to make a point about not only about how he felt about mainstream journalism, but also I think there was an element of he wanted the material to be believed and there was going to be an issue if it was farmed out to the Washington Post and the New York Times and they did what they would do. I mean, I think one can predict how they would cover a story like that. When he handed the ball off to people like me and Michael Shellenberger and Bari Weiss and the other people who eventually became involved, it was actually pretty unpredictable from his point of view. That was one of the things that I liked about this project is that he didn’t really have any idea where this was going. The company didn’t really know.

And I thought that was a more interesting story if you didn’t know in advance what the narrative was going to be coming out of it. And also when the material started to come out, as an investigative reporter, you’re always hoping when you do a story that has some kind of explosive material in it, is that the cavalry is going to come and other journalists will come and start digging themselves and find new angles and advance the story forward. But that’s exactly what didn’t happen with the Twitter files. Instead, they turned on us and turned us into the story, and really just attacked the idea of releasing any of this material. And I think there’s your answer for why the New York Times and the Washington Post weren’t given this story because they didn’t want it. Really. They didn’t want it unless they could completely control it.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Fair point. When you think about that, all those documents that you went through and that you looked at, what would be the big takeaway from the information that you had access to? What kind of concerned you the most? If you’re going to put all that together into an expression of public interest, what went wrong? And we can talk about solutions later, but I just first want to understand what you think the Twitter files exposed in terms of an urgent problem that somehow at some point we’re going to have to figure out?

MATT TAIBBI: I think the most explosive stuff had to do with the relationship between these tech platforms and agencies like the FBI, the DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Internationally, where we have a story coming out just today about some Twitter files material about the Australian intelligence agencies talking to Twitter. We saw it from all over the world. There were these enforcement agencies funneling these massive amounts of content moderation requests to these companies. And not just Twitter, like a whole bunch of these firms. And this was done in a way that was increasingly formalized with time. We worked pretty hard to figure out what the formal line of communication was between all those actors in the United States was.

I think that’s very concerning because I think people until recently had this idea that they were looking at some kind of organic representation of reality when they went on to social media. Now we’re finding out that it’s sort of exquisitely stage-managed, that they can dial up the engagement for one account all the way up to everybody sees it and another account all the way down to zero. And that can be done at the behest of a government. And so there’s a lot of issues that are very troubling and haven’t really been discussed publicly. So I think all those things are very important.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Matt, do you have a sense of why Twitter pre-Elon Musk was just so accommodating to—and we can talk a little bit, not just intelligence agencies, but in a sense political actors within the White House, within mainline political parties. Did you ever get a sense, is this some kind of dance between the threat or specter of regulation or what social media platforms would argue is overregulation versus access? Are they kind of trading on, “Okay, we’re going to scratch the back of your national intelligence agency, but nod, nod, wink, wink, there’s a deal here, there’s a quid quo pro.” I’m just trying to understand where you think having looked at all these documents, where the impetus, the rationale for Twitter to do this. Because as you say, it’s such a distortion of the public image that they project, the sense of the digital public square of authentic conversation and dialogue. I mean, they must have known that they were running a risk.

MATT TAIBBI: Absolutely. It’s funny, in August of 2017, we saw that Twitter had been forwarded a paper written by an academic from Notre Dame named Danielle Citron and it was about censorship creep. And the paper basically detailed the history of how tech platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Google had been increasingly pressured to accept more and more government content moderation requests culminating in 2015 and 2016, when after bombings, terrorist bombings in Brussels and Paris, all of the companies got together and they signed—I forget what it was called. It was like an agreement about hate speech that sort of formalized certain rules about content release and increased the government’s role in having a say in what went online. This pattern was repeated in the United States. One of the reasons they were circulating that paper is because at that exact time, the Senate Intelligence Committee in the U.S. was putting a lot of pressure on Twitter to provide research about Russian bots and come up with certain kinds of numbers about how many Russian bots there had been on their platform.

And that was the carrot. They were asked to produce something. The stick was that there was this threat of regulation and taxation that was coming sort of at the same time. And Twitter understood this implicitly. I tried to sort of show that in a couple of the reports that this was what was going on internally. The company was very worried about this increased regulation. And you saw at first they did not want to be partners with the government in 2017. There was a lot of internal tension about this. But within two or three years they had given up and essentially they had embraced the idea of becoming full-fledged partners with the government, with civil society organizations, and even the news media in this kind of subterranean content moderation scheme. That’s just very complicated. And I think it’s not where they were intellectually—Silicon Valley was in a very different place 10 years ago. Now they’re in this other place. And that was what we were seeing in the documents.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I think one of the things maybe that surprised people the most, or really surprised me was the extent to which political appointees, political actors, had these special lines of communication into Twitter and were able to, if not as you say pull down content, turn those dials on content based on perceived public policy objectives of the government of the day, particularly the White House. What are your thoughts on that? And again, did Twitter try to draw any lines between let’s say, okay, a national Security Agency, maybe that has, I don’t know, some rationale that there’s an analyst who’s not a politician, who’s not a political appointee, who thinks that this information is dangerous or causing public harm versus a politician or political appointee pursuing a narrow partisan interest and then forcing that interest in a sense onto the platform to respond to?

MATT TAIBBI: They did differentiate, absolutely. And that was one of the really interesting subplots of the documents, or at least what we could glean from them. The Twitter executives in particular, the trust and safety department, which was led by a guy named Yoel Roth, they were very skeptical, for instance, of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which was a new agency, they didn’t like those folks a lot. There were some academic agencies that were connected to the House Intelligence Committee that they were very skeptical about. There were some think tanks they really didn’t like. There were some politicians that they internally were, they were very exhausted with having to deal with certain members of Congress who had a lot of requests. There was some humor when there was one senator who sent a list with a gigantic Excel spreadsheet with 300 names on it, basically saying, “Can you take all these down?”

I mean, it wasn’t that overt, but it was essentially what the ask was. But yes, there was a sliding scale of trust. They had a lot more belief and faith in the FBI and Homeland Security. Those were the two agencies that they felt confident in. And in the end, they settled on this system, which I thought was really interesting, which was if the agencies they didn’t like had a request, as long as it came through the FBI or the DHS, they would accept it. And this was sort of the big bargain that everybody came to in the end, which I thought was kind of fascinating. Machiavellian, cynical, there are so many different ways to look at that and parse that. But yes, absolutely, they were trying to distinguish it, but as time went on, you see those wrinkles were getting smoothed out. And yeah, that was very interesting.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Okay, thank you. It’s fascinating stuff and just to hear it from you, having done all the hard work at the coalface to try to extract the key information, it’s just invaluable to have this conversation with you, Matt. So let’s talk about what happened with your relationship with Elon Musk and Twitter. Because what initially started out as a very seemingly open, transparent, as you say, kind of hands-off attitude that Elon Musk and the new kind of Twitter took to this, that relationship began clearly to sour. What went on there? What happened? And then we can talk about where things ended up.

MATT TAIBBI: Well, I don’t know fully all the answers to those questions because I only know my side of the story. When I entered into the agreement to do this work—and I wasn’t involved in conversations with the other reporters. I mean, we didn’t go as a group to talk to anybody at Twitter. All these arrangements sort of happened separately. I mentioned before that normally when somebody comes to you with a story, you always want to understand what they want to get out of press coverage because you don’t want there to be misunderstandings down the road. And it’s also important for your understanding of what the material is. Why is this person coming forward? What does this material mean to them?

And I can’t say that I ever fully, completely grasped what the thinking was from the Twitter side. But as soon as I started seeing the material, I thought, it doesn’t matter. This stuff is so explosive, just purely as a news phenomenon, the mode of question, I think we can sideline that for now. And I’m just going to try to get as much as I can and see how much information there is to be gleaned from this. And I’ll worry about all that later. In hindsight, I do think that was the right move, but maybe there might have been a way to do things differently so that we could have extended the project a little bit more. But I, from the very beginning, thought the priority was to get as much stuff as you can because the public is curious about it. But over time, they started to become unhappy and I’m not really fully sure what that was all about.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Did they express what the unhappiness was about? Was it about the knock-on effects of how Twitter was being covered? As you say, they went into this seemingly eyes wide open, they knew what this information was. So did they expect something else to have happened as a result of these disclosures?

MATT TAIBBI: I don’t know. I mean, clearly there were negative consequences for them for doing the story. I think there were advertiser boycotts. I don’t know whether they were directly tied to the Twitter files, but I’m sure it didn’t help. There were probably all sorts of people in government who weren’t happy with this stuff going on. There were relationships that had to be strained as a result of this reporting. There were people still at the company whose names were coming out in some of these emails, and that had to be stressful internally. Elon was meeting with people like John Podesta, who was one of the subjects of some of these stories. So it had to be difficult in a lot of different levels that I didn’t hear about. And I also thought, what really, I didn’t want to ask about, frankly. That was on them.

If they had a problem with this or this was creating problems internally, all that meant, as far as I understood, was that this project was probably going to be finite. It wasn’t going to go on forever. But the more concrete issue that we eventually ran into was a dispute between Substack and Twitter, and I don’t even know the full story there, but what happened was we woke up one morning and the Substack links weren’t being shared on Twitter or they were being throttled down. And because I’m a Substack contributor, that was a major problem for me. And Elon and I kind of had a difference of opinion about that. And that was it. I was out of the project at that point.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So again, this is fascinating because in the end, the breakup seemed to somehow happen, not because of the Twitter files, but because of some perceived maybe threat that Twitter felt Substack represented because Substack had made some internal changes in terms of how its content was being presented that could be said to be Twitter-like. I mean, is this just as simple as, I don’t know, a kind of commercial dispute that then escalated and had collateral effects, which was you were out of the project and Twitter files to a large extent kind of wound down?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, on the surface, that’s the explanation. Maybe that’s what it really was. I don’t know. But it felt a little abrupt to me. But I went to Elon with a question at one point and basically said, and I’m only disclosing this because he did, “What would you have me do? I mean, if I’m at Substack, I can’t really continue doing this.” And—

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: And just for people to understand, I mean, this is how you make your living as a journalist. So when links are not being shared on Twitter and you’re doing all this work on the Twitter files, you’re in a sense, well, not that you’re uncompensated, but you have a way to make a living. And that living in a sense is now being threatened by the person and the company that brought you into this partnership. I mean, I’ll just speak for you, Matt. It sounds a bit abusive.

MATT TAIBBI: It was a little weird, yeah. Especially since the implication of the Twitter files was that we’re being advocates for free speech, but this was kind of a violation of basic net neutrality ideas. And I did not see this coming. I didn’t even think of it as a potential problem. And when it did come and when I asked what should I do about this, the answer was, “Well, come and be a subscriber at Twitter.” Twitter was developing this sort of Substack-like feature, and I thought that would be a disaster because we’re already getting killed. Every time I turned on the internet, I was being accused of being a lapdog for Elon Musk, which again, I thought was worth it. I was willing to take as much abuse as possible for this material.

But this was kind of a bridge too far. I mean, I can’t go and have a financial relationship with the company, especially if I’ve already seen that they’re willing to mess with the content and throttle it up or down. So I thought I was trying to protect the story and he didn’t see it that way. And we just sort of went in opposite directions. But tellingly, the project hasn’t continued with other reporters really since then. I mean there’s been a few things, but I don’t really know what’s going on there.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah. And where’s the dispute right now between Twitter and Substack? I mean, again, that seems to kind of come up in the news cycle and then it’s kind of disappeared. And then from what I can see, there are lots of Substack links on Twitter and vice versa. I guess, I don’t know, it’s all conjecture, but it is amazing. And here I kind of salute Elon Musk. This guy is exposed to so much regulation across so many of his businesses. If you think of his solar panels, his cars, SpaceX, if the government ever wanted to tighten a screw on somebody, they probably have a million pressure points to make him feel some pain. Not on Twitter, but on one of his other related businesses. So in some ways I find it remarkable when these people that are so exposed in a sense to the pressures that vested interests, especially in the state, can bring to bear on you, and then they still go ahead and do these things. There’s something very courageous to it.

But at the end of day, I also remind myself that these are people that are very exposed, that have these complex relationships with the state on a whole bunch of other files that are pretty important to them.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, it’s very difficult to know who’s pressuring him to do what. I mean, that’s one of the reasons, you’re exactly right. At the very beginning of the project, I thought, this is incredible. Who else would do this? He’s either crazy or incredibly interesting or a combination of those things. If I were his lawyer, I don’t even know what I would do. The idea of having this journalist just roaming free in an office and looking through all your files, think about all the liability issues that could come up as a result of something like that. Being indifferent to the degree that he appeared to be was amazing to watch. So I’m totally in agreement with you.

But this dispute with Substack, I don’t think it’s a small thing. It may be a small thing financially, because Substack’s not really a competitor to Twitter in any real way. I mean, at least not yet. I don’t see that happening. But it is a place where it’s one of the last bastions of independent media where there’s a whole bunch of non-mainstream journalists on this one platform. And a lot of those people were very ardent supporters of the new Twitter and Elon Musk and all that. And they’re still being throttled on the platform. I mean, I’m getting complaints all the time from Substack writers about how difficult things are. And I don’t know what to think about that. If your approach to business ends up resulting in this kind of impact on independent media, how are we to interpret that? It’s a difficult thing.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting because that’s what I wanted to go with you next because you were back on stage, I’m thinking back to November on our debate on mainstream media, and at that time in that debate, you were good at eliding my questions. Now I understand why. But I was trying to understand, help the audience understand where did Twitter fit on that spectrum itself? And I think we all because of Musk’s own seeming commitment to free speech, and then the action, as you say, of creating the Twitter files project, it seemed definitively non-mainstream. But following the dispute with Substack, the extent to which the Twitter files get shut down, I don’t know, Matt, it seems like Twitter’s evidencing some of those negative characteristics that we know from how mainstream media behaves, a kind of group think, a monopolistic view of information in the public square. Do you have a feeling that that’s somehow happened, that there’s been some kind of shift in Twitter over the last six months as this company really does struggle through a very difficult period?

MATT TAIBBI: I don’t know, it’s difficult to say, because again, I’m not really privy to what the financial pressures are and what the solutions to those pressures might be. But clearly, the old Twitter had evolved into something that was sort of massively enhancing the visibility of traditional mainstream press at the detriment of independent media. And that was also going on at Facebook, and especially Google. I think Google was probably worse than the other two platforms in this respect. But yes, and when Musk came on, I think there was a lot of hope among independent journalists that we’re finally going to be allowed to be on an even playing field. And that’s kind of what it felt like for a while. I mean, the Twitter files felt like a blow back in that direction. And then you started to get these criticisms from certain quarters about how the Twitter files are a limited hangout, it’s something that looks like it’s rebellious, but actually it really isn’t, it’s a setup.

I never really saw it that way. But here I am on the outside now. So I tried to play this as down the line as I could, and doing that proved not to be viable in the long run. So what does that tell you? I think the answer to your question is somewhere in between. I mean, Twitter is—my conclusion at the end of the day with all this stuff is that whenever you have owners with these platforms, no matter what happens, eventually there’s going to be thumbs on the scale in some direction or another. And there’s just no avoiding that. And some people are going to have their speech suppressed and others are going to have it amplified, and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you have kind of a suppression-resistant mechanism like a protocol like email. I don’t know. I don’t know a way around it.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yeah, no, and I just think corporations will behave like corporations, and they’re self-interested, they’re often aggressive and they like to acquire stuff, they like to dominate. And often those values are, they’re hard to reconcile with, as you say, the more freewheeling open discourse that is what we hope the kind of foundations of a democratic society that is in fact free and open. Just in our remaining moments, Matt, I want to just talk to you because catch up again from the debate six months ago. I say this with no relish at all, but I have a feeling that the mainstream media has really struggled over this last period. There seems to be almost a kind of narrowing of what is tolerated as conventional thinking and opinion. And Twitter files was part of that and the blowback that you got. But all the revelations that have come up around the so-called Russiagate, and the extent to which that really does look like disinformation, not peddled by Russians, peddled by a domestic U.S. political actor and his or her political party.

We now have, again, serial denials seemingly in mainstream media around Hunter Biden and the revelations that have come out of the U.S. Congress of wire transfers and bank accounts and millions of dollars flowing to individual members of the Biden family. But I don’t know, Matt, it’s so frustrating. All this seems so hived off. It seems like there’s one set of media outlets that cover these types of things with relish, maybe sometimes with too much innuendo and speculation, and then a lot of the rest of the mainstream press, which is hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. It’s a bizarre circumstance we find ourselves in, I think going into the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

MATT TAIBBI: I totally agree. I think you really nailed it. It’s not a pleasant development. I mean, I’m an independent journalist and I want the mainstream media to succeed. I think it needs to. The countries are not healthy if they don’t have a functioning mass media and nobody believes them. And I think increasingly that’s kind of the problem, is there’s this lingering worsening trust issue that can only be addressed by dealing with some of the factual issues. And you talk about the Russia story, there was that massive Columbia Journalism Review expose, 24,000 words. That’s a lot of errors to address. The Twitter files exposed a few of those things. There’s the Hunter Biden story. And the thing with that is not even so much whether or not that story was important or whether it was terribly damning, it was more the behavior of the media during that story that was really troubling. Not just turning a blind eye to it being suppressed, but also as we found out, planning these what they call a tabletop exercise to “How should we all respond when this story comes out?”

That is a terrible look for media because we should never be on the side of politicians who are planning for a negative story. That’s just so strange. So I think these corporate media organizations are stuck because they have an audience and they know how to retain some semblance of it, but those techniques that they’ve used to retain that audience have gotten them into so much trouble that the trend that you’ve talked about in the last six months, it’s only going to get worse I think. We’ve seen it, Buzzfeed, Vice, I mean these big companies are sort of disappearing. And I think it’s going to lead to a rethink of how corporate media works.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So this is critical because you’re helping me because I’ve really, I’ve struggled to think, well, why are they behaving this way? This kind of shutting down, not simply a debate, but the shutting down of the conveyance of information that is in fact factual, like this is verified information. You saw the emails and the memos, they exist as a physical record that the House Committee, you may think the House of Republicans are insane, but they have, from the Treasury Department, factual records of bank transactions and shell companies. And yet it is as if the information itself isn’t even flowing from legitimate sources into the press. And is it to protect the audience, Matt? Is it that they worry they’re going to lose audience if they’re exposed to alternative facts that don’t conform to their theory of how the world is?

I don’t know. I just struggle to think of how journalists can sit there and just ignore facts. I mean, isn’t that the whole purpose of journalism, to address facts, to take them seriously, to spend the time and effort to verify them and then bring them to the public so the public and make up their own mind?

MATT TAIBBI: You would think that would be the purpose of it. But I think, and they took what was a, I think, relatively simple job, I mean, the model you just explained, which is we get a bunch of facts, we sort of figure out what they are, we give them to the audience, and then it’s up to them to deal with it. That’s a hard job because you got to do all the confirming and all the phone calls, but conceptually it’s not that difficult. But they massively complicated it by creating this new revenue model, which is this sort of audience optimization form of media where you’ve trained an audience to expect a certain narrative and to expect that they’re going to be told a story that is consistent on a day-to-day basis. The Republicans are the bad guys, the Democrats are the good guys, and that’s the angle from which we’re going to approach everything more or less from certain media organizations.

So even the story you’re just talking about with the House Committee and the financial transactions, the New York Times did that story. They got a lot of those facts in the story. But if you look at the headline, it’s something like “House Committee Finds no Wrongdoing.”

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: By President Biden, right?

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah, exactly.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: That’s not the point. There are 11 family members, including grandchildren that have received hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of dollars of cash transfers from shell companies.

MATT TAIBBI: Yeah. But they clearly felt pressure to present the information some other way. And look, they’re making a lot of money with subscriptions. They have the largest subscriber base in the world, I think. And so that works for them on some level. But at the same time, while you’re doing that, you’re also alienating this other potential audience base. And I think it has this downstream effect where people eventually, they start comparing notes and it reaches a critical mass for audiences. Even the ones that like you, they stop kind of believing in you deep down inside. And that’s a terrible place for the press to be. I mean, once you lose trust, it’s over. I mean, it’s like a run on a bank. It gets wiped out in a second. So yeah, I don’t know where they go from here, but it is difficult.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: So just in our final question here, looking forward to the upcoming presidential electoral cycle in 2024, what do you think happens? Is it just, as you say, this declining trust, a public square that’s either rife with disinformation or the absence of facts because people are living in these hermetically sealed truth bubbles, I don’t know, on either side of the ideological or cultural divide? And then independent journalists, as you say, a lot of them at Substack, increasingly under pressure from possibly predatory marketing practices by the platforms.

 I don’t know, Matt. It starts to get pretty grim here. What the heck? I mean, do we just go to ChatGPT and punch in, I don’t know, tell me what the weather is today, and be happy with that? 

MATT TAIBBI: That’s a whole separate discussion because—we’ll have to talk about that one another time. But yeah, no, this fragmenting, this chaos, I think it’s very difficult and very stressful for people to look at the information landscape and see so many choices and not know whom to trust. When you talk about the election, I remember when I first started working in the U.S. for kind of big-time mainstream journalism, one of my first jobs was traveling around following the John Kerry campaign. And it was amazing to watch because you would sit in a room with 20 journalists, and these were the people who were basically deciding who was going to be president. They would sit around and talk about which candidates were, what was the word they used, electable or viable. And then they would sort of snort at the other ones, and those were the ones that would get bad coverage.

And they had so much authority with audiences, and there were so little, comparatively, alternative media. Remember this was at the time when alternative newspapers were dying in big cities, so now it was like they had a monopoly everywhere. It’s been completely reversed. That entire situation is gone. Even that phenomenon of campaign journalists thinking that they have a say in how people vote, that’s been exposed and people are wise to it. And audiences are very, very attuned to how things are covered on the campaign trail. So it becomes very difficult to sort out who’s going to win, who has a chance, what polls do you believe. I mean it’s the Wild West right now. I mean, even in the middle of it, I don’t understand it. So I don’t know how ordinary people deal with it, now. 

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, I think one solution is to read you on Substack and—

MATT TAIBBI: I love it. Thank you.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: No, seriously, Matt. I mean it, there are few people that I think have your kind of intestinal fortitude and intellectual courage to genuinely be independent. And you’d be the first to admit no one gets it right all the time, but it’s the ethos that you approach your work and the kind of public spiritedness, which you’ve asserted your own journalism and the role of independent journalism in society today. It’s critical. You’re a rare bird, Matt, so we always like having you here and making people aware of the important work that you’re doing.

MATT TAIBBI: Excellent. Well, thank you so much. Wish my mother could hear that though. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it, and thanks for having me on.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hey, thanks for your time today.

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