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The Twitter Files drop
Matt Taibbi, the star Substacker and former liberal hero of Rolling Stone, announced recently he was taking his latest scoop to the exclusive domain of Twitter. It was, as Taibbi himself acknowledged, a somewhat unusual move, but readers had to trust him. “Very shortly, I’m going to begin posting a long thread of information on Twitter, at my account, @mtaibbi. This material is likely to get a lot of attention. I will absolutely understand if subscribers are angry that it is not appearing here on Substack first. I’d be angry, too,” Taibbi wrote on December 2nd. “Those of you who’ve been here for years know how seriously I take my obligation to this site’s subscribers. On this one occasion, I’m going to have to simply ask you to trust me.”
And so came the Twitter files, a thread of at least 36 tweets on internal documents Taibbi had obtained from the company. The revelations offered a further window into Twitter’s decision, in October 2020, to suppress a New York Post story about the scandalous contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop. The Post, Murdoch-owned, was strongly supportive of Donald Trump at the time, but the contents of the laptop were legitimate. Senior management at Twitter decided, without consulting CEO Jack Dorsey, to remove links to the story and mark it as “unsafe.” They even blocked transmission via direct message. The claim at the time was that the story violated Twitter’s “hacked” materials guidelines, though there was no evidence the material found on Hunter Biden’s laptop was stolen—and it’s not as if hacks can’t be the basis of genuine news stories. The intelligence community condemned the Post story as further Russian disinformation and many mainstream reporters and pundits cheered on Twitter’s decision to block the story and even lock the Post’s Twitter account. The reasoning was that the social media giant was doing what Facebook should have done in 2016, when Russian operatives allegedly interfered with the election on behalf of Trump, damaging Hillary Clinton.
The Hunter Biden laptop story was not Russian disinformation. Twitter’s decision was disturbing, an example of the extraordinary power social media companies wield over the public square and how attempts to manage speech can backfire dramatically. There was nothing fake about Hunter Biden’s laptop or the materials inside of it. Major left-leaning outlets like the New York Times and New York Magazine would later verify them for the millions of readers who will never trust the right-wing Post. In the Twitter files, which were apparently leaked to Taibbi from Elon Musk, the company’s polarizing new CEO, the deliberations of the decision are laid bare. Few come out looking good except Ro Khanna, the progressive California congressman, who called the suppression of the Post story a “violation of the First Amendment principles” because “a journalist should not be held accountable for the illegal actions of the source unless they actively aided the hack.” Indeed.
Journalists at large news organization, long contemptuous of Taibbi, dismissed the Twitter files entirely, and coverage was scant beyond a Times story that existed to account for, in forgettable fashion, the media contretemps. There was no building on Taibbi’s reporting. In part, it seemed, this was Musk’s fault because he declined to make the Twitter files available to Times reporters. NBC’s Ben Collins mocked Taibbi, who has had a long and decorated career as an investigative journalist, as little more than a “Substack man.” Taibbi’s Substack grosses more than $1 million annually. He exists in a tier Collins will never reach.
Many readers here are likely in Collins’ camp—not that they are skeptical of Substack but of Taibbi himself, who was beloved in the 2000s for his reporting on the financial crisis and his fulminations against Wall Street and is now viewed as an apostate, a handmaiden for the hard right because he sides against liberals on various culture war matters and was a long-running skeptic of Russiagate. Taibbi is reflexively anti-establishment; he dislikes Trump, but saves plenty of bile for the anti-Trumpers, and he’s lumped in with Glenn Greenwald and Bari Weiss in the darker reaches of the left-liberal imagination. My own view of Taibbi is that he still has many interesting things to say—his weekly segment with the novelist Walter Kirn is a worthy listen—but he does not always harness his formidable talents and resources in the best way. He was an early voice on the excesses of woke discourse and he periodically offers necessary counter-narratives. He is not, though, the investigator he used to be. He is not writing enough deeply reported features on how power works in America. He lacks a greater political project. He is someone who could tell us a great deal about courts, prisons, financial institutions, and enormous federal bureaucracies. He can tell us about what really happens in Congress when few are paying attention. It’s not that his Substack is absent of this work; there simply is not the quantity, the relentless beat reporting that could force change. Imagine, for a moment, a reporter of Taibbi’s ilk turned loose on Baltimore or Cleveland or Queens County.
I told Taibbi I disagreed with his decision to publish the Twitter files as a tweet thread and not as a full-fledged story on his Substack. I told him what I’ll tell you here: no source should dictate to a reporter where the story is placed and what form it takes. All reporters make compromises when information is leaked and the leaker can have significant influence over how a story appears in print. Though Taibbi did not confirm this publicly, the conditions placed on his reporting were clear enough. Musk wanted the story as an exclusive for Twitter. Taibbi complied. His own reward seemed to be massive engagement on the platform, with his initial tweet liked almost 400,000 times and retweeted more than 150,000 times. Each tweet racked up tens of thousands of retweets and Taibbi’s own Twitter following soared. He added hundreds of thousands of new followers in less than a day and quickly surpassed 1 million on the platform.
One trouble with publishing a story exclusively with Twitter—and not organizing it in conventional article form—is that it is more difficult to access and read. The Twitter files must be searched for on Taibbi’s Twitter account, where he will invariably tweet about other matters, forcing the thread further down the page. It is an unwieldy way to consume information, especially for those who are unfamiliar with Twitter. Twitter functions well as a place to share tidbits of information and analysis. The format does not work for longer accounts of the news. It has an ephemeral nature that limits its impact if it’s not paired with a web article. Most effective are threads that explain reported pieces and link to them. Taibbi could have done this, posting a long thread that took his readers back to his Substack.
But that wasn’t the deal and Musk wanted a star reporter to do public relations for the platform he now owns. Taibbi punched back at his critics, pointing out many of them have carried water for the FBI, CIA, DOJ, and various politicians, taking leaked information and publishing it in such a way that makes the source look far better than whomever is being targeted. He is correct on that front. But he sought to go further, arguing that what he was doing—carrying forward documents leaked by Musk, on Musk’s terms—was fundamentally different. “This is exposing secrets. That are true,” Taibbi told me in a Twitter direct message. “In defiance of the authorities. With the whole media world against it. As opposed to the exact opposite. But sure, they’re the same.”
“If the media world were more supportive it would be fine? The issue I keep coming back to is the source demanded you not publish on your Substack,” I wrote back to him. “And that strikes me as a PR tie-in for Twitter.”
“Assange was hailed as a hero for stealing documents and rightly so because we don’t care where they come from if they’re real,” Taibbi replied. “But I’m supposed to have qualms because somebody bought some in this case?”
I told him the problem, again, was that the source had the power to dictate the form and venue of publication, and his explanation to his readers was too vague. He said it was vague because he was honoring an agreement with a source. We agreed to disagree and moved on. As usual, Taibbi’s critics were half-right, their indignation tangled up with their own anger toward a quondam idol. It is dubious that Taibbi entered into an agreement with Musk to publish documents exclusively on Musk’s platform. Taibbi should have pushed back much harder, demanding the Twitter files appear on his Substack. If Musk refused, Taibbi could tell him to go elsewhere. Someone else, certainly, could have done comparable work, curating documents and weaving together a compelling Twitter thread. It’s Musk’s prerogative to choose friendly journalists and writers for his leaks, just as it’s Taibbi’s prerogative to accept or decline them. Taibbi erred in accepting on terms so favorable to his source.
Taibbi’s many critics, of course, must get real about how power works. When someone like Preet Bharara, the charismatic former U.S. attorney, leaks aggressively to elite news outlets to paint his prosecution targets in a damaging light, journalists should understand what is happening. They are doing the work of the Department of Justice; they are serving, effectively, as arms of the prosecution. (Leaks from the Southern District have tailed off dramatically since Bharara departed. This is not a coincidence.) It is no great coup to secure a “scoop” from a politician, either. The politician chooses you because you’ll be the best person to disseminate their point of view. That is all. Politicians don’t scout for talent. They scout for marks. Just as Musk, perhaps, found his, the DOJ and the FBI and the Democratic Party always find theirs. Accepting a leak is fine, even necessary. Just know the reality of the transaction, and that there always is one.
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