Earlier this week, New York magazine’s Andrew Rice reported that journalist Matt Taibbi had left First Look Media, the journalism startup of eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar. Today four of Taibbi’s former colleagues reveal, in a detailed blog post published on First Look’s own site The Intercept, why exactly Taibbi left the company. It’s not pretty.
Omidyar hired Taibbi in February to establish and staff a digital magazine alongside The Intercept that would cover finance and politics. The project was far enough along to have a name—Racket—and a rough launch date of sometime this fall. From the beginning, his First Look colleagues say, Taibbi frequently clashed with upper management and openly resented the company’s byzantine internal politics, under which Omidyar himself was charged with authorizing itemized expense reports.
These tensions exploded earlier this month, after a female staffer leveled a complaint against Taibbi for his behavior:
These simmering problems came to a head this month when a Racket staffer complained to senior management that Taibbi had been verbally abusive and unprofessionally hostile, and that she felt the conduct may have been motivated, at least in part, by her gender. [First Look President John] Temple conducted an investigation, and First Look determined that while none of the alleged conduct rose to the level of legal liability, the grievance bolstered their case that Taibbi should not be the manager of Racket.
The lengthy post was written by Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, Jeremy Scahill and John Cook (a former editor of Gawker), who added that Taibbi was not alone in butting heads with First Look management. Editorial staffers and remotely-based management frequently argued, for instance, over “a confounding array of rules, structures, and systems imposed by Omidyar and other First Look managers,” including the “mandated use of a ‘responsibility assignment matrix” called a ‘RASCI,’ popular in business-school circles for managing projects.”
It was in this context that the unnamed staffer’s complaint against Taibbi, though not above the “level of legal liability,” deeply troubled both First Look’s president, John Temple, and its chief operations officer, Randy Ching. Earlier this month, Taibbi alleges, the pair acted to remove his managerial responsibilities—effectively hampering his ability to lead the project for which he’d been hired.
On October 10, according to Taibbi’s account, Temple and Ching told Taibbi that he would be immediately stripped of all managerial responsibilities pending their investigation. (First Look managers dispute this account, claiming that Taibbi was never stripped of any duties.) Taibbi was adamant that the complaint had no merit, and rejected any demotion or change in his responsibilities. On the day he was confronted by Temple and Ching, Taibbi left the office and—aside from one staff meeting he attended, after which he was instructed by Omidyar not to come back until they reached agreement on his role—did not return.
The post’s description of First Look’s internal turmoil confirms months of rumors within New York’s media industry, from which the startup has drawn dozens of well-known writers and editors. It’s not clear, the post concludes, what will happen to the staffers Taibbi personally hired for Racket.
Update: As highlighted in the comments below, Racket’s executive editor Alex Pareene provided a statement to his First Look colleagues after the post was published:
Working with Matt Taibbi was one of the best experiences of my career and I’d be thrilled to have the opportunity to do so again. From my perspective, the management of First Look Media repeatedly took incidents that should’ve been minor hiccups of the sort experienced at any media company or startup and, through incompetence, escalated them into full-blown crises. Having worked closely with Matt since he hired me, I witnessed no behavior on his part that I would characterize as “abusive,” and his hostility was reserved for his superiors, not his subordinates. He certainly was no more “combative” than any number of other editors I’ve worked with, including Intercept editor-in-chief John Cook. I also categorically reject the allegation that there was a gendered component to his managerial issues. We were successfully working to address those issues when First Look once again stepped in to fuck things up. I regret that the world won’t get a chance to see Matt Taibbi’s Racket.
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