Matt Taibbi vs the SEC

August 18, 2011
Matt Taibbi's 5,000-word exposé of the SEC's document-shredding is a magnificent piece of journalism, and is the first and last place that you should look to understand what's going on here.

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Matt Taibbi’s 5,000-word exposé of the SEC’s document-shredding is a magnificent piece of journalism, and is the first and last place that you should look to understand what’s going on here. After the piece came out, Senator Chuck Grassley — who’s quoted in the article — made growling noises in the general direction of the SEC, which is now very much on the back foot. But all the news and background that you need can and should be found in Taibbi’s article, rather than Grassley’s 325-word press release.

So how well is the mainstream media reporting this news? Everybody’s reporting Grassley’s statement, of course, as they should be. But the WSJ, Bloomberg, FT newspaper, and even Reuters make no mention of Taibbi or his article at all. The NYT is better, providing a link to the article and saying that the document disposal was “first reported by Rolling Stone magazine on Wednesday”, but the link feels grudging and there’s nothing which indicates that if you follow the link you’ll get a much fuller and richer version of the story than you’ll get from the NYT. Only FT Alphaville draws a direct connection between Taibbi’s article and Grassley’s statement and really encourages you to read the piece.

Blogs and Twitter, of course, are much better. Zero Hedge, Dealbreaker, Naked Capitalism, Daily Intelligencer, Clusterstock, Atlantic Wire, and many others took Taibbi’s article seriously, linked to it prominently, devoted entire posts to it, and mentioned him by name rather than just referencing the name of his publication. The Huffington Post gave the article its standard aggregation treatment, and Arianna tweeted it personally.

As for the substance of the article, Taibbi makes a very strong case. Only Matt Levine has attempted a defense of the SEC, and he says that the agency’s policy of destroying files was “publicly announced”, when in fact it was a secret internal policy which the SEC wouldn’t even admit to when asked point-blank by the National Archives and Records Administration, the agency in charge of all federal document-disposal decisions. Levine says that “the trouble with Big Brother was too much all-pervading surveillance, not too little”; the financial crisis, I think, proves him clearly wrong on that front. The SEC in particular was toothless and ineffective for the entire Bush Administration, effectively giving banks and other fraudsters a green light to do anything they wanted. And its response to these latest allegations has been distressingly defensive and obfuscatory.

I hope this turns into a big scandal and causes significant changes at the SEC — although I’m not holding my breath. But if it does, Taibbi will deserve a huge amount of the credit. And judging by today’s coverage, he won’t get it from the mainstream financial press.


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