Backgrounder: Matt Taibbi

In the back of an East Village Starbucks, Matt Taibbi blends in with the metropolitan mix of Friday Frappuccino aficionados, occupied by a book and coffee. But the expatriate-journalist-turned-New-York-writer is bored with what he sees and is eager to get back to his adventurous days.

Matt Taibbi has traveled most of Eastern Europe — sometimes as a professional athlete, most times as a journalist — and co-founded The eXile, a bi-weekly free newspaper based in Moscow and published in English. More recently, Taibbi journeyed across the United States to follow the 2004 presidential primaries. He wrote Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats, a diary about the election and his trip published by New Press that is scheduled to come out in March 2005.

“I thought that covering the election was going to be more interesting,” Taibbi said. “Nobody says anything risky ever.”

Taibbi isn’t scared to take a risk. But reporting wasn’t always at the forefront. It was a matter of exploring, then writing. He advises beginner journalists to hit the road.

“Unless you’re Nabokov, it’s going to be a long slot” because it takes a long time to get into the magazine world, he offered. Plus, Taibbi continued, traveling is more fun.

“I took a pretty unorthodox route,” he admits, retracing the journalistic steps from his Boston home that brought him to Rolling Stone, The New York Press and The Nation, among others. In his senior stretch of college, Taibbi ditched Bard University’s literature department for Leningrad State University to be in the land of his favorite writers. At the end of the year, Taibbi turned to the familiar.

“I didn’t know what else to do when I graduated,” he said. Taibbi’s parents are television veterans from CNN and NBC. However, they advised their son not to follow in their footsteps, but writing came naturally to him.

Today, Taibbi has found a way to get paid, to his surprise, for his compositions.

“I was kind of a nerd growing up,” he remembered, and identified with Russia and its writers — Nikolai Gogol, M. Saltikov and Leo Tolstoy are some favorites. Taibbi wrote short stories and imagined being a novelist, a humorist, like his Soviet mentors.

“When I was in college, I had no life at all. I wrote a lot. Now, all worthless,” he joked.

Taibbi practiced his now refined humor and sarcasm by sending fan letters to major corporations, cheering their product and how significant it was in his life. They would respond with souvenirs, like a White Castle T-shirt.

They didn’t get the joke.

Realizing that there was more work where there were fewer journalists, Taibbi, who is fluent in Russian, trekked to Uzbekistan in 1992. He stayed there for six months until he was “kicked out” of the country for writing about the president’s steps to suppress political parties. Taibbi then took on the job of sports editor at The Moscow Times, but the genre was too restrictive.

So, Taibbi turned to sports. He became one of the first Americans to play on a professional Russian baseball team, Spartak Moscow. He joined the league for a year as a centerfielder, and later went on to professional basketball in Mongolia. “It’s like Indiana there,” Taibbi explained. The Mongolians are big basketball fans, and the American played for six months as the foreign star, while periodically writing for the Mongolian National New Agency, Montsame. He then became ill with pneumonia and had to be airlifted to Russia.

When Taibbi went back to The Moscow Times newsroom, he grew frustrated that the paper “wouldn’t allow you to use interesting or funny language,” he said. Taibbi joined forces with Mark Ames to start a publication that gave them free range: The eXile. Taibbi describes The eXile as a take on Spy magazine — satire and fun that cuts deep.

At The eXile, Taibbi was part of a three-member staff and wrote upwards of 8,000 words per issue on different topics in a range of formats. “Almost nobody gets the experience I had,” Taibbi reminisced. He was able to write whatever he wanted for a community that cared about what the newspaper had to say. He wrote fiction, non-fiction, parodies, dialogues and more. They played jokes on the powerful, like posing as representatives of the New York Jets and calling Soviet President Gorbachev to offer him $150,000 to give their team a pep talk. The Jets were rebuilding, and Russia was going through perestroika. Gorbachev agreed before realizing it was all a prank.

Taibbi stayed with The eXile for six years, and the team published a book, The eXile: Sex, Drugs, and Libel in the New Russia, that documented their high jinks.

In 2001, Taibbi found his way to Buffalo, New York, to start The Beast with another eXile member. They tried to recreate the success of The eXile, but ultimately had to leave for economic reasons. “Running a business and writing is too much,” he expressed regretfully.

Then, freelancing overtook Taibbi’s life, but now it was for the big dogs: The Nation, Playboy and others. But, life as a magazine writer is quite different for Taibbi. “For me, it’s a career failure. I wanted to be a novelist,” he recalled. “It’s a lot of work. I mean, not in a good way,” Taibbi said. Every article requires so much legwork, he explained, that writing it up is the least stressful part.

Taibbi landed a permanent gig as a New York Press columnist and is on contract with Rolling Stone.

“Basically, what I do now is offer my opinions,” he said. “Being a columnist is really difficult because you can become repetitive really fast.” So, Taibbi mixes it up, as expected, with fictional columns, serious essays and phony transcripts.

“Most columnists fall into self parody after a while. I’m sure it will happen to me too,” he supposed.

But for now, Taibbi’s popularity rises. He considers opening another newspaper one day and hopes to work abroad again soon.

Riva Froymovich is a student in the NYU Department of Journalism.