Power Punk: Matt Taibbi

Downtown bomb-thrower, Gen-X John Reed, better read than Red: Pissed-off prodigal son returns to targets Wesley Clark, Tom Friedman.

The author of the New York Press ‘ “Cage Match” column, a weekly rant against the media, politics and everyone else who stands in his way, doesn’t try to rile people. “The columns are supposed to be funny,” said 33-year-old Matt Taibbi. “I don’t enter into it with the idea of attacking people. Honest. Tom Friedman is funny. My writing on him may be withering and vicious, but it’s a byproduct of how lame he is.”

Mr. Friedman, take heart: You’re not alone here. Other Taibbi-branded “lame byproducts” have included the White House press corps-which Mr. Taibbi suggested be “herded into a cargo plane, flown to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over the North Atlantic”-and Wesley Clark.

In a cover story for The Nation on the general who aspires to be President, Mr. Taibbi wrote that it troubled him that anyone in the anti-war crowd could support the general, because “it seemed to me that no person who found the Iraq war morally repugnant could have gone on television and talked sunnily about how this or that weapon was ravaging Iraqi defenses.

“I remember watching Clark on CNN,” Mr. Taibbi continued, “and at one point he was actually playing with a model of an A-10 tank-killer airplane, whooshing it back and forth over a map of Iraq, like a child playing with a new toy on Christmas morning. A person who was genuinely opposed to the war as wrongful killing would be sick even thinking about such a thing.”

New York Press may not be the in-flight magazine of Air Force One, but Mr. Taibbi picks his targets wisely, and he’s getting notice for it. In his nine months as Alexander Cockburn’s replacement, Mr. Taibbi’s become the kind of flame-throwing upstart his predecessor once was. But he has no alliances, no political fellowships to rein in his voluble personality.

That’s made him the signature writer of the paper revamped by editor in chief Jeff Koyen and Alexander Zaitchik-their steady, dead-shot performer. “He’s aggressive and intelligent,” said Mr. Koyen when asked why he took on the columnist. “But he backs up his stuff. There’s a very subtle argument under a pretty aggressive tone.”

Mr. Taibbi splits time between Buffalo and an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. He grew up in Boston, Mass., and went to Bard College. Now he’s back in town, a pissed-off prodigal son, having spent 10 years overseas after college, building up his ammunition abroad, coming back fully armed and angry.

Over there, he wrote for the Moscow Times , and also played pro baseball for the Red Army and Spartak in a Russian professional league and forward for a basketball team in the Mongolian Basketball Association. In 1997, he and a partner set up a paper called the eXile that stressed both aggressive political reporting and practical jokes. One early favorite: approaching Mikhail Gorbachev as a representative of the New York Jets, telling the former Soviet leader that then-coach Bill Parcells wanted him on his staff as a “perestroika coordinator.” When Gorby’s people bit, the eXile ran the entire “via facsimile” correspondence in the paper.

Now that he’s back in the States, he plans to marry his fiancée, Masha Hedberg, and settle into his new gig. “I’m a writer, right?” Mr. Taibbi said. “Obviously, what I want to do is write well.”

– Sridhar Pappu