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The Sound of Silence

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Say what you will about Matt Taibbi's piece in Rolling Stone on the evils of Goldman, Sachs & Co., one thing is for certain -- this story has legs. Long ones. Like a vampire squid's tentacles, perhaps. (Sorry, we couldn't resist.) Nearly three weeks after hitting the newsstands, Taibbi's invective continued to ignite debate about everything from the criminality of Wall Street to the rise of a new anti-Semitism to the role of financial journalism in a post-bubble world. The piece is so ubiquitous, so part of the conversation, that it recently made its way into a page one story in The New York Times on Goldman's second-quarter results, conveniently allowing the Gray Lady to sling mud at the firm while keeping its own steely tentacles relatively clean. Even Eliot Spitzer got into the act, calling Taibbi's story "good journalism and good reading."

But as bloggers, twitterers, disgraced former governors and other pundits dissected the piece's foibles, follies and ultimate value, one quarter remained uncharacteristically quiet: the Columbia Journalism Review's online business desk, The Audit. Day after day, we logged on to CJR to read The Audit's take on a piece of long-form journalism (a rare commodity these days) that had been lauded by some for its accessibility -- inaccuracies and exaggerations be damned -- and derided by others as mere worthless polemic. And day after day, we were disappointed and then mystified.

For a site that has repeatedly railed about the business press' failure to take on big financial institutions, its lack of comment on a major piece that did just that -- in spades -- was puzzling. Taibbi's story and the buzz around it has raised just the sort of questions you would think the folks up at Columbia would want to analyze with rigor; namely, is it OK to get some facts wrong, sling around unsubstantiated charges and throw away even the pretense of balance, as long as you believe the big picture you're painting is more or less correct? Many bloggers noted that while they didn't agree with all of Taibbi's points, they were on board with his larger argument that Goldman is way too powerful, way too politically connected, successful, creepy and greedy. So why quibble with his reporting?

The piece also seemed tailor-made for The Audit because, at least from this outsider's point of view, the site and the story appeared to share the same politics.

Still, nothing was forthcoming -- a state of affairs that got stranger when an Audit piece on the Goldman Sachs code-theft case linked to two stories on the powers of "Government Sachs" but made no mention of Taibbi's blockbuster. Now, we understand that The Audit isn't necessarily comprehensive. But we were also tempted to speculate that the silence may stem from the fact that Goldman is one of The Audit's backers. In fact, reacting to the brouhaha over The Washington Post's fundraising "salons," The Audit recently disclosed that it holds semiannual breakfasts for its funders and potential funders, including Goldman and Citigroup Inc.

That could make it decidedly awkward for the site to deal with Taibbi's takedown. It's a tough situation. Praise Taibbi and piss off a funder; tear the story apart and look like its mouthpiece. Still, The Audit has not shied from criticizing Goldman in the past; it even got into a public spat with Goldman spokesman Lucas van Praag over its take on the firm's role in the AIG bailout and how it benefited from it.

Audit writer Ryan Chittum said his site's silence had nothing to do with Goldman but everything to do with the fact that Rolling Stone was slow to put the entire Taibbi piece online. (It was a complaint lodged by many bloggers, who apparently did not want to shell out $5.95 at the newsstand. How sad for magazines.) But he also said he would include the Taibbi story in a roundup of Goldman's earnings coverage that would run the next day. In that post, Chittum calls the piece "a fascinating-if-hyperbolic polemic" but does not address some of the journalistic issues surrounding it, such as the value of throwing up lots of different charges to see what ultimately sticks.

Too bad. What better place to debate such topics than CJR? And what better time than now, as our ever more complex, conflict-ridden world makes spinning conspiracy theories such a seductive exercise? We can even spin a new one about Goldman, as in, it's so powerful it's even jammed its blood funnel into CJR! Hyperbolic, but hey, you get our point.

Yvette Kantrow is executive editor of The Deal.