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Hit ’em with the squid

Occupy Wall Street December 12, 2011

Last year Rolling Stone published an investigation by Matt Taibbi that began with one of the greatest leads in recent memory. It’s the one that defined Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid.”

Read the first three sentences of the story, “The Great American Bubble Machine”:

“The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it’s everywhere. The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money. In fact, the history of the recent financial crisis, which doubles as a history of the rapid decline and fall of the suddenly swindled dry American empire, reads like a Who’s Who of Goldman Sachs graduates.”

WHOMP! Hits you over the head, doesn’t it? This article captured immediate interest; I remember it being widely shared online soon after it was published in spring 2010. Today, as much as any other piece of journalism, Taibbi’s piece is responsible for the negative view many people have of Goldman Sachs.

Just as importantly, this article made the squid the unofficial symbol of Goldman Sachs. It’s an act of cartoony political satire worthy of Thomas Nast.

* * * *

Was it fair to spill squid ink on Goldman Sachs? You could say Taibbi was using hyperbole, making Goldman out to be far scarier than it really is. You could say should have been kinder to an innovative American company that employs tens of thousands and generates billions of dollars in wealth. You could say he’s obviously more interested in stirring people up and getting attention for his story than being fair to his subjects.

Correct on all counts! And that’s what’s so great about this story! It took a piece of thick, dense financial journalism and make it readable. It used powerful language. It doesn’t matter how solid your story is if nobody notices it—and people noticed this one.

* * * *

There are more than a few ways to start a story. Many long-form magazine pieces start with a breezy anecdote. Inverted-pyramid-style news stories put the most urgent information first. Meandering creative essays sometimes start with a general observation, then expand upon it with specifics.

Taibbi hit us with a metaphor, an unusual choice. With no special insights into Taibbi’s writing process, I can imagine him burying the “great vampire squid” line somewhere deep in the first draft of the article, or in his notes, only to realize later that it was so good it had to go in the first paragraph.

Let’s compare Taibbi’s lead to a similar investigative story about finance that was published the same month: A ProPublica investigation into a very bad hedge fund called Magnetar. Here’s how reporters Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein started that story:

“In late 2005, the booming U.S. housing market seemed to be slowing. The Federal Reserve had begun raising interest rates. Subprime mortgage company shares were falling. Investors began to balk at buying complex mortgage securities. The housing bubble, which had propelled a historic growth in home prices, seemed poised to deflate. And if it had, the great financial crisis of 2008, which produced the Great Recession of 2008-09, might have come sooner and been less severe.”

SNORE. Want to keep reading? No.

* * * *

More than a year later, the squid has become the unofficial protest symbol of Goldman Sachs. Yesterday I watched a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters, some dressed in squid hats, some of them operating squid puppets, descend on the Goldman Sachs tower to shout at the company. Activists tracked the protest on Twitter with the hashtag #squidding.

Occupy Wall Street squid puppet

It took a while to build up steam, but Taibbi’s squid lead has become a part of protest culture and continues to shape how people think. Thanks in part to that story, people with money and power are under intense public pressure to run a more just financial system.

There are times to hedge your words and be extremely careful with your writing. But when you want to have impact, write words people want to read. Call the bastards bastards!

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Photos and video © Daryl Lang.
Read all Occupy Wall Street posts.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Words

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