American newspapers, as we've long grown accustomed to, are semi-gilded palaces of decline. Almost none of the behind-the-scenes stories about them anymore radiate a single ounce of fun, experimentation, or pointless, juvenile bravado.
The grand exceptions to that rule are expatriate newspapers, which at their best and worst are filled with mal-adjusted weirdos, journalistic dreamers, never-ready-for-prime-time washouts, and locals with a taste for the kink, all tilting at windmills, drinking way too much, and relentlessly grinding themselves out of business. I was lucky enough to work in that world for seven years, and like everyone else in the fraternity of journalism exile, I looked from afar with a sense of wonder and dread at the exploits of the craziest of 'em all: Moscow's vile and fearless eXile.
Vanity Fair has a new profile out about the paper, which lasted from 1997-2008 and helped launch the career of putative Hunter S. Thompson successor Matt Taibbi (who makes a starring turn at the end, throwing coffee in the reporter's face, and acting like a thin-skinned lunatic). Though I may be the ideal audience, I think there's fun enough for the whole family. Some excerpts:
The Exile was too vitriolic to romanticize for long or to consult just its fans. And listening to the critics is too fun. They call [founder Mark] Ames and Taibbi, singly or in combination, children, louts, misogynists, madmen, pigs, hypocrites, anarchists, fascists, racists, and fiends. According to Carol Williams, of the Los Angeles Times, "It seemed like a bunch of kids who'd somehow gotten funding for their own little newspaper." A former New York Times Moscow-bureau chief, Michael Wines, offered a no-comment comment. "I think I'll pass, thank you," he e-mailed, "except to repeat what I said at the time, and what Shaw said a lot earlier: Never wrestle with a pig. You just get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it."
Of course, a pig is probably not the farm animal that comes to Wines's mind first when he's reminded of The Exile. It was Wines, then the Times's Moscow-bureau chief, who, having won The Exile's coveted Worst Journalist in Russia March Madness contest in 2001, was typing in his office when Ames and Taibbi rushed in unannounced and, by way of congratulations, slammed a pie in his face. The pie was made with fresh vanilla cream, hand-puréed strawberry, and five ounces of horse semen. […]
Ames and Taibbi usually rejected [social invitations] to throw their own debauched Exile parties or to get back to their regular hangout, the Hungry Duck, a place Ames, not given to squeamishness, describes as a "vile flesh pit." Ask Moscow veterans about the bar and the most common response is a long, regretful groan. "Everything you've heard about it is conservative," Peter Lavelle says, a hint of fear in his voice. "That place changed people." […]
What The Exile lacked in resources it made up for in ritualistic public humiliation. For one stunt, Ames and Taibbi, armed with forged stationery purporting to be from the St. Petersburg mayor's office, hired the American public-relations giant Burson-Marsteller to help put a nice spin on the city's police-brutality problem. Burson-Marsteller, at the time doing a lot of work in Russia on behalf of American companies, happily took the job, and The Exile published the correspondence and phone transcripts. Taibbi masqueraded as an executive from the New York Jets and tried to recruit Mikhail Gorbachev to move to New Jersey to become a motivational coach for the team. Later, reporting from Manhattan, he exposed Wall Street's complicity in 1998's disastrous ruble devaluation, bought a gorilla suit, walked to Goldman Sachs's headquarters on Water Street, and sat down on the lobby floor for lunch, announcing to the security guards, "If Goldman Sachs can make a $50 million commission selling worthless Russian debt, then I can come into their offices in a gorilla suit and eat a sandwich on their floor."