If you’re not familiar with the Munk Debates, they are a series of formal debates on hot button issues which usually feature teams of two on either side of a certain proposition. For instance, a few years ago Munk Debates held a debate on Political Correctness. The proposition being debated was ” Be it resolved, what you call political correctness, I call progress…” Arguing in favor of that resolution were Michael Eric Dyson and Michelle Goldberg. Arguing the contrary position were Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson. Before and after each debate, the audience is polled to see where they started and where they were afterwards, i.e. what impact did the debate itself have on the audience. In the case of the political correctness debate, Fry and Peterson were 28% ahead before the debate and were 40% ahead afterwards. So the debate itself shifted the audience in their direction by 6 percent.
Last week Munk Debates held a debate with the proposition “Be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media.” Arguing in the affirmative were journalist Matt Taibbi and author Douglas Murray. Arguing the contrary were columnist Michelle Goldberg and author Malcolm Gladwell. At the start of the night, the pro position (the media can’t be trusted) was trailing slightly, 48-52. But by the end, the pro side had won by 67-33. That’s a shift of 39%, the largest shift ever for any Munk Debate.
It’s difficult to summarize a debate that goes on for almost 90 minutes but here are few excerpts, starting with Matt Taibbi:
Be it resolved. Don’t trust mainstream media. My name’s Matt Taibbi. I’ve been a reporter for 30 years, and I argue for the resolution. You should not trust mainstream media. I grew up in the press. My father was a reporter, my stepmother was a reporter. My godparents were reporters. Basically every adult I knew growing up was a reporter. So I actually love the news business, but I mourn for it. It’s destroyed itself by getting away from its basic function, which is just to tell us what’s happening. My father had a saying, the story’s the boss. In the American context, this means that if the facts tell you the Republicans were the villains in a political disaster, then you write it that way. If the facts point more to the Democrats, you write that. If they’re both culpable as was often the case for me when I investigated Wall Street for almost 10 years after the 2008 crash, you write the story that way.
We’re not supposed to thumb the scale. Our job is just to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you. But we don’t do that now. The story is no longer the boss. Instead we sell narrative in a dysfunctional new business model. Once the commercial strategy of the news business was to go for the whole audience, a TV news broadcast was aired at dinner time, and it was designed to be watched by the entire family. Everyone from your crazy right wing uncle to the sulking lefty teenager in the corner. This system had flaws, but making an effort to talk to everybody had benefits. For one thing it inspired trust. Gallop polls twice, twice showed Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted person in all of America. That would never happen with a news reader today. With the arrival of the internet, some outlets found that instead of going after the whole audience, it made more financial sense to pick one demographic and try to dominate it.
Part of Michelle Goldberg‘s opening statement:
I think that when you say, can we trust the mainstream media? Obviously you should seek out lots of sources, right? People should read Matt’s blog. They should read conservative media. They should read liberal media. But think about the big stories of the last five years or so, from the Trump presidency to Covid to the war in Ukraine. Now, if you had just followed the CBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, they all got some things wrong. You know, I think a lot of the media, didn’t pay enough attention, for example, to the problems of quote unquote, I say this as someone with young children, remote learning. I think we got, we got a lot of things wrong during Covid.
But in terms of the big stories, worries, if you paid attention to the mainstream media, you were likely to be much safer and much closer to the truth than if you followed the kind of contrarians.
If you followed the people who were saying, don’t trust the mainstream media, trust these alternative sources of information. You know, if you were saying that, for example, it was a common refrain, I think one that Matt made again and again throughout the Trump presidency, that people who were extremely alarmed about the prospects of authoritarianism, that people who believed that Donald Trump would try to overturn our constitutional order were were hysterical. I think that the point of view of the hysterics is actually held up kind of well in light of January 6th.
In part of his opening, Douglas Murray talked about the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa:
When people come out in large numbers, and you know what the job of reporters is? The job of reporters is to go out and say, why are you on the streets? What brought you here? Why are you here with your kids? Why have you got a bouncy castle in the middle of Ottawa? That’s a bit strange. Ask them questions. Just find out the story. But you know what? The government didn’t want that in Canada. Your prime minister decided in advance that these people were, oh, what didn’t he do? All the modern ex-communications, they were Nazis, they were white supremacists, they were anti-Semites.
They were probably homophobes, they were misogynists, they were probably transphobes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He did all the things you do in the modern political age. If you want to just defenestrate somebody who’s awkward to you, and then he brings in the Emergency powers Act now at such a time, what would the mainstream media do? It would question it, it would question it. The Canadian mainstream media did not. The Canadian mainstream media acted as an amen chorus of the Canadian government. I will give you a couple of examples, but, ladies and gentlemen, I could go on for hours with examples of this. You had a CBC host describing the freedom convoy as a feral mob. You had a Toronto star columnist saying, sorry for the language it’s a homegrown hate farm that was then jet fueled by an American right funded rat f**king operation.
Jesus, they can’t even write at these papers anymore. CBC said that two indigenous women were so scared to go outside in Ottawa because of racist violence. Didn’t bother to mention that indigenous drummers had led the truckers in an “Oh Canada” rendition. The National observer said that the many black and indigenous freedom convoy supporters were in fact duped by the truckers. The Globe male reporters said, my 13 year old son told me to tell protestors I’m not a Jew out of fear of antisemitic violence. Without mentioning that one of the leaders of the convoy
was himself Jewish. Now, why is this so rancid? Utterly, utterly rancid and corrupt? Because in this country, your media, your mainstream media is funded by the government…
Finally, Malcolm Gladwell told two stories. Here’s the first:
I remember once I did a story about a mall in Buffalo and it was an upscale mall and they had the bus stop across a busy highway from the mall. They didn’t want the sort of person who came on a bus to come to their mall. And in the course of writing this story I talked about what the bus service was, it was the Amherst bus, I said even the bus doesn’t come from the city of Buffalo. That was an error a dumb stupid error. The next day the bus service and the mall and city of Buffalo called the paper and very angrily demanded a correction. Which they got the next day in a very prominent place in the paper. I was pulled in by my editor and given a dressing down that I remember to this day. Basically, I was told I was this close to being fired that’s how seriously the paper took the commitment to accuracy in its pages. Now Matt would have you believe that those two principles are no longer a part of the brief for the main stream media. I would like to say to him that’s completely false. He is so far removed from the mainstream media, that I think he has a naive view about what goes on inside of those institutions. They remain committed to a professional set of ideals that they have held for decades.
Then there was some back and forth:
Matt Taibbi: Well, first of all, I think I should respond to Michelle, who simply misquoted me, proving my point. I never once said, the media doesn’t want you to hear about ivermectin and I
don’t care about ivermectin. And what I wrote about was people being deleted from the internet by platforms like Facebook for talking about ivermectin, which I don’t believe. And I believe
people should be able to talk about what they want without being removed from the internet. You’re going to be the second person who’s going to owe me a correction after this 538.com has already done that, made that mistake. Malcolm, you seem to think I’ve never worked in the mainstream media. I spent 15 years at Rolling Stone. I spent all that time writing 7,000 word features that had to be fact checked every line. I’m absolutely familiar with the process of mainstream media. And, that’s why I’m so disappointed in what happened. The New York Times, and the entire basically mainstream media spent years following a fake story about Donald Trump being in league with Vladimir Putin to fix the 2016 election.
Malcolm Gladwell: One last comment, and that is, I was most amused by the particular subjects that seemed to have excited the imagination and outrage of the two of you. I’ll just list them before I go in my last 19 seconds. Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, the Canadian truckers, Ivermectin, Jordan Peterson, and then something. These aren’t things driven by the mainstream media. These are obsessions of the non-mainstream media.
Taibbi: First of all, are you really saying that Trump’s relationship with Russia was not an obsession of mainstream media? It was basically the entire content of cable news for three years. The editor of the New York Times Dean Baquet said, we built our newsroom around one story.
There’s more including an argument over the Hunter Biden laptop. My general take is that it basically became a debate between Taibbi and Murray on one side and Gladwell on the other. Murray in particular really tore into Gladwell a few times:
So strange hearing you debate Malcolm because you listen to nothing that your opponents say. It’s quite extraordinary. I’ve met it before, but never quite so badly as it occurs in you. You keep saying things that neither of us have said, and then you try to pathologize what we say, what you decide to say things like, oh, it’s a conspiracy if it comes from this side it’s a conspiracy theory you say, we don’t do our research. We are just conspiracy theorists, apparently mild dose of it. He says in his excellent medical-like analysis of his opponents, we just have a mild dose. Now, Malcolm, why don’t you listen to what comes out of our mouths and try to learn something from it, as I am with you this evening, but at the moment, all I get is you dismissing every single story we come up with every egregious failure of the mainstream media. I’ve given you a definition of what I think of as the mainstream media. So your attempt to claim that we haven’t answered it yet is just another straw man in your massive legion of straw men you keep creating this evening. But I beg you to actually consider the fact that what we are describing is, even if you think not as accurate as you would like, an expression of a problem that is going on in our societies. Functioning, functioning, liberal democracies need to have trust in their media. And the best that your side has been able to come up with so far tonight is to say, we get things wrong quite often, but you should trust us.
Meanwhile, Goldberg attracted a lot less heat in the debate, partly I think because she admitted from the start that the media has made some mistakes. She wasn’t quite a non-entity here but she wasn’t really moving the ball for her side of the argument either. Why trust an organization that makes a lot of mistakes?
As mentioned above the result was a pretty dramatic shift in favor of the proposition that the media can’t be trusted. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell will go back and look over his arguments which pretty clearly were not convincing to most of the audience. If you’re interested in watching the full debate there’s a video of it here.