A must-read (or must-listen): A heated debate on whether the mainstream media is trustworthy

December 12, 2022 • 11:30 am

Unless you subscribe to Matt Taibbi’s Substack site, you probably won’t be able to read this debate, but a kind reader gave me a month’s subscription. And there I found this great debate on whether the mainstream media, or MSM, is trustworthy. However, I have since foun it publicly available on Youtube, and have put the debate below the screenshot (try clicking on it):

Click on “Watch on YouTube” to listen. In fact, the new printed version leaves some stuff out, so if you have time, listening is better:

 

The question is not explained with all its terms well defined (“what do we mean by mainstream media”? and “what do we mean by trust—complete trust?”).

But itt’s a good lineup. On the “don’t trust” side we have Matt Taibbi himself as well as Douglas Murray, author and editor at The Spectator.  On the “trust” side is author Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg.  A preliminary vote showed people pretty evenly divided on the question, but at the end a hefty number had moved into the “don’t trust” column.  This goes along with what I thought: compared to the bulldogs of Taibbi and Murray, Gladwell and Goldberg seemed timorous and defensive.

Things get pretty hot during the debate, with Murray getting his teeth deep into Gladwell’s tuchas, and sometimes accusing the Canadian journalist of lying or distortion. In the end, Taibbi and Gladwell make the case that much of the MSM, including venues like the NYT and the Washington Post, have an ideological slant to their news that makes their reporting unreliable.

The debate was 90 minutes long, but before I saw the video online I printed it out and read it. And I read the whole thing, something I wouldn’t often do. If you don’t want to read this long debate, then listen to it, for this is one issue that I think is very important. And it’s entertaining, too. I’ll give you just two quotes that I hope will whet your appetite.

Taibbi on why the media is biased:

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.

How do you do that? That’s easy. You just pick an audience and feed it news you know they’ll like. Instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience and work backward to the story. This process started with Fox, but really now everybody does it. From CNN to OAN to the Washington Post, nearly all media organizations are in the same demographic hunting business. According to a Pew Center survey from a few years ago, 93% of Fox’s audience votes Republican. In an exactly mirroring phenomenon, 95% of the MSNBC audience votes democratic. The New York Times readers are 91% Democrats. Left or right, most commercial audiences in America anyway are politically homogenous. This bifurcated system is fundamentally untrustworthy. When you decide in advance to forego half of your potential audience to cater to the other half you’re choosing in advance which facts to emphasize and which to downplay based on considerations other than truth or newsworthiness.

This is not journalism. This is political entertainment, and it’s therefore fundamentally unreliable with editors now more concerned with retaining audience than getting things right. Lots of guardrails have been thrown out. Silent edits have become common. Serious accusations are made without calling people for comment. Reporters get too cozy with politicians and report things either without attribution or source to unnamed people familiar with the matter. Like scientists, journalists should be able to reproduce each other’s work in the lab. With too many anonymous sources, this is impossible. We just get a lot of stuff wrong. Now, in the Trump years, an extraordinary number of bombshells went sideways. From the pee tape, to the Alpha server story, to speculation that Trump was a Russian spy recruited before disco started, to false reports of Russians hacking of Vermont utility, we’ve accumulated piles of these wrong stories. Now, I’m no fan of Donald Trump. I wrote a book about the guy called Insane Clown President, but these stories offend me. A good journalist should always be ashamed of error. And it bothers me to see so many of my colleagues not ashamed. News media shouldn’t have a side. It should

Murray chomps on Gladwell’s tuchas:

Rudyard Griffiths: Hold on Matt, let’s bring Douglas in on this. I just want to hear his voice.

Malcolm Gladwell: Doug is speechless.

Douglas Murray: I’m never speechless. It’s not a problem I suffer from. I can’t sit here and listen to Malcolm Gladwell talking about fact checking and the importance of it. Not to get too mean, Malcolm, I read your book, David and Goliath, the chapter on Northern Ireland is more filled with inaccuracies than any other chapter in a nonfiction book I have read. It is having written a, not very well selling, but widely acclaimed book on Northern Island myself, my book on Northern Ireland didn’t sell anywhere near as much as yours did Malcolm. But, mine was filled with facts. And your chapter on Northern Ireland was so filled with inaccuracies, Irish historians ripped it apart. Would that you had a fact checker Malcolm, would that you did your own research. But anyway, let me get back to another point.

Malcolm Gladwell: You do have, I must say you do a very good job of it, but you must say you do have a tendency to accuse those who disagree with your opinion.

Douglas Murray: No no no, It’s not disagreement. You didn’t know that the provisional IRA were responsible for 60% of the deaths and the troubles. There were basic things you just didn’t know. Malcolm, I’m sorry. It’s not my fault, it’s yours and your fact checkers.

Malcolm Gladwell: I didn’t know the function of this debate was to rehash the accuracy of a chapter in a book I wrote. . .

The results taken from the YouTube site:

The audience voted on this resolution prior to hearing the debate. 48% voted in favour of the resolution, while 52% voted against the resolution.

At the end of the debate, another poll was conducted. 67% voted in favour of the motion, while 33% voted against it, representing a 39% vote gain for the PRO side.

I think you’ll agree that the victors deserved their victory.

39 thoughts on “A must-read (or must-listen): A heated debate on whether the mainstream media is trustworthy

  1. It strikes me that the subject of the debate, whether the mainstream media can be trusted, is a logical fallacy. Aside from the definitional problem of what media is mainstream and which isn’t, the resolution assumes that there is a binary answer to the question. But, isn’t it more likely that parts of the mainstream media, as well as the non-mainstream media, can be more trusted than others? And what is the criteria for determining whether a mainstream media institution is trustworthy? Hypothetically, suppose an analysis of NYT news stories (not opinion pieces) by an objective source reveals that 87% of its stories are essentially accurate and without obvious bias, would that place the NYT in the trustworthy or untrustworthy box? I think this would be a matter of opinion. So, unless the debaters discuss issues such as these, as opposed to merely trading anecdotes, then a debate such as this accomplishes nothing to proving a point. If I get the chance, I will listen to the debate to see if the discussion really discusses substantive matters.

    Also of importance is whether the non-mainstream media, presumably consisting of people such as Taibbi, is more trustworthy than the mainstream. Since the non-mainstream media consists of hundreds, if not thousands, of sources, the same questions raised in the paragraph above need to be answered. If we find that both are overwhelmingly non-trustworthy then where does that leave us? It leaves us in a state of journalistic anarchy where any news source is as good as another. So much for the “truth.” So much for democracy that can only effectively operate when citizens have access to accurate information and based on that make informed voting decisions.

    1. Murray/Taibbi do discuss this. By “trust” the mainstream media, they mean: can you trust the mainstream media to report fairly, making you aware of salient facts and perspectives regarding major stories? Or will the mainstream media give you a partisan account, and pick and choose which facts to present, such that in order to be properly briefed you also need to consult alternative, non-mainstream media sources?

      Thus, Murray/Taibbi are certainly not claiming that alternative sources are better overall than the mainstream media, they’re arguing that you won’t get all the information you need to be a well-informed citizen on major issues from the MSM alone.

      1. In recent years, the most prominent organs of the media (the NYT, WaPo, CNN, and MSNBC) have proven themselves to be generally unworthy of much trust in their reporting on the most important stories of the day. While this does not prove that alternative sources are always to be accepted, one should nonetheless regard as sensible the possession of a significant degree of skepticism concerning today’s conventional wisdom and received opinion.

      2. But it’s impossible to research all major issues yourself. You must rely on other people to some extent. Then how do you determine who to rely on, whether MSM or others? Surely the MSM isn’t always wrong and the others always right. It’s pretty easy to show a list of errors in any source over time. Call it the “Dr Fauci vs Dr Oz” problem – who was better in recommendations for the pandemic, even if not batting 100%?

  2. People who are reasonably informed and aware will know which organs of the MSM they can trust, and which bits of those organs they can trust better than others. I would much sooner get my news from the BBC than from, say, Sky, even though I know that the BBC has its own biases (which I can correct for). Same for The Times, and even the Grauniad: they both have their inbuilt prejudices, but I would trust either of them over the Mail or the Express.

    It seems that many people find it difficult to distinguish between the reliable and unreliable parts of the MSM. So how can they then be expected to winnow the truth from the lies in the non-MSM? For my money, we should start at the beginning by trying to teach our kids the basics of critical thinking. But I know from personal experience how difficult it is to get this into the curriculum.

    1. Something I wish I had known at the beginning of my teaching career: Educational psychology tells us that critical thinking is domain specific. In other words, if you want to be able to think critically about, say, physics, know a lot about physics. If you want to think critically about history, know a lot of history.

      But knowing a lot about physics doesn’t mean you’ll be able to think critically about history.

      So if you want to teach kids to think critically, teach them a lot of facts about a lot of topics.

      I can tell you the exact moment when I decided to retire from teaching – the moment when the man who was to become my school’s principal in a few months said in a getting-to-know-you meeting, “Why do we even teach kids facts anymore when (pulls phone from pocket) they all have one of these?”

      Okay, got that out of my system. 🙂

      It’s the same with evaluating the media. The quality of one’s assessment of the veracity and accuracy of a news report is dependent upon one’s knowledge of the topic of that report.

      1. Hi Ken, I sympathise; I am not a teacher, but a long-standing school governor. As such, I have no influence over the curriculum (quite rightly); but I can encourage the headteacher and his colleagues to inculcate critical thinking skills in his pupils. It works quite often. Small steps!

      2. I would have thought that being a good critical thinker is not about knowing a lot about a lot but knowing who to trust on things you can’t be expected to know about — virologists about COVID, courts about claims of stolen elections, climate scientists about global warming, etc.

      3. I think it’s an entirely reasonable goal to teach people how to think critically in general. For example, when reading a politically biased article, most people don’t pick up on weasel words/phrases (“some people say,” “a significant amount,” etc.), account for the idea that there may be salient facts that were intentionally left out, and so on. We should also be able to teach people to see certain trends, like trends of intentionally reporting negatively for specific events or people and failing to report such things for other types of people, or implicitly coding certain views as Left- or Right-wing to dissuade readers from holding them. There are many more things we could include here, but my larger point is that all of this is part of a general ability to think critically. People don’t need to know what the truth is in order to evaluate whether or not they’re being told the truth/the whole truth in many cases.

        1. Something you’re missing here is that those weasel words, are an example of specific knowledge about the natural language domain. I would argue that what you call critical thinking in general, is teaching people a bit of philosophy, logical thinking, and a bit of a sceptical perspective on the world. I don’t think you’ll be successful in getting people to generally adopt this because it is extremely effortful. In my own life now that I have a full time job that is very mentally taxing I don’t always want to spend my evening comparing the list of positive and negative words used by an NYTimes story.

          Additionally scientific research uses lots of ‘weasel words’ because making solid this is true and this is false claims don’t work in fields of science where the topic of study isn’t pure math. Biological science, chemistry, psychology, all rely on weasel words to couch their results in uncertainty…

  3. I think you mixed up Murray and Gladwell in this sentence – “In the end, Taibbi and Gladwell make the case that much of the MSM, including venues like the NYT and the Washington Post, have an ideological slant to their news that makes their reporting unreliable.”

  4. I participated in both high school and college debate. From that experience, I would say a more accurate statement of the resolution would be: Resolved: Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray, are more effective debaters than Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg

  5. It’s interesting that people bring up the Walter Cronkite era as an era of high trust. It’s also the era in which the FCC was very forthright in enforcing the “fairness doctrine” by advising stations that they had to do “ascertainment” to find the public interest via interviewing the public and asking what their interests were.

    Reagan got rid of these regulations and we’ve seen media devolve from serving the public interest to serving the owners’ interests with consequent drop in quality and trust.

    1. Yes, in terms of broadcast media in the US, that is precisely the origin of the present malaise. Thankfully in some other countries even-handedness is still enforced. Bias has always been in-built with the print media, of course.

    1. I’m with you on that. Unfortunately, I lump Taibbi with Greenwald nowadays…I sort of consider them both as a bit loony and paranoid. And Taibbi thinks everyone else has gone off the deep end, and he’s the only one above water. He’s too arrogant for my taste.

    2. 100% with on not trusting Taibbi because of the Twitter files. Add to that a couple of articles posted to Twitter about Taibbi’s days in Russia producing eXile magazine, during which time he apparently frequently sexually harassed female workers and boasted about doing so, and I’ve lost all respect for the guy.

      I wonder if his time in Russia has anything to do with what I felt was his eagerness to dismiss anything to do with stories about Trump cooperating with Russian agents during the 2016 election.

      1. I wondered that as well re: Taibbi’s time in Russia. He’s also got an interesting early bio (not negative). His Lebanese?dad adopted him from Hawaiian/Polynesian birth parents. Thus his name. He’s obviously a bright guy, but probably almost as arrogant, though not as weasley, as Murray.

      1. IMO, Taibbi seems to equate the Biden campaign’s request to Twitter to take down Hunter Biden’s d*ck pics – posted by third parties – with the Trump administration’s attempts to influence what Twitter allowed to be posted, amplified, or not amplified.

  6. I watched that debate, it was excellent. Academics seem to scorn Gladwell – and I can’t work out why, really. He’s not that offensive. Douglas Murray, even when I disagree with him, is always excellent and entertaining. He’s wrong on many things, but 100% spot on about woke. See his “War on the west” published recently.
    D.A.
    NYC

    1. Perhaps Pinker’s scathing counterattack on Gladwell has something to do with the latter’s decline in reputation \*. But there are serious issues with Gladwell. He is a talented writer who chooses topics of interest to the general public, but unfortunately he has no competence to write about them. By his own admission, he does not care very much whether his books stand up to scrutiny; he just wants to tell a good story. His sensational findings are sadly never going to replicate, they exemplify all that is wrong with the social sciences.

      \* https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/15/books/review/Pinker-t.html

      1. That’s VERY scathing. Not unfair – Gladwell’s problem with statistics has always bothered me.
        D.A.
        NYC

  7. I watched the debate in real time, online. Taibbi and Murray are perhaps better debaters than Gladwell and Goldberg (both of whom write better than they speak, imo), but I found Murray to be insufferably smug and arrogant, kinda like Jordan Petersen.

    1. Thank goodness it wasn’t just me who felt that way about Murray.

      I found it rich that it was Murray, who writes for a Murdoch owned newspaper, who quoted Orwell’s “The job of a reporter is to tell people the facts they don’t want to hear.”

  8. That’s all fine.
    But praytell, who, then, *are* we supposed to trust?

    A diligent consumer should be perfectly capable of navigating the various news outlets and accounting for bias.

    The main issue for me isn’t bias, since it’s pretty obvious in most cases, but rather the tendency for “MSM” to beat a minor story to death and not report so much worthy news. CNN is especially bad about this.

    And, I’m glad Griner was released, but do we need 95 articles on it in the same span there was one on climate change??

  9. I commented on a blog elsewhere (talking abut the UK Guardian) that it seemed to me that newspapers (and broadcasters) originally reported events and the editors then had their own opinion piece explaining what the event meant to people.

    This was mostly true some time ago. The separation between events and opinion stared to be corroded when favoured contributors wrote pieces reflecting their opinions too. And now many newspapers and broadcasters are almost all opinion with perhaps a vague wave to some event.

    How times change – from “all the news that’s fit to print” to “all the opinions that fit in”.

  10. I got some very good advice a long time ago…. ‘Don’t trust anybody’. Just try your best to figure out where they are coming from or trying to go to. And don’t necessarily trust yourself either. We are all subject to biases unconscious or not – malicious or not – helpful or not. Recently it seems there are ever increasing numbers of sources of information and the biases, shortcomings, etc of even the previously favoured become blatant. There is no one storyline that is absolutely true – except for a few details such as time of day. Everybody has a purpose. If we agree with that purpose we tend to skip or simply cannot recognise the intention behind it and/ or just go along with the categorisation. Colourful world.

  11. Gladwell if I recall wasn’t that impressive in his debate against Pinker and Ridley on human progress a few years ago…seems like he has an outsized opinion of himself that prevents him from preparing adequately for these debates.

  12. The “don’t trust” pair were much better debaters. I very much enjoyed listening to the debate, and thought Gladwell did better than my low expectations assumed he would. Murray went from making powerful points to bullying, and lost my respect. Goldberg wasted her final minutes summarizing a NYT article on transgender issues, which Taibbi of course jumped on effectively.

    My opinion has not changed- I also have become suspicious of the MSM sources I subscribe to such as Wa Po and especially NYT. Like others, I am not certain where to turn. I have tried reading conservative news sources, but they seem less trustworthy than the liberal media. Perhaps it is not a good thing for the news that we have gone from blue collar reporters making a living to elite journalists pursuing powerful careers.

    1. Gladwell was awful. I’ve heard him debate before…he simply does not prepare for these things, and therefore tries to find little slip-ups in the opponent’s arguments, and if he can’t find those, he resorts to ad-hominem attacks.

      Two examples…he tries to paint Taibi as a racist who pines for the the days of white male news anchors, when all Taibi is saying is that mainstream news was much less politicized in decades past. He persists with this slur several times despite zero evidence that Matt (who is a liberal) is a racist, and ignores Matt’s earlier claim that there were indeed flaws in the old regime.

      The reason Gladwell keeps repeating this false charge is because he had little else to say of substance.

      Second example is his claim that Murray and Taibi must believe in a weird conspiracy to argue that the mainstream media has a left-wing slant. Not only did they not claim that, but it is quite easy to understand how political biases can form and establish in absence of conspiracies. For example, if most of your newsroom and editorial is composed of graduates from the same group of elite, left-leaning universities, a left wing bias will form naturally.

      1. No defense of Gladwell from me! His accusation that his opponents were suggesting a cabal of conspirators was his low point. While I don’t accuse Taibbi of longing for the good old days because he is racist, I do not share his admiration of the black and white TV news days. Our nation is so much more heterogeneous than it was in the 50s and 60s, and television news was such a relative monopoly then, bringing up such a comparison does not prove that news reporters were actually more trustworthy, and leads to the kind of dead end discussion that resulted.

        1. Well, as compared to watching today’s broadcast media circus, when a viewer wonders whether s/he and/or the anchor and reporters in tow ought to take a Valium so as to minimize the adverse effects of the edgy, keening breathlessness and histrionics of the presentation, the thought of so partaking never entered the minds of the viewers of Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds (ABC) and their confreres.

          Nowadays it’s way past “infotainment” and is monumentally – what’s the word? – “performative.” Who talks like that in everyday life? (Even the Artemis launch commentary couldn’t escape it, as compared to that of laconic “steely-eyed missileman” Apollo Launch Control announcer Jack King.) But, apparently, market research has informed broadcasters that this is what the public wants.

          1. … the thought of so partaking never entered the minds of the viewers of Cronkite (CBS), Huntley and Brinkley (NBC), Howard K. Smith and Frank Reynolds (ABC) and their confreres.

            That’s certainly not the way the Nixon administration saw it. Here’s Nixon’s main attack dog in the issue, vice-president Spiro T. Agnew (plus ça change …):

  13. I think this goes beyond just a liberal vs conservative tendency in mainstream news. One might naturally expect the big journalism schools to attract people with liberal views. With that expectation, you could mentally apply a handicap (like 10% to the right) to a particular journalist’s stories, to get close to the objective truth.
    More troubling to me is that it seems like the majority of today’s mainstream media are specifically biased towards amplifying the views of the DNC.
    The mechanism of that seems pretty straightforward, as the same people seem to go back and forth between democratic administrations and the major networks, as well as the social media companies.
    A senior military officer cannot reasonably be expected to objectively evaluate an aircraft or weapons system his troops are testing, when he has been promised a lucrative position on the board of the manufacturer upon retirement.

    If you are reporting in a way that specifically amplifies the views and talking points of a particular political party, you will inevitably find yourself in situations where you are suppressing stories that put them in a bad light. Or misrepresenting facts to fit your narrative.
    This is not a new thing. In the USSR, people developed a pretty good sense of being able to divine the facts of stories by how they were reported, and even to recognize when there is something worrying going on but not being reported on, by the sorts of positive stories being generated about a region or industry.
    Americans do not have this. They still think they are listening to Murrow or Cronkite, and are unaware that they need to apply a bit of skepticism. A lot, really, because it seems like the folks doing this today are unable to tell when they are going too far. Or just unwilling to let up even when they know they have done so.

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