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.