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Weekend reads: 'We don't deserve to be trusted'
An astonishing Munk debate in Toronto, Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray's landslide, Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg's mendacity - and five reasons why trust in the mainstream media is so low
The stakes were high from the moment opening arguments were made at the Munk debate on the media in Toronto on Wednesday, and only escalated from there.
The riveting event — staged by a Canadian charitable foundation and skillfully moderated by Rudyard Griffiths — brought together four prominent international journalists to debate a resolution: “Don’t trust mainstream media.” Independent investigative reporter Matt Taibbi and Spectator editor Douglas Murray faced off against mainstream media luminaries Malcolm Gladwell, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, and Michelle Goldberg, a columnist for The New York Times.
As it happens, the exact tendencies that make the mainstream media “fundamentally untrustworthy”— as Matt Taibbi memorably put it — were on full display at the debate. And, in a remarkable turn of events, attendees were able to witness public trust being eroded in real time.
Taibbi set the tone early on, with an incisive explanation of what he believes has gone wrong in the mainstream media in recent years, drawing on analysis from his book Hate, Inc. — Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another. (You can read Taibbi’s opening comments at his Substack.)
The thrust of the argument from Taibbi — a veteran reporter who comes from a family of journalists — is that the mainstream media has destroyed itself with a new business model, pioneered by Fox News but later adopted by most outlets, that caters to a narrow demographic. In the process of fighting to retain this audience, it becomes increasingly partisan, eroding industry norms and blowing past professional guardrails.
Here is Taibbi, speaking at the debate:
My father had a saying: “The story’s the boss.” In the American context, if the facts tell you the Republicans were the primary villains in this or that disaster, you write that story. If the facts point more at Democrats, you go that way. If it turns out they’re both culpable, as was often the case for me across nearly ten years of investigating Wall Street and the causes of the 2008 crash for Rolling Stone, you write that. We’re not supposed to nudge facts one way or another. Our job is to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you.
We don’t do that now. The story is no longer the boss. Instead, we sell narrative, as part of a new business model that’s increasingly indifferent to fact.
Our colleagues on the other side tonight represent two once-great media organizations. Michelle, the Pew survey says the audience for your New York Times is now 91% comprised of Democrats. Malcolm, the last numbers I could find for the New Yorker were back in 2012, and even then, only 9% of the magazine’s readers were Republicans. I imagine that number is smaller now.
This bifurcated system is fundamentally untrustworthy. When you decide in advance to forego half of your potential audience, to fulfill the aim of catering to the other half, you’re choosing in advance which facts to emphasize and which to downplay. You’re also choosing which stories to cover, and which ones to avoid, based on considerations other than truth or newsworthiness.
This is not journalism. It’s political entertainment, and therefore unreliable.
With editors now more concerned with retaining audience than getting things right, the defining characteristic across the business — from right to left — is inaccuracy. We just get a lot of stuff wrong now. It’s now less important for reporters to be accurate than “directionally” correct, which in center-left “mainstream” media mostly comes down to having the right views, like opposing Donald Trump, or anti-vaxxers, or election-deniers, or protesting Canadian truckers, or any other people deemed wrongthinkers.
Taibbi concluded his opening monologue thus:
Getting things right is hard enough. The minute we try to do anything else in this job, the wheels come off. Until we get back to the basics, we don’t deserve to be trusted. And we won’t be.
Now, this question of whether to trust the mainstream media could have been an academic one — and for some people, in some instances, perhaps it is.
But it is far from academic for many people in this country, at this particular moment in history, as Douglas Murray swiftly established in his own opening remarks.
“You really know that the world is in trouble when Canada becomes very interesting,” Murray quipped. And then the British journalist proceeded to make a devastating critique of the Canadian mainstream media’s handling of the trucker convoy crisis:
… Canada has become really interesting. It became interesting in January and February of this year. Why? Because you had protestors in Ottawa. Really interesting when people come out in large numbers. And you know what the job of reporters is? The job of reporters to go ask people, “Why are you on the streets? What brought you here? Why are you here with your kids? You’ve 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 did he do? All the modern excommunications. They were Nazis. They were white supremacists. They were antisemites. They were probably homophobes. They were misogynists. They were probably transphobes. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. He did all of the things you do in the modern political age if you just want to defenestrate someone who is 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.
Murray’s scathing appraisal immediately shifted the debate from the theoretical realm to the practical one. And, at certain points in the evening, the auditorium was so tense — as spectators held their breath — that it was nearly silent.
All of what Murray described, of course, has real-world consequences for Canadians, certainly for the roughly five million unvaccinated Canadians, whose interests and perspectives went underrepresented in our press. (This is a charitable way of putting it. See: the famed Toronto Star cover on the unvaccinated.)
Media failures of course also impacted convoy participants and their supporters, who saw their movement maligned, their views mocked, their rights infringed upon, and, in an absolutely unprecedented move, in some cases, their bank accounts frozen.
As we’ve just learned during the Public Order Emergency Commission, the media got a number of facts on this story wrong, at a crucial juncture in our country’s history.
Yet there have been no apologies, and, as far as I know, little introspection.
So, this question of whether to trust the mainstream media is of the utmost relevance right now. And it was revealing to see how the Toronto audience’s perspective changed over the course of the evening.
At the beginning of the event, the crowd was split 48 percent to 52 percent in favour of the resolution. By night’s end, a full 67 percent agreed that the mainstream media should not be trusted and only 33 percent disagreed. This is a 39 percent vote gain.
So, what exactly happened here?
Let’s unpack the specific tendencies that Gladwell and Goldberg exhibited that I believe swayed the audience — that, in fact, show up regularly in the mainstream press.
The first of these tendencies is mendacity.
The public is not stupid, and people get it when arguments are made in bad faith.
Here’s two standout examples from the debate: Michelle Goldberg misrepresented Taibbi’s reporting on ivermectin, and was forced to apologize. Malcolm Gladwell, meanwhile, mischaracterized Taibbi’s analysis of media history, claiming that Taibbi was nostalgic for an era when white men were in charge.
Gladwell returned to this point again and again, as Taibbi notes in his recap of the event, where he offers this roundup of quotes:
“I was greatly amused by the affection Matt Taibbi has for the age of Walter Cronkite… in that moment the mainstream media was populated entirely by white men from elite schools.”
“I just wanted to make a short list of the people who were not ‘spoken to’ by journalists in the 1950s and 60s… Black people, women, poor people, gay people, people with mildly left-wing views…”
“When Matt and Doug speak about the mainstream media, they’re acting as if there’s a big room… in which everyone gathers every morning and makes up the agenda for the day and the people fly in from the big news networks and someone from CBC comes down, and this Cabal of high minded, well-paid elite white… journalists, some of them the ones Matt seems to have such affection for…”
“Matt, I understand that you do have this wonderful nostalgia for the way things used to be, but I think that you need to fact check some of your nostalgic notions about the wonderful world of the 1950s…”
Aside from the fact that Taibbi was born in 1970, and the fact that he was apparently referencing polls from the 70s and 80s, and the fact that he is, in fact, of Filipino and Hawaiian descent as well as Irish — this whole line of argument from Gladwell is intellectually dishonest, and an obvious attempt to distract the conversation. I suspect many in the audience recognized it as such.
But if I had to pinpoint the exact moment when I think Gladwell lost the audience for good, it would be when he accused Taibbi and Murray of being conspiracy theorists. This is a standard, knee-jerk move for the modern mainstream media — and, in the case of these two journalists, an obviously false charge.
As Murray put it, “It’s so strange listening to you debate, Malcolm. Because you listen to nothing your opponents say … You keep saying things that neither of us have said. And then you try to pathologize what we say.”
The second tendency on display is self-absorption.
While both Taibbi and Murray focused their arguments on the impacts of media failures on society as a whole, it was telling that Malcolm Gladwell largely focused his arguments on himself.
Throughout the debate, Gladwell came across as smug and self-absorbed, and often appeared not to grasp the weight of the topic at hand for the public.
Consider these comments from Gladwell, during his opening remarks:
I was on a British podcast this summer — very much a media platform that is not part of the mainstream media. And it was a long, two-hour interview. And in the course of that interview, my host went on a long and impassioned critique of working from home. And I very briefly chimed in with a few thoughts of my own. I agreed with some of what he was said and didn’t agree with other things. Thought nothing of it. Because he occupied about 90 percent of that conversation. Then, in the following week when the podcast came out, they released a clip, which was just my contribution. Which made it sound like it was my impassioned rant.
And then someone on social media picked it up and said that in the course of this impassioned rant, I had burst into tears. Which was not true. And then someone else found a picture. We had moved into new offices, my company, and I had tweeted out a picture of my office. Because I was proud of it. And someone took that picture online and said, “This is Gladwell’s picture of the office he works from from home.” Which was nuts. But everyone believed that too.
So, word got around the Internet that I was someone who worked from home, believed everyone else should not work from home, and was so overwhelmed emotionally with my own hypocrisy that I was close to tears. The height of it was — I was trending on Twitter for a little while, it was quite an extraordinary experience. The height of it was when some blogger in Philadelphia wrote a story saying, “This is exactly the kind of hypocrisy you should expect from a single, childless man who never leaves his apartment.” So, I called him up and said, “I’m not single. I’m not childless. I don’t have an apartment. And I go to the office every day, and have done so for years.” And he said, “I’ll correct it.” But then, of course, he never did.
And in the course of the entire controversy, only one person — one reporter — called me to try and set the record straight. And where did that reporter work? In the mainstream media.
Now, contrast that to these comments from Murray, at the conclusion of the debate:
I’m going to try and take this more seriously than you did, in your endless creation of straw men, which just is ceaseless this evening — and address what I think is the real problem that we have this century, in terms of information technology. Having different opinions is so 20th Century. This century, we have different facts. And it’s lethal. It’s absolutely lethal for the functioning of society.
And if you want to see how lethal it is, look at the situation in America, where not just the media but every institution — the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Supreme Court, every institution — you decide whether it’s for your side or not.
It’s disastrous for society.
But it starts with the facts. And when the facts go wrong, or you become glib about them, or decide that it’s just the facts that will suit your side, or pretend you are playing a game of honesty when you are not actually playing a game of honesty — everything else in the society can go to hell.
Given the state of Canada right now, and the fact that the Public Order Emergency Commission has only just concluded, Murray’s big picture analysis clearly resonated.
The third tendency is a demonstration of ideological capture.
The fact that Malcolm Gladwell fell back on arguments around a lack of diversity in the press — on a stage occupied by Taibbi, a Black man, a gay man, and a woman — signalled allegiance to a particular political project.
The pervasiveness of this political ideology within the press corps is a problem, and something that I hear complaints from the public about constantly. (I have written about the specific contours of this ideology here and here and here.)
It’s also a problem that this political ideology is an explicitly elitist one — and that its adherents don’t seem to have any awareness of that fact.
It’s worth referring to Taibbi’s own analysis of the Munk Debate, from his Substack:
Journalists were once more down-to-earth, being mostly fuckups and castoffs from other professions who tended to feel more comfortable in the company of bartenders or hot dog vendors than politicians. The latter were universally thought of as scum, or at least suspect.
Now a corporate press pass is a status symbol, reporters tend socially to run in the same circles as the people they cover, and when presented with the growing mountain of evidence that they’ve lost the trust of the public (see this recent Gallup survey), the reflex is to declare the public defective. Toward the end of the debate, Gladwell made this exact argument. After one last time invoking my longing for the fifties, when the press was so exclusive that “people like Michelle and I wouldn’t have been on the stage,” he shifted without any hint of contradiction to question the current wisdom of having mainstream media institutions “perfectly match” the makeup of the rabble:
What would restore the trust of Matt and Doug in mainstream media? With Matt, the answer is obvious: he would like if the world resembled 1955 again. That will fill him with joy, like more stories on the Hunter Biden laptop…
I think that they would be happier if they felt that the composition of prestigious journalistic institutions more closely reflected the full range of ideological attitudes in American public issues. That is actually a serious proposition.
I don’t mean to make light of it at all, but it is one that makes me a little uncomfortable. Because I don’t think that you can ultimately say that trust in institutions is reserved solely for institutions that perfectly match the characteristics of the general population. It is like saying that we don’t trust kindergarten teachers, because kindergarten teachers are over-represented with people having an enormous amount of patience for the temper tantrums of four year olds… I mean they are an extraordinary and very specific subgroup of the population that performs very well in that particular task more generally…
The “woke” political ideology that so many journalists now subscribe to — and that Gladwell espoused during parts of the debate — fundamentally distrusts the public. Which makes it hard to serve them.
The “woke” political ideology also impedes journalists’ news judgment.
Case in point: Gladwell scoffed when the Hunter Biden laptop story was raised, and had apparently asked Goldberg earlier in the day, “Who would care about that?”
The story, of course, involves allegations of corruption in the Biden family, and was widely suppressed and censored by Big Tech on the eve of an election. Many mainstream media outlets advanced claims from a group of former intelligence agents that the story was Russian disinformation. But now, many months later, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have deemed the story authentic and newsworthy.
Indeed, days after the Munk event, Taibbi scored a big scoop on this very topic — revealing leaked Twitter documents — that resulted in a storm of media coverage.
More on this in days to come. But for now, here’s a couple reactions from the mainstream media.
The fourth tendency that puts people off is condescension.
This brings me to my next point, which is that it’s difficult to overstate just how disrespectful Gladwell was to his opponents, coming across as smug and superior in a number of ways, from repeatedly mispronouncing Matt’s last name to calling Douglas “Doug.”
Goldberg, for her part, made fun of one of the truckers that she had interviewed in Ottawa, claiming that his inspiration for joining the protest was mushrooms. But her own reporting, here, reveals more complicated motivations:
“I’m here for the rights of our kids, for parents’ rights, for everyone’s rights,” said Wall. “So kids can live in a future where they don’t have to have something covering their face, lose emotion. You don’t have the human connection, don’t see them smile anymore. It’s dehumanizing.” His daughters, he told me, were seeing a school therapist weekly because of the emotional fallout of the pandemic.
This sort of condescension is a mainstay of the legacy press these days, and certainly of mainstream media journalists on Twitter — but that doesn’t make it any less shocking to encounter it in a public forum.
The fifth tendency is plain old mediocrity.
Simply put: Gladwell and Goldberg weren’t very strong debaters.
Their arguments were weak and badly articulated. They seemed unprepared. They didn’t listen. They misread the crowd.
Goldberg made admissions — on topics ranging from inaccuracies in the press to the fact that the media is largely owned by billionaires — that did not help her case.
The pair’s thinking wasn’t particularly sophisticated. And they didn’t make attempts to grapple with the issues in any deep or meaningful way.
All told, they performed poorly.
This likely came as a shock to some in the audience, given that Gladwell and Goldberg are associated with two of the most esteemed media outlets in the world.
I, too, found it pretty surprising. But not as surprising as I might have two years ago.
Here’s the thing: The mainstream media now values conformity above all else, and that is catastrophic for critical thinking and for debate.
As the Overton window narrows — and what’s considered acceptable thought and speech becomes increasingly limited — arguments become more rote.
The mainstream media lacks self-awareness, and so it routinely trots out lackluster arguments to defend itself, to a public that already distrusts it. With disastrous results.
As was the case here, at the Munk debate.
Stay tuned to Lean Out, this month we are doing a special podcast series on the rise of independent media.
Our first guest is journalist and documentary filmmaker Leighton Woodhouse.
As a primer, check out Woodhouse’s excellent essay “How the Media Trains Journalists to Lie.”
And, as it happens, Woodhouse posted a video this week of fellow Substacker Ethan Strauss expounding on his exquisite essay defending working from home. Which happens to be a rebuttal of specific quotes from — you guessed it — Malcolm Gladwell.
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