On November 30, at the prestigious Munk Debates in Toronto, 20-year news veteran Matt Taibbi and author and columnist Douglas Murray faced off against New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell and New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg on the question: “Be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media.
The outcome was remarkable: As Taibbi tells it:
A pre-event vote of attendees and listeners showed 48% support for our “side,” versus 52% for theirs. 82% of thousands of audience members claimed to be willing to change their minds. They were telling the truth, as it turned out. In a bitter slugfest that featured tense confrontations, impassioned oratory (especially from Douglas), and several almost unbelievably petty exchanges, Douglas and I swung the vote 39% in our favor, ending with a 67%-33% win, the most decisive rout in the history of the event.Matt Taibbi, “Mainstream Media Slain in Canada” at TK News (December 2, 2022)
Taibbi, readers may recall, is the newsman to whom Elon Musk leaked the Twitter files, detailing — from inside Twitter — how Twitter had suppressed the New York Post story about the compromising information found on Hunter Biden’s laptop. That story, which broke shortly after the debate, conveniently underlines what Taibbi and Murray were trying to say.
In an opening statement published before the event, Taibbi offered some thoughts on what’s changed. Two stand out. First, with so many competitors today, media now cater overwhelmingly to a specific demographic as opposed to a general audience, as in the past:
Call it the “audience-optimization” model: instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience, and work backward to the story. In this system, the overwhelming majority of national media organizations cater to one “side” or the other. For instance, according to a Pew Center survey from a few years ago, 93% of Fox’s audience votes Republican, while in an exactly mirroring phenomenon, MSNBC’s audience is 95% Democratic.Matt Taibbi, “Be it Resolved: Don’t Trust Mainstream Media” at TK News (November 30, 2022)
One outcome is declining standards of accuracy:
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.Matt Taibbi, “Be it Resolved: Don’t Trust Mainstream Media” at TK News (November 30, 2022)
Classicist Victor Davis Hanson has noted the declining standards as well: “This bias now accompanies increasing (and increasingly obvious) journalistic incompetence. Lax standards reflect weaponized journalism schools and woke ideology that short prior basic requisites of writing and ethical protocols of quoting and sourcing.” (American Greatness, December 4, 2022)
Taibbi has written on this topic before. His thesis is that the New York Times, for example, is now a weathervane of elite, not middle-class opinion: “Along with companion outlets like the Washington Post and The Atlantic (as pure a reflection of establishment thought as exists in America), the paper in this sense fulfills the same function that Izvestia once served in the Soviet Union, telling us little or even less than nothing about breaking news events.”
Under the circumstances, there is little reason for trust. So public trust in all such outlets has plummeted in recent years. It’s likely relevant that CNN, for example, has started mass layoffs: “Chris Cillizza, a political reporter and editor-at-large, Martin Savidge, Alex Field, Mary Anne Fox, and Alison Kosik were among the most recognizable names let go by the network.” (Yahoo News, December 1, 2022).
It’s not that surprising, in short, that Douglas and Taibbi won decisively over Gladwell and Goldberg. The problem is more, what to do about the problem. Musk would appear to be making a start by firing a number of Twitterati whose job was private policing of the stories and views of others.
It hasn’t helped that such people have worried publicly about “disinformation” — as if they themselves were any protection from it. Quite the reverse.
Inaccuracy? Here’s my view: Two factors play a role in its growth: Before the internet, media — especially newspapers — were vital sources of information. Let’s say a journalist got the sports scores wrong. Or made an accusation against a prominent medic that did not withstand scrutiny. Or reported that a sports figure had used drugs — who in fact hadn’t…? The consequences of being wrong could be far-reaching and significant.
So, whatever a journalist’s faults might have been, getting the story wrong a lot of the time couldn’t be among them. Today, with so many online sources, those who choose to be careless have much less to fear.
But there’s something else too: Today’s highly polarized audience cares much less. If the medic or the sports figure is of the “wrong” political persuasion, a great many readers will be happy to accept the false accusation. And, conversely, belonging to the “right” political persuasion conveys a sort of invulnerability even to a well-founded accusation — as the Twitter files story shows.
We can’t turn back the clock. But if the media are a multitude of little pravdas and izvestias, we had better reject censorship more now than ever. Otherwise, we will quickly have one big Pravda and one big Izvestia instead.
You may also wish to read: Elon Musk throws a bomb at media no one should trust Musk’s release of the “Twitter files” on the suppression of the Hunter Biden laptop story has provoked media outrage and attempts to deflect the issues. The question that looms is whether social media should have that kind of cozy relationship with the FBI and Musk thinks it shouldn’t.