Canada’s annual Munk Debates didn’t go well for the team defending mainstream media trustworthiness.
“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” according to great generals, past and present.
Heavy-weight boxing champ Mike Tyson said the same thing about combat in the ring: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
As the annual Munk Debates in Canada were approaching, event organizers for the intellectual battle royale asked former Rolling Stone contributor turned independent journalist folk hero Matt Taibbi to participate.
Taibbi, along with writer Douglas Murray agreed to represent the pro side of 2022’s debate question. And it was a doozy.
On December 1, 2022, the eve of the debate, Taibbi treated his Substack subscribers to a little preview of the battle plan.
“Tonight at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, I’m teaming up with The War on the West author Douglas Murray in the prestigious Munk Debates,” Taibbi told his readers. “Our opponents are Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author and New Yorker staff writer, and Michelle Goldberg, MSNBC contributor and columnist for the New York Times.”
“You can probably guess which side I’ll be arguing,” Taibbi joked.
Taibbi, a 30-year veteran of the press corps, “grew up in the press,” as he told the audience during his introduction. “My father was a reporter. My stepmother was a reporter. My godparents were reporters. Every adult I knew growing up seemed to be in media. I even used my father’s TV mic flag as a toy.”
“I love the news business,” Taibbi admitted, frankly. “It’s in my bones. But I mourn for it. It’s destroyed itself.”
“My father had a saying: ‘The story’s the boss’,” said Taibbi. “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,” Taibbi reminded his audience. “Our job is to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you.”
“We don’t do that now,” he lamented. “The story is no longer the boss. Instead, we sell narrative, as part of a new business model that’s increasingly indifferent to fact.”
“When there were only a few channels, the commercial strategy of news companies was to aim for the whole audience,” Taibbi pointed out. “A TV news broadcast aired at dinnertime and was designed to be consumed by the whole family, from your crazy right-wing uncle to the sulking lefty teenager.”
“This system had its flaws,” Taibbi admitted. “However, making an effort to talk to everybody had benefits, too. For one, it inspired more trust. Gallup polls twice showed Walter Cronkite of CBS to be the most trusted person in America. That would never happen today.”
Taibbi’s introduction continued along the same lines. He was impassioned, he was eloquent. His arguments were well-reasoned, and his logic was irrefutable.
It was filled with gems like, “After the Internet arrived and flooded the market with new voices, some outlets found that instead of going after the whole audience, it made more financial sense to pick one demographic and dominate it,” and, “Whether it’s Fox, or MSNBC, or CNN, or the Washington Post, nearly all Western media outlets are in the demographic-hunting business.”
Naming it the “audience-optimization model,” Taibbi described the new system: “Instead of starting with a story and following the facts, you start with what pleases your audience, and work backward to the story.”
Decrying the new “bifurcated system,” as, “fundamentally untrustworthy,” Taibbi scolded his colleagues:
“Our colleagues on the other side tonight represent two once-great media organizations,” Taibbi said. “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.”
“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,” Taibbi told them. “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,” Taibbi declared. “It’s political entertainment, and therefore unreliable.”
“News media shouldn’t have a ‘side’,” Taibbi continued. “The press has to be seen as separate from politics, not just because this is a crucial component of trustworthiness, but also because the media derives all its power from the perception of its independence.”
“If a news organ is seen as too connected to one or another party, it loses its ability to serve as a check on power. How can you ‘hold Trump accountable’ without credibility?” he asked them.
“Getting things right is hard enough,” he said. “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.”
But none of that mattered.
Because the Cronkite comment was as far as he got.
Like any general or boxer with a battle plan, Taibbi had no idea that his opponent would seize on one seemingly innocuous, almost throwaway line in Taibbi’s introduction.
“On the substance, we were essentially unopposed,” Taibbi told his Substack readers the next day in a missive entitled, “Mainstream Media Slain in Canada.”
“Despite repeated attempts on our part to engage on the core question, the event disintegrated almost from the start into a weirdly personal affair,” Taibbi explained.
“What happened: Gladwell seized on the line and repeatedly asserted it meant I was pining for the all-white, all-male paradise of the fifties and sixties,” Taibbi wrote, his exasperation still obvious. “He went there five different times! By the last time, I threw my hands up in the air, and even sweet old ladies in the audience were rolling their eyes.”
Taibbi shared a, “sampling of the ‘Matt, who was born in 1970, misses Jim Crow’ quotes,” as he called them.
“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…”
If Gladwell hoped repeatedly name-calling Taibbi a racist would help win the debate, he was incorrect.
A pre-event poll of the audience showed 48% support for Taibbi’s pro side of the argument, 52% for Goldberg and Gladwell. 82% of the audience claimed to be willing to change their mind.
And they did.
A post-event poll of the same audience revealed a 39% shift in favorability for Taibbi and Murray’s argument against media trustworthiness. The 67% to 33% win was, in Taibbi’s words, (with references), “the most decisive rout in the history of the event.”
By attacking the sentiment — “I miss the days when journalists and newspeople were trusted,” Gladwell hoped no doubt to ignore the reality: “Journalists and media outlets are no longer trusted in America.”
It didn’t work.
Calling Matt Taibbi a racist didn’t win the debate, and it won’t improve the trustworthiness scores for American media companies, either.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)