By Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The debate resolution was: “Be it resolved, don’t trust Main Stream Media’.
And the initial polling was 48:52 in favour of those ‘Trusting MSM’. The final tally was a thumping win for those in favour of the motion, after they heard four brilliant minds,two on either side. It was a stellar debate, lasting 100 minutes of erudite back and forth. There was no baying or booing. It was a decent,decorous debate with dignified punches exchanged. And the audience was gripped and persuaded to pivot to a position, where the MSM, the world over is today in. Not worth our TRuST. Imagine this debate in our midst. What would the result have been among an audience of 3000. May be 80:20, as if a Pareto Principle.
The summary of the debate was – Public trust in mainstream media is at an all-time low. Critics point to coverage of COVID-19, the 2020 election, and the Ottawa trucker protest as proof that legacy outlets like the New York Times, The Globe and Mail and CNN can no longer be relied upon to provide unbiased reporting. Activist journalists are using pen and paper to push political agendas while their bosses lean into the profitability of polarization. Mainstream media’s defenders argue that their institutions offer an invaluable public service that alternative outlets are either incapable or uninterested in providing: careful fact-based reporting on important issues and holding the powerful to account. In a brave new world of “fake news” and “drive by” journalism, traditional news organizations are essential to democracy and a bulwark against corruption, misinformation and the private interests of the powerful.
Arguing for motion was the associate editor of The Spectator Magazine, Fox News contributor, and bestselling author of The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray. He was joined on stage by Substack publishing sensation, former Rolling Stone columnist, and investigative journalist, Matt Taibbi.
Arguing against the resolution was the internationally acclaimed author, podcaster and veteran New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell. His debate partner was Michelle Goldberg, New York Times columnist, MSNBC contributor, former American Prospect senior correspondent and senior writer for The Nation.
Illustrations abounded from either side. The focus was on MSM – with NY,WaP0,CNN,BBC as ‘respected’ and ‘acclaimed’. The searchlight was not on non -MSM, which is a lost cause being partisan,biased, and politically aligned on either side. The consensus that emerged was that there has been a precipitous fall in the standards of MSM, as they once were. The slip ups were now not mere mistakes or inadvertent. They bordered now on intentional, deliberate, and meant to carry forward an ‘agenda’, akin to what non-MSM were guilty of.
Michelle and Malcolm conceded that they did see ‘foul ups’, but they still had at least the vestiges of principles to ‘admit folly and correct themselves’.They argued that MSM still swore by Truth and Fact-checking, but costs involved were a drag. MSM did not pick up stories which were unverified or unverifiable, and to cherry pick on ‘selectivity’, was not fair or just criticism of MSM.
Matt and Douglas were scathing in exposing the ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘double standards’ and assumed ‘authority’ or ‘authenticity’ which were now trashed in story after story. MSM today was a selfserving ghost and not the trustworthy behemoth, it may have been in the 20th century. Business, commercial interests were uppermost now, as ‘they’ were now ‘owned, managed and controlled’ by such special interests. A social conscience seems incompatible with Profit. An ‘agenda’ drove them ex. to drive Donald Trump out by falling even knowingly, for false stories and quietly hiding true corrupt stories, on the other side. And spin on stories won.
Focus was on US and Canadian media, as was understandable, in the 28th edition of Munk Debates, hosted in Toronto,Canada. But, one could so easily correlate the illustrations to any democracy, even ours. News is no longer sacrosanct. It is tainted not mingled with views. One can pick up any lead story in our MSM and detect a certain slant, which is ‘ideological’ and/or political as the bend is evident, as reflective of the apparent ‘philosophy’ of the entity- which can pretty much be seen and read in the masthead itself. To ‘them’ our opinion is irrelevant for they ‘hate us’.
All four debaters were not wanting in their effort, to vindicate their positions. They ‘took on’ each other. Taunted,miffed, trifled and even riled rough at times. Yet, it was a decorous debate even, if imbued with characteristics for ideological food fights. The audience was quiet and absorbed, and clapped hard for both sides, not revealing who they were swayed by or would vote in the end. It was qualitatively of a very high standard and a beautifully balanced debate. The like of which may never take place in our midst.
In the end, I voted on the pro side of the motion, at the start. And I had absolutely no convincing reason to shift sides. Though I was willing to, as were 18% of those who were counted voting at the start. They were swayed in the end not necessarily by Matt Taibbi and/or Douglas Murray. But by the substance in what we see,hear and read from and as Main Stream Media, across all democratic polities.
The values remain the same. The Process too. But the ethos and ethics have been left behind as if human sacrifice. Too much Wokism and Cancel Culture have taken over in todays MSM.
In the name of nobility camouflaged as ‘liberal’ ‘inclusive’, self-acclaimed elitism has taken over, to deride the rest of us as ‘uninformed’ ‘antideluvian’ and ‘uneducated’.
Not True, I say and many would join in.
MSM today has morphed into Motivated Selfserving Media.
Not just the slip is showing,you see.
(Author is advocate practicing in the Madras High Court)