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Matt Taibbi: Munk Debate on Mainstream Media

Author Douglas Murray and Matt Taibbi take on Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker, and Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times.

By Matt Taibbi / TK News

The following is a transcript of the Munk Debates in Toronto last Wednesday, November 30th, in which author Douglas Murray and I took on New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell and columnist Michelle Goldberg of the New York Times. As noted, we won with the largest swing in the event’s history, moving from a 48%-52% voter deficit to a 67%-33% win. Because the entire transcript exceeds Google’s email limit, this portion is edited for size, but there’s a video you can access here, and you can also click through to a PDF here.

I know people have other questions for me, which I’ll address soon. One quick note. It’s interesting that the Twitter Files story broke just after this debate about the mainstream press. The fact that that story couldn’t have appeared in a legacy publication, and despite being picked up around the world wasn’t covered at all in papers like the New York Times (which has lavishly covered new Twitter chief Elon Musk’s every other move) is the ultimate demonstration of why there’s a trust problem. The Washington Post waited a day, then pulled a Jason Robards/Ben Bradlee and “stick it inside somewhere” job last night.

I failed to make this point in the debate, but the question people always have when assessing journalists is, “Whose side are they on?” The public rightly expects to be the main client. What we’ve seen in the wake of the Twitter story is fury by legacy reporters (in humorously identical language) at an attempt to address public concerns and curiosity, coupled with a lot of weeping on behalf of people like Twitter’s former chief censor, Yoel Roth, who can be seen here complaining about the “trauma” he and other “content moderators” experienced after events like January 6th. The press, culturally, has been transformed from an institution that reflexively identified with the broad audience, to one whose first instinct is to protect the people they’re meant to cover. That seems an insuperable problem, and a subtext of the discussion below. We removed my opening remarks, already published last week. Anyway:

Rudyard Griffiths (moderator): This is our 28th debate in this series, 28th debate… You’re in for a real treat this evening. And once again, we have an important needed debate for us to dig into. It’s one that demands our attention. It touches on a lot of the key issues that are roiling our society right now. And it goes to the heart of what the media is in our democracy, the extent to which the media today provides us with the things that we need as citizens to make sometimes difficult choices that we need to do about how we’re governed. This is a debate about power. How do we hold power and the powerful to account, and what’s the media’s role in this? So I want all of us to think tonight carefully on our debate motion. Be it resolved: do not trust the mainstream media…

From the opening statements:

Michelle Goldberg: I’m not standing up here and arguing that the media never gets anything wrong. The media’s full of human beings who are subject to all of the frailties that human beings are subject to.

But think about the big stories of the last five years or so, from the Trump presidency to Covid to the war in Ukraine. Now, if you had just followed the CBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, they all got some things wrong.

But in terms of the big stories, worries, if you paid attention to the mainstream media, you were likely to be much safer and much closer to the truth than if you followed the kind of contrarians… For example, it was a common refrain, I think one that Matt made again and again throughout the Trump presidency, that people who were extremely alarmed about the prospects of authoritarianism, that people who believed that Donald Trump would try to overturn our constitutional order were hysterical. I think that the point of view of the hysterics is actually held up kind of well in light of January 6th. Covid. The journalists were following experts who were facing a once in a century pandemic and official guidance kept changing.

So you heard different things about masks. You heard different things about whether or not the vaccines really prevented transmission. You heard different things about whether the J&J vaccine was as good as the mRNA vaccines. However, if you followed the mainstream media, you knew [about] covid pretty early. You knew that covid was airborne. You knew that it was more serious than the flu. And you knew that the vaccines were likely to protect you. The covid contrarians, the contrarian media, the ones who were saying not to trust mainstream sources of opinion, were saying this is nothing, this is just another flu. Deaths are going to be 6,000. The media doesn’t want to tell you, I mean, Matt wrote this several times, the media doesn’t want to tell you about Ivermectin. Similarly with Ukraine, in the run up to the invasion of Ukraine, again I think Matt said that the media is overhyping this, that people are kind of taking stenography from the Biden administration, that Russia actually is probably not going to invade.

And then when it did invade, what you’ve heard from a lot of kinds of people who reflexively distrust the media is that the media’s being too triumphalist. You know, they won’t admit that Russia’s doing much better than they say they [are], they’re pretending that the Ukrainians have more of a chance than they did. And again, I would just say that I think that the mainstream media has gotten the big things right. And so, while mainstream journalism, there’s a lot you can say against it, to paraphrase Churchill, it is the worst system in the world except for all the others. Thank you.

Rudyard Griffiths: Thank you Michelle, for that terrific opening statement. We’re now going to turn it over to Douglas for the next pro opening statement. Douglas, the stage is yours.

Douglas Murray : Well, thank you very much, Rudyard.

It’s a great pleasure to be here. As Rudyard said, I’ve come a rather long way from the front lines of the Ukraine conflict. Because I like to see these things with my own eyes for myself and to come to my own conclusions. I came out through Moldova the other day, through London, then got to Toronto, and a friend of mine said, why are you going to Toronto? I said, an invitation to Toronto in late November, who on earth says no to that? Only a madman would say no to that. You’ll see shortly why I’m so keen to speak about this issue here in Canada. Let me put it this way though, to begin with, I would say that recently any sentient observer of the media will have had their moment of realization, a moment where they saw through something that the mainstream media was doing.

It may have happened because the mainstream media said something about you or someone, you know, it may be as in my case, for instance, that an entire country got maligned by the mainstream media. It’s very interesting, this result, a 48-52. That’s exactly the result the British people had in the Brexit vote. You know what, when we voted to leave the European Union, we did so against all of the implications of the New York Times, Michelle’s employer. We just didn’t listen to them. And the New York Times never forgave us. Ever since 2016, there has not been one story in the New York Times that’s positive about Britain. I’ll run through some of them: we had a culinary review that said that the British people still survive on mutton and oatmeal.

We had an anti-Brexit piece from the north of England from Lancashire, a piece of reporting where the author ended up having to admit that every single one of his facts was wrong, but his perception was correct. We recently had the New York Times draft somebody from Russia Today, Vladimir Putin’s propaganda channel, as an employee of the New York Times, to attack Brexit Britain. And when her Majesty the Queen died, not 10 days of mourning were observed at the New York Times. Three hours before, they started attacking the Queen. And they did so day after day after day, because they hate Brexit Britain. That is just an agenda, ladies and gentlemen. That’s not anything else. That’s an agenda, one they’ve decided to take. Now, I said that I want to be here in Canada to talk about this because I think that this country has just been through something absolutely extraordinary. You really know that the world is in trouble when Canada becomes very interesting.

I remember in your elections, as Norm McDonald said, we’re all about like, should we put out that bridge or not? Now Canada has become really interesting. It became interesting in January and February of this year. Why? Because you had protesters in Ottawa. Really interesting. When people come out in large numbers, you know what the job of reporters is? The job of reporters is to go out and say, why are you on the streets? What brought you here..?

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… they were Nazis, they were white supremacists, they were anti-Semites. They were probably homophobes, they were misogynists, they were probably transphobes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

He did all the things you do in the modern political age, if you want to just defenestrate somebody who’s 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. I will give you a couple of examples, but, ladies and gentlemen, I could go on for hours with examples of this. You had a CBC host describing the freedom convoy as a feral mob. You had a Toronto Star columnist saying — sorry for the language — it’s a homegrown hate farm, that was then jet fueled by an American, right-funded, “rat-fucking” operation.

Jesus, they can’t even write at these papers anymore. CBC said that two indigenous women were so scared to go outside in Ottawa because of racist violence. Didn’t bother to mention that indigenous drummers had led the truckers in an “Oh Canada” rendition. The National Observer said the many black and indigenous freedom convoy supporters were in fact duped by the truckers. The Globe and Mail reporters said: my 13 year-old son told me to tell protesters I’m not a Jew, out of fear of antisemitic violence, without mentioning that one of the leaders of the convoy was himself Jewish.

Now, why is this so rancid? Utterly, utterly rancid and corrupt? Because in this country, your media, your mainstream media is funded by the government.

The government in Canada can tell the banks to shut down people’s bank accounts. Oh, yeah, your government can do that, and if you’re happy with that, just think about what would have happened if the shoe was on the other foot. The government can do that, but in Canada, they can also tell the media what to do. And the media does the bidding of the Canadian government. That isn’t a free society’s media. I’ve seen, unfree countries all my life. But this, in a developed liberal democracy like Canada, is a disgrace. We’re not saying don’t read the mainstream media. We’re just saying: don’t trust them.

Malcolm Gladwell: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be back home.

 I thought I’d just tell two very simple stories. One of them will not be about the Truckers who I think have been well defended by my colleague Mr. Murray. I spent the first ten years of my journalism career at the Washington Post, that is the definition of the mainstream media. This was from the mid-80s to the mid-90s in the era of the mainstream media’s greatest influence*, and it was there that I learned my trade as a journalist and there were two things that were drilled into me during my time there. One was the importance of fairness. If you quoted someone denouncing someone else you had to call up the person who was denounced and get a response. If X said something about Y, you had to call Y and find out how they felt about what X said. You had to make a good faith effort to talk to all sides of an issue. And if you did not do that, your story did not appear in the paper. Second thing that was very important was accuracy.

I remember once I did a story about a mall in Buffalo, and it was an upscale mall, and they had the bus stop across a busy highway from the mall. They didn’t want the sort of person who came on a bus to come to their mall. And in the course of writing this story, I talked about what the bus service was, it was the Amherst bus, I said even the bus doesn’t come from the city of Buffalo. That was an error, a dumb stupid error. The next day the bus service and the mall and the city of Buffalo called the paper and very angrily demanded a correction. Which they got the next day in a very prominent place in the paper. I was pulled in by my editor and given a dressing down that I remember to this day. Basically, I was told I was this close to being fired. That’s how seriously the paper took the commitment to accuracy in its pages. Now, Matt would have you believe that those two principles are no longer a part of the brief for the mainstream media. I would like to say to him that’s completely false. He is so far removed from the mainstream media that I think he has a naive view of what goes on inside of those institutions. They remain committed to a professional set of ideals that they have held for decades.

Story number two, 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 this, 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 said and didn’t agree with other things, thought nothing of it, because he occupied about 90% of that conversation. Then in the following week, when the podcast came out, they released a clip, which was just of my contribution, making 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 so 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. And so, word got around the internet that I was someone who worked from home, and believed everyone else should not work from home, and was so overwhelmed emotionally with my hypocrisy that I was close to tears. I was trending on Twitter for a 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 sign of kind of hypocrisy you should expect from a single childless man who never leaves his apartment. And so I called up and said, I’m not single. I’m not childless, and 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 what others have been talking about is content, the content of the things that people in the mainstream media say and the problems they have with that content. I don’t think the issue here is content. The issue here is process, right? The issue here is the mainstream media has a set of professional norms in place that work the best way they can towards the production of fairness and accuracy. The non-mainstream media is a set of institutions that are outside of that tradition that have an open and not a closed platform. And you cannot have an open platform and simultaneously adhere to a strict set of professional norms. You cannot say anyone can become a doctor and then complain when the surgeon takes out your spleen in thinking that it’s your gall bladder. Right? Now why am I making such a big deal about this? Because trust is not about content. Trust is about process. And there is one institution here that strikes me, has a commitment to the right kind of process and a whole set of other institutions that most assuredly do not.

Rudyard Griffiths: Wow… Matt Taibbi, you get the first opportunity to rebut what you’ve heard from Michelle and Malcolm.

Matt Taibbi: First of all, I think I should respond to Michelle, who simply misquoted me, proving my point. I never once said, the media doesn’t want you to hear about ivermectin. I don’t care about ivermectin. What I wrote about was people being deleted from the internet by platforms like Facebook for talking about ivermectin, which I don’t believe in. I believe people should be able to talk about what they want without being removed from the internet. You’re going to be the second person who’s going to owe me a correction after this — has already done that. Malcolm, you seem to think I’ve never worked in the mainstream media. I spent 15 years at Rolling Stone. I spent all that time writing 7,000 word features that had to be fact-checked, every line. I’m absolutely familiar with the process of mainstream media. That’s why I’m so disappointed in what happened. The New York Times and the entire mainstream media spent years following a fake story about Donald Trump being in league with Vladimir Putin to fix the 2016 election.

It was a wrong story. We have a leaked audio tape that was published in, where the editor of the New York Times says, well, we got caught a little flat-footed** on that one because “our readers who want Donald Trump to go away” are going to be disappointed about this. He says, we built our entire newsroom “around one story.” And they got it wrong. There’s no way to defend that kind of inaccuracy. And it only happens if everybody wants so badly for it to be true that they overlook all the guardrails that are in place.

Michelle Goldberg: I do want to go into the weeds of the Ottawa trucker protest. Because I might have been the only one of us… Did you cover them? No. So I think I might have been the only one of us who was at the Ottawa trucker protests. And I’m one of the liberal columnists at the Times. I’ve covered the far right. I showed up at the Ottawa trucker protests kind of expecting the sort of things that I’ve seen at Donald Trump rallies at various even further right events, and didn’t find it.

You know, I was really quite astonished. I think that it’s been pretty conclusively shown that the organizers of this protest were people on the far right, were people with every kind of unsavory and sometimes racist ideas. But what really shocked me walking around and talking to people was how many people were just totally politically disconnected. I remember getting into a truck with someone saying, what inspired you to come here? And he said, mushrooms, you know, he was tripping, and he had this desire to get in his car and drive. But, there were a lot of people who were just traumatized. They were lonely. They were so happy to suddenly be surrounded by people after having been isolated for so long. People were hugging each other, people were hugging me, even though I’m from the hated mainstream media.

And I told my editors that this is what I found. And they said, great. That’s more interesting than what we thought you were going to find. It was more interesting. And I wrote it, and they devoted an entire page to it.

Douglas Murray: I’m delighted you went to the protest. I’m sorry, I was on another story at the time. And, I’m delighted that you reported, honestly, since you didn’t report Matt’s comments, honestly, tonight. And the last time you were on this stage with Jordan Peterson, you didn’t report his comments accurately either. Let me address the main point that has come out from the other side, which is that the mainstream media has frailties. Sure, it has frailties. And nobody is saying that non-mainstream media don’t have frailties. Of course they do. The simple proposal in front of the audience tonight is whether or not you can trust the mainstream media. That is, that you don’t need anything else. You don’t need any other information from elsewhere and you can just turn on CBC in the evening and, you know, you’ve got your stuff.

You can pick up the New York Times, the Washington Post in the morning, and you know that there’s no spin on the story. It’s absolutely accurate reporting. I was interested by Malcolm’s story about himself, because I wonder, Malcolm, if you hadn’t have been yourself, whether you would’ve got that call from a journalist, I wonder if you weren’t yourself, if you weren’t a New York Times bestselling author, if you didn’t speak to audiences like this, if you were just an ordinary member of the public who’d been grossly defamed in the mainstream media, whether they’d have bothered with you. I’d submit no, because time and again, that’s been shown to be the case.

Malcolm Gladwell: A couple things I’m puzzled over. One is that I thought that since you guys were in favor of the proposition, you would at some point have given us a definition of what you meant when you used the phrase mainstream media. Douglas, I noticed in your comments to me right now, you said would I have been called if I were not who I am, it was a very puzzling loquation. But, if I were someone else, would I have been called?

If I had been and I’m quoting from you, if someone else had been “grossly defamed” in the mainstream media, but I wasn’t grossly defamed in the mainstream media. I was grossly defamed in the non-mainstream media. Second thing was I was greatly amused by the affection Matt Taibbi has for the age of Walter Cronkite, which he seems to hold up as a golden moment. In that moment the mainstream media was populated entirely by white men from elite schools. Why you would’ve had such affection and say that’s the gold standard and we should trust the mainstream media precisely at the moment when the mainstream media is least representative is really puzzling to me.

I would point out at the height of Walter Cronkite’s reign in American media, neither people like Michelle and I wouldn’t have been on the stage. Right? We weren’t part of the conversation, so I don’t know why we should hold such a kind of affection for that moment. I would just point out that the reason Walter Cronkite was so beloved by people like Matt Taibbi’s father and grandfather is that he was an “amen chorus” for the United States government. So the two of you should really get together in the next five minutes and work out your story.

One last comment, and that is, I was most amused by the particular subjects that seemed to have excited the imagination and outrage of the two of you. I’ll just list them before I go in my last 19 seconds. Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, the Canadian truckers, Ivermectin, Jordan Peterson, and then something. These aren’t things driven by the mainstream media. These are obsessions of the non-mainstream media. Once again, work it out, guys.

Matt Taibbi: Are you really saying that Trump’s relationship with Russia was not an obsession of mainstream media? It was basically the entire content of cable news for three years.

Douglas Murray: Malcolm Gladwell said we need to define mainstream media. If we haven’t, it’s because I spoke to the organizers before this tonight saying, are we going to spend the whole debate debating what the mainstream media definition should be? And they assured me not. But we can do it, let me do it in shorthand. The mainstream media in my view would be, for instance, things like government subsidized media that say what the government wants ‘em to say.

Again, we’ve run up against the email limit. Please click the links above to access the whole transcript.

*Gladwell boasts that the media was at its “greatest influence” in the mid-80s, which happens to be the same time (1985, specifically) Walter Cronkite was last voted America’s most trusted person. He and I were referencing the same time period.

**The quote was “a tiny bit flat-footed.”

Edited for clarity 

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Matt Taibbi
Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, was a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

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