A self-conscious reflection on Malcolm Gladwell, mainstream media, and the Autumn 2022 Munk Debate.

By Vikram Nijhawan, Contributor

According to a 2021 Pew Survey, only 4% of Americans aged 18-29 receive their information from newspapers like this. Therefore, my entire spiel here may amount to nothing more than shouting into the void. That would be a familiar feeling for many legacy media outlets today, who have faced unprecedented challenges in earning the trust, respect, and attention of the wider public. This issue lay at the heart of the 28th in-person Munk Debate, Toronto’s biannual space for civic public debate, serving a function that today’s mainstream media landscape has largely abandoned.

On Nov. 30, in a packed house of 3,000 attendees at the Roy Thomson Hall, four esteemed journalists (including Trinity College’s own, Malcolm Gladwell) took the stage to debate the motion: “Be it resolved, don’t trust the mainstream media”. The event’s promotional visuals depicted an orange background, with the words “mainstream media” rendered in bold black letters, supported by puppet strings held by silhouetted hands from above. Charged, if unsubtle, imagery.

From my balcony seat overlooking the stage, I had the closest thing to an objective bird’s-eye view of the situation: the debaters and the several students from UofT’s Munk School of Global Affairs privileged with the best seats in the house behind them. I had to crane my neck to see one of the teleprompter screens above the stage, which flashed soundbites from several notable media figures expressing their differing views, from established journalists to former President Donald Trump.

The pre-debate poll revealed a divided audience, with 48% voting in favour of the motion, to 52% who seemingly prefer the vaunted yet fallible “fake news” outlets they view as, for better or worse, the last bastion of truth in our “post-truth” age. In a follow-up poll, 82% of the audience revealed that they would be willing to change their minds over the course of the debate (which begged the question: what were the other 18% doing here?).

The Con side, disappointingly, provided a lukewarm defense of the industry their livelihoods depend upon. Malcolm Gladwell, a veteran New Yorker writer whose reporting accuracy and aptitude have long been questioned, gave a performance that few would-be young journalists would respect, resorting to barbed personal attacks and “legions of straw-man” arguments throughout the proceeding. The debate’s moderator, Rudyard Griffiths, proudly introduced the famed Canadian and UofT alumnus as “one of us” at the outset. By the end, I sensed a collective feeling shared by the Munk students behind him on stage: America can have him.

The acerbic and incendiary Douglas Murray, associate editor of the U.K.’s The Spectator, took apart Gladwell’s flimsy arguments with the Bondian mix of wit and ruthlessness that sounded all the more trusted being delivered in a British accent. Meanwhile, his partner, the award-winning Rolling Stone columnist and Substack writer Matt Taibbi, provided an impassioned plea for the media to stop being partisan “political entertainment”, and return to its roots in factual, well-researched, and politically-neutral reporting.

The Con side’s response: concessions to their opposition’s valid points, with unassertive anecdotes and non-arguments to back up their own (including some puzzling personal attacks from Gladwell, and a meandering conclusion from Goldberg about a recent New York Times puberty-blockers story). It wasn’t enough to sway the audience; the slim majority the Con side held at the beginning evaporated, with a post-debate poll showing a soaring 67% voting Pro, the largest turnaround in The Munk Debates’ history.

Since Gladwell and Goldberg did a less-than-stellar job of defending their field, this unbearably naive, idealistic reporter (me) will try his best. Is there any argument that can be levied in defense of this once sacrosanct profession?

Good journalism is still necessary. The co-recipients of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, were both reporters who advocated for free press in countries with oppressive authoritarian regimes. If trusted and unbiased media, much like democracy, is under threat around the world, then the need for accurate, impartial journalism is all the more essential than ever before. In that sense, Goldberg’s echoing of Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy rings true for mainstream media: “It’s the worst system, except for all the others”.

But Murray’s deployment of another British notable’s quote, this one from George Orwell, was more convincing: “A journalist’s job is to tell the facts no one wants to hear”. Whether because of the seismic shifts in printing the Internet has caused, to the profitability of publishing partisan stories, news organizations aren’t delivering on that duty. Social media algorithms curated to our tastes now dictate the news stories we come across through our scrolling. 

Increasingly, it startles me how a family member or close friend and I can have completely different perceptions of reality. One of my closest friends, who grew up and whose family still lives in Russia, deems the Western media coverage of the Ukraine War to be “propaganda” – the same word we use to describe Russia’s state-controlled media. My family back in Ottawa endured the convoy protests earlier this year, with chaotic scenes of neo-Nazi imagery appearing alongside headlines of major news outlets; yet speaking to individuals who attended the protests here in Toronto cited an overwhelmingly peaceful demonstration devoid of the incendiary elements the CBC promulgated.

“Having different opinions is so 20th century,” proposed Murray, at the debate’s conclusion. “This century, we have different facts”. 

How long can a society function when its citizens can’t agree on the facts, or rely on the same institutions to safeguard and convey those facts?

I want to believe that mainstream media can do better, if nothing else than out of the vain hope that there await professional prospects for me, to write compelling and widely-read stories of public benefit. But it has become gradually clear to me that the polarizing, profit-driven nature of today’s tentpole media companies elide those once cherished goals. 

Yours truly voted Pro at the start. The professionals who I once sought to emulate didn’t convince me to change my vote by the end.