On October 27 I was part of the "Intelligence Squared" debate series, squaring off with NPR’s John Hockenberry, Politico‘s Jim VandeHei, and Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff about the future of media. My side of the debate – with fine debating partners, David Carr of the New York Times and Phil Bronstein of the San Francisco Chronicle, was arguing against the "resolution" (this was a classic, Oxford-style debate) of "Good Riddance to the Mainstream Media." I’m happy to report that we won the faceoff — 50 percent of the audience came into the evening opposing the resolution; after the debate was over that number had swelled to 68 percent!
As The Nations editor and publisher it was an unusual position for me to take given how regularly the magazine criticizes the MSM’S missteps. But the values and virtues of a vigilant, powerful press are more critical now than ever and the answer to media bias and infotainment is not to throw "the baby out with the bath-water", as I said, probably one time too many, during the debate!
The debate was lively, and at times contentious, with Carr quickly emerging as the star of the evening. He is an extraordinary and idiosyncratic character — a cross between a figure out of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Clark Kent with a deep, gravelly voice colored by life’s vicissitudes. He employed a highly effective, if eccentric style of rhetoric complete with a powerful visual flourish at the end when he brandished a printout of Wolff’s site Newser, a news aggregation site, with all references to the MSM cut off. The page, as Carr noted, strongly resembled swiss cheese.
Wolff himself did his team no favors with a generally rude and insulting posture that seemed to alienate much of the audience. It also distracted people from some strong arguments put forth by his partner Hockenberry, who was valiant in his passionate defense of the first amendment.
Phil Bronstein was equally passionate about the critical need for the MSM to continue functioning. He eloquently explained why big institutions were critical to take on unaccountable mega-corporations and unchecked government abuses. In the Q&A session, a woman, who just happened to be the chief counsel for the Hearst Media Group, brought home that point when she listed the number of recent lawsuits brought by newspapers to challenge wrongful convictions and asked VandeHei how many such suits his online newspaper Politico and other internet news operations have filed. She’s still waiting for an answer.
Each debater began with an opening statement. Read mine below and below that are video highlights from the evening; the entire event will be broadcast, re-broadcast and streamed on NPR affiliates around the country and at NPR.org. Thanks to Intelligence Squared for inviting me to participate in such a spirited and intelligent debate series.
October 27, 2009
I never imagined that as editor and publisher of The Nation I’d be standing **Against** the resolution: "good riddance to the mainstream media." for 144 years, the nation has challenged the limits, exposed the flaws of the msm; in fact, we’ve chronicled the msm’s corporate consolidation which –through the gutting of newsrooms in quest for ever higher profit margins–contributed to the journalistic crisis we confront today .
But these are times when as an old media guy antonio Gramsci would say, the old media order may be dying, but a new one is not yet born. That’s why I believe to state without nuance **good riddance to the msm** may get the testosterone flowing but it distracts from the tough work of salvaging AND reviving quality journalism and newsrooms that will hold accountable the powerful. And what is michael wolff going on about: his newswer site is essentially an aggregator and annotator of msm stories!
So I am ready to separate my frustration with the many weaknesses of the msm from a recognition of the valuable role it plays in our democracy. The best of the msm–look at last 15 years of pulitzers–has exposed, shamed, reformed, rectified.
Don’t get me wrong. Few people were more frustrated than i was with the msm’s coverage of –well, to take a few examples: the 2000 election debacle, the run up to last year’s financial meltdown and most centrally, the Iraq war. With important exceptions the msm acted more as stenographers to power than the independent-minded, hard-headed reporters and investigators that reporters and editors like to imagine themselves. While it may have been impossible to determine, for certain, whether saddam hussein had weapons of mass destruction, it sure was obvious that the administration could not make its case; whether with regard to the weapons, nukes, terrorism, iraq and al –qaeda, and really anything. And even if you made the mistake of taking them at their word regarding the threat level–something, again, with a few important exceptions (Knight-Ridder, now McClatchey, Walter Pincus, Seymour Hersh).
Even worse, the reporting of the war was not exactly an isolated incident. Up until hurricane Katrina, it was almost impossible for reporters and editors to tell the truths that many of them spoke of privately about the degree of incompetence, ideological obsession, corruption, and politicization inside the bush administration. How telling is it, for instance, that the attorneys general scandal had to be uncovered by what was then a fly-by-night website tpm run by liberal journalist, josh marshall.
But the fact is, we can’t let our emotions, whether on the right or the left, get in the way of our better judgment. And from the standpoint of the health of our democracy, for all the frustration it causes us, the msm is something we can’t live without–at least until we have some idea of what’s going to replace it. And right now, nobody does.
The fact is nobody but institutions like the ny times, the wash post, the wall street journal–excluding its nutty editorial pages–and a small group of regional papers do most of the reporting in this country that the rest of us depend on to try to hold power accountable. And while mistakes (often arrogant, infuriating ones) are endemic, it’s the hard-working reporter whether in congress, the federal bureaucracy, statehouses, city hall or on war fronts or in a beleaguered third world nation that does the expensive drudge work that allows our system to operate with even a modicum of accountability. But such reporting, especially the investigative kind, is expensive and it does not pay for itself with advertisers or even, sad to say, readers.
Here’s another reason not say good riddance to the msm. For all their flaws, in a flawed world, newspapers at their best try to provide a check on corruption and crooked politicians. Without this check, as David Simon, former crime reporter for the baltimore sun and creator of the wire, mused : "oh, to be a state or local official in america over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model…to gambol freely across the wastelands of an american city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of american corruption."
What’s more, we need to consider what will become of those people, both at home and abroad, who depend on such journalistic enterprises to keep them safe from various forms of torture, oppression, and injustice. "people do awful things to each other," the veteran war photographer george guthrie says in "night and day," Tom Stoppard’s 1978 play about foreign correspondents. "but it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark."
And the problem goes further than just what gets reported and what doesn’t and can be seen not only at the level of the great national newspapers but also at the local level. A recent study of the consequences of the shutdown of the cincinnati post in 2007 found a decline in the number of people voting in local elections as well as the number of candidates willing to challenge incumbents. Loss of local newspapers seems to correlate with a measurable decline in the quality of local democracy.
If the current journalistic model is unsustainable, and i think it is. Then it’s up to those in our society who care about the continued ability to function as a democracy–to keep the powerful even remotely accountable to the rest of us–to find ways to fund reporting and ensure the dissemination of reliable information. Crisis is a moment of opportunity –not a moment to toss out what has value, despite flaws. Yes, we have examples of new models —but it sure as hell is a still fragile– emerging journalistic ecosystem out there.
To imagine that philanthropy or other hybrids–for profit, low profit, can fill all the gaps arising from journalistic cutbacks is wishful thinking. Especially if we believe quality journalism and indpt reporting is a public good.
So the fundamental problem remains. Without powerful media institutions to take on the powerful on behalf of the rest of us, we become more vulnerable as a society to those who would use their influence for private gain, damn the public consequences. We need a plan B. And we don’t have one yet. Which come to think of it, reminds me of how the bush administration went into iraq. And we all know how that turned out.
Vote against the resolution: "good riddance to the mainstream media."