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.