Be it Resolved: The Mainstream Media is Dying, and that's OK. Matt Taibbi Debates Ben Bradlee, Jr.
In Canada's "Munk Debates" series, a civil discussion about the future of media
In April, I joined in a debate with Ben Bradlee, Jr., the estimable onetime senior editor at my hometown Boston Globe and former overseer of the prestigious Spotlight team. For movie buffs who are wondering, Ben was played by John Slattery in the Best Picture-winning film.
The Munk Debates are a project of the Aurea Foundation, a Canadian charity. Their aim is “to help the world rediscover the art of civil and substantive public debate by convening the brightest thinkers of our time to weigh in on the big issues of the day.”
The issue Mr. Bradlee and I respectfully debated came in the form of a resolution:
Be it resolved: the mainstream media is dying, and that’s OK.
I was asked to argue the pro side of this debate. I could have argued either way, honestly. But there is something to the idea that the mainstream media is dying for a reason, and innovation is now badly needed, so I tried to explore that angle.
It turned out to be a lively discussion. To hear the audio, click through here:
Below, some of the excerpts from the debate have been transcribed. I should note that I have great respect for Ben, so what might have been a nastier exchange with a different media opponent turned into more of a productive, thoughtful discussion. But, still interesting! Some of the key exchanges of the discussion, moderated by Rudyard Griffiths:
Rudyard Griffiths: One of the key public goods that the media provides is investigative reporting, public accountability journalism. It's expensive. It takes time. It takes training. It takes a methodology. And it's arguably critical to the role of The Estate to hold power to account.
Matt, in your universe, with the death of mainstream media and the rise of platforms like the ones you're on, Substack — how is that critical public good function going to be fulfilled and why would we have any faith that it would be fulfilled with the same quality and attention to detail and concern for the facts that traditional mainstream outlets like Ben's former employer The Boston Globe bring to that critical public service of investigative reporting?
Matt Taibbi: For nearly 15 years, I was one of the few people in the country that had a traditional full-time investigative reporting job. I would get an assignment from Rolling Stone and be told to go off and work for two or three months on a story about an arcane topic like credit default swaps, or the ratings agencies on Wall Street. I would have to come back with a 6,000- or 7,000-word story that would have to be fact-checked from beginning to end, every line. These are expensive endeavors. They cost a lot for the companies, and there’s also a lot of logistical work that goes into them.
In the Internet age, when everybody's revenue is tied to content, and people are surfing constantly, it's very difficult to financially justify that kind of work. You can get the same financial return from a 200-word article or a tweet or especially a viral video. Companies are very tempted to forgo that kind of investment. They've figured out that audiences, for the most part, don't require it in the same way that they used to. And so, people are no longer really investing in that kind of work with the same passion. It's a serious problem. Where are we going to find people to do those massive exposes anymore?
You might remember, a couple of years ago, the New York Times did a gazillion-word expose on Donald Trump's finances. It was well done, the kind of thing that once upon a time would've galvanized the entire country for a while, maybe a week, two weeks. But though that piece lit up the internet for about a day and a half, it petered out and was replaced by other stories. That newspapers can't afford that anymore. They can't afford to put that much work in and not get that big of a return.
Griffiths: Ben, in your career, which is a storied one, you were the editor at The Boston Globe, responsible for the paper's really important reporting on the Roman Archdiocese of Boston and its serial cover-ups of children being abused by priests.
How, in this new kind of world that Matt is part of, is any of that public accountability journalism going to happen? Or, do we just accept that it goes away, and we leave this all to law enforcement and the FBI to figure out?
Ben Bradlee Jr.: No, no, we shouldn't abandon it. This stuff is near and dear to my heart. I think this is mainly tied to the lack of resources that newspapers have anymore. I mentioned earlier the loss of half of the nation's newsrooms in the last 10 or 15 years. So increasingly, especially the local and regional papers are viewing investigative reporting as a luxury they can no longer afford, as Matt alluded to.
This takes time. The Spotlight team that I used to oversee at The Globe has four reporters. They're sequestered in another part of the newsroom, and they can often take up to a year on a project. But these days, with fewer and fewer resources and fewer reporters able to put out the paper anymore, I think many editors are viewing investigative reporting as a luxury they can't afford.
Griffiths: Probably the seminal media event of the Trump era was the ongoing investigation of the president and his campaign regarding the possibility of illegal dealings with the Russian government, vis-a-vis, assistance in the 2016 election. There was a lot of controversy around that investigation. What did it actually reveal?
Ben Bradlee Jr.: Well, it wasn't a witch-hunt. I don't think we should lose sight of the fact that the Mueller report came up with the overarching finding of systematic Russian interference in the 2016 election and cited about 10 specific examples of obstruction of justice.
The Mueller report documented dozens and dozens of interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives. So just because Mueller didn't sign off on a formal conspiracy blessed by Putin doesn't mean that there wasn't... And Matt has lived and worked in Russia, I know. That's not how it's done. It's outsourced to operatives in troll farms.
Griffiths: Thanks. Matt, your take?
Taibbi: I would disagree with Ben a little on this. I think it was a very damaging episode for the media, even just at the level of the constant predictions that this investigation would result in the end of the Trump presidency.
We heard, over and over again, newscasts leading off with segments saying things like, "Is this the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency?" We had anchors saying things like, "Trump is done. It's over." There was a widespread expectation that was raised in audiences across the aisle that when Mueller delivered his report that it was going to result in Trump leaving office. When that didn't happen, I think it was a shock to a lot of people.
We also saw the spectacle of people in the news business openly rooting for that outcome, which I think was unseemly, especially since we got it wrong. For a lot of people who aren't confirmed Democrats, that situation looked really bad, and I think media people underestimate the reputational damage it caused.
Rudyard Griffiths: One of the features we've seen recently in a lot of mainstream media is intramural warfare breaking out within papers and between journalists around what is permitted debate, what is permitted reporting?
Matt, you're doing a lot of writing on this through Substack and your newsletter. I think it would be interesting for our audience to hear a bit more from you about why you think this is a really pernicious feature of mainstream media today and something that you think heralds its demise.
Taibbi: Some of the best investigative reporters that we had when I was growing up were basically impossible people, but that's how they became the reporters that they were. They were relentless, dogged, distrustful, suspicious, and were not team players. That was part of the character make-up of a good investigative reporter — lone-wolf types who were more devoted to seeking the truth than they were to getting social rewards or acclaim from within the organization.
In modern newsrooms, especially in the last four or five years, the intellectual diversity that I think was normal in a newsroom once upon a time is vanishing, and there is an expectation, especially among younger reporters, that everybody is going to be a team player, that they're going to be devoted to pursuing the same ideological framework.
We've had a lot of controversies within news organizations where one or two reporters will try to report something, and the rest of the newsroom will revolt. We've had episodes in organizations like The Nation where somebody has done a story and the rest of the newsroom will write a letter to the editor. There have been similar episodes at The Intercept and other places.
Reporters feel: if I don't write something that the rest of the newsroom agrees with, I'm going to end up with a problem. That's resulted in a lot of conformity, and an unwillingness to go anywhere near where the perceived line of debate might be. It's also made people unwilling to go near an unpopular opinion.
Take the Bountygate story. There were a lot of people who worked in the news business who thought, "Where's the proof?" If you look at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, they did a story about that right away last year, saying, "We don't see the evidence for this." But within news organizations, the commercial ones, there weren't those voices, because people were probably afraid to be perceived as making a pro-Trump comment. In fact, that isn’t what it would have been. You're actually just trying to be accurate.
It was always been that way on Fox News and in right-wing media, but it's increasingly also a feature of news on the other side now, and that has created a problem.
Griffiths: Ben, let's hear from you on that.
Bradlee Jr.: I think in many cases, political correctness has run amok at some of the bigger papers. Notably, there was the Tom Cotton affair, when the senator from Arkansas wrote an op-ed at The New York Times, which caused an internal uprising and got the op-ed editor fired. That's too much. We can't have the thought police intervening to that extent.
Griffiths: Let's go to closing statements. So Ben, your opportunity, two minutes on the clock just to sum up the key points you want to leave our audience with. Our resolution that we've been debating today is, Be it resolved: The mainstream media is dying and that's OK. You've been speaking against the motion. Let's have your concluding remarks.
Bradlee Jr.: I think eliminating any media or wishing any media dies is wrong. I think the more voices we can get at this point, the better. The business models of the mainstream newspapers will change, and have. I think that the key thing is how do we come together on defining facts, so that there is less of a chasm between left and right on this? And that despite mistakes that are always made, that means trying to make those more and more rare, so that one side can't more easily scoff at the other, and more diligent fact-checking. This is part of the partisan divide that we now live in, and I hope that there can be more of a coming together around what constitutes a fact.
Griffiths: Thanks, Ben. Now, Matt, we're going to give you the last word. Be it resolved: The mainstream media is dying and that's OK. You've been arguing in favor of the motion.
Taibbi: In the best-case scenario, I would hope that the mainstream media didn't die or lose its authority. But I think we're heading into a situation where something has to change dramatically.
We’ve talked about news deserts in this country. We've lost thousands of local newspapers since the early 2000s. The situation has resulted in a major class schism in journalism, because so many of those local news reporters in those smaller papers — these aren't rich people. They're not children of privilege. They don't have a lot of money, but they served a very valuable role in small communities and they reported on things that were important to ordinary people. And also, they were in touch with the people in their own community because they live there.
What's happened with the disappearance of those types of organizations is that the only thing left is the national news media, which increasingly — and I watched this process happen because I've been in the business — it's increasingly made up of people like me who are upper-class white folks from big cities of the coast, of the East Coast and California.
If you go on the plane on the campaign trail, most of the people on the plane now are graduates of Ivy League universities. They live in rarefied areas of expensive, cosmopolitan neighborhoods. Socially, they see themselves as being the same people as the politicians they're reporting on. That's a terrible situation. I think that it's an underrated problem within modern news media. It's lost some touch with mass audiences — in part because they're no longer the people who are covering the affairs of ordinary people.