Breaking Trust: Creative Destruction of Media Empires?

It is not only the realization of wrongdoing we should worry about, but rather the mere presence of conditions that make it possible.

That Night in Toronto

By now, many have heard about the Munk Debate which took place two weeks ago in Toronto. Some of you perhaps were in attendance. The motion put forward was an intriguing one that brought out a sold out audience to an in person event returning after nearly 3 years. And what a return it was.

The motion presented was: “Be it resolved, do not trust the mainstream media”. Arguing in favour was veteran journalist Matt Taibbi and political commentator Douglas Murray. Arguing against was journalist and public speaker Malcolm Gladwell, and author and columnist Michelle Goldberg. An impressive lineup that offered the promise of hard hitting, cerebral debate.

The evening started out with debaters outlining their positions. It was clear from the outset that Douglas Murray was making a “big picture” argument, presenting the case for why mainstream media is no longer able to be trustworthy. Murray’s central point was that while we all can (and should) consume media, what we are being presented with must be taken with a grain of salt-more on this in a moment.

Taibbi spoke of his experience as news rooms evolved from covering facts to controlling narratives. In his view, this has become particularly toxic as media companies have split audiences down political lines and now sell stories to satisfy only their curated demographic. He also noted the shift in journalistic responsibility from what was once covering stories to holding political enemies accountable.

Those who may be familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s work would have been forgiven for expecting a performance worthy of his name recognition. Gladwell’s central point was that the monolith of mainstream media adheres to procedures that ensure journalistic integrity; disperse and decentralized reporting does not. With very little to substantiate this, it seemed unclear why this should automatically be true. Gladwell then resorted to a series of straw men that made reference to the usual criticisms: racism, misogyny, etc., suggesting that mainstream media is far more trustworthy now simply because it is no longer as white or male as it once was. 

Goldberg offered strong rebuttals to the motion using specific examples drawn from her career.  She pointed to several instances in which her current employer, the New York Times (NYT), has maintained its role of skeptic, and rightly also pointed out that the NYT coverage of the Ottawa Trucker Convoy was far more balanced than anything Canadian media reported. Goldberg made the compelling point that the media rarely gets everything right but has a tendency to “self correct”. 

On this particular night, the “con” side failed to mount a compelling case for the audience, judging by audience polling. Munk later reported that the pro side won by the largest margin ever recorded at a debate. (A full viewing of the debate is well worth your time.)

How did this happen?

An interesting theme emerged from this debate, one that has become more acute in recent days. It is now looking increasingly as though the mainstream media has lost the collective trust of a majority, and it has nobody to blame but itself.

Matt Taibbi would go on to release the now infamous “Twitter Files” just two days later. These records outline the once suspected and now confirmed ways in which Twitter (and presumably other tech giants) interfered in the 2020 US election. What is emerging is a picture of scandal that will take time to absorb and comprehend, but looks increasingly like a government that is very comfortable putting its thumb on the scale. Though sold as “content moderation”, this very much is censorship, and increasingly it doesn’t wash. 

Modern media has been on a downward spiral for decades, as existing revenue models were unable to compete in the online age. Entertainment content has adapted, but news coverage and delivery has not. During the last three decades, print and cable news media has tried to adapt by consolidating the number of outlets and streamlining the intense cost structure of the news. Indeed, as we have seen in Canada, local news coverage has been rolled into a handful of outlets, controlled almost exclusively by two media companies. These days, the vast majority of content is supplied by Canadian Press. If you’ve ever wondered why headlines are the same across every outlet in the country, this is the reason.

This consolidation of media under corporate control has taken a darker turn in Canada in the last five years. Ostensibly, the federal government offered a subsidy to help outlets adapt to the modern world of news as smaller independent platforms grab market share and Big Tech (Amazon & Netflix) produce long format documentaries. In practice, what could go wrong when some of the largest corporate news giants in the country accept half a billion dollars from the government? 

Canada today

In 2018, the Canadian government announced a five year package to dole out $595 million to select media organizations. A panel of five hand picked individuals serves on the “Independent Advisory Board on Eligibility for Journalism Tax Measures” that administers the fund. The criteria for choosing recipients and funding amounts have been kept secret.

As such, Canadians have no clear understanding of how and to whom the government distributes those funds. This fact alone should be raising alarm bells-no true democracy can be said to exist where a government meets with members of its media class in private to supply them with funds. A cozy relationship, as intimated by Matt Taibbi and Douglas Murray, leads  media to support government narratives rather than distill facts.  Lest we forget that a federal revenue stream is an asset worthy of protection.  

Recent events compel Canadians to consider this thought and to contemplate what measures commercial media might pursue to protect a steady revenue stream.  Blacklock’s Reporter, an Ottawa based new organization, found itself on the sharp edge of that sword this week. Accredited in the Parliamentary Press Gallery for a decade, Blacklock’s had recently published records it had obtained through Access to Information requests detailing a private meeting between 35 (unnamed) publishers and the Canada Revenue Agency regarding the $595 million media allocation. On December 5, just one day later, Blacklock’s was evicted from the Parliamentary Press Gallery following complaints from other members.

There may be compelling explanations for why none of this is nefarious, and perhaps even warranted as media landscapes shifts. But recall that in the determination of unethical behaviour, it is not only the realization of wrongdoing we should worry about, but rather the mere presence of conditions that make it possible. Canada today is a place where if you have grave concerns about your governments, the pieces are in place to prevent you from being heard. 

Murray made one enduring argument last week at the debate, and that was the conditions for a free press no longer exist in much of the world. In Canada, this is truer than ever. So yes, read the news. But do not trust it.