A recent Munk Debates in Toronto on November 30 examined the topic of whether or not the mainstream news media is trustworthy (the debate is titled “Be it resolved, don’t trust mainstream media”). Douglas Murray and Matt Taibbi took the position that the mainstream media is not to be trusted while Malcolm Gladwell and Michelle Goldberg took the opposing position. You can read a transcript of the debate here. As debates usually go, nothing was really resolved, though an overwhelming majority of the audience seemed to favor the Murray-Taibbi position after the debate. As such, the question remains: should people trust the mainstream news media?
To get my own biases on the table: I don’t consume much mainstream news media (I don’t consume that much news media period). I have a few sources I watch/read online (one of which is Matt Taibbi, which is how I heard about this debate; see end of this post for my sources of news). This is mainly for three reasons: 1) I hate the format of TV news media (e.g., CNN or FOX) with their soundbites and constant speculation; 2) subscribing to places like the New York Times can be expensive; and 3) I don’t trust them. Especially now that many of them have bought into the intelligence community so fully (that is a whole topic unto itself).
Here is the thing, though: it is not a good thing that the mainstream media is not trustworthy. It is a bad thing. I understand that when lies and/or inaccuracies come to the surface about mainstream news media coverage of a story it gives people a sense of vindication in their mistrust of the mainstream news media, but the glee with which people receive such vindication is like being right about an incoming missile: just because you are right about it does not mean you should be happy.
I’ve written before about the epistemological problem of testimony, which is that in our modern, large scale (even global) society, no single person can ever possess all the relevant information, nor can any single person ever personally verify every fact they are told. As such, trusting others, particularly experts (who ideally are supposed to be the people we can trust on their area of expertise), is a necessary condition for the proper functioning of society. Thus, the loss of trust in the mainstream news media, and in experts and institutions more generally, spells disaster for modern civilization.
This is not to argue that we ought to just trust the mainstream news media in the name of social cohesion. It is to point out the conundrum we find ourselves in: we must be able to trust experts and institutions, but so many experts and institutions have given us good reason not to trust them.
What the loss in trust does is far worse than simply forcing us to live in a state of ignorance, while also being aware that we are ignorant. People need to formulate beliefs in order to take action. The result of losing trust in the mainstream media is that people have adopted something akin to the following syllogism:
P1: People ought to believe what is true
P2: If the mainstream news media is trustworthy, then what they say is true much more often than it is false
P3: The mainstream news media is not trustworthy
C1: Therefore, what the mainstream media says is false more often that it is true
P4: If what the mainstream media says is mostly false, then the opposite of what the mainstream media says must be true
C2: Therefore, people ought to believe the opposite of what the mainstream news media says
Of course, there are two major problems with the above syllogism. The first is that P3 is negating the antecedent of P2, which is a logical fallacy. This could probably be fixed by changing it to something like:
P2*: If what the mainstream news media says is true much more often than it is false, then the mainstream news media is trustworthy
P3: The mainstream news media is not trustworthy (modus tollens)
C1: Therefore, what the mainstream media says is false more often that it is true
Either way, the more glaring problem is P4, which sets up a false dilemma in saying that every news story is as easy as being completely 100% true xor being completely 100% false. It also commits the association fallacy by saying that one aspect of a story that is untrue implies that all other aspects of the story are untrue by association; and the genetic fallacy, in saying that anything one side says is true or false based on who is saying it. Regardless, there at least seems to be something inductively intuitive about this thinking: if source A has a demonstrable record for bias and inaccuracy, then they ought at least be approached with healthy skepticism.
This is an issue that Gladwell and Goldberg tangentially touched on in the debate: that those who distrust the mainstream news media have taken to trusting contrarian alternative news sources, which is just as bad (or worse, in their view) as uncritically trusting the mainstream news media. I largely agree with this point. It seems like a lot of people who distrust the mainstream news media seek out contrarians, or otherwise just get their news from social media (e.g., Twitter and Facebook), where the algorithm will give them a steady diet of confirmation-bias-pleasing headlines, memes, and hot takes.
The untrustworthiness of the mainstream news media does not imply the trustworthiness of alternative or contrarian news media sources. They are just as likely to be narcissists doing it for the power and popularity and/or cynical opportunists looking to make money as the mainstream news media, and are just as likely (if not more so) to be unaware of the real facts, since such contrarians often do not have the means (or the interest) in investigating or fact checking. Most such contrarians are commentators, not journalists, and so themselves must rely on other sources for their information, and are then free to pick and choose what to emphasize and what to omit, thus recapitulating the epistemological problem of testimony. Such is one of the reasons why I attempt to avoid news-of-the-day type stories on this blog, since I am merely a commentator; I do not have the means to investigate stories and so I can only comment on what others have said.
Of course, this only exacerbates the issue. If we cannot trust the mainstream news media, but we also cannot trust the contrarian, or at least alternative, news media, then who can we trust? We end up back at our epistemological conundrum, which is that people must come to beliefs in order to take meaningful actions. Living in a sort of skeptical, agnostic limbo is untenable. Not only that, it just plain will never happen. People will not suspend judgement forever, and that means if they cannot accept news based on trust, they will most often take the path of least resistance and adopt beliefs that suit their own prejudices.
The question then obviously becomes: what can be done about this? Some might ask how people can regain trust in the mainstream news media, but an equally (if not more) important question is how the mainstream news media can become trustworthy. I think Matt Taibbi is correct in saying that being trustworthy is a constant process, wherein a commitment to accuracy (getting the facts correct), fairness (not being biased to one point of view), and a willingness to admit mistakes must always take precedence over preferred narratives. Further, I would add, doing actual investigative journalism, even things as simple as talking to all the relevant parties to a story (emphasis on all and relevant: talking to those parties with an actual stake or interest in story and only those who have a stake or interest in the story, i.e., what a bunch of people on Twitter have to say about it is completely irrelevant). Accuracy, I think, is pretty self explanatory and, at least in principle, the easiest thing to fix. One thing that might help at least a little bit with fairness is having a greater diversity of opinions in the news room, including in the conversation those on all parts of the political spectrum.
As to whether any of that will actually happen, I am not optimistic. The incentives are all in favor of continuing to be a cheerleader for a particular narrative, as that is seemingly the most lucrative approach (for both the mainstream media and the contrarian media). And, even if it did happen, the mainstream media has wasted a lot of its good will, so even if a renewed commitment to accuracy and fairness were to be re-inaugurated, it would likely take a good deal of time for them to be perceiving as trustworthy again. As it stands, it will likely take some sort of catastrophic event for any story to be completely undeniable by the vast majority of people.
Some might be curious as to who my sources of news are, just to better know exactly where my biases lay. Primarily I read/watch the following:
I get news elsewhere as well, but the above are what I read/watch on a regular basis.