Ye West, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Delicious Exposure of Honest Debate

During a much-hyped Tim Cast IRL episode last week, Ye West walked out when his widely criticized ideas were challenged.

According to host Tim Pool, Ye’s interactions before the show, compared to his conduct on air, were night and day different. Reportedly when the sign flashed “on air,” the tone and tenor of the rapper’s conduct changed.

Ye fleeing the Timcast studios came just a few days after his stunt at Mar-a-Lago where he reportedly sought to embarrass the 45th President. From this current body of work, it appears the ultra-wealthy rapper and his master-trolling new friends are seeking headlines and attention. 

Still, the weird part about Ye’s departure was that it was completely unprovoked and at a seemingly benign moment in the discussion. If it was intended to be a troll, it didn’t quite land. 

Ye is used to outrage and canceling. He knows how to handle it and likely has a dozen responses at his disposal. But during this show, Tim Pool gave Ye space to explore and explain his ideas; and it appeared, to this observer, that Ye experienced a fight or flight moment.

Simply, Ye couldn’t defend his ideas, and he fled.

“Yawn-a-roo!” Douglas Murray pronounced in disgust, abruptly reclining on his uncomfortable-looking stool and crossing his arms in contempt. It was near the end of the November 30, 2022 Munk Debate in Toronto, Canada, and it wasn’t the first time during the event that tensions flared.

The resolution in question was “Be it resolved: do not trust the mainstream media.”

Murray, a British author and political pundit, was joined by former Rolling Stone journalist and current #TwitterFiles and Substack sensation Matt Taibbi on the Pro side of the argument. Arguing on behalf of trusting the media, or the Con side of the debate — which, for the record, is an embarrassing position to take at this moment in public discourse — were NY Times opinion columnist Michele Goldberg and New Yorker contributor Malcolm Gladwell.

Murray and Taibbi began with a 48%-52% deficit, with a majority on the side of Goldberg and Gladwell before the debate commenced.

What happened to Malcolm Gladwell?

I first became aware of Gladwell in 2004 at my employer’s global marketing conference in Chicago. He was the keynote speaker, and he spoke about his best-selling book The Tipping Point and the roles people unofficially play in organizing a civilized society.

I was a 25 year-old communications professional, writing and managing projects for the c-suite of a multinational organization.

Gladwell’s thought leadership in organizational and interpersonal dynamics shaped my thinking and methodology in practicing communications and change management over the next 15 years, for some of the world’s largest and most celebrated brands. 

I haven’t kept up with Gladwell’s career, and I haven’t read the New Yorker in years so, when I pressed play on last Wednesday’s debate, I had a level of respect for Mr. Gladwell.

During the debate, Murray and Taibbi repeatedly, articulately shared examples of political bias in the world’s “trusted” news organizations, deconstructing the journey through which the institution lost the public’s trust. 

In contrast, Goldberg struggled to mount a defense of her position by desperately claiming that, of course, media gets things wrong because media is comprised of humans; but they get it right on the big stuff:

“But think about the big stories of the last five years or so…if you paid attention to the mainstream media, you were likely to be much safer and much closer to the truth than if you followed the kind of contrarians.”

Michelle Goldberg

There are many families, whose loved ones died suddenly after listening to the mainstream media, that would vehemently disagree. But that’s a topic for another day.

Further ailing Goldberg’s attempts at coherent argument was the detached, dismissive posture of her debate partner. On the resolution in question, Gladwell’s position appeared to be that we should trust the mainstream media because the mainstream media has processes in place to ensure fairness and accuracy.

Here are a few quotes from Gladwell on which I form my understanding of his position (you can read the entire transcript here).

“I spent the first ten years of my journalism career at The Washington Post, that is the definition of the mainstream media.”

Malcolm Gladwell

Later in the debate, he whined that the pro side of the argument hadn’t defined mainstream media, despite having defined it himself to no objection. In response, Murray agreed with Gladwell’s definition.

“Now why am I making such a big deal about this? Because trust is not about content. Trust is about process. And there is one institution here that strikes me, has a commitment to the right kind of process, and a whole set of other institutions that most assuredly do not.”

Malcolm Gladwell

What absolute nonsense. Trust in journalism has to be about both process and content; they are not mutually exclusive. The content is the fruit of the process, and if the fruit is rotten, the process should not be trusted.

Trust is first and foremost about whether a person or institution is trustworthy. Journalism – by which I mean fact-based reporting of news upon which the public can rely as truth – is not deemed trustworthy (or otherwise) because they have processes in place to ensure trustworthiness.

Rather, media’s level of the public’s trust directly correlates to the level of diligence with which those processes are followed – as determined by the fairness and accuracy of their content.

Absent a transparent process audit, the only way the public can discern if these “trustworthy” processes are followed is, in fact, the content. And it is through that public discernment – specifically, free-thinking individuals comparing media outlets’ content to objective, knowable facts – that we’ve arrived at such low levels of societal trust in the institution of mainstream media.

You’re Just a Racist.

Back to the debate, during rebuttals, Taibbi stated:

“We’re not supposed to thumb the scale. Our job is just to call things as we see them and leave the rest up to you. But we don’t do that now. The story is no longer the boss. Instead we sell narrative in a dysfunctional new business model. Once the commercial strategy of the news business was to go for the whole audience, a TV news broadcast was aired at dinner time, and it was designed to be watched by the entire family…This system had flaws, but making an effort to talk to everybody had benefits. For one thing it inspired trust. Gallop polls twice – twice – showed Walter Cronkite to be the most trusted person in all of America. That would never happen with a news reader today.”

Matt Taibbi

That was the moment that Gladwell seemed to toss out his entire debate strategy and seize on the mention of Cronkite as “proof” of Taibbi’s hidden bigotry:

“I was greatly amused by the affection Matt Taibbi has for the age of Walter Cronkite, which he seems to hold up as a golden moment. In that moment the mainstream media was populated entirely by white men from elite schools. Why you would’ve had such affection and say that’s the gold standard and we should trust the mainstream media precisely at the moment when the mainstream media is least representative is really puzzling to me.”

Malcolm Gladwell

In just the second time Gladwell spoke during the debate, he paints Taibbi as a racist and misogynist and longing for the days of “white men from elite schools” running the media.

It got worse for Gladwell, when, in this same response, he revealed how truly detached he is from reality:

“I was most amused by the particular subjects that seemed to have excited the imagination and outrage of the two of you…Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia, the Canadian truckers, Ivermectin… These aren’t things driven by the mainstream media. These are obsessions of the non-mainstream media.”

Malcolm Gladwell

Astounded, Taibbi (rightfully) replied:

“Are you really saying that Trump’s relationship with Russia was not an obsession of mainstream media? It was basically the entire content of cable news for three years. The editor of The New York Times Dean Baquet said, ‘We built our newsroom around one story.’ That story.”

Matt Taibbi

The exchanges continued and, when it was Gladwell’s chance to speak again, he turned up the ad hominem attacks implying, again, that Matt Taibbi is a racist and misogynist:

“I was astonished to listen as Matt Taibbi doubled down on his defense of Walter Cronkite…he said the most incredible quote, that era in journalism was distinguished by people in journalism ‘making the effort to talk to everybody.’ Now, he’s talking about the 1950s and 60s. I just wanted to make a short list of the people who were not spoken to by journalists in the 1950s and 60s, and you may want to add some if I miss some: Black people, women, poor people, gay people, people with mildly left-wing views. I mean, words fail me when somebody is presented with a critique of his rather idiosyncratic position on Walter Cronkite comes back and says, ‘Oh no, no there is more to my great love of this man.’”

Malcolm Gladwell

First, note that the entire content of Taibbi’s reference to Cronkite is the single quote attributed to him above. That’s it. He mentioned two polls of American trust – polls that took place in the 1970s and 80s – and the results of those polls. He didn’t mention Cronkite again during the debate.

But Gladwell believes he has a winning strategy here by playing the race/gender/immutable characteristic card.

Second, Walter Cronkite died in 2009. In addition to covering the Civil Rights movement, his body of work includes the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Space Race and Apollo missions, critical coverage of the US role in the Vietnam War, the Challenger Disaster, and so much more. He anchored for CBS from 1962 to 1981 – so not in the 1950’s – and continued producing news and entertainment content until his death. 

To claim that reverence for the news era of Walter Cronkite is synonymous with longing for the tumultuous days when Democrats filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act is not just the intellectually dishonest tactic of someone losing a debate; it’s downright silly.

To any objective observer, Taibbi was recalling an era where the news media maintained, at least, a pretense of objectivity and, as a result of that perceived “fairness and accuracy,” enjoyed high levels of public trust.

Gladwell continues, revealing his pretentious bubble and its controlled and comfortable lies:

“The other thing that struck me in their comments was a weird obsession with the two of them with the notion that the media occasionally gets things wrong, and I wondered if they have confused the role of journalists with that of stock brokers. Stockbrokers have to get their predictions right, but journalists don’t. The job of a journalist is, to use that famous phrase, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Malcolm Gladwell

More nonsense. The quote Gladwell invokes is from a fictional Irish bartender from the Chicago Evening Post during the 1890’s. If we choose to employ Gladwell’s own rhetorical tactics — which I’m not advocating, since those tactics are dishonest, but rather pointing out the relevant logical device here that was championed by Mr. Gladwell earlier in the debate — then we can deduce that he longs for the late 19th Century and all its societal ills.

Report for lashings from the Ministry of Love, Mr. Gladwell.

For the record, the job of a journalist is not to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, no matter what the fictional Mr. Dooley claimed, over a century ago.

The job of a journalist is to tell the truth about both. 

Rather than present coherent ideas, Gladwell used his debate time to defend elitism and its comfortable lies, while repeating his incoherent slander of Taibbi every chance he got:

“Matt I understand that you do have this wonderful nostalgia for the way things used to be, but I think that you need to fact check some of your nostalgic notions about the wonderful world of the 1950s. Who was watchdogging The New York Times in the 1950s? Nobody was!”

Malcolm Gladwell

What a “Yawn-a-Roo.”

The debate came to a crescendo when Murray dared to mention the Hunter Biden Laptop to Gladwell: 

Murray: “Why don’t I make the point I want to make other than that briefly. Take the Hunter Biden story.”

Gladwell: “Oh, here we go.”

Murray: “Of course you don’t want to hear it.”

Gladwell: “Is there no end to that kind of Twitter stuff you guys are going to dredge up?”

Murray: “Of course you don’t want to hear it, Malcolm. Of course you wouldn’t. Because it goes against your ideological presumptions. That story was a big story. Okay? It was a big story. The New York Post, which I write for, but The New York Post, America’s oldest newspaper, was silenced on Twitter, was silenced across the media. You know, The Washington Post has now picked it up. It’s saying that, ‘Yeah, the laptop’s true.’ But why didn’t the media pick it up before? Why didn’t they call up people? Why didn’t they check whether the emails were accurate? Because they didn’t want Biden to lose the election. He was their guy, and they weren’t going to screw that up.” 

Goldberg: “Wait, I do want to talk about Hunter Biden and laptop. Because I actually was telling Malcolm, we were talking this morning, and I said, ‘I bet they’re going to want to talk about the laptop.’ And he said to me, ‘Really? Who would care about that?’” 

Munk Debate, Exchange on the Biden Laptop Suppression and the Role that Played in the 2020 Election Outcome

It is exactly that type of response from Goldberg, a “mainstream” “journalist,” that forms the premise of the resolution up for debate; sadly, the irony was lost on her. Gladwell didn’t appear to be listening.

Goldberg and Taibbi further exchanged points before Murray delivered the death blow:

“Malcolm, you are kind of, “Oh my God, what a yawn-a-roo the whole Hunter Biden story is. How boring to talk about the idea of corruption at an epic scale in the First Family. How boring. Who would want to harp on about that?’ Let me try the counterfactual on you. It’s October 2020, and a huge number of emails are suddenly dumped, revealing, unbelievable scandal in the Trump family.

There was a very easy way, Michelle, as you know, to certify whether this stuff was true. You could call up anyone on email chains and say, ‘Did you get this email?’ They didn’t bother with any of that stuff…No, the point is simply that this was one of the occasions in recent years where the mainstream media showed its transparency as a political organization. That’s why we care.”

Douglas Murray

Getting nowhere with his veiled allegations of bigotry, Gladwell then attempts to paint Taibbi and Murray as “conspiracy theorists.”

“Well, you know, I was struck once again in listening to our opponents by how much their arguments resemble the kind of classic structure of a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is a theory in which one assumes a degree of unanimity and collaboration amongst one’s foes…When Matt and Doug speak about the mainstream media, they’re acting as if…this Cabal of high-minded, well-paid elite, white as it turns out, journalists – some of them the ones Matt seems to have such affection for – gather together and set the agenda for the country.”

Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s uninspired and racist take is particularly delicious in light of the #TwitterFiles that have since revealed exactly this level of collaboration and coordination among government, media, and cultural institutions. He continued:

“They were free to construct this mythological thing where all these people get together and set the agenda. There is no thing, and there is no agenda. There are a variety of disparate voices and they have chosen to cherry pick and create this complete, strange mythology.”

Malcolm Gladwell

Of course, that take is now completely debunked; also, claiming to take issue with the rhetorical tactics of Taibbi and Murray is a bit rich considering that Gladwell relied solely upon logical and rhetorical fallacies from the first moment he spoke in the debate.

“So strange hearing you debate, Malcolm, because you listen to nothing that your opponents say. It’s quite extraordinary. I’ve met it before, but never quite so badly as it occurs in you… We are just conspiracy theorists, apparently a mild dose of it. He says, in his excellent medical-like analysis of his opponents, ‘we just have a mild dose’…the best that your side has been able to come up with, so far tonight, is to say, ‘We get things wrong quite often, but you should trust us.’”

Douglas Murray

Fight, flight, or… flail?

I wonder when it occurred to Mr. Gladwell that he was trapped. That he was suddenly, like Ye, outside of his bubble and in the position to publicly defend his ideas.

When was Gladwell’s fight or flight moment? 

From his behavior, it appears to have been quite early on. To his credit, he didn’t flee. But he didn’t effectively fight either, considering his abysmal performance.

The best way to describe his in-the-moment stress response was that he flailed.

Bad ideas cannot withstand scrutiny; thus, all the censorship and thought control.

Taibbi and Murray objectively won the debate with the largest swing in the event’s history, moving from a 48%-52% voter deficit at the beginning of the debate, to a 67%-33% win at the event’s conclusion.

In my view, the two gentlemen represented for the people – the audiences and consumers of news – and their victory was well-earned. Note that, prior to watching this debate, I wasn’t familiar with either of them.

Goldberg, unfortunately, was placed in the position of having to represent the entire authoritarian media establishment – quite on her own due to Gladwell’s silly and incoherent ramblings – and, despite her historical revisionism and harried delivery, it was a decent attempt. She was simply outmanned.

In contrast, Mr. Gladwell, much like Mr. West, should find a hole to crawl in and engage in some extensive self-reflection. Rule of thumb: If you cannot present your ideas without invoking hate, your ideas need work before you present them at all.

For a man that once wrote about the power of human networks and the role of the individual in effecting societal change, Gladwell’s performance on Wednesday betrayed his reputation and revealed his true nature.

He’s just another elitist authoritarian whose ideas and beliefs cannot withstand critical examination, let alone open scrutiny or challenge.

How terribly pedestrian. Or, perhaps more appropriately, what a yawn-a-roo.