The Society kicked off the start of Merrick Season with the timely topic of Resolved: The press cannot be trusted with self-regulation. It was a battle that pitted Philadelphian against Philadelphian with Mr. Jawad Pullin (COL ’18 Pennsylvania) on the Affirmation and Ms. Molly Cooke (COL ’19 Pennsylvania) on the Negation. Making their inductions were Mr. Zach Thompson (SFS ’20 of California) on the Affirmation and on the Negation was Ms. Sara Castiglia (COL ’18 Massachusetts).
Mr. Thompson began by describing the press as one of the fundamental tenants of democracy. He followed up by making the claim that “we are in a post-fact, post truth era” in part because of the rapid rate through which information is now transmitted through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. With a note of cynicism, Mr. Thompson described the press as a business and that their primary concern is how much money they can make. For him, the fault seemed to lie with the consumer and their inherent desire for news that is quick and easy regardless to accuracy. The thread that seemed constant through his keynote was Mr. Thompson’s concern that in an age of easy consumption, the press is more focused on sensationalism for shock-value instead of the responsible reporting news to the public. He concluded with the sentiment that “without any external regulation the press won’t survive”.
Opening the negation’s argument, Ms. Castiglia started her keynote by arguing that people trust her based upon who she is, and that the press is the same way in that we inherently have trust in the press because our country’s history is largely filled with independent, and accurate reporting. For her, the issue lay with both the consumer and the producer, in that the consumer’s demand for quick news required a learning curve from the producer. To back up her argument, she used the example of the Rolling Stone incident at UVA in which the magazine falsely reported an incident of sexual assault at the university. The editor later apologized, and for Ms. Castiglia this is a good instance in which the press was able to regulate themselves. Continuing on, Ms. Castiglia proceed to explain the alternative to the press regulating themselves was a scary situation in which what they reported was restricted by other agencies who might have insidious motivations to control the flow of information. She concluded on a high-note with the statement “the press always has and they always will self-regulate”.
Mr. Pullin countered Ms. Castiglia with the statement that “with liberty comes duty”. Using the recent election cycle as an example, he made the point that excepting one notable time, the media made no significant attempt to point out President Trump’s lies during the campaign season. He continued that the desserts of entertainment have been confused with the truth, which let important issues such as the African-American experience with police brutality left by the wayside. Finally, Mr. Pullin noted that polarizing perspectives have replaced facts, and that the press could not regulate itself because the situation is past the point of simple regulation.
Closing out the opening keynotes, Ms. Cooke began by stating that as both a future journalist and anarchist it is in fact possible for the press to regulate themselves. Using the Scandinavian press as a global example, Ms. Cooke argued that they were the ideal of a well-functioning system of self-regulation. Refuting the Affirmation’s claims of irresponsibility by the press, she claimed that the nature of the American press is politically charged and that they are always in constant dialogue with the public that it serves. Charging forward, Ms. Cooke asserted that as consumers we have the right to demand true news. The current state of the press is one that guarantees an evolving process that makes active attempts to respond to the needs of its readers. She concluded that “there is no institution more self-reflective than the American press”.
Kicking off the Affirmation’s floor speeches with a casual tone, Ms. Provost responded that in order for that press to be able to self-regulate “education is the answer, man”! Incredulous, Ms. Weissman argued that the onus is on the consumer to demand the truth, because the contrary to Mr. Pullin’s keynote the press did fact check Donald Trump. In her view, both the consumer and the mainstream media have the responsibility to regulate each other. Ms. Hu countered that it would be a mistake to limit the “press” to just the mainstream media when there are other sources of news such as blogs, or online newspapers like Breitbart news. Facing only the oversight of internal auditors, the press have incentives to only present viewers what they want to hear, and for that reason an external regulator is necessary.
Speaking on the Negation, Ms. Ludtke raised the question of who exactly would make up an external regulatory body, excepting the media themselves, and the effectiveness of calling on an outside force to help regulate the press. Answering Ms. Ludtke’s question, Mr. Marrow maintained that, following a capitalist model, the federal government could serve as an outside regulator if there was enough consumer demand for it, Vice-President Reilly pushed back against Mr. Marrow by arguing that “capitalism does not like regulation”, and it is our job as consumers to critique the media when necessary. Ms. Little pointed out the importance of the wording of the resolution, and concluded that who made up the external body did not matter as long as there was one available.
Mr. Jack Bronfield (COL ’20) opened the brief non-member speaking time on the Negation, and argued that allowing the press to be regulated by a government run by Donald Trump was a worse alternative, and that government intervention would only engender more distrust of the media. On the Affirmation, Ms. Elizabeth Gleyzer (COL ’20) asserted that most people believe what is told to them unquestioningly, and therefore the majority of Americans cannot take on the burden required of a responsible consumer anyway.
Mr. Rinaudo recommenced member speeches by announcing that the press as the institution we know it today has only existed for the past 100 years or so, and that while the first wave of newspapers may be biased, government intrusion would not help anything. With a tone of self-deprecation, Ms. Bujwid admitted that she still gets lured in by fake news, and asked “why haven’t they [the press] self-regulated already”? This debate happened to feature the glorious (or perhaps inglorious) return of Mr. Harden just in the nick of time for Merrick Season. He argued that while journalists might have standards, the nature of the media market has changed and that regulation of the industry would only cause the layers to catalyze and create fake news. Pressing back on the Affirmation, Chancellor Thanki responded that even the epitome of media ideals cannot be trusted, and distrust of the press only makes sense when so many people rely on news to make their decisions. Mr. Garrett Hinck pushed back that both sides of the spectrum are at fault, and that change will only occur if we as the public change ourselves and our values.
Mr. Perez-Reyes going back to the roots of his Russian studies, he used the example of the Bolsheviks in Soviet Russia to explain that if it’s not possible to be successful producing accurate news, it only makes sense to start creating fake news. Mr. Reinking asserted that even though it is state run the BBC, the state can only use the press and not the media as a propaganda tool. Mr. Fletcher argued that there are good and bad regulators, and the press needs and deserves an outside watchdog. Ms. Li pointed out that the press often acts as an amplifier to bring society’s problems to attention, and that it can be fixed by attacking the root causes. Ms. Oster took on a skeptical view, and repeated Mr. Fletcher’s assertion that the press deserves an outside regulator.
Mr. McCarthy used his experience as a news editor to dispel the notion on the floor that journalists do not inherently seek the truth. In his view, the serious competition of investigative journalism is enough of a regulation device. Mr. Ma argued that nobody can regulate the press because it reflects the people that it itself cannot control. Mr. Bies reminded the floor that we have to trust the press, and finishing out the night’s floor speeches Ms. Spira asserted that the press has the choice of what they do and do not report, and that choice is based upon their morals not society’s.
Ms. Cooke began closing keynotes by dispelling the floor’s assertions that Donald Trump was somehow equitable to the press. Evoking American values, she argued that the Negation stands for the maintaining of those values, and idealistically maintained that the vast majority of the press is still made up of small news outlets that are still committed to the truth. She concluded with the statement that “in any locked room there are always the truths and a fact. News is the fact”.
Mr. Pullin claimed that past government regulations have chipped away any illusion of media diversity, and that inflammatory “yellow journalism” led to wars such as the Iraq and US-Spanish wars. He also pushed back against the idea of the ideal “Scandinavian fallacy”, because in the United States the primary market is for racist news. Finally, Mr. Pullin finished by stating that Trump won’t be president forever, and the outsider regulator doesn’t have to be political.
Closing out the Negation speeches, Ms. Castiglia expressed her concern about the ultimate freedom of the press and the consequences of government intrusion upon the day-to-day media reporting. For her, the different press outlets checking each other is enough to provide an effective check against any current and future excesses.
Mr. Thompson ended the night by asserting that outside regulators are necessary because “we need to be told when we are wrong”. Continuing on he argued that journalists can in fact regulate the press, and an outside watchdog doesn’t mean returning to a subscription-based model. He concluded that the American values of free speech are in danger when there is a press that no-one trusts.
The Merrick points awarded are as follows:
5 points: Mr. Ma
4 points: Chancellor Thanki
3 points: Mr. Rinaudo
2 points: Mr. Harden
1 point: Mr. Fletcher
With a vote of 23 affirming, 3 abstaining, and 22 negating, this resolution is affirmed!
A hearty congratulation to Ms. Castiglia and Mr. Thompson for a wonderful induction debate.