MANCHESTER — On Tuesday evening the Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning presented a debate on whether or not the media was failing in its duty to inform.
The event was hosted by the Manchester Community Library. The statement being discussed, in full, read, "If the health of a democracy depends upon a well-informed public, the media is failing in its role." Debating the topic were Derek Boothby and Peter Radford, and they were moderated by Steven Sinding. Tickets for the 5:30 p.m. event were $15 and $20 at the door. Over 100 people were in attendance.
"It's not your Walter Cronkite world anymore," said Sinding, describing the media in the years following the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and the rise of 24/7 cable news and online news outlets.
The proposer of the motion was Radford. "Of course it's failing, and I don't know why we're having this debate quite frankly," he said, reading a list of insignificant headlines that featured prominently in major publications on Tuesday. "We leave in echo chambers, we live in information cocoons," he said, "All of us do, we live in our own worlds of information, we live in what I like to think of as these little gated communities scattered across the information landscape. There's the New York Times community, there's the Fox News community, MSNBC, NBC, Breitbart, Infowars, the list goes on."
"The media is going to fail by its own logic," he said, "The news has become a commodity. The news is a business, media is a big business. It's a for-profit business, and that undermines its role as a civic activity. And why? Because, in order to survive in a mass market, each media outlet needs viewers, it needs eyeballs, in needs readers. Volume counts. It needs to sell advertising, the media exists to sell advertising. You need volume. How do you get volume? ... If the news isn't sensational enough for your voice to be the loudest on the block, you create some sensation."
"I put it to you, in this era of mass media, it is impossible for the newspapers and TV to perform their civic duty," he concluded, "It's a matter of business logic, the media is doomed to fail. You have to support this proposition."
"I have a very real and deep-rooted respect for my erudite colleague," responded Boothby, "However, not only does he ramble on, but on this issue he does suffer from the quite notable and distinct disadvantage of being wrong. He has his dog barking up the wrong tree. I oppose this motion, not because, as you may suspect, I am a great fan of the media... Is there an exuberance of partisan views and comments in today's media? There is, and I can be as critical of the media as anyone... anyone except President Trump and Stephen Bannon."
However, he said, "If the public is not well-informed, it is not the media who carries the blame for the failing people."
"I believe the media does have an important role in making information and comment available to the public," he said, "Information and comment, not just news. In that regard we are not faced with a paucity of information sources. In face, the opposite, a cacophony of voices. There is no shortage of information, and plenty of opportunities for the public to become well-informed. And I do believe the health of a democracy does depend on the public being well-informed, so what then is the problem? The problem, ladies and gentlemen, is us."
"Despite the inadequacies and flaws that undoubtedly exist, and we can both agree on that, and that persist in the media, I do not think that it is right to accuse them of failing to make available the information we need. Some, yes, but not all as a group, which is what the motion implies... It is we the voting public that have to have the responsibility to make and keep ourselves well-informed. It is when we don't take the time and make the trouble to do that, that the health of democracy is threatened."
After each debater said his piece, members of the audience were invited to make short statements in support of either argument. Then, it was time for final arguments.
"We've got an amazingly informed public, an over-informed public," said Radford, "How many voters actually have that amount of time, to gather that amount of information and know that, at the end of the day, that what they're looking at is a fact. They tend to go get it from their friends, which is why social media... social media is where we get our information now, precisely because there is such an abundance of other media, the traditional media, that we are forced to look to friends to get our information. We live in echo chambers."
Boothby, for his final argument, comically donned the robe and powdered wig of a judge. "We could discuss, on another occasion, whether the vast majority of the population are willing to devote the time and take the trouble to ensure that they are well-informed, but I'll remind you that that is not the question for this evening," he said, "The media's job is to provide information, and news, and comment, which it does exhaustively and exhaustingly, but the rest is up to us."
In the end, a sizeable majority of the room agreed with Boothby and opposed the motion.
Boothby is the former director of the Europe Division of the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, chairman of the UN Iraq Operational Group, and deputy director of operations for weapons inspections in Iraq immediately following the first Gulf War. During his over 20 year career with the UN, he specialized in arms control issues, and participated in operations in Bosnia and Croatia.
Radford, a native of the United Kingdom who has lived in Dorset since 2012, is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School who worked in he U.S. commerical banking industry for 18 years. He is currently the publisher of the Radford Free Press, an economics blog, and is the co-founder of the World Economics Association, a professional organization for economists with over 14,000 members, and serves on its executive committee.
The Green Mountain Academy is an "independent non-profit organization offering lectures, courses, workshops and special events, primarily to adults for intellectual and cultural enrichment," according to their website, www.greenmtnacademy.org.
The event was filmed by Greater Northshire Access Television, and the full video will be made available in the near future.
Reach staff writer Derek Carson at 802-447-7567, ext. 122 or @DerekCarsonBB