27 Oct 2009 11:35 pm   //   Filed under: Media

Carr vs. Wolff

Of all the journalists in this city who cover media, David Carr, who writes for the business section of the Times, could be the best. His research is solid, he’s a brilliant writer, and he’s a master at taking brand new information and distilling it to its essence. (Example: His April 13, 2007 column about Don Imus.)

Michael Wolff, who writes a media column for Vanity Fair, could be my least favorite. He takes facts that are common knowledge and spins them into tedious stories that reach b.s. conclusions. (Example: His May 2008 effort to explain the finances of The New York Times Company.) He also runs a news aggregation site called Newser.

Being familiar with these two journalists’ work, it was fun to see them face off tonight at a debate at New York University. A friend offered me a last-minute invitation to the event, which was part of a series called Intelligence Squared. (If you’re into this kind of thing, a recording of the event will eventually be online, and it will be broadcast by NPR and Bloomberg TV.)

The motion proposed at the debate was “Good Riddance to the Mainstream Media.”

In support were Wolff; John Hockenberry, who hosts the public radio program The Takeaway; and Jim Vandehei, executive editor of Politico.

Opposed were Carr; Phil Bronstein, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Katrina Vanden Huevel, editor and publisher of The Nation.

You might think this sounds like an odd debate, given that all of these people owe their careers to the mainstream media. (Was Craig Newmark unavailable?) It was awkward, since no one really wanted to argue whether the destruction of all newspapers, TV stations and mass market magazines was a positive thing. A better motion for debate might have been: “New media are a better source of news than legacy media.” But the debaters worked with what they’d been given.

Hockenberry and Vandehei both respectfully pointed out the failings of commercial news without diminishing its legitimate achievements. But Wolff was a mess. He began by arguing that the mainstream media is controlled by the five major broadcasting companies, a nonsense conjecture. (Which of those five does he think runs The New York Times? Or Vanity Fair?) He then tried arguing that media, at its core, is a technology business. (Most people call it an information business.) At one point he got backed into arguing that the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was “useless” because the abuse had been happening for 30 years when the report was published. Useless!

Wolff was tumbling down a flight of stairs in slow motion. Carr delivered the final kick to the stomach. In his concluding statement, Carr held up a printout of the home page of Wolff’s Newser site, with its colorful headline boxes. “It’s a good looking site,” Carr said. Then he held up an identical printout from which he had cut out all the boxes that linked to “mainstream media” sites. The page was decimated. “It looks like Swiss cheese,” Carr said. Wolff had just been owned. Needless to say, Carr’s side won the debate.

Later, I actually felt bad for Michael Wolff. I had gone into the debate with a closed mind, wanting to see bloodsport, and I got what I came for. It was a classic pro wrestling set-up. Here was a pompous Vanity Fair stooge in over his head and forced to fight anyway. He was disliked by the audience and intellectually outmatched. Poor fellow didn’t stand a chance.

But despite Wolff’s bungling, the anti-mainstream media side landed a few blows. In fact, the best line of the debate belonged to the public radio host, Hockenberry. In his opening statement, Hockenberry offered a message for people who count on the mainstream media to handle the news responsibly: “Two words: Balloon boy.”

Update: Gawker’s Hamilton Noah writes up the same debate. Nice headline.