The Peterson Principle: Intellectual Complexity and Journalistic Incompetence

written by Paul Benedetti

“It was while I was watching Channel 4 news presenter Cathy Newman’s spectacularly disastrous interview with University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson that what was wrong with much of journalism today crystallized in my brain.

I’d been oscillating between anger and frustration watching Canadian media fail again and again – and often in jaw-dropping fashion – in reporting on Peterson and I couldn’t quite establish what was going wrong.

Peterson is the teacher and clinical psychologist who burst onto the scene after making a video decrying the government’s Bill C-16 which compelled the use of invented gender pronouns (ze and zir, etc) for non-binary and transgender people. Peterson connected the “compelled speech” of the legislation (and the unscientific instantiation of gender as a non-biologically-correlated social construct) to radical leftist ideology and authoritarian governments.

In an admittedly complex and controversial argument, Peterson blamed the spread of postmodernism within the academy for the rise of both identity politics and the emergence of the illiberal left. Many of the stories about him were shallow or missed the point, but several in respected publications like the Globe and Mail and Maclean’s by Tabatha Southey, Ira Wells and most recently by John Semley, were just hatchet jobs, replete with insults, inaccuracies and what appeared to be deliberate misrepresentations. In short, bad journalism you would not expect in good outlets.

At the same time, and on what I thought was a completely different channel, I was enjoying a new discovery – the podcasts of neuroscientist and public intellectual Sam Harris. I was finding these long, complex conversations between highly intelligent people mesmerizing. I listened to Harris talk with evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, MIT professor and A-I expert Max Tegmark, New York Times writers Mark Lilla and David Brooks, and many others. Often, I would listen to them twice because of the depth and sophistication of the discussions. This led me to the Rubin Report podcast, where interviewer-comedian Dave Rubin would do one-on-one interviews with people such as Peterson himself, British author and social critic Douglas Murray, McGill professor Gad Saad and many others. What I was getting was precisely what was missing from virtually all the media coverage of the Peterson issue: intelligent inquiry, honest discussion, the exchange of views and the critique of ideas that is possible when really smart people talk about really difficult topics. In contrast were the flawed reporting and misinformed commentary that characterized respected mainstream media reports.”


“While mainstream media emphasizes quick hits, short interviews, and click-bait headlines, a significant proportion of the public is seeking something else. My intuitions are, of course, anecdotal, but the hunger for honest reporting and informed discussion is quantifiable. Peterson’s channel has more than 800,000 subscribers, his long lecture videos have received almost 40 million views, averaging about 4 million a month. The Rubin Report has 635,000 subscribers and has received a total of 140 million views at nearly four million a month. Sam Harris’s podcasts receive about 2 million visits per month.

While mainstream media struggles with declining readership and a public that refuses to financially support what they are delivering, online audiences are lining up and paying. And that audience is huge and growing steadily. A 2017 Edison Research Study reported that 24 percent of Americans (67 million people) are monthly podcast listeners, up 40% in two years.

The average listener subscribes to six podcasts and 85% report listening to the entire show or most of it. That’s tremendous breadth, depth, and growth – and it’s still early days. Thinking people want – and need – informed discussion about complex, thorny issues that is intellectually rigorous and fact-based.

Mainstream journalists need to engage in critical thinking, to once again speak empirical truth to dogma, to defend facts and evidence and to fearlessly question groupthink and intellectual tyranny of all kinds. They need to respect smart citizens by being smart themselves and engaging in honest reporting and commentary.

Because I fear that if they don’t, others will. And journalists and journalism as we know it will become irrelevant.”

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