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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

journalism, news, democracy « Previous | |Next »
June 16, 2010

The core argument that Alex Jones makes in his Losing the News: The Future of the News that Feeds Democracy is that traditional objective journalism is a bulwark of democracy; it is threatened by economic and technological change (forces outside the profession); and that to the extent that Americans ‘lose the news’, so they risk losing democracy itself.

Jones, who heads Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, argues (excerpts from the book) that the slow-motion collapse of traditional news-gathering media (broadcasters, news magazines, and newspapers) produce the "iron core of information" that sustains our democracy and fuels all the derivative media.

Without the iron core, no editorial page, columnist, op-ed artist, blogger, talk-show host, or aggregator will know what to say. Without the iron core, Jones fears, the public will have little clue about what governments, corporations, politicians, and the wealthy are up to. Quality "iron core" journalism nourishes democracy by keeping governments honest, assisting voters in making informed decisions at the ballot box, or stimulating political involvement.

The idea of "iron core" separates serious and important journalism from infotainment, celebrity gossip, spin or publicity and partisan comment. The iron core would only represent a small minority (15% says Jones) of the content in the traditional news-gathering media in Australia.

Jones argues that traditional, objective journalism primarily in newspapers (television —network, local, cable— is derivative media ) is the only thing preventing the public sphere from devolving into a ‘combination of advocacy, public relations, and individuals voices, even though traditional, objective journalism is a filter of of public conversation and is one shaped by the practices and ideology of media corporations.

Since the culture of Web journalism does not support in-depth news or investigative journalism Jones' map is one newspapers’ developing separate online businesses, with the owners of quality papers settling for lower than historic profit margins and renouncing slash-and-burn strategies.

This is how traditional journalists see themselves. They sense that their media world is dying, fear that Fox News stands for the new "journalism" and cannot imagine that new media might serve traditional journalistic functions---eg., writing about Question Time in the House of Representatives or on public policy such as health reform or the National Broadband Network----to foster political accountability. Their scenario is the “barbarians at the gate” one, as they cannot separate the iron core news from newspapers. Jones says:

My nightmare scenario is one of bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered and ineffectual bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity, and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service of the rich and powerful.

Our present is emerging into this world and parts of it are very discernible---news by press release and the high-priced newsletters. I prefer the rough diverse democratic voices and the cacophony they create in the public sphere to yesterdays public sphere that was tightly patrolled by ‘objective’ elite and gendered news media of the he said she said journalism.

Update
Alex Jones in a debate on Bloggingheads.tv with Reason Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch:

We need a Bloggingheads.tv in Australia. It is an example of the new media.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:47 PM | | Comments (9)
Comments

Comments

I'm not sure we have an 'iron core' in Australia. All our political journalists seem to think their job is to repeat what other politcal journalists are saying about process, without paying any attention to the truth, or evidence, or facts, or policy in any form.

john,
including the ABC?

The ABC just parrots the Australian now. Leigh Sales interview with Anthony Albanese was one of the worst interviews I have ever seen. She had the hide to ask why there was leadership speculation when almost every frontbencher had denied it, and no sources were named at all.

But worse than that, there was a story about Kevin Rudd's hand gestures, which seemed like it was actively trying to humiliate him.

I wish it was different, but Howard managed to lobotomise Aunty.

john,
I have to admit that I've stopped watching Lateline with Leigh Sales. Not much of substance is being said there about political events. I agree with you that the ABC follows the agenda of The Australian--eg.,Fran Kelly on Breakfast at Radio National.

I dislike the tone (or ideology?) of Lateline--their professionalism is both elitist and arrogant. They know what's news and what isn't and they know what is best for us. Their view appears to be that we can only be informed by them ( the gatekeepers) because we are ignorant and in need of information. They have a special view of the political arena that is cured of excess sentiment, useless passion, ideological certitude and other defects of vision that afflict the rest of us. We are didactic, ideological, and dreamy. They are savvy, hardheaded, practical and in touch with how things are.

They seem to have forgotten that we have many sources of news these days and we can piece together what is happening ourselves. We then judge the media professionals like Kelly or Sales in terms of how they are interpreting the news and political events. As you point out they often come up short.

For someone who gets the idea that journalists need to be concerned with their 'brand' in the new media landscape, Leigh Sales seems to have missed the basis of her personal appeal. Four years ago she was the go to girl on the complicated issue of David Hicks, and now she's just another hack grilling politicians about polls.

Albanese did remarkably well to keep his cool in that interview. He gave her endless opportunities to drill into substance, but she stuck with tabloid land.

What a waste. She used to be iron core, now she's just wallpaper.

Lyn,
I read the Leigh Sales interview with Anthony Albanese on Lateline. He points out that:

every question tonight has been about process rather than about substance. The Government's job is to talk about substance. Take the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme...... Because, again, and in tonight's interview, again, Leigh, we're down to processes. If I'm asked a question, I have to answer it. It is completely absurd that you have media speculation [about leadership] without a single member of caucus raising it.

Not once did Sales address the government's reform agenda or ask probing questions about the significance or importance of these reforms. Do they actually amount to much?

Sales just went on and on about Labor's slide in the polls which we all know about. So nothing was learnt from the interview, other than an insight into the way the media operates.

No doubt Sales, as a political journalist, sees herself standing in the middle, or above the fray, or not implicated. She represents the truth in the two sided partisan divide. The journalist is in the middle between the polarized extremes and frames the dispute as "he said, she said." Sales is pure in a world of political contamination and squalor.

Here's a take on the dumbing down of the media in an editorial in The Australian:

there is no doubt parts of the press are dumbing down. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age are heavy on opinion but light on for news and analysis coming out of Canberra, seeing politics as a morality play not a policy forum. Much of the electronic media has abandoned information for infotainment, and political websites are populated by many more ranters than reporters.

According to the editorial, the exception to the lightweight media are the serious papers --The Australian and the Australian Financial Review. Only they act to make the government accountable.

This is how they defend their authority-- by kicking everyone else hard--and so disguising that their reporters are right wing hacks who often write garbage about the extreme ideologues on the other side.

The national political journos in the Canberra Press Gallery won't admit to an ideology at all, because that violates their "professional objectivity" code. Their claim to authority and seriousness is based on that code.

Journalists breathlessly report every up-and-down in the news cycle, and are inclined to highlight personalities and inside-the-Canberra Beltway gossip and rumour.

They do not provide and analysis of the underlying forces that shape political outcomes and help everyone see the forest for the trees. Nor do they discuss politics in terms of long-term economic and demographic trends, underlying social forces within and across the nation, shifting balances of power, the role of interest groups, the impact of shifting normative discourses, etc.