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

mapping today's journalism « Previous | |Next »
August 30, 2011

As is well known politics as entertainment is the dominant model of the media's coverage of politics. in this model the Australian media reframes politics as entertainment, seizing on trivial episodes that amuse or titillate and then blowing them up until they start to seem important. The stories are semi-fictionalized to make them more entertaining. Thus we have Lindsay Tanner's conception of the media as a sideshow and manufactured controversies.

In an interview on Lateline last week Jay Rosen, who is to give a keynote speech in the Melbourne Writers Festival, made some acute observations about the current state of the media and political journalism. One observation is that political coverage is broken:

I think we've reached the point where politics as entertainment, the 24-hour news cycle, the fascination with media manipulation and spin doctors, the cult of the insider in political coverage - have gone on for so long they've all come together to the point where I think they're not only distorting politics, but they're actually beginning to substitute for it. This is the sense in which I think political coverage is broken...we have now ... a situation where journalism isn't just representing what political actors do, it is actually changing what they do. And there isn't really an exit from that system no matter what channel you're watching or what news source you're consulting.

The roots of this observation is this earlier interview on Lateline in which he raised the issue of the ABC's Insider's program promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to “win.” Knowing who the winners are is being savvy and this comes from being more inside than others.

The journalist then claims that their political reporting is agenda-less because they are uninvolved, innocent, merely reporting without stake or interest in the matter at hand. Examples are He said, she said journalism and horse race journalism.

Rosen's argument is that the above three bad ideas--insiders, the ‘cult of saviness’, and innocence-- are constitutive of the identity as a journalist and have made political journalism less useful than it should be. The inference is that political media is dysfunctional and it seems to be getting worse. What is disappearing in practice is the model of the media doing its job if it is providing citizens with the information they need to be more active and full participants in their own system of government.

Consequently, the needs of the democratic citizenry are not being met. An example.. Climate change is real, and anyone who denies it is a liar or wrong - but journalists don't call them on it. The journalist merely reports that x denies climate-change even though they understand that this a political game being played.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:13 PM | | Comments (16)


Gerard Henderson's response to Jay Rose is typical of the cultural war conservatives:

It seems that Jay Rosen is in Melbourne for the taxpayer subsidised Melbourne Writers’ Festival. He is part of that literary festival tradition in Australia where a group of leftie-luvvies get a bucket load of taxpayers’ money and invite a group of left-luvvies to come along and talk about themselves and advocate left-wing causes, in a leftie luvvie kind of way – and get lotsa interviews by leftie-luvvie presenters on the ABC.

He doesn't even bother to engage with Rosen's argument about the current state of political journalism.

It is certainly true that journalists have as a group retired from the idea of talking about policies. Maybe that's because any discussion of policies might leave them open to accusations of bias, or maybe it's just too hard.

Or maybe it's because we're not supposed to understand policies, only football.

I saw it and thought good old fashioned ABC. Their effort last night (Monday) was much better than late, also.

The consequence of treating anything as entertainment is that only a minority of the population - the segment which finds it entertaining - remains involved. We've seen this first in sport, and now in politics. It's all great fun for the in-group but misses the whole purpose of politics. In the greater scheme of things it doesn't matter if the masses cease to care who wins the latest meaningless cricket series featuring our national team of professional entertainers. On the other hand not caring what the vaudevillians in Canberra are doing is a fundamental degradation of our whole identity as a supposedly democratic country. But that is what seems to be happening.

Maybe as long as most people are secure and comfortable, they are content to let a minority of political tragics entertain each other. Unfortunately it's likely that sooner or later some really nasty people will take advantage of the vacuum and use the power that is there for the taking to do bad things. Or on reflection, I should have said a new bunch of nasty people, given we already had one lot doing bad things from 2001 to 2007.

Lateline is defensive on this issue. This is Tony Jones during the interview

It is not coverage that's broken, rather it is the politicians themselves that are broken and what's broken in them is their ever-increasing use and reliance on spin.

That is the standard Lateline position--Leigh Sales ran it when she was on Lateline last year. They have to contend with political marketing --- target the middle heavily, offer the core policy depth in 3-4 strategic policy issues, and make the leader the brand that the consumer has the connection and experience with, not the party.

Granted. The political journalists at the ABC are insiders.They deflect the criticism of this by pointing to the way the politicians manage the news.

and as that happens the media, on Rosen's scenario, would be fully preoccupied with the mechanics of political presentation, staging, media narratives, appearing before the cameras and the arts of imagery - those kinds of things have become kind of the mutual fascinations of the political class and the journalistic class.

Just playing devil's advocate, is there a law written down anywhere that says the media has to properly inform the public? I don't think there are any separation of powers rules about what is appropriate for media. I'm not aware of any law being violated if news media fails to play its expected role.

As far as I'm aware, news media can publish and broadcast whatever they want. The expectation that it will be in the public interest (as in the public good) is really only an expectation.

commercial media is commercial. By definition it's not concerned with serving the wider public, but the bits of the public it can sell stuff to.

The ABC is different. Why it chooses to lift the Australian's bootstraps is anybody's guess.

Lyn says:
"commercial media is commercial. By definition it's not concerned with serving the wider public, but the bits of the public it can sell stuff to."

So we end up with:

(1) drivel and nonsense in the Fairfax broadsheets.

(2) ignoring significant policy that will make a difference to how politics is conducted.

Lyn says that "there is no law written down anywhere that says the media has to properly inform the public".

Sure. The problem is that journalists say that as a profession they are fair and balanced and that they act in the public interest to inform democratic citizens. Their practice--eg., infotainment or political advocacy---is in stark contrast with what they say about themselves.

The Australian on basic journalist standards. They can write what they like in opinion pieces so get used to it.

Sure, news media claims to be acting in the public interest, but is that any different from the Ponds Institute claiming their face cream will eradicate wrinkles?

It seems to me that expecting news media, and particularly political news journalists (with a handful of exceptions) to serve the public interest is like expecting sea monkeys to live up to the pictures on the packet.

Damn, I was going to buy a pack of those sea monkeys and now Lyn's ruined my dreams.

It's true that commercial news media can do what they like, which makes it even more desirable to give the ABC a new charter, a new (irrevocably) independent board and a clear order to get out of the entertainment business. Of course a truly independent news organisation not beholden to any special interests is the last thing politicians want so it is not going to happen.

The hostilities between News Ltd and the Gillard Government are increasing. News Ltd, as a political player, is actively campaigning for regime change in Canberra.

News Ltd's newspapers--especially the Australian--have become players in national politics and there are no means by which their actions can be held to account in their campaign to save Australia from the pinko PC mob that is ruining the country.

The Greens have said they will introduce a motion on 13 September to establish an inquiry into the media. Gillard should give her support to this, now that it is obvious News Ltd is running an orchestrated campaign across its titles against her government.

If only, Marvin...