Friday, 25 October 2019

Odd shots, 06: The media are stenographers

This is the sixth post in a series about the ways that people online blame the media for society’s ills. The title derives from an old expression, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” The first post appeared on 24 August but there was an earlier post on 18 February this year titled ‘Don’t shoot the piano player’.

This survey covers a period of just over two weeks starting about a month ago. For variety there is also a short excursion back to 2008 and 2007. Times shown are Australian Eastern Standard Time except after 6 October this year when daylight saving kicked in, meaning times shown on days after then conform to Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

Accusations of simply promoting government “propaganda” are commonplace on social media as people try to come to terms with the difference between the rate at which the community moves and the rate at which their own imaginations move. This disconnect seems to characterise the dynamic lying at the root of the frustration that people sometimes feel when they see things on TV or read stories on news websites. Their ideas are ahead of the larger community’s, and so they lash out at the media. The media is thus a convenient scapegoat.

A problem also lies with something mentioned in an earlier post in this series. As noted there, news stories cannot, in all cases, contain all the nuance and subtlety that every issue warrants, in everyone’s eyes. To ask for such a thing is to demand the impossible. All news stories are proxies for larger debates.

Having said that, the media does need to hold the powerful to account, and the powerful are always more interested in getting their own message to their audience than they are in respecting the truth. Everyone wants something from journalists, and people who talk to journalists are very careful, in most cases, about what gets published. This can lead, for example, to interviewees asking to see a story before it goes public, in order to possibly “correct” a point. This can even mean that people change what they said in an interview, if what they said could embarrass them. So while people want the exposure that journalists can often provide, they also want to control the message.

On the other hand, what a politician says in public is, on its own, newsworthy. To say otherwise is to commit a solecism. So publication is a bit like Occam’s razor: you want to be fair, you want to be intelligent, but you also want to just report what’s happening. And it seems that many people are not happy with the way this is done.

With the examples that follow the themes are consistent although some accusations aimed at the journalist are partly justifiable on the basis of the evidence available. In some cases the suspicion lingers, after seeing the evidence, that the article in question was merely a bit of spin launched by the government in order to earn the community’s approval. In all cases, however, despite what appears to be a lack of rigour in the reporting, there is something at least that warrants attention. Whether there are other, more important things, to occupy the community’s attention, is another matter. Based on personal experience the evidence shows, however, that people in general are attracted to the ephemeral and the digestible, and will ignore more solid reporting even if reading something more substantial is in their best interests.

I will finish with an example from about a decade ago which shows how time can put things in context better than any journalist is able to do.

Going in chronological order, I will start on 25 September 2019 when, at 7.08am, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) journalist David Crowe tweeted a link to a story in the SMH about the prime minister’s response to student and climate activist Greta Thunberg. His tweet went: “'Let kids be kids.'-- Scott Morrison's plea after Greta Thunberg's UN warning goes viral.”

In response to this, with a retweet, former SMH journalist Asher Moses tweeted, “This is what you get from journos who care more about ‘news’ and drops from politicians than truth and justice. They manipulate facts to serve the interests of power and ignore key context such as inaction leading us to certain extinction. This is copy [and] paste govt propaganda.” I found it hard to see how Crowe had “manipulated” anything other than letters in his word processing software by pressing the keys in the order necessary to type out his story. This was a straight report, pure and simple, and the attack from Moses seemed, to me, to be unfair. Given the government’s position on the environment, it is newsworthy to simply report what the PM says about Thunberg, the prominent Swedish student and activist.

Then, a few days, later, on 29 September at 5am, I saw a tweet from New York University teacher Jay Rosen about a different subject: US politics. He said, “Don't know what went awry here, but this reads like a press release from Ivanka Trump's office. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating. See for yourself.” The tweet came with a link to a story with the title, “Ivanka Trump's role as top diplomat reemerged at UNGA.” The story was from CNN and was dated 28 September. “UNGA” is the United Nations General Assembly which, Google says, is “one of the six principal organs of the United Nations, the only one in which all member nations have equal representation, and the main deliberative, policy-making, and representative organ of the UN”. The CNN story contained this:
Trump was in New York to promote her Women's Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative and to practice diplomacy on the world stage, a role she's embraced with mixed reviews, hamstrung by her father's mercurial tendencies and policies that are sometimes at odds with her objectives.
It went on a bit later:
President Donald Trump recognized her work multiple times during his remarks before world leaders at the UN, thanking her directly during a speech on religious freedom Monday and referencing W-GDP during his address to the General Assembly Tuesday.
Rosen’s point was fair in this case: this was a bit of a puff piece, but this kind of story is not unusual. Having said that, I did wonder why the story had been reported beyond its relevance of Trump’s tendency toward nepotism. The US president’s daughter is not a politician, although pointing out the flaws in Trump’s character is, in itself, useful.

Now, to the UK and to the subject of Brexit (the UK’s exit from the European Union). On 8 October at 6.42pm, an account with the Twitter handle @mattsumption and 774 followers tweeted, “Good journalism is publishing texts of political spin verbatim from government sources, the longer the texts, the more journalism you are doing.” “Peter Oborne has some words for James Forsyth (among other client journalists).”

Oborne is “a British journalist and broadcaster” according to Wikipedia. “He writes a political column for the Daily Mail and Middle East Eye.” Forsyth is “a British political journalist and political editor of The Spectator magazine” according to the same source. The Spectator is a conservative paper. The tweet came with this image.

I couldn’t immediately make much sense of the context these comments were made in but I did find out. The article in question was by Oborne and had been published on 4 October in Middle East Eye. It had the title, “UK Brexit crisis: The next few weeks could shape Britain for decades to come,” and it went, in part: 
[UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s] slovenly dress is not merely expressing contempt for the grey suits and traditional country tweeds of Tory MPs and party members. He’s deliberately showing contempt for the British Conservative Party itself.  
And not just that: he’s sending out a statement that he holds Britain in contempt too, including his attitudes towards its institutions, its values, its rule of law and its parliamentary democracy. 
To further his cause, he can rely on the support of an army of client journalists who crowd around him for access and information. They tend not to ask difficult questions about his ultimate objectives or who funds him. 
Large sections of the British media share much of his destructive agenda, craving access and information. In return, Cummings receives their protection.
In response to the tweets quoted above, an account with the Twitter handle @Dr_Tad and 3288 followers (with Berlin put down as the user’s location) tweeted, “Yes, it’s a long honoured tradition among journos to report such spin by adding quotation marks and minor bits of paraphrase. Speccie really letting the side down.” “Speccie” is a shortened form of the name of the Spectator, a right-wing media outlet. 

Because of the Spectator’s natural bent, its reporting positively on the conservative UK PM should not be remarkable. There are media outlets that are progressive (such as the Guardian) and there are others that are conservative in their editorial positions (such as the Murdoch papers). Newspapers conforming to their natural bias is not really noteworthy unless you want to point out that it is undesirable. I have written before about how issues get politicised as soon as they become public property and, to digress for a moment, I think that we all need to care less about what political parties think about issues, and to care more about the wellbeing of the entire community.

Back in the US again, on 9 October at 2.20am an account named Walker Bragman, belonging to a New York journalist with 20,871 followers, tweeted, “This whole thing with Ellen DeGeneres defending her friendship with war criminal and monster George W. Bush is a good example of how celebrities serve as cultural ambassadors for our brutal capitalist system.” A bit later, at 2.49am, Jacobin Magazine, a New York progressive media outlet, tweeted, “When you ask your favorite [sic] liberal media figures why they never use their platform to fight for global justice or stand against American imperialism.” The tweet came with the following image. In it, US TV host Elen Degeneres says, “I’m friends with George Bush.” 

I found it hard to criticise Degeneres for saying this and harder still to see why her statement was unpalatable. Degeneres is a trusted source of information for millions of people so, naturally, what she says is of interest to many. On the other hand, the Iraq invasion of 2003, which was led by the US, was not beneficial for anyone, as history proved, and Bush was badly advised to go ahead with it. 

In the Australian context, on 11 October at 7.55pm Melissa Clarke, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) foreign affairs reporter, tweeted, “Scott Morrison runs water for his PM’s XIII team, then takes a selfie with the players, in a match against Fiji. That is one happy rugby league tragic, right there!” The tweet came with a photo showing the Australian prime minister taking a selfie with some football players, presumably in Fiji.  Morrison had been shown in a video as well, taking bottles of water to players on the field at a rugby league game held in Fiji. In response, on 13 October at 9.01am Tim Dunlop, an Australian author with 9475 followers, tweeted, “Journalism as propaganda, pure and simple....serves no other purpose than to show the PM in a particular light, an image he is very happy to have perpetuated.”

This I thought was a bit unfair as Morrison’s trip to Fiji – a country with its own problems, notably a lack of democracy – was designed to bolster ties to countries in the Pacific. Climate change is causing problems on many of the islands that make up these countries and rising sea levels especially. Morrison’s Coalition government has poor energy policies that do not aggressively deal with climate change, so keeping good relations with the Fijian leader Frank Bainimarama – a man who loves his football – is actually pretty important. Showing Bainimarama how an Australian politician can be a servant for his or her people might furthermore form a constructive lesson. Giving an oblique message.

The next day the attacks on Clarke continued however, for on 12 October at 10.16pm, in relation to her tweet, Rex Widerstrom, a freelance journalist and political consultant with 637 followers, tweeted, “From one journalist to another: this is a disgrace. You should be ashamed, either of your gullibility, or alternatively your willingness to be used in the hope of personal advancement. I employ journalists. If I saw this on an applicant's social media, their CV would hit the bin.”

Guardian journalist Greg Jericho also got the boot in when, on 12 October at 7.10pm, he tweeted, “When I see how easily our media gets suckered in by Morrison’s schtick, I wonder: Is Australia’s political media more gullible than the US or UK?” In reply, with a retweet, Moses, tweeted, “Sycophants and stenographers who are drunk with their proximity to power, no longer even trying to get at the truth or hold power to account. Completely pathetic press gallery.”

So, just to demonstrate how journalism really works, here’s a case study. The photos that appear below were taken on 11 June 2008 between 7.34pm and 7.36pm. The story on the TV at the time was about ideas that were being thrown up about GM Holden manufacturing hybrid (petrol-electric) vehicles in Australia. Labor was in government at the time and they were subsidising the auto industry because it wasn’t sustainable on its own. Toyota had announced that it would built hybrid Camrys in its Melbourne plant. 

The Australian auto industry was finally allowed to die by the (conservative) Coalition government under Tony Abbott. But in 2008 the Labor party – which has always tried to help workers, especially in industries such as manufacturing and mining – was throwing around ideas. The ABC news story involved interviewing the GM Holden boss in Australia, the industry minister, Kim Carr, and a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) employee named David Lamb. There was also a guy from the Federated Chamber of Auto Industries and a guy from a magazine named GoAuto. So the ABC did its best to get a range of view. Even so, the idea fell flat because no-one – especially the company itself – wanted to really make cars in the country, and they certainly didn’t want to invest in the new plant and equipment that would have been necessary to tool up their factory for the new models. 

Lamb quit CSIRO in 2011, having worked there from 2003 as the CEO of the Australian Automotive Technology Centre. Before that he worked for Ford in Taiwan. He now lives in Melbourne and tutors in English. When Labor aired its policy for electric vehicles in advance of the May 2019 federal election people were again talking about making EVs in Australia, but of course Labor lost the election. 

It would be easy to criticise the ABC, on account of the 2008 story, for being captured by either a carmaker or by the government to put out a scheme that no-one really believed would happen. The story was, in fact, a total brainfart and it was accompanied (as the photos show) by copious quantities of compelling “relevant” imagery in the form of footage supplied (probably) by carmakers. Factories with robots always look good on-screen, they’re so photogenic. 

But nevertheless, the story was perfectly legitimate, although from this far away in time and in the absence of a transcript of the interviews used on the program it’s impossible to really judge either the people involved in the story or the journalists who put it together. Perhaps it was unwise to run it though given that nothing concrete had been announced either by the carmaker or by the government. 

To contextualise the state of the industry, at the time, the following is another shot from the TV, this time from the Special Broadcasting Corporation’s news half-hour on 18 July 2007. The photo shows Ford Australia plant workers looking unhappy after being let go from their jobs at one of the company’s plants (either Geelong or Broadmeadows). When the country was under a different government, Ford shut its plants, as did Holden. In 2014 even Toyota announced that it would shut its production facility in Victoria, and it closed three years later. 

It wouldn’t have hurt for the ABC to do some of this kind of contextualisation in their segment but perhaps they did. I can’t know at this far remove from the moment of the broadcast. But journalism has this ephemeral aspect to it. It’s not history, but people often call it the first draft of history. When people criticise journalists for submitting their critical faculties to someone else’s opinions, they are missing this point.

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