Monday 7 March 2011

Whose Media?

The Journalist As Hero: News is what somebody, somewhere, doesn't want you to know. That's what freedom of the press used to be all about - at least in the eyes of 1930s Hollywood. But questioning authority and speaking truth to power has become passe. Now, apparently, the news media's role is to reflect the strong baseline of our common experience a.k.a The Lowest Common Denominator. The hero of this new endeavour is not the journalist but the propagandist.

AS THE MUCKRAKING American journalist, Upton Sinclair, wisely observed: "It is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

I think of Sinclair every time I hear a bank economist pontificating on the state of the New Zealand economy. Why, oh why, I ask myself, does the news media persist in seeking credible economic information from people with such an obvious vested interest in presenting the privately-owned financial sector in the best possible light?

Why doesn’t the news media approach an academic economist for this sort of commentary? Someone whose salary depends upon the rigor of their critical thinking – not the profits of their employer? Someone, in short, without a dog in the fight?

Delving into the history of who the news media goes to for economic information (especially the public broadcasters, Radio New Zealand and TVNZ) offers some interesting insights into exactly what the media is and who it is for.

Prior to the political triumph of neoliberal dogma in the late-1980s and early-1990s, it was the long-established custom of public broadcasters to approach academic economists for commentary on all manner of financial, commercial and fiscal affairs. But shortly after the election of the Bolger-led National Government in 1990 this practice ceased.

A memo was circulated among Radio New Zealand’s news and current affairs staff indicating who was, and more importantly who was not an acceptable source of economic commentary. What was most notable about this list (apart from the inclusion of all the major banks’ official economists) was its obvious bias towards neoliberal economics. [Don’t bother trying to get your hands on this document because "officially" it doesn’t exist. I learned of its existence from broadcasters who’d seen it and read it but who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, supply me with a copy.]

In the early 1990s, many of the economic professors and associate professors in New Zealand’s universities were still followers of the Keynesian school of economics. When approached for commentary their responses were more often than not highly critical of the policies of both the National Government, and its ideological cheerleaders in the Treasury and the Business Roundtable.

By disseminating the views of these highly critical academic economists the public broadcasters were engaging in a high-risk game of poker with the whole neoliberal establishment.

Just how risky this game could get was demonstrated in 1990 when TVNZ found itself legally besieged by an outraged Labour Cabinet following the broadcast of For the Public Good – a current affairs documentary exposing the links between the politicians behind Rogernomics and Big Business. The producer and many of the staff who worked on For the Public Good soon found themselves not only unemployed but effectively blacklisted in New Zealand. The lesson was not lost on the public broadcasters who remained.

When the Bolger Government’s rising dissatisfaction with the public broadcasters’ coverage of economic affairs was translated into thinly-veiled threats of funding-cuts or even outright privatisation, the management staff at Radio New Zealand decided discretion was the better part of valour – and issued the infamous memo.

Stories like this one give the lie to the rather matter-of-fact description of the news media’s functions supplied last Monday (28/2/11) by Lew at Kiwipolitico.

"The media’s job is right there in the name:" says Lew, "to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience."

It’s precisely at that "strong baseline of common experience" that Lew and I part company over the news media’s role.

When journalists attempt to tailor their coverage to the requirements of the lowest common denominator (for isn’t that what the expression "baseline of common experience" really means?) they may well be serving the commercial and political needs of those who own, run and influence the news media, but they are certainly not serving the public.

Lew’s comments were made in the context of the Christchurch Earthquake, so let’s take an example from that tragedy to illustrate my point.

According to Lew: "It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a desiccated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a desiccated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation."

Now, cast your mind back to the media coverage of the young man who was brought before a Christchurch court and charged with looting light-fittings. Anyone looking at the television footage could tell that the accused had been severely beaten. His eyes and mouth were badly swollen and his face covered with cuts and bruises. But to my knowledge not a single journalist commented on this obvious fact. Nor did I hear anyone make reference to the obvious collusion between the Police, the Court and the news media which transformed the accused’s appearance before the judge into a full-scale media event.

Presumably, the journalists present saw this carefully organised "perp walk" as a chance to build "national cohesion" around the most suitable means of deterring looting in Christchurch. Accordingly, each of them toed the "baseline of common experience" – in this case our common revulsion at looting in the midst of tragedy.

But the media was wrong about that young man. He turned out to be less of a looter than he was a mentally disabled human-being utterly unequal to the task of defending himself against either physical assault or the charges brought against him. It’s doubtful he was even capable of grasping the extreme seriousness of his situation.

Journalists less concerned with building "national cohesion" and keeping within the bounds of society’s "common experience" would have questioned the authorities, not colluded with them. They would have tried to find out who beat the boy. Was it the Police? The Army? Or was he left to the tender mercies of his cell-mates?

When they learned that the items he’d stolen were light-fittings, they would have immediately known that they weren’t dealing with a case of looting, but with something entirely different. (Who risks imprisonment for light-fittings?!)

But, because the journalists present at the court decided to act in our name, rather than in the name of what Lew dismisses as "a desiccated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake", we were all tainted by the cruelty and injustice meted out to a sad autistic boy.

In that makeshift courthouse, the assembled journalists’ "first rough draft of history" was a lie.

And only more lies will follow while the profession of journalism allows the prejudices of its fellow citizens; the political priorities of its leaders; the commercial imperatives of its employers – not to mention its own generous salary packages – to deflect its members from their fundamental duty to question authority and speak truth to power. 


Anonymous said...

Reminds me of this wee Adam Curtis video

Lew said...

While hardly a representative example, Chris, this is an apposite and important one. I'll make no defence of the media for their handling (or, to a great extent, non-handling) of the Arie Smith case, and in other respects they've also been less than stellar -- such as in failing to report the human impacts of the quake in the less-affluent and worst-hit areas of Christchurch's east. In those cases they have been largely guilty of acting as an echo-chamber for the accepted elite narratives, rather than an independent voice of their own. My thesis was never that the media always fulfil their role fairly and justly, after all -- there are many factors which can prevent this, threats from power not least among them. Only that that's what the role is, and while it performs some valuable service, it does comes at a cost of some exploitation.


Anonymous said...

No doubt a bunch of people will be along to tell you how quaint your insistence on "truth" is. After all, there are apparently many "truths" according to the miseducation being peddled in philosophically illiterate social science departments since the 80s.

You can't use logic against people who only believe in rhetoric, Chris.

Anonymous said...

very well said Chris.


JMS said...

Chris, sorry for the OT, but a bit worrying to see you as a guest poster on Muriel Newman's crazy racist site:

Chris Trotter said...


It has long been my policy to grant permission to any person or organisation seeking to re-publish material already in the public domain.

The column in question was published for everyone to read in The Press of 15/2/11.

At least the Coastal Coalition asked for my permission, and acknowledged the original publisher - which doesn't always happen.

Had they asked me to write a piece exclusively for them, you may be sure that I would have refused.

uke said...

I have also noticed a tendency for RNZ business reporters to seek most of their "expert opinions" on economic matters from economists with large banks and financial-type corporates like Goldman Sachs, Merril Lynch etc. It is staggering such people (& firms) are so blithely trusted by journalists after the financial crisis.

Like you say, Chris, only occasionally does one hear an alternative voice like an academic or trade-union economist.

For some reason, it also bugs me how those RNZ business journalists come across like sports reporters, if you know what I mean, jocular and matey matey.

WAKE UP said...

As soon as the media decides to be a "player" instead of a dispassionate observer, we're in trouble. This is why the Winston Peters phenomenon (in which they now have a vested interested, having failed utterly to "get" him, when such a "getting" was egregious in the first place) vexes them so sorely.

WAKE UP said...

oops, typo: "...a vested interest"

Unknown said...

Hi Chris

You wrote:

"Why doesn’t the news media approach an academic economist for this sort of commentary? Someone whose salary depends upon the rigor of their critical thinking – not the profits of their employer? Someone, in short, without a dog in the fight?"

The truth is, everyone including the 'academic economist' has a 'dog in the fight'. They are employed by the State, their tenure is dependent upon the on-going approval of the institution to which they belong, which in turn will have vested interests.

There is no 'neutral ground' no truly independent observer, no 'values free' commentary.

The best we can hope for is that people disclose their predisposition, their world view, their underlying values. Then we can hope to asses their views against the bias of their filters.

The real lie is that human objectivity exists.

Matthew Hooton said...

Chris, on the question of whether the media should choose bank or academic economists, isn't it an empirical question? That is: which economists have been more accurate over the years in making forecasts about the New Zealand economy? I bet (although I have no data) that it’s the bank economists because if they have “a dog in the fight” as you put it, isn’t it that they get it right? In contrast, the academic economists tend to have tenure and are often ideologically motivated. Ideological battles is what academics do. If an academic economist predicts that the dollar will go up, or whatever, isn’t it likely that’s because that’s what their ideology demands should happen in the particular case? To trust an academic economist over a commercial one is, in my view, an incredible leap of faith – even an ideological one.

Adolf Fiinkensein said...

Mr Trotter, it is always a pleasure to read your ramblings, even when I disagree strongly with their various themes. You are a bit like the Bible. (Now don't go rushing off for some tablets of stone and a chisel.)There are those who take your words literally and there are others (like me) who look for the subtle message behind the words.

Today, I think you have delivered a sound kick up the arse to both journalists and jurists.

Victor said...

Matthew Hooton

Surely we should be getting a variety of viewpoints, including those of academics of both left and right wing persuasions, along with those of the, no doubt, subconsciously biased commercial economists.

If it's indeed true that commercial economists get it right more often than others, this could be because the constant Pavlovian reiteration of their neo-liberal mantras helps sustain a cultural and business climate that, at least in the short term, favours the outcomes they tend to predict.

In the long term, however, their record is pretty dismal, as the current state of the global economy testifies.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad that Hooton thinks that all that economists should do is forecast the economy, in other words number crunching. And number crunching was supposed to empirical, with no assumptions or value judgments built into the modelling?

A better question for him would be why it is of value to have the commentary dominated by employees of foreign financial institutions, and the central bank prescribing to the same views. Since the Treasury is also a right wing think tank, there is uniformity. So how about some constestability. Saying that only the academic economists are ideological, with the commercial economists being pragmatic, is itself ideological.

In truth, it was only for a short time that academic economists opposed the Treasury line, and that was in the mid 1980s. That was based at Victoria, which has since become as right wing as the rest; the only exceptions are individuals in provincial business schools. Even when all the relevant academic economists opposed monetary policy, as they did in December 1988, it did not do much good. Treasury and their acolytes simply manoeuvred their opponents out of any positions of influence outside the academy. They also helped create think tanks like the Institute of Policy Studies at Victoria, which was a haven for former officials.