Friday 23 March 2018

The Political Economy Of Mainstream Political Journalism.

New Faces - Same Old Spin: Sensationalism and scandal-mongering have become the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics is being reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just get in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters need to remember is that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and all governments are out to get them.

FEW WOULD ARGUE that journalism is not in crisis. Beset by the manifold challenges of a global on-line culture, journalists struggle to keep pace with the demands of readers, listeners and viewers whose tastes they once led but now must follow. The mainstream news media’s dwindling share of the advertising dollar drives it inexorably towards the sensational, scandalous, salacious and bizarre: the “clickbait” upon which its profitability increasingly depends.

For political journalism the consequences of these trends have been particularly dire.

Prior to the arrival of the Internet, the coverage of politics by the mainstream media, like its coverage of the arts, was seen as a necessary and important contribution to the well-being of the community. A well-informed electorate was widely accepted as an essential prerequisite to the proper functioning of the democratic process. Covering politics soberly and comprehensively was just one of the many important services provided by the mainstream news media in return for the rivers of advertising gold flowing into its coffers.

As the revenue required for this sort of disinterested political coverage diminished, the mainstream news media was confronted with a very different set of imperatives. Political personalities and events, which had formerly provided the raw material for professional political journalists’ speculation and analysis, underwent a dramatic transformation. From being the passive subjects of political journalism, politicians and their actions were fast becoming the active drivers of it.

Readers, listeners and viewers were interested in politics, but only on their own terms. Political journalists whose copy failed to both reflect and amplify the prejudices of their mass audiences required the most steadfast of editors to keep their words in print; their voices and images on the airwaves.

How did the mainstream media’s consumers perceive politics? Poorly. As the “more-market” polices of the 1980s and 90s became bedded-in; and as political practice – regardless of which party was in power – took on a dismal and dispiriting sameness; the voting public’s respect for politicians (never all that high) sank even further. Increasingly, politics came to be seen as something which politicians did to – rather than for – the people.

Political journalism which did not reflect the public’s deep-seated cynicism and suspicion of politics and politicians became increasingly difficult to sustain. By far the best way to keep people reading, listening and watching political journalism was for journalists to affect the same cynical and suspicious air towards the entire political process.

Regardless of party, politicians were portrayed as being in it for what they could get: and what they most wanted was power. Those who attributed noble motives to politicians were mugs. It was all a game. It was permissible to admire a politician for how well he or she played the game – but not for any other reason. And the only acceptable measure of how well they were playing the game was the opinion poll.

The medieval saying Vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God) was re-worked by political journalists to read: The results of the polls represent the opinion of the people, and the opinion of the people is the only thing that counts.

It was a formulation that removed from political discourse every other criterion by which the voters could judge the political performance of their elected representatives. In effect, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion had trapped them in an inescapable feedback loop. If a political party was losing support, then that was only because it was failing to give the people what they wanted. What did the people want? Whatever the political party ahead in the polls was offering them.

The other rule-of-thumb by which political journalists were now encouraged to operate was the rule that told them to regard every person in a position to wield power over others as automatically suspect. Since most people are not in a position to tell anyone what to do (quite the reverse!) this mistrust of authority allowed political journalists to cast themselves as the ordinary person’s champion; their courageous defender; their righter of wrongs. Which meant, of course, that they had constantly to be on the lookout for wrongs to right.

Sensationalism and scandal-mongering became the bread-and-butter of political journalism. Politics was reduced to an endless struggle between the good-guys (us) and the bad-guys (them). Complexity and nuance just got in the way of relating this Manichean struggle between darkness and light. All the punters were required to remember was that all politicians are driven by the will to power; and that all governments are out to get them.

Does it help to sell newspapers? Does it boost radio and television audiences? Of course it does. Human-beings have always been easy prey for those who insist that individuals and groups who thrust themselves forward to the front of the crowd are not to be trusted. And, of course, they’re right to be suspicious: not everyone who claims to have our interests at heart is telling the truth. And yet, the political journalism of cynicism and suspicion cannot, in the long-run, be constitutive of a healthy democracy.

Sometimes those in power are genuinely bad, and those seeking to turn them out of office are motivated by an honest desire to put things right. But, if political journalists are no longer willing to recognise any politician and/or political party as a force for good, what then? If their profession has become nothing more than an endless search for scandal and the abuse of power; if even the possibility that a politician might be idealistic and well-intentioned is rejected with a cynical smirk; then the always difficult process of implementing progressive political change will become next-to-impossible.

The tragedy of our on-line culture, is that to remain profitable the mainstream news media has little choice but to alarm, outrage and inflame its audiences. “If it bleeds it leads” turns tragedy into journalism’s most negotiable currency. For a news media on life-support, there is simply not enough clickbait in the stories generated by a properly functioning democracy. For the foreseeable future, therefore, the only news fit for political journalists to use – will be bad.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 March 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

As far as politicians go, I'm quite willing to accept that they start off wanting to be a force for good – however they might define it. But I think they end up as cynical power grabbers – maybe inevitably. Although obviously some start out like that. I'm not quite sure what turns them cynical, but I suspect it's a look at what actually goes on in parliament and behind the scenes – which seems to almost preclude being a force for good. I once knew Jonathan Hunt. Not well – he was my history teacher for two years and my social studies and Latin teacher for even more, and he did have his favourites of whom I was not one – surprise surprise. But I really believe he started out wanting to be a force for good. And he really only got into Parliament through a bit of a fluke. But he ended up the Minister of wine and cheese, with a sense of entitlement as big as a barn. I'd love to know what happened to him between entering and leaving Parliament. I suspect he wasn't a good minister. He was extremely well organised as I remember but tended to sweat the small stuff. I thought he made an excellent speaker which playrd to his strengths of a good memory and all those years of controlling 4 Engineering ii.
But journalism today is certainly not what it was. There is some decent longform journalism, but it's buried under a amount of massive click bait bullshit and stories about the Kardashian's – which of course is click bait bullshit. And one of the problems is that you have to actually look for it, which doesn't go down well with a culture that is used to finding things with one click. Although I must say in my late night/early morning conversations with the boy when I'm driving him home from his shit job he seems to be remarkably well-informed – certainly better than I expected. So maybe there is hope.

greywarbler said...

Some people are so tied up in exploiting the personalities and foibles of politicians with a loyal and enthusiastic following, that they all don't notice the real problems flowing behind the scenes. While one is hee-hawing at something there is someone stealing our own and our country's heritage and selling it for a hefty commission for themselves.

Defending the good politicians we have, and hoping that they are both practical and brave, and know when to keep schtum and when to joke, all the time keeping faith with the populace; that is what we have to do I think. We must support those who are really keen to have a good well-run country that encourages all to use their skills for the joint advantage of themselves and the country. If we are busy with something worthwhile for us and others, it will show up in a very positive, hopeful environment and I am all for that, different from that of the present.

Having some discretion based on your own and others experience and keeping eyes wide open on the achievable vision is the idea and will help us cut clear-eyed through this often malicious writing of journalists putting forward their very ordinary thoughts strung into sentences.

Anthem for the future for realists looking in the world and through the media for reliable discussion and hard, factual news! From 'The Gambler' on how to increase your chance of winning more than losing.

You got to know when to hold 'em,
Know when to fold 'em,
Know when to walk away,
And know when to run.

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin'
Is knowin' what to throw away
And knowin' what to keep.
'Cause every hand's a winner,
And every hand's a loser,
And the best that you can hope for
Is to die in your sleep."
Writer: Don Schlitz

Fullstop said...

The quality of journalism in New Zealand is staggering low. Brain-dead to be exact.

A newspaper editor of a major national paper told me to my face that a university degree was an 'over-qualification' for journalism in NZ.

And the poor quality of journalism writing - newspapers, TV, & radio - proves that.

David Stone said...

Have you ever got involved in a political party? I've never sought office or candidacy in one , but it becomes evident that except for the occasional selection of someone who already has a high profile outside politics like Jeanette Fitzsimons ,Selectio requires compromise of ideals from the beginning. By the time a politician is formed anyone dedicated to principle has long since been eliminated.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

David. I once door knocked for Mike Moore in an excess of student enthusiasm. But that's as far as it went. I suspect there is a certain amount of truth in what you say though, because it seems to me that people who climb the ladder are those that seem to be able to cope with endless meetings. :) But Hunt at least talked to us class members about the selection process and what was going on. (Though his pets – commonly known as "Hunt men" probably got more of the real skinny.) And it seemed to me at the time that he did want to do good. And let's face it, he basically got the nomination because he was a compromise candidate between two extremes I think. He simply slipped through the middle as it were. But Moore seemed idealistic at the time as well. And look how he turned out. I think they turn up all bright eyed and shiny shoed and are promptly put in their place by the old cynics who simply use them as "vote fodder". And after a few years of this, they see that the only way to get anything done this to climb the ladder by being as shitty as the rest of them. But by the time they get there, I'm not sure that they remember what they wanted to accomplish in the first place.
It would be nice to talk to some of them and confirm or deny all this I must confess. :)

Geoff Fischer said...

So there is a problem in politics. Very few of us trust the politicians. And it seems that the fourth estate is not the solution to the problem because few of us trust journalists. The very phrase "fourth estate" implies an institution which is an elemental component of the political regime, which indeed it is. Journalism, then, is an integral part of the bigger problem.
Personally, I believe that there are a number of honest and competent journalists (for example Jon Stephenson, Phil Pennington and our host Chris Trotter) but despite all their virtues I don't think that they can save representative democracy from its rush to destruction. A few good politicians in Parliament or a few good journalists working in the mass media are not going to fix things. The problem is systemic and structural and if we are to have a positive impact we will need to find systemic and structural solutions. I agree with Chris that cynicism is not particularly helpful. In fact political cynicism only paves the way for fascism in the guise of the populist anti-politician or the mass media demagogue.

Jack Scrivano said...

Many many many years ago, when I was still at school, I got to spend an afternoon with the senior political reporter for The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune. As I say, it was a long time ago but, as far as I can remember, here’s one of the things that he said that afternoon.

‘It is not our place to tell our readers what to think. Our job is to tell a story, laying out the known facts and the relevant opinions – being clear about which is which. It is then up to our readers to reach their own conclusions.’

It seems to me that most modern day political journalists believe that their job is to tell readers what to think. Today’s typical political story is light on fact and heavy on opinions that support the journo’s own conclusion.

They also generally lack style.