Too Close For Comfort: The cruel fate of Zoe Barnes, the young journalist who flies too close to the dark sun that is Frank Underwood in Netflix's remake of House of Cards, stands as a fictional warning of the all-too-real dangers of journalists extracting all morality from their profession and becoming mere stenographers to power.
THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG with New Zealand journalists. For the best part of three decades our universities and polytechnics have been churning-out graduates who, at least in theory, should be the best-educated, best-prepared and most ethical journalists this country has ever produced. It must break the hearts of these graduates’ academic mentors to see how little of what they have attempted to inculcate in their charges has taken. With one or two honourable exceptions, the young journalists striding forth from New Zealand’s journalism schools are anything but the crusading heirs of Woodward and Bernstein (Who?) All those guest lectures by Jon Stephenson, John Campbell and Nicky Hager have left hardly a trace.
Ironically, it may be their teachers’ strong focus on the media’s role in capitalist society that is to blame for these newly-minted journalists refusal to take aim at the Beast. One does not need too much in the way of intellectual firepower to grasp that “the system” into which they are emerging (and to which most of them are already heavily indebted) has already won most of the battles that count. Neither does it take a state-of-the-art crap-detector to work out that most of the people openly preaching revolution in the 21st Century are safely ensconced behind the ivory walls of academia and drawing six-figure salaries. Nice work if you can get it!
Also ironical is the thoroughness with which these graduates have deciphered the messages which the system is sending them. Those who gave them the code-breaking skills were doubtless confident that the sheer awfulness of global capitalism’s rules-of-engagement would be more than sufficient to turn them into crusaders for a better world. Instead, the professors’ prize-winning graduates have embraced capitalism’s systemic awfulness with all the amoral intensity of a reality television contestant.
The modern journalist’s catechism goes something like this: Is capitalism awful? Of course! But we have also learned that it is globally triumphant. That its values are the only values that count. That setting your face against the powers-that-be is about the worst career-move anybody still paying-off a student loan can make. And since we are left with no viable choice except to “join them”, attempting to “beat them” makes no sense at all.
Having drunk this particularly bracing cup of Kool-Aid, however, many of the most talented graduates of our journalism schools are left with an extremely bitter taste in their mouths. The words of their lecturers and professors are not forgotten, but, being ignored, have congealed into lumps of professional Kryptonite. For these super-journalists, too close a proximity to the left-wing ideas they were forced to write essays about at university leaves them feeling weak and vulnerable. No match for the system’s dark defenders – and nothing like their hand-picked candidates for promotion!
This professional defeatism and collaborationism is detectable in all forms of contemporary journalism, but nowhere is its bite more deadly than in the media’s coverage of politics. It almost seems that, presented with the vast and churning throng of political aspirants, the modern journalist is irresistibly drawn to individuals demonstrating the same willingness to embrace “the real world” as themselves.
These politicians may mouth the platitudes of their particular political tribe but not with the fervour of the true believer. Indeed, whenever they speak there is always just the hint of a cynical smile playing across their lips – a smile which the equally cynical political journalist reads without difficulty. Here is someone who has also signed the Devil’s contract in their own blood. Someone to watch and, whenever possible, promote. (Do that well enough and you might even end up working for them!)
For the true believers, of course, a very different fate awaits. The modern journalist is quite simply appalled by the lack of realism; the incapacity to grasp how the world actually works; that these politicians and the political activists who follow them display. Even worse, their insistence on taking seriously the cherished ideals of their student days, is received by these media inquisitors as a kind of moral rebuke. Their response, predictably, is to do everything within their power (and the most successful of these super-journalists wield a great deal of power) to prove that the consistent espousal of ideas critical of the system can only end in failure and disgrace.
The most unforgiveable sin of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and, yes, even Donald Trump, is that all of them have found ways of speaking over the heads of the modern journalist. Even worse, the positive response of ordinary people to their anti-establishment messages, far from signalling failure, constitutes the heart and soul of their success.
In the New Zealand context it is the media’s unrelenting harassment and disparagement of Winston Peters that offers the most convincing confirmation of this thesis. The more important question, however, is how the Parliamentary Press Gallery perceives Prime Minister Ardern. Is she a consummate mouther of tribal platitudes or a true believer? That she has been able to keep them guessing for so long is, at once, Ardern’s greatest political achievement and the gravest threat to her own and her government’s survival.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 6 July 2018.