Investigating Journalism: Encouraging the population to view politics and politicians as corrupt, ineffectual, and best left alone, absolves the news media of all responsibility to present political news in a way that reveals its absolute centrality to their readers’, listeners’ and viewers’ well-being.
THE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN has exposed weaknesses in New Zealand journalism that have hurt and surprised many New Zealand journalists. The chief weakness exposed has been the news media’s eagerness to both exploit and amplify anti-political feeling within the New Zealand public. In normal times this is generally a low-risk/high-return strategy. In abnormal times, however – and the times we are living through currently are about as abnormal as you can get! – the anti-political strategy simply does not work.
The reason for the strategy’s failure in times of crisis is simple. When people are frightened they do not want to hear that the leaders whose job it is to look after them are useless cretins. On the contrary, they want to be reassured that their leaders are competent and compassionate in equal measure. They want to feel safe in their hands. They want to trust them, respect them, and – Gawd help us! – love them. Shrewd editors and smart journalists get this. Inept editors and obtuse journalists do not.
Overcoming the anti-political journalistic reflex is, however, an extremely difficult thing for “mainstream media” professionals to do. It is, after all, a strategy that kills so many birds with a single stone.
Encouraging the population to view politics and politicians as corrupt, ineffectual, and best left alone, absolves the news media of all responsibility to present political news in a way that reveals its absolute centrality to their readers’, listeners’ and viewers’ well-being.
In its turn, this “politics is bullshit” approach safeguards the management of media outlets from the negative reaction that would certainly follow any attempt to inform the public comprehensively about current affairs. The owners of newspapers, radio stations and television networks have little interest in fostering a politically aware and politically active population – quite the reverse in fact.
Finally, highlighting the personal failings of politicians plays directly to people’s prurient impulses. Everybody enjoys a good scandal, especially when it involves people who normally wield power over them, people who typically justify their authority by posing as ordinary, decent men and women dedicated to promoting the public good. Exposing political scandals reassures the average citizen that their lack of meaningful political engagement is entirely justified. It’s all lies and they’re all liars. Why would any ordinary, decent person want to get involved in such a seedy business?
All of this carefully nurtured cynicism and disdain disappears in an instant, however, when ordinary, decent people are threatened by an enemy capable of inflicting real harm on them and their loved ones. Overnight, the political process ceases to be a seedy, grubby business full of ambitious sociopaths. Politicians and the systems they control stand revealed for what they have always been: the guarantors and instruments of public welfare and safety. Far from despising them and sneering at them dismissively, the citizenry is willing them to succeed.
It’s enough to set your average political journalist’s head spinning. Suddenly, they’re expected to talk-up the virtues of the politicians they’ve been doing their very best to trip-up. Suddenly, instead of going for “gotcha!”, they’re supposed to be encouraging the punters to say “good on ya”.
It’s a lot to ask.
From the moment they entered journalism school most journalists have been told that it’s their job to “speak truth to power”. “News”, they are told, “is what somebody, somewhere, doesn’t want the public to know.” They soon learn, however, that there are some centres of power it is very unwise to over-burden with the truth.
Their employers, for example, or the shareholders who own their employers’ company, should be considered off-limits. Major advertisers, also, should probably not have too much truth shoved in their faces. Litigious individuals with deep pockets are, similarly, best left unmolested by over-eager investigative reporters. Ditto (with bells on!) for large transnational corporations with phalanxes of sharp-suited lawyers.
Leaving, in the political journalist’s target department, only hapless politicians and humble public servants. Speak “truth” to them, even when unverified and leaked by their political opponents, and everybody from your employer’s shareholders to the largest of large transnational corporations will slap you on the back and give you an award.
The ability of the political journalist to make the transition from critic to cheerleader isn’t assisted by their isolation from the very citizens they purport to speak for. This is not altogether their fault. The Parliamentary Press Gallery takes them as far – maybe even further – from the average citizen as the House of Representatives itself. At least the politicians have their weekly clinics with constituents to keep them grounded. For the ambitious Gallery journalist, however, there is no such respite. Only the endless quest to prove to their colleagues, their bosses, and yes, to the politicians themselves, that they have what it takes to ruin reputations and destroy careers. In the much better remunerated job of Ministerial Press Secretary, to which so many political journalists ascend, the killer instinct is a deal-sealer.
New Zealand’s political journalists’ disconnection from the public was on display as never before during the Prime Minister’s and her Director-General of Health’s daily Covid-19 press briefings. Broadcast live, New Zealanders were able to hear not only the words of Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield, but the questions of the assembled journalists. The public reaction was one of disbelief seasoned with rage. The same journalists who castigated Simon Bridges for his tone-deafness clearly had no notion of how painfully their own behaviour was setting Kiwis’ teeth on edge. Who were these people!
The journalists were genuinely hurt. They railed against the public’s utter ignorance of what was expected of them. Did these ingrates not understand how vital an assertive Fourth Estate was to the health of our democracy?
Well, no, they didn’t. At least they failed to grasp how all that carping and whingeing and “gotcha!” questioning could possibly contribute anything positive to their democracy. As far as they were concerned Jacinda and Ashley were making a simply splendid job of looking after them and their loved ones. They were deserving of the news media’s praise – not its blame.
The Press Gallery didn’t – and still doesn’t – get this. The way a crisis instantly clarifies the nature and purposes of state power. How it sweeps away all the petty distractions which under “normal” conditions are the news media’s bread-and-butter. Nor do they appreciate how very unappreciative the public is of those who think that “good journalism” is about picking things apart rather than pulling them together.
Certainly the Covid-19 Lockdown has inflicted enormous damage on an already faltering news media. Slowly, the realisation is dawning in the minds of media owners and editors that New Zealand journalism – and journalists – will only be saved by entering into an entirely new relationship with the state. That, pretty soon, most of the news media’s shareholders will be the ordinary citizens of New Zealand. They will have the power, and they will expect their journalists to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 29 April 2020.
I think a little poem of instruction for journalists who understand analogies or whatever, better than I do, would be in the 1700s long poem Who Killed Cock Robin? It's a complicated tale that offers possibilities for a documentary for the journalist undertaking the investigation!
The rhyme has often been reprinted with illustrations, as suitable reading material for small children.
The rhyme also has an alternative ending, in which the sparrow who killed Cock Robin is hanged for his crime. Several early versions picture a stocky, strong-billed bullfinch tolling the bell, which may have been the original intention of the rhyme.
Note how careful Wikipedia are about their references , and that there are differing outcomes and only robust truth-checking will establish factual history. I hope we aren't tolling the bell on such reliable and responsible journalism today.
Let's keep it seemly in NZ. We are devoted to the USA which seems to enjoy politics that unroll like a political satire or sitcom, but please just use it as an example of degenerate reporting of a declining empire, complete with a Nero type who isn't talented enough to play the fiddle; his fiddles are strictly around high finance and expansion of personal power.
Good piece Chris, the conundrum remains though is how do editors have a change of mindset when getting the 'angle' is what sells front page news whatever the medium and bottom line advertising. Interesting times ahead for the media, attention to manners as Winston advised in his press conference today would be a good start.
We would have expected Simon to positively criticise the govt where necessary and to suggest positive alternatives. Same with the Fourth estate during lockdown.
You don't give any examples Chris but from what I've seen the MSM have been supportive if not a little too soft on the government. A quick scan of the headlines confirms that; the treatment of the PM looks more like fawning adulation than anything else.
Well said Chris! Love the last few paragraphs especially
Quite right Chris. The performance at the PM’s briefing this afternoon resembled a bunch of squawking querulous seagulls scrapping over a chip. The repetitiveness of their questioning over Public Health advice about border closing showed their unwillingness to accept a reasoned response to questions as well as revealing a lack of understanding of government process. Daily briefings seems to be an exercise in ego-driven and not-picking argumentation rather than an honest seeking of information. The MSM display a peculiar conceit that it is their role to “hold the government to account” ( as opposed to informing and explaining their readers/listeners/viewers about current events).That role properly belongs to Opposition parties, not self-appointed and self-interesting scribblers. And as you rightly observe, they don’t reserve their self-righteous interrogation to other power centres in our society with the same aggression.
There is a time for everything - and keeping up morale is for now. We are at war with an invisible enemy, it may be a phony war, but the knowledge that we have a worse future facing us than the present troubles is well understood by those who think, and don't just react. It's a sorry day for the people who have been enterprising and put their whole small life on the line making their own job by running their own micro business, and those workers oppressed with continuing law wages under the real, experienced annual inflation. Those pollies on the Right of Centre Left trying to keep their toes to the left of a shifting line, are even more stressed as their threadbare commitment to the people's welfare has to be strengthened or rip apart.
But to general NZ Labour is doing a reasonable job, let's fawn over them and our PM Ardern with gravitas, and not cavil.
This from Chris pretty much says it. The Press Gallery didn’t – and still doesn’t – get this. The way a crisis instantly clarifies the nature and purposes of state power. How it sweeps away all the petty distractions which under “normal” conditions are the news media’s bread-and-butter. Nor do they appreciate how very unappreciative the public is of those who think that “good journalism” is about picking things apart rather than pulling them together.
Boris ' point - The MSM display a peculiar conceit that it is their role to “hold the government to account” ( as opposed to informing and explaining their readers/listeners/viewers about current events).That role properly belongs to Opposition parties, not self-appointed and self-interesting scribblers.
That phrase 'holding the government to account' comes up quite regularly.
And another phrase I remember is someone I think from the NZ Herald after some change saying, 'We are not a journal of record'. That's what I thought I heard, and that was a shock as my point in getting a newspaper delivered is to have factual information in hard copy in my hand for reference if I so wish.
Do political reporters take degrees or diploma in civics, government administration and the levers of power and how they can go wonky? There are many ways for things to go wonky in government, from the inept or inert to the meretricious or avaricious. I presume in this colourful and ever-changing theatre of human doings and beings, the journalists have good solid learnings about the delicate nature of our polity.
Years ago, with a shiny new degree in English Lit from Otago University, I applied for a journo job at a major NZ newspaper.
The Editor explained that I was probably over-qualified as the targeted audience reading ability for most NZ newspapers was that of the average 12 year old.
Kia ora Chris
"the realisation is dawning in the minds of media owners and editors that New Zealand journalism – and journalists – will only be saved by entering into an entirely new relationship with the state."
An altered relationship perhaps but not an entirely new one. The New Zealand media has always served the interests of the state (and very often the interests of particular governments) concurrently with the interests of capital. You would know scribes who boast that they are regarded as "a safe pair of hands" on the ninth floor of the Beehive. For most New Zealand journalists that marks the acme of their careers.
"That, pretty soon, most of the news media’s shareholders will be the ordinary citizens of New Zealand."
Really? Shares in the media could be equally distributed among the "team of five million New Zealanders" but it is much more likely that the government will step in to bail out the existing shareholders while taking a sizeable stake of its own.
That will allow them to extend the scope of the Orwellian "Media Freedom Committee" which was set up to work out what the New Zealand public can be told about the perpetrator of the Al Noor massacre (final decision of the committee: "Nothing at all").
So state and capital, with the backing of journalists, will decide what the public are and are not allowed to know.
The public will not, as you suggest they may, find new faith in politicians and journalists as a consequence of this chicanery.
The media and politics will become a standing joke, as they were in every other "dictatorship of the people".
I turned the media questions immediately off after the first couple of lockdown televised conferences. Far too many media who think they're "personalities" into senseless vanity grandstanding & egocentric partisan pointscoring at a critical national time when the PM, CD & health authorities needed our full support to manage this.
I'd expect that nonsense from Hoskings, Richarsdon & Co, not the Press Gallery who are mostly supposed to have at least a basic understanding of journalism.
I admire our PM & others for their patience in dealing with the inane & ignorant; I would just ignore them myself - saying "Frankly, you may very well think that however I couldn't possibly comment".
Spruikers ....some by design, others through ignorance.
I have no doubt about the earnest beliefs of our politicians. To believe opposite is to be a passing idiot. Or, yes, many many. Prebble was , no matter what, a believer (til the sick look on his face as ACT leader when Anderton convinced him of the pain of the neediest in the 1999 election debates -- he got over it!).
Journalists are the puppets of whatever hierarchy has power over them.
Shareholders, directors, chief executives, chief financial officers.
I can't remember the Latin quote for 'follow the money', which is the guide for journalists. Except when it comes to their own companies. The Roman Republic of our age, America, has a veto for the powerful via their owned media and more. The media should be in the hands of the people. Though we won in 35 despite them. The real crisis now is slow moving unlike the old times. When we realise it it will be too late. Where, finally, our sale of ideas come in.
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