Eye candy: where’s the real target, Janet?

The opinions of bloggers make news. Welcome to News 2.0.

Former TV reporter, now media trainer, Janet Wilson, caused a small fuss when her blog post Eye Candy was reported in Saturday’s New Zealand Herald by James Ihaka. Of course one could observe (a tad cynically) that the story made it onto page 2 only because it could legitimately get the phrase ‘tits and teeth’ into the headline.

While the Herald story is not entirely sympathetic, no doubt Janet Wilson will be pleased, working on the principle that being talked about is better than not being talked about.

I for one made some effort to track down Janet’s blog; which incidentally doesn’t appear in the results of the Google search I conducted using ‘Janet Wilson Adjust your set’. I found it thanks to  Ele Ludemann  at homepaddock who had thoughtfully linked from her blog because the ‘adjust your set’ search term takes you to this post.

Anyway, in a round-about way that brings me to the point: Janet gives a spray and takes exception to the young, female faces on television because – in her opinion – they are all ‘tits and teeth’ and know nothing  much about journalism.

The implication is that they’re hired by middle-aged men who merely want ‘eye candy’ to a) decorate the newsroom and b) attract viewers to the evening news broadcast who share their taste in nubile wenchy-things who are ‘loved’ by the camera.

I’m not sure who the target of this diatribe is, but there’s plenty who can take offence.

Insult the sisters

The first thing that springs to mind is the lack of sisterly solidarity here. Wilson is scathing about the 20-somethings:

the Pick Me Tribe.  These are the prancers who endlessly pick up stories from the front page of that day’s Herald and simperingly regurgitate it on camera.  What did they learn at ‘varsity or tech?  There’s no doubt they’ve learnt to “walk and talk at the same time”. It just seems that any talking will do as long as it’s All About You.

‘Ouch’, ladies, purses flying and a slapfest in the loos at Soul bar.  I’m kidding; that’s the sort of comment that just encourages the middle-aged blokes in their bullshit fantasies.

Then again, how would you feel if this was aimed at you?  I know quite a few of the young women that this comment is aimed at; a number of them are graduates of the AUT journalism programme. I’ve only been there a bit under four years, but there’s nothing in the curriculum about learning to ‘walk and talk at the same time’. We assume they can do this before they arrive; after all, the women and men who get into third year of the degree or who come to the one-year postgraduate course are actually quite intelligent already. Despite some petty detractors we actually do a good job of helping our students learn to be journalists.

I even know Charlotte Bellis a little; she’s mentioned in Janet’s blog as being the only young female journo to move beyond ‘tits and teeth’. I met Charlotte while she was doing her Masters degree at the Missouri School of Journalism and while she was fronting the daily round-up at Newsy.com. I was not surprised that she got picked up by TVNZ when she came home. However, what sets her apart is not the schooling she got at Mizzou, but the fact that before she arrived at TVNZ she had at least a full year on-air at Newsy being coached and mentored every day. In other words it’s her experience in front of the camera.

I want to defend the  young graduates – male and female – who make it onto the TV news, breakfast, or whatever. They get there because of hard work, dedication and long hours. You can’t criticise them for being a bit ‘raw’. We all are at that stage of our career, whatever we do. The difference is that these young men and women make their mistakes in front of the whole nation (at least those of us who still bother to watch news bulletins).

Finally, it’s interesting that Janet says nothing about another young TVNZ reporter Tom McRae. He too is a recent graduate and still a bit green. I’m sure Ms Wilson would agree he’s also quite a nice piece of ‘eye candy’ too. I’ve seen some of his stories that are really good, some that are mediocre and some that were real stinkers. I’m sure he’d know himself which were better than others. But why is he left off the list? He’s a bloke. Nor does Lucas de Jong rate a mention; another TVNZ young graduate hire and a bloke reporter who happens to work on breakfast, among other shifts. Both Tom and Lucas are still finding their feet. I’m sure some of you will remember Duncan Garner’s first on-air appearance. He may even be humble enough to agree it was atrocious, or at least no more than mediocre. The point is that all young journos will grow into the role and they will get better.

The only reason Tom and Luke are not considered in Janet’s whinge is their gender. The fact that they’ve got a deeper voices and shorter hair doesn’t make them smarter or better than their female colleagues. So Janet, stop the ‘girl-on-girl’ sexism and look at the real reasons.

TV hiring policies

Janet argues that ‘hiring policies’ have changed and that there’s a glass ceiling  in TV news management that prevents women achieving greatness. She’s right about the latter, but not so much the former.

TV news management is dominated by men (at least in Australia and New Zealand where I’m familiar with the market), but I don’t think that hiring policies are based on ‘tits and teeth’. I’m a male of the same age and demographic as the daemons in charge of the hiring and firing, but I also know that when young graduates go to TVNZ to seek their fame and fortune, they are scrutinised for their journalistic abilities first and their on-air presence second. The same at TV3 as Mark Jennings points out the Herald article.

I also know that a lot of younger reporters at TVNZ get a start on Breakfast, it is considered a training gig, something to be mastered before graduating to the late evening bulletin and then the Holy Grail of 6pm. For some reason the early evening bulletin is still considered the flagship and the prime spot to be; though I expect that’s changing as viewing habits and demographs force a re-think among the execs.

I don’t think though that there is a recent or conscious decision to hire only pretty blondes (though Tom McR does fit this bill rather nicely). I also know from my conversations with several newsroom leaders that they want more young men. For whatever reason, journalism attracts twice as many female students as males. You can only hire from the available talent pool, but I would wager that the gender ratio of recent hires would be about 50/50.

Who chooses the stories?

They’re not there because they can do the job better than anyone else; sniff a story out at ten paces or craft a yarn that makes us think.  They’re there because they simply LOOK good.

So spake Ms Wilson.  But let’s be clear it is not junior reporters in any newsroom (except perhaps during their training days at uni or college) who are setting the news agenda. Young reporters are cheap and over the last five years or so these cheaper journalists have replaced many of the older, more experienced and therefore more expensive reporters.

This  is not just a TV thing, it’s right across the industry and it’s global. You can’t blame young reporters for the incontrovertible fact that TVNZ’s Breakfast is awful. So, it’s not really fair to criticise the young women as Janet does (I’ve redacted this, but the point remains):

…a trail of bland female presenters…who looked fabulous but whose journalism for the most part…was entirely forgettable

It is not the case that young graduates leave J-school with the chutzpah and reporting skills of Barbara Dreaver, Christiane Amanpour, or Katie Couric, or Tom Brokaw. To reach that level takes maturity of years and ideas, whatever your gender.

It is capitalism, stoopid!

So, to move on slightly, in another part of Saturday’s Herald, columnist Paul Thomas refers also to journalism and journalists in his piece ‘Readers get what they ask for’. I want to comment on this because some points made in Paul’s column is linked to the issues raised in Janet Wilson’s blog.

The first thing to note is that I agree with Thomas that news values are changing. The one big change is that now ‘celebrity’ is a news value in its own right. I don’t mean the old ‘prominence’ idea of Galtung and Ruge. I mean the honest to God ‘tits and teeth’ celebrities who are famous for being famous. The completely idiotic and filthy rich airheads, potheads, serial adopter Hollywood ‘families‘, racist homophobe maniacs and wanna-be pornstar killers who are not only in the gossip pages, but increasingly on the front page and leading the bulletins.

But I part company with Paul over his explanation. I strongly disagree that the media gives audiences ‘what they want’, or that readers ‘get what they ask for’.  Thomas’ logic is fine – journalism is a business – but it is producers, not consumers who are in charge (forgive the long quote, but it is the largish nub of the issue):

Whenever I’m critical of the media I get emails pointing out that journalism is a commercial activity, as if there’s something fundamentally dodgy about making money from publishing a newspaper. We eat food produced by people who are in it for the money; we take drugs produced by people who are in it for the money.

It’s called capitalism and the consensus seems to be that it works a lot better than the alternative, which in this case is state censorship and propaganda.

My correspondents complain that profit-driven media outlets contain too much fluff – such as the gossip pages – and not enough hard news and in-depth analysis of the things that really matter, as if there’s universal agreement on what those are.

Anyone who tried to publish a newspaper here specifically for earnest intellectuals would quickly go broke because there aren’t enough of them.

Because of our size and geography, our papers have to be most things to most men, which means they must entertain as well as inform.

I have not corresponded with Paul except via this blog, but I am one of those who complains often about the profit-driven media. I don’t believe that a newspaper (or any media outlet) should only produce for ‘earnest intellectuals’ (of which I am no doubt one). I agree there must be light and shade; heat and cool, bread and cheese, meat and potatoes, salad and chips…you could continue with the metaphors till the cows come home, but you get the point. Variety is the spice of news (and life).

But to suggest that the audience/consumer is in charge is, IMHO wrong.Remember Henry Ford? He famously said of his customers, they can have a model T in any colour they like, as long as it’s black. That is the case for the news commodity too. Competition means a choice between the product of competing producers, or the choice to consume or not what is on offer. It is not – even on the Web – a choice without limits.

Sure, there’s market research and there’s those annoying ‘top 10’ links on news websites that tell you at a glance what’s popular. And online news editors will cheerily admit that they take great notice of the ‘traffic’ data, ‘hit’ rates, ‘unique visitors’ and other ‘metrics’ to measure what we ‘like’. They also happily confess to then giving us more of the same.

In fact, they’re killing us with their kindness. News is not a popularity contest. News is supposed to be about information that is important to us; stuff that we might not want to know, but that we should, stuff that not only tastes good, but is good for us.

Not all of it; I am not a vegetarian teetotal asthete who lives a Zen-like existence of ashes and sackcloth. I like entertainment, booze, music, rich food and dancing too.

I get a kick out of seeing that Ms Hilton is such a fuckwit that she can’t avoid being busted for having dope in her purse twice in a week; but I don’t give a shit and if my news diet was just such tasty but high carb, high fat high sugar ‘junkfood’ I’d have a brain the size and flabbiness Morgan Spurlock’s muscle-less belly  from Super Size Me after he ate nothing but big macs for a month. I want some of my news to be nutritious too.

News that means something

There is still censorhip and propaganda too in the so-called ‘free’ media that so-called ‘free’ enterprise engenders. It might not always be blatant, like in the Stalinist backwaters, or in police state-led free market economies (Thailand for example). Propaganda in free market news takes the form of infomercials, assumptions in all business reporting that there is no ‘fairer’ system than the market, even though it has manifestly failed; it appears in the news about politics that favours the corrupt and undemocratic two-party system and that marginalises radical and unorthodox thinking; it’s there in the assumptions that what the IMF and the World Bank say is good for Greece, Spain and Italy is actually good for the nations and for the people; it is there in the assumption that anti-government protest is always ‘violent’ and that the violence is not caused by over-zealous security forces, but by ‘anarchists’. Etc, etc: you can do your own research.

But here’s one small, recent example, I want to be able to decide who’s the good guys and who are the bad guys between the ‘red shirts’ and the ‘yellow shirts’ in Thailand. When this story was at its height a few weeks ago there was almost no way of knowing who was who in terms of their real politics.

I knew that the ‘red shirts’ were being described as ‘Thaksin supporters’ and I knew that ‘Thaksin’ was  a former Thai prime minister who was allegedly corrupt and who’d been ousted by a military-backed coup and some sort of legal challenge to his rule. I knew that the ‘yellow shirts’ had previously occupied Bangkok international airport for several weeks and that the ‘red shirts’ were now camped in downtown Bangkok demanding some sort of political reforms.

But when Mike McRoberts was there for four days, what did he add to the story? Crouching behind a tank with gunshots whizzing over head, he told me nothing about the politics of Thailand. This is typical of the coverage:

The street clashes between so-called Red Shirt protesters and government forces killed almost 90 people and injured over 1,400 before the demonstrations were suppressed in May.

Or this:

The political standoff and the subsequent violent clashes caused losses of about 60 billion to 70 billion baht ($2.7 billion to $3.1 billion) in tourism-related revenues, said Atthachai Burakamkovit, permanent secretary of the Tourism and Sports Ministry.

The Government is talking with trade organisations to pinpoint the exact amount of the losses.

‘The Government’ is privileged here and not questioned, but at the core of the whole protest movement (more important than ‘violent clashes’) is a real question about the legitimacy of the Thai regime right now and its lack of democratic ambition. There is real concern among Thai democracy activists that the present government is a cloak of cover for the military and extreme right-wing elements in Thai civil society.

Instead what is emphasised for a New Zealand (or global) audience is that ‘the government’ is in control, that Thailand is ‘stable’ and that it’s ‘open for business’. The closest we get to any political analysis is this rubbish:

A Thai court yesterday issued an arrest warrant for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on terrorism charges, accusing the fugitive leader of fomenting two months of unrest in Bangkok that left 88 people dead.

Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and later fled abroad after a corruption conviction, has been accused by the Government of being a key force behind protests by the so-called Red Shirts, who seized areas of downtown Bangkok before being overcome by Army troops last week.

Thaksin, now based in Dubai, is regarded as a hero by many Red Shirts, mostly rural and urban poor who benefited from his populist policies.

He has been charged with corruption and abuse of power during his 2001-2006 tenure as Prime Minister.

[Arrest warrant for Thaksin]

Thaksin was the bad guy, the red shirts just violent and stupid peasants and the yellow shirts staunch defenders of the legitimate ‘government’. That seems to be the story as we read it. It’s actually complete bullshit.

Trust me on this. My curiosity drove me in search of something more substantial and I came across this much more lucid, detailed, accurate and politically-savvy material that you would not ever get in the mainstream news coverage:

There are disturbing reports about an army prison camp in Kanchanaburi (Saiyoke Camp, where the Thai army does joint exercises with the Singapore military) where up to 70 Red Shirts are being detained in secret, according to Puea Thai Party Spokes person Prompong Noparit.

There are also reports of basic human rights violations in the Bangkok Special Prison, where up to 28 prisoners were being held without access to lawyers, without knowing the charges against them, without being able to contact their relatives and without being given necessary medical treatment.

The Emergency Decree is still in force in many provinces, including Bangkok, as the Abhisit military junta continues to see “reds under every bed” and is fearful of any pro-democracy political activity. The Government is also desperately trying to disqualify redshirt political prisoner Korkeaw Pikuntong, the Puea Thai candidate in the up coming Bangkok constituency 6 by-election.

The author of this blog is Giles Ji Ungparkorn a Thai socialist and academic who is exiled in Britain because he dared to criticise the Thai monarchy and is now facing charges of ‘les majeste’ – insulting the king. The charges were brought by the current government to silence Giles who is a strong, but critical activist in the red shirt movement.

Giles has written several books on Thai politics and I really think that Mike McRoberts and any other journalist thinking of covering Thailand again should read them before they go, not just on the plane. Journalists should also be talking to Giles; he’s not hard to find.

You can read Giles’ first book as a download from here. A coup for the rich – it is in English, French and Thai.

You see, I am striving for integrity, honesty and intellectual grunt in journalism. I like to think I make a small contribution, without claiming it is perfect; and I stand by young graduates. They will one day be in much more influential positions; I hope they don’t just repeat the mistakes of the past.

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