Dr Windschuttle and Mr Windbag: Part 1 -left brain/right no brainer

Keith Windschuttle has become one of The Australian‘s go-to-guys in the 2012 version of media wars. The weekend edition of the national broadsheet has yet another self-indulgent full page devoted to slamming the Leftist bias of media and journalism academics and defending climate sceptics from the alleged bias of journalists who are in the camp of ‘climate alarmists’ (2 June, 2012).

And there’s yet another piece by Chris Merritt in which the rampant narcissism of Chris Mitchell is on display. In Death threats are just par for the course, journalists are interviewed about threats they’ve received. The point of the piece is to belittle allegations that climate scientists might have been threatened:

Death threats and vile abuse are real. They infect the daily lives of key players in the debate over climate change. But it’s not what you think: the main recipients of this torrent of abuse are not climate scientists.

No, Merritt tells us, it is the brave News limited ‘journalists’ who are mainly in the firing line here; those who dare to challenge orthodoxy (ferfucksake!) The only non News Limited source is 2GB’s Ray Hadley.

In this piece we hear from those giants of journalism Tim Blair and Andrew Bolt, both on the News Limited payroll. It seems they too have received death threats, or as Blair put it “death wishes”. Hedley Thomas (on the staff of The Australian) is also quoted and the final example is Tom Dusevic (yep). We even hear from the editor-in-grief, Mr Mitchell.

In a story which runs for 997 words, 204 are devoted to Chris Mitchell.

Are The Australian‘s journalists under orders to interview Mitchell on a weekly basis? Or are they so immersed in the paper’s groupthink that they can put words in his mouth and ‘interview the keyboard’ so to speak?

[EM update: On Monday morning after this post was published, there’s nearly a full page devoted to lauding Mitchell’s leadership of The Australian and his 20 year anniversary at the paper. Sort of makes my point.

“This might sound arrogant,” the editor-in-chief of The Australian says in a moment of reflection, “But I have never felt a need to prove myself.”]

Really? Either way, Mitchell is the only editor in the country who makes a habit of passing on his wisdom in such a persistent fashion. And no Chris, it does not come as a surprise that you’ve received death threats. It’s too bad those wimpy climate scientists don’t have your intestinal fortitude.

…after 20 years of abuse and threats, Mitchell has some advice: “These climate scientists need to harden up.”

Editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell quoted again in his own newspaper

We are used to this parade of mediocrity and I am now in the habit of rising expectantly on a Saturday morning knowing that I will find something in The Weekend Australian to amuse me with a pot of coffee and my bacon sandwich.

So it was today with Dr Windschuttle and Mr Windbag.

Mr Windbag demonstrating his reading ability

The First Law of Journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.
Alexander Cockburn

It was serendipity. I had been planning to do a post on Keith Windschuttle Mr Windbag in the context of the media wars. His piece in The Australian a few days ago was the trigger point for this.

The nut grafs at the top of the piece tell you all you need to know (I’m assuming the rest is behind the paywall, but apparently googling this par will regurgitate it for you)

THE recommendation by Ray Finkelstein that the Gillard government establish a news media regulatory body is not only the most serious assault yet proposed on press freedom in this country.

It would elevate to a position of power the one group of people most jealous of and hostile towards the news media: academics in media studies and journalism.

Biased critics can’t regulate (28 May)

This is what Dr WindschuttleMr Windbag wrote on 28 May:

For the past 25 years, appointments in media studies at almost all Australian universities have been captured by the Left. Consequently, the academic literature is essentially a political critique designed to show the news media is at fault whenever it fails to support the Left’s own jaundiced view of the world.

Biased critics can’t regulate (28 May)

Then, surprise, surprise (LOL) within the week Windschuttle Windbag is back for another go on the same topic.

Five days later, on 2 June, he wrote this:

If the Gillard government accepts the Finkelstein report it will represent a considerable victory for Australian academics in media theory who provided the main input to Finkelstein’s deliberations…

This kind of influence has been a long time coming. Media theory emerged in Australian academics in the mid-1970s, when colleges of advanced education began offering degree courses in media production and journalism..

What followed became a long saga of shifting theoretical fashion, all of it on the Left side of the political divide, and much of it still around today.

Academics grab headlines (2 June)

Essentially a repetition or continuation of the same argument Windschuttle Windbag has been blagging on about for the past 15 years or so. If you can’t read the Oz piece you can find the same hash on Windschuttle’s Windbag’s Quadrant blog.

But it wasn’t always that way with the good Doctor. There was a time when Mr Windbag Keith Windschuttle played a very different fiddle.

“Dr Windschuttle, I presume”

Let’s play a little guessing game.

Who do you think wrote these lines in an influential book about the Australian media:

I would still not want to rewrite my comments about the opinionated, belligerent views that pass for economic debate in much of our daily press

Rupert Murdoch’s control of more than 60 per cent of daily newspaper circulation is unhealthy for a democratic society

No, it wasn’t Mr Windbag, it was his kinder, gentler and smarter alter ego Dr Windschuttle. It seems the doctor has been drinking the kool aid of truth paranoia from the Murdoch cup for so long that it has warped his personality.

The quotes above are from the preface to the 1988 edition of Windschuttle’s The Media: A new analysis of the press, television, radio and advertising in Australia (3rd edition).

For an Australian non-fiction book to go into a third edition shows just how popular The Media was. It was the standard textbook in media and journalism courses at the time. It was very influential and I used it as the jumping off point for my own PhD study Grey collar journalism: The social relations of news production.

Unfortunately you can now only find this gem of a book on Amazon and in second hand shops. The Media was first published in 1984 and this is what Dr Windschuttle had to say in the preface to the 1st edition:

This book is a new analysis of the media…it breaks with the dominant interpretations…It rejects the dominant position of the political Right which maintains that the media, as they are presently constituted, are simply in the business of satisfying audience demands for news and entertainment, and that market forces have produced media that give people what they want. (p. viii)

To be fair to Dr Windschuttle, the preface continues:

[The Media] also rejects the familiar position of the Left which claims the media are instruments not of communication but of domination. In particular, it argues against Left ‘idealist’ notions that there is one dominant ideology of capitalism and that the main role of the media is to impose this upon a passive, uncomprehending working class.

This is precisely what attracted me to Windschuttle’s materialism and use of the dialectic in his critical analysis. Both of these are the tools of Marxist analysis and both are central to Windschuttle’s thesis in The Media.

The answer offered [in The Media], that a great deal of the output of the media is functional for working class audiences in that it serves their interests and needs, runs counter to most of the recent critical literature on the media, including work of  my own, which has seen this output as functional for the owners of capital. In particular, I am concerned to ‘rescue’ much that may be seen as valuable in the commercial media from elitist perspectives of literary critics and the theoretical blindfolds that have stultified debates on the Left. To say this is not to deny that there is much on the media that is reactionary and exploitative.

Windschuttle ends his 1984 preface with a phrase that I hope now haunts the dreams of Mr Windbag:

This book tries to offer analytical tools for sorting out the good from the bad, a task in which the familiar forms of blanket praise and blanket condemnation have so far proven unhelpful.

It is a pity that in his Mr Windbag persona, the good Dr Windschuttle has come to resile from his own advice.

Side by side through time: historical revisionism and media studies

It won’t quite be ‘side by side’, it will be more of a pancake with ideas and quotes piled one on the other.

The key section of The Media that drew my attention is one that Mr Windbag probably wishes Dr Windschuttle had not written. It is chapter 10, News as Myth.

It begins with a critique of the ‘free market model’: “the most telling criticism of this model concerns its claim to be objectively reporting reality” (p.262) and uses two good examples:

On the reporting of strikes: “press accounts of the cost of stoppages are often exaggerated”.

On crime reporting: “media portrayals of crime waves, especially by juveniles or other minority groups, bear little relation to reality”.

Windschuttle quotes approvingly Philip Knightley’s “excellent history” (The First Casualty): “beyond doubt most [war] news is simply propaganda fed by governments or the military hierarchy of the day” (p.263).

This introduction to News as Myth ends with another Windschuttle insight that holds today:

Clearly we need another framework for analysing the connection between news and reality.

Dr Windchuttle’s dialectic materialism

This key chapter of The Media is a powerful critique of the rigid orthodoxy of the famous Herman and Chomsky propaganda model; it is a position that disputes the notion that “journalists are mere hacks”. Instead Windschuttle proposes a “materialist theory of news”:

[We] cannot assume that the news is simply illusory, but should identify the origins of news in the real world of the experience of its readers. (p.274)

It is a political economy approach that “connects with [an] account of the economics of advertising”; that recognises how the news media bundles and sells audiences to advertisers and therefore tailors content to “deliver a particular type of target audience”. To properly understand the role of the news media, Windschuttle argues, “we have to reject any simple view that news is merely the straightforward reflection of reality” (p.275)

The social reality of capitalism, in fact, is experienced by most people in contradictory ways…there are two contrasting spheres: the world as it appears from the level of the process of circulation, and from the process of production. (p.275)

Windschuttle has nailed this dialectical approach here:

The experience of these contrasting realities generates within most people a profound mood of disillusion and a sense of injustice. (p.276)

The news media plays a complex role in making this ideological view of the world acceptable to working class audiences. Like other forms of popular culture, Windschuttle argues, news is experienced as a “cultural expression” of working class experience.

However, he continues, while the working class is involved in an “active interpretation of reality”, it is “expressed through capitalist institutions which ensure that genuinely radical messages rarely get through” (p.277).

…bad news exposes the contradictions at the heart of the system, and the media has to constantly perform a second task of papering over the divisions thus exposed and calming the anxieties that news itself raises…

An authentic working-class cultural response is reproduced in the media in a form that both confirms the working-class experience and serves the interests of the powerful in society. That is, social control is maintained not through the imposition of bourgeois culture or ideology but by the expropriation and selective reproduction of the working class’s own culture. (p.278, my emphasis)

In my copy of The Media I have scrawled “No!?” in the margin next to this last line. This indicates I was not entirely comfortable with this idea when I was reading it several years ago, but on reflection, there is merit in this concept.

It is much closer to Gramscian notions of hegemony than I perhaps realised at the time. It just goes to show what the benefit of further study and reading can bring to bear on a problem that has been mulling in one’s head for some time.

Gramsci saw civil society as the public sphere where trade unions and political parties gained concessions from the bourgeois state, and the sphere in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, where bourgeois ‘hegemony’ was reproduced in cultural life through the media, universities and religious institutions to ‘manufacture consent’ and legitimacy (Heywood 1994: 100-101).

In this construction of ideology and manufactured consent, the working class has agency and is active in civil society, albeit in ways proscribed by the dominant ideology (hegemony). This is not the same as the manufacture of consent in the Herman and Chomsky model, which has been rightly criticised for ignoring the active role of the subordinate classes.

The idea that the working class is an active agent in its own expropriation and alienation is not new in Marxism, but it has really only been since Gramsci’s work has been available in English that materialist theory has come to accept and expand on this notion. Windschuttle may well have been ahead of the curve in the 1980s, particularly with his discussion of news as myth and the politics of celebrity.

I want to argue hat a great deal of what comprises the news are the myths of our own time…What happens when a journalist recognises a ‘good news story’ is that he or she is bringing his [or her] own humanity and socialisation to bear on a particular set of events, and picking up, instinctively, on the mythical elements of his [or her] own culture. (p.280)

A refutation of objectivity? Windschuttle would say “Yes”, Windbag would bluster “No”.

The point is that the news media is not just the imposition of an alien ideology on oppressed workers, Windschuttle is right on this point (or at least he was in 1988). What he’s describing is the process of reification – that is things in the world are seen to be self-evident and natural, not the product of social relations and human agency. Social relations are reflected back to us through commodities (commodity fetishism in Marx) and through ideological spectacles.

The essence of commodity-structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity’, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.

George Lukacs, History & Class Consciousness (1923)

Gramsci used the phrase ‘common sense’ to mean something similar. Windbag will scoff, but what Windschuttle is analysing and describing in chapter 10 of The Media is reification in action through the news media.

The news media inculcates a form of doublethink into the minds of its working class audience. One one level it reflects back to them the reality of their lives (whether unemployment, racism or crime); on another level it avoids the causes of their unease and alienation and certainly offers them no solutions.

I am not making this up, it is an abridged summary of pages 293-299 in The Media, which Windschuttle ends with the following:

Most of the normal output of the news media remains fixed within an agenda that upholds the values of the status quo. And in responding to the contradictory experiences [reification] of their working class readers, newspapers and news bulletins mostly reinforce the conservative parts of popular consciousness, while largely denying any radical perspectives. (p.299)

Explaining why journalists perform this function for capital

In Academics grab headlines (itself a strange and misleading headline), Windbag suggests that media and journalism academics (he makes no distinction in 2012, when a decade ago he was very keen to make such a distinction) are trying to prove something with their theoretical approach to the news:

They especially sought to explain why the workers seemed satisfied with their lot and did not revolt as Marx had predicted they would.

Leaving aside that this is a frightfully truncated explanation of a complex topic; it should be clear from my discussion of The Media that Windschuttle himself was on such a mission in the mid 1980s.

On Jurgen Habermas, Windbag is brutally scathing and brief. In his haste to be politically correct (ie: to shitcan THE LEFT) Windbag gets Habermas badly wrong when discussing the public sphere. He writes:

Rather than campaign explicitly for the old concept of socialism, their aim is to expand the “public sphere” (read “state-funded sector”) through the medium of “civic journalism” or “public journalism” (read “state-funded journalism”).

This is a total misunderstanding of a) what Habermas meant in the concept of the public sphere (which is the bourgeois public sphere of civil society in capitalism) and b) civic or public journalism, neither of which have anything to do with state funding or socialism.

But Windschuttle is obliged to craft this bogus argument in order to underpin and make credible his own prejudice and his jaundiced world view.

Here’s how those communists at the Pew Center for Civic Journalism define “civic journalism”:

At its heart is a belief that journalism has an obligation to public life – an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading lots of facts. The way we do our journalism affects the way public life goes. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it.

Doing civic journalism

The prejudice displayed in Academics grab headlines shows Windbag’s own ideological bias and also that he doesn’t care to let facts get in the way of a good whipping. It is sad, but Windbag has become no more than a useful idiot for those who pull his strings.

Habermas’ work on the public sphere is gneerally misrepresented by Windbag, but one phrase in particular sticks out as useful:

[According to Habermas] The concerns of the media were profit maximisation through cheap and tawdry entertainment and the exclusion of oppositional voices.

Not only does that accurately describe the media today in a capitalist world, it is a very accurate summary of the arguments Windschuttle was making 34 years ago in The Media.

Some critics would, no doubt, still want to claim a strong bias [in the media] towards the existing political system…how could one expect anything else from media that deal in popular culture and sell to popular audiences? (p.309)

In his piece for The Weekend Australian, Windbag goes through all the usual suspects like a hot knife through butter; or better still like blowtorch through strawmen.

His caricatures serve a purpose: to demonise media studies and journalism academics as all tarred with the postmodernist brush; even though Windschuttle (in his more lucid and honest moments) knows that this is not true. But here’s Windbag on the topic:

Althusser, Chomsky and the postmodernists simply assert that journalists are compelled to see the the world through a pro-capitalist ideological lens, but never explain how such a deception could be perpetrated.

Well, there are volumes of literature that deal with this issue; some theoretical and some empirical – it is the sociology of journalism and in The Media Windschuttle quotes from and discusses this literature with good grace and favour.

In fact, Windschuttle provides a very good starting point for an analysis of why journalists tend to see the world through “pro-capitalist” goggles.

In a section of The Media with the subheading The class position of journalists (pp.349-351) Windschuttle lays out a commonly held view about class:

…it has become increasingly difficult to confine the concept of the ‘working class’ to blue collar workers, or to characterise all white collar workers as ‘middle class’…A range of white collar workers…no longer identify themselves as part of the management structure but as employees with intersts similar to anyone else whose income derives principally from wages.

Significantly this old Marxist continues:

Journalists have not been exempt from these developments.

In other words, journalists are workers too. Now, if we rewind a little, and join this conception with reification, it is no longer difficult to explain the situation of journalists as grey collar intellectual labourers. Their world view is contradictory, just like Windschuttle explained previously. As workers themselves, views of journalists are subject to the process of reification and the expression of contradictions. It leads to (among other thing) the bias of convenience – things seem obvious so we don’t bother checking any further.

But don’t believe me, let Dr Windschuttle make the argument:

…on any meaningful notion of ‘class’ as a concept related to social relations deriving from the system of production in a capitalist society like ours, journalists are not ‘middle class’…Journalists work for wages, they are not particularly well paid…Journalists then are part of the white-collar working class…As such, the way that industrial relations are reported now, and the way the unionism is derided and denigrated speaks against themselves as unionists and workers. (p.351)

Oh dear, I might faint, this is excellent stuff. You can see why I was drawn to this book when I was writing my own thesis.

In Grey collar journalism and in my writing since, including a chapter in Scooped, several sections of News 2.0 and in two books published in 2007, I look at what I call the contradictory class location of newsworkers: Why, when journalists have economic roots in the working class, do their political and ideological allegiances seem to be with the ruling class?

The answer is the duality of the news commodity and the contradictory class consciousness that reification creates among all workers. But once again, the inspiration came from Keith Windschuttle:

Journalists have their own interests in the pursuit of industrial relations reporting that is far more honest and objective, and which sees all sides in an industrial conflict, than the highly selective and exaggerated misrepresentations that pass for news today. (p.351)

It is a shame that Mr Windbag now inhabits the body mass of Keith Windschuttle. I am sure that Windbag would disown 80 per cent of The Media today. That is a pity. It is a book worth reading for anyone who has an interest in journalism in Australia today.

Chapter 13 of The Media has the intriguing title Economics and the new right; I wonder what Mr Windbag would make of that. Check out Part Two where we will unpack this line:

The resources boom represented the most ambitious part of the New Right’s programme for restructuring the Australian economy.

Fascinating stuff!

Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.

HUNTER S. THOMPSON, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

2 Responses to Dr Windschuttle and Mr Windbag: Part 1 -left brain/right no brainer

  1. mooksool says:

    It’s interesting that he presents criticism of journalism education through a left-right prism. I wanted my students to write well and have enough background (Australian history) to provide context to a story when necessary, and above all be respectful and balanced.
    I couldn’t give a Tostada about their politics and certainly didn’t want them to adopt mine (which I admitted to up front). Is his ‘move to the right’ a natural part of aging or just a case of finding succour from those who provide you with an income sufficient enough to flip you 180 degrees?

  2. What a fascinating window into someone’s recent past. I had no idea Windschuttle had ever done anything of value that didn’t push his masters’ barrows.

    I don’t see it as a left-right transformation so much as an analytical-obfuscatory turnabout or even ethical-unethical or (let’s be frank here) honest-dishonest.

    And just out of interest, who were the forebears of today’s contrarian right-wing opinionists? Were there any fearless lickspittles who thundered against Windschuttle when his book was published? And to use a couple of further examples, were Ormsby Wilkins and Norman Banks the talkback shock-jocks of their day? Were op-ed pages populated by Bolts and Devines during say, the Vietnam era and earlier?
    [EM: Lad, what a great question. To be honest I have no idea, it would be a great Honours thesis or PhD study.
    Thanks for your comments, please come again.]

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