Journalists on the wrong side of history when it comes to social media

April 26, 2019

In the last week or so some fairly senior journalists and journalism academics have launched a defence of mainstream reporters and reporting by suggesting that most, if not all, criticism of journalists is coming from a Trumpian perspective. This perspective has appeared in several tweets by senior journalists and it has been given a more ‘respectable’ form in a column by ABC talking head Michael Rowland.

In a piece published on the ABC News website Rowland lamented that he – and other reporters – have been on the receiving end of some insulting and even abusive tweets.

Now, journalism isn’t exactly the profession for shrinking violets.

If you cover the brutal game of politics you have to be particularly robust, but the level of muck being hurled around on Twitter at the moment would test the toughest of souls.

Personally speaking, I have noticed a huge increase in abuse and petty name-calling since the election campaign began.

The free character references I’ve received have often been quite inventive.

He wasn’t the only member of the journalistic elite to give voice to such views. Academic and Nine commentator (she’s published in what we used to know as the Fairfax mastheads) Jenna Price went into bat to defend Patricia Karvelas who also copped some flack over an incident on Insiders the previous weekend.

Social media has become an incubator for hatred of journalists, led by President Donald Trump after learning from the best, the troll armies of President Rodrigo Duterte, says senior research fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti.

Chris Uhlmann takes his complaint against the cultural Marxists a step further. He claims we are worse than the far-right. His former ABC colleague Leigh Sales has also publicly attacked what she calls “far left bias” against the ABC in general and her program in particular.

Far Left Fury

This is a misleading claim that attempts to delegitimise progressive critiques of the mainstream news media by lumping all critics of journalism into one ideological pigeon hole.

How would Leigh Sales – or Chris Uhlmann for that matter – identify someone as “far left”. They wouldn’t know from any position of nuanced reading or understanding; all they have to go on are their own prejudiced and stereotyped views from a position of privileged elitism.

However, what really annoyed me was this tweet from Miriam Cosic who has been a journo for a while and who also makes much of her postgraduate qualifications in philosophy.

Miriam got upset with me when I described this thinking as “lazy”, but it is intellectually lazy. There is a world of difference between a progressive left critique of journalism and the news media and Donald Trump’s Fascistic demonization of journalism he doesn’t like.

However, I guess these same ‘very fine’ people might dismiss my views out of hand. After all, I am a fully paid-up card-carrying life-long member of what Chris Uhlmann has derisively labelled the “post-Christian left”.

Chomsky, not Trumpski

I think there are two distinct political positions on media criticism, and it is wrong to conflate them.

One is certainly a neo-Fascist view that has been thoroughly discredited but that is espoused by Trump and his supporters and originated with the Nazi regime’s propaganda trope of the Lügenpresse or “lying media”.

The other is diametrically opposed to this and, as a form of shorthand, I’m going to call this the Chomskyian view.

The Chomskyian view is based on a long history of progressive, left-wing and anti-capitalist critiques of the news media and it is summarised rather well in Chomsky and Herman’s classic phrase about the “manufacture” of consent.

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman described the media in capitalist society as a propaganda machine. They were right then and the same holds true today.

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda.

The problem for the ruling class and its media allies is that the machine is breaking down and they’re fresh out of spare parts.

I’ve tried before in IA and in many of my other recent writings, including this book and this journal article, to explain the important differences between a Trumpian view of “fake news” and a more sophisticated analysis of journalism, journalists and the news media that situates the whole “fake news” discussion into an historical and theoretical context which is known as the political economy of communication.

I’ve also written about media issues extensively in IA, including here, here, here, here and here. I also wrote a long review of Katharine Murphy’s pamphlet, On Disruption in which she defends the News Establishment’s approach to the disruption caused by social media.

Here’s one takeaway from that piece:

Murphy raises the important question of the relationship between a media ecology that has begun a descent into what she accurately describes as ‘a febrile, superficial, shouty, shallow, pugnacious cacophony of content, where sensation regularly trumps insight’, and the demagoguery of Trump and his European imitators.

Murphy asks us rhetorically:

‘Did we, the disrupted media, somehow create Donald Trump? Did we enable him?’ 

However, she struggles to provide a coherent answer.

I think the collapse of the old certainties in the news media and the failure of the News Establishment to effectively reflect on its mistakes certainly gave strength to the Trumpian view that the news media is the ‘enemy of the people’.

However, let’s be clear this is a talking point of the Alt Right and its enablers. It is not a view shared by progressive critics of the News Establishment.

A direct attack on democracy and active citizenship

I have no problem with journalists defending themselves on Twitter, but the common tactic from the News Establishment has been to shy away from directly responding to serious critics and, instead, to focus on the minority of idiots who make vile threats.

I want to be clear; I do not support threats of violence, racist, sexist or homophobic abuse against reporters, but I don’t mind a bit of hard-hitting sarcasm.

The world has changed over the past 20 years and as we’re constantly told by the very same Establishment figures when they’re trying to gouge subscriptions from us: engagement is the new normal. There is no going back, social media has changed the journalistic landscape forever.

The problem is the News Establishment wants engagement on its terms. Engagement for them means we take out subscriptions and become unpaid sources for them or allow them to scour material from our social media feeds to pad out otherwise thin reporting.

What the News Establishment definitely doesn’t want is an active Fifth Estate undermining its authority or its cosy relationship with the rich and powerful.

I would go so far as to suggest that the pushback against their serious critics on Twitter reveals the truly anti-democratic nature of their thinking and their true ideological position.

At least that’s how I’ve interpreted this tweet from ABC reporter Matt Bevan.

Maybe he was joking, or at least maybe that’s what he’d say if challenged, but I think it’s telling.

Twitter provides a platform for what we might call ‘monitorial citizenship’, that is the ability for ordinary people to talk directly to the powerful.

This is upsetting for the News Establishment because, for the past 200 years or so, they have been the principal gatekeepers. Journalists were in a privileged position of mediating between the rulers and the ruled.

They were treated to a rare glimpse inside the halls of power – the first Press Gallery was established in the Palace of Westminster in 1803 – in return they were expected to massage the more brutal pronouncements of the powerful and provide for the “manufacture of consent”.

The News Establishment has played a supporting role ever since; agreeing to keep some secrets to protect the State and legitimising the consolidation of the two-party system.

It was his observation of the Westminster gallery that prompted this acerbic jab from Oscar Wilde:

“Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it…But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated.”

Until recently, Establishment accounts of political machinations were not open to direct challenge. The public had to pretty much accept as gospel whatever the journalists wrote.

Now that has changed and now amount of whining from the News Establishment is going to put that genie back in its box.

The monitorial citizen is here to stay.

The monitorial citizen in a democracy is described by Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson as a person outside of the dominant political structure who feels a responsibility to monitor what powerful institutions do, and to get involved when they feel power is being abused.

Schudson is no “post-Christian” leftist. He is a respected, bespectacled professor and himself aligned with the most News Establishment New York establishment, Columbia School of Journalism.

Yet he is able to see what many of our own – vastly anti-intellectual in outlook – news media refuse to see or are willfully blind to.

The power of the News Establishment is waning; monitorial citizens are taking to social media to clapback at the mistakes, misjudgements and misleading inferences that mainstream reporters make routinely.

The inestimable Mr Denmore summed it up nicely on his blog, The Failed Estate, in a piece called ‘All media is social’:

The public isn’t stupid. Much of the criticism they are expressing on social media about journalists reflects a sense of frustration that the issues they are their families care deeply about (like climate change or stagnant incomes or our treatment of refugees) are not advancing.

Quite.

 


Is Reuters right: Covering Trump is like covering Third World dictators

February 9, 2017

The Reuters news agency says covering Washington DC is now on a par with reporting from dictatorships. Is this the right thing for journalists? Doc Martin reviews the advice being given to reporters facing Donald Trump’s shock doctrine tactics.

IT DIDN’T take long. About ten days. But now it is very clear that the White House is at war with large sections of the American – and, indeed, the global – news media.

Trump incessantly tweets about the “failing” New York Times, this week suggesting it should be sold and its print edition shut down. The White House is also refusing to send Trump “surrogates” to CNN talk shows as a way of bullying the organisation. This tactic seems to be working, CNN has dropped its initial decision not to broadcast Sean Spicer’s press briefings live.

This is a war the news media knew was coming. It’s not like Trump kept his hatred of the New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN secret. He’s been tweeting his bile and outright lies about the media for months now.

Trump’s cultivated hostility to certain sections of the news media – he is very benevolent towards the pro-Trump media – is causing conniptions among executives and editors. It is prompting deep soul-searching and even causing some outlets to reconsider their whole Washington DC news coverage.

Globally-respected journalism academic, Jay Rosen, has told IA that the White House approach to controlling press briefings is

“… as bad as I thought it would be, with ‘the media’ getting blamed for what the White House or Trump screwed up.”

 

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Mike McRoberts: our man in the middle while Haiti rots

January 20, 2010

Donate to Haiti relief at the grassroots level, not through the pockets of dubious religious charities.

You can make a donation to the Haiti aid effort via:

TUC Aid-Haiti Appeal The British trade Union Council is sending aid to the trade union movement for emergency relief in collaboration with the International Trade Union Confederation.  » www.tuc.org.uk

In Australia: APHEDA-ACTU Haiti appeal Any funds raised in this appeal for Haiti will be directed to the relief efforts being undertaken by the Canadian Auto Workers and other Canadian unions.

Haiti Emergency Relief Fund: organised by Haiti Action, an organisation which directs resources to grassroots organisations in Haiti. Donate at » www.haitiaction.net

It’s interesting that when there’s a gut-wrenching, heart-string tugging, tear-jerking human interest story of tragic proportions that the network’s star reporters can safely own up to having a heart of their own and to becoming emotionally and physically involved in a story.

So it is with TV3’s Mike McRoberts who’s in Haiti covering a real tragedy. He explained his involvement in the story on his Mediaworks/TV3 blog:

Whether or not journalists should be part of a story or not is one of those issues that surface from time to time.

I was reminded of it again today when I “stepped in” to a story. We found a five year old girl at a relief camp who had a badly broken arm and a gaping infected wound in her leg. She hadn’t been treated since the earthquake and medics at the camp were concerned she may lose her leg if she wasn’t operated on that day.

Trouble was neither they or anyone else at the camp had a vehicle. We did and we stepped in.

I carried her around the hospital grounds as we sought the right treatment for her and after the best part of the day waiting she had her operation.

Clearly I have no problem with journalists stepping into a story. The whole “a journalist must stay detached” stuff is just crap.

I’ve always said that I’m a human being first and a journalist second, and if I’m in a position to help someone I will.

In saying that I don’t think a journalist should be the story either. Unfortunately too many reporters these days seem to get the two things confused?

Yes, the question mark is there in the original.

But, Mike’s been upstaged by the BBC’s Matt Price. He and his crew were able to save two lives… Read the rest of this entry »


Newspeak in the 21st century – Media Lens and angry analysis

November 19, 2009

I’m currently reading a great book on the British media by the two guys behind Media Lens, David Edwards and David Cromwell.

Newspeak in the 21st Century is an angry, but analytical, and very damning report about the state of the British media and the soft-left, liberal veneer that coats the ugly conservative heart of the mainstream press and, it has to be said, the BBC.

The take-away message and one that I’m going to come back to in some detail when I’ve finished the book and have the time to write a good review is a simple one that’s going to offend some people, perhaps even some of my friends, but it has to be said.

Journalists like to invoke the mantra and the ideal belief that their job is to serve the public interest and that they best do this by holding the powerful to account. However, despite the best intentions of the best and the brightest, this rarely, if ever, really happens.

It is a powerful myth that liberal news outlets like The Guardian and the BBC are fighting the establishment. They’re not. Rather, the establishment media is all about propping up the establishment and propogating the lies that keep the system going. Like the lie that Israel is under attack and only acts in self-defence; or like the lie that Iraq had WMDs.

Newspeak in the 21st Century makes this very clear through a thorough content analysis of many of the key stories of the past 10 years or so; from the NATO bombing of Serbia in retaliation for alleged human rights abuses in Kosovo; through the whole lying and deceitful charade of the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to Israel’s continuing aggression in Gaza to the beat up of Iranian nuclear weapons programmes.

The unfortunate truth is that the news media is complicit in keeping the truth from us, rather than exposing the lies at the heart of the system.

Two brief quotes for now:

Journalists have been demonising other countries for so long, it seems they cannot stop. Always it is the 1930s; always Hitler is plotting our destruction always we need to recoil in fear, disgust and horror. Is this the real world? Or is it journalism as pathology? (p.160)

This is the perfect link between Newspeak in the 21st Century and Orwell’s 1984.

For the mainstream media, an opinion barely exists if it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if it is not voiced by people who matter. The full range of opinion, then, represents the full range of power. In that sense the mainstream media is balanced. (p.161)

Finally, Edwards and Cromwell talk about “state capitalism” and they don’t mean Russia and the USSR pre-1989. They’re talking about the system we inhabit today as a global economy. I will return to this as well, because I think they’re right about that too.


Philosophers and journalists – unlikely bedfellows? Bourdieu in the house!

November 19, 2009

[Thanks Jess for the link]

An interesting, if a little obtuse piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education this week about the fractious relationship between philosophy and journalism. I was struck most immediately by this paragraph, which IMHO sums up the situation reasonably well:

Still, broadly speaking, we need philosophers who understand how epistemology and the establishment of truth claims function in the real world outside seminars and journals—the role of recognized authorities, of decision, of conscious intersubjective setting of standards. And we need journalists who scrutinize and question not just government officials, PR releases, and leaked documents, but their own preconceptions about every aspect of their business. We need journalists who think about how many examples are required to assert a generalization, what the role of the press ought to be in the state, how the boundaries of words are fixed or indeterminate in Wittgensteinian ways, and how their daily practice does or does not resemble art or science.

Carlin Romano, We need ‘Philosophy of Journalism’

There’s another key statement in Carlin’s piece that I also identify with quite strongly. Here he’s talking about the insoluble and necessary link between journalistic and philosophical modes of thinking:

I’ve always insisted to the philosophy students that journalistic thinking enhances philosophical work by connecting it to a less artificial method of establishing truth claims than exists in philosophical literature. I’ve always stressed to journalism students that a philosophical angle of mind—strictness in relating evidence and argument to claims, respectful skepticism toward tradition and belief, sensitivity to tautology, synoptic judgment—makes one a better reporter.

There is no doubt for me that journalism is — at it’s core — an intellectual pursuit that has a high public interest attached to it. There is a necessary couplet between journalism as a practice and theories of democratic public discourse. It is an imperfect linkage — one that’s distorted by the ideological contortions of logic necessary to justify capitalism as a social formation and the dismal science of economics as some sort of rational explanation for human behaviour and human nature (both of which I utterly reject).

This is a long post, so you might want to print it off and read at your leisure. I am keen to discuss Carlin Romano’s timely essay, but also to further explore my own thinking in relation to what I regard as a core philosophical approach to journalism scholarship — the use of the dialectic as an organising and analytical tool to understand the social relations of news production in the widest sense.

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Old habitus die hard, diehards just get older. Goldfish bite back

May 29, 2009

For the record, I started on this post way back at the end of March. I last worked on it before today on the 2nd of April. I was hoping to wait till I had more time, but some things just can’t wait. I have broken my vow of silence, now it’s back to the garret.

I’m prodded into action this afternoon by an opinion piece Savaged by blogosphere goldfish from Fairfax columnist and avowed curmudgeon Karl du Fresne attacking left-wing academics in general and those engaged in critical media studies in particular.

The original post was a response to a piece by Karl attacking Massey University media studies lecturer, Sean Phelan for writing an academic journal article critiquing a culture of anti-intellectualism in the New Zealand media and commenting on the state of journalism education in this country. Both of these are areas of professional concern for me, so I eagerly read both pieces with some interest.

I have now ingested all of this material and, I intend to get my goldfish teeth into some serious chewing on some big ideas. This is actually a high stakes argument. Not on any personal level, but in terms of defining and debating some important issues about journalism in New Zealand and about the philosophy of journalism more generally.

I don’t think it’s a simple binary argument either. There are many nuanced positions, it’s just that Karl du Fresne has nailed his colours to a particular flag and let go a broadside at his perceived ideological foes.

I suppose he should expect some response and as he points out, mine has been a while coming. I haven’t been idle in that time, several plans are afoot to further the discussion, but I guess a more immediate response is necessary as my name and Sean Phelan’s have again been dragged through the mud on the bottom of Karl’s size nines.

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Freedom for those who defend it: Journalists – a film from Belarus

May 14, 2009

The docmentary Journalists, by Belarusian film director Aleh Dashkevich, is screening twice on the programme of the Auckland Human Rights Film Festival.

Journalists tells about how freedom of expression was destroyed in Belarus over the 15 years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule. 20081203_journalistLukashenka came to power in the 1994 election promising to allow freedom of the press. Unfortunately, like most politicians, he was lying at the time.

In most western nations journalists can operate within reasonable boundaries of freedom. It’s rare for a TV camerawo/man to be kidnapped and murdered; journalists don’t often get beaten up, arrested or threatened when covering protests. Not so in Belarus – nor, incidently, in many parts of the former Soviet Union, including Russia.

Belarus 1229920068Late last year Lukashenka’s regime signed into law further restrictions on media freedom. Among other provisions, the law equates the Internet with regular media, making sites subject to the same restrictions; bans local media from accepting foreign donations; allows local and state authorities to shutter independent publications for minor violations; and requires accreditation for all foreign journalists working in the country. [Committee to Protect Journalists]

Journalists is showing on Friday (15 May) and Tuesday (19 May) at 6pm at the Rialto cinema in Newmarket. I will be making a few brief comments after the screening and leading a question and answer session. After that I’ll be available for a quite drink if you’re interested.

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