AusOpinion Reblogged 2 – The MSM – Why More Detailed Critiques are Needed – A Response to Tim Dunlop

This is something I barely remember writing (like most of my blogging work). This was a response to something Tim Dunlop wrote, where I continued to refine my Advanced Megaphonics critique.

It’s been an interesting week in order to read the responses made to my blog post about “megaphones” on Twitter and blogs – the political and the media types.  Many people did not seem to grasp the points I was making about megaphones – claiming that that I was accusing various bloggers and tweeps of “abusing” and “harassing” journalists, when I said no such thing. Then there were those who said I was trying to keep them quiet, to censor them. Then the implication that I was an apologist for the “MSM”.  The point I was making about the megaphones was that it was their style that was the problem, the repetition, the constant peppering, the broad brush statements.  That these approaches just don’t stand up or work in helping people achieve the outcomes they wish to achieve.  Then the post was acknowledged by Tim Dunlop, in this piece in The Drum.  The piece, however, raised more questions than it answered.  Here I undertake something I do more and more back on my blog, which is to take his piece, paragraph by paragraph, and answer it.  His words will be in italics.

We need more criticism of the media, not less

Social media users are berated for endlessly whining about the state of the mainstream media, but until they see change, why shouldn’t they keep criticising, asks Tim Dunlop.

There has been some pushback over the past few weeks against those who use various forms of social media to criticise the mainstream media. For example, this piece from the excellent new group blog, AusVotes2013, suggests that such criticism risks becoming nothing more than a megaphone for a one-note chorus of whine. Part of the pushback has also been directed at the use of the term ‘mainstream media’ itself, particularly its abbreviation, MSM. The suggestion is that the phrase has become something of a shorthand for disaffected Labor voters who simply want to whinge about what they see as bias against their party.

A “pushback” is more than one blog post and one tweet. I think Dunlop needed more than that in order to demonstrate a “pushback”. Brent’s tweet needs to be put into context – where it was a day for many, many people on Twitter and in blogs to accuse the “MSM” of bias because they weren’t doing positive stories about Gillard.   My piece with its longer form approach did not say that the megaphones were exclusively ALP supporters, though I did say there was crossover between those who are Party Megaphones (which belong to all parties) and Media Megaphones, who complain about the “MSM”. It’s an important distinction that needs to be made.  That’s because any scan of the Twitter stream of Chris Kenny, Mark Textor and the like will see them make the same comments about “their ABC”.   Plus there are #auspol shouty people, who have been megaphones for 2 and a half years.

I’m a bit sympathetic to this pushback, because certainly, some of the criticisms directed at the media, the big established companies who dominate our airwaves, newspapers and online environments – the mainstream media, FFS, what else do you want to call them? – is petty and ill-informed.

This is precisely the kind of comments I was talking about – though the idea of repetition and its impact isn’t mentioned.

I will add that I think the expression “MSM” is being rendered meaningless by the repetition. “Mainstream” (or lamestream as one sees more and more) is these days a pejorative expression used for those cultural products that are either popular or owned by commercial interests. That means any music played by Austereo stations, TV shows on prime time commercial TV, beer from CUB or Lion Nathan, is Mainstream and therefore Bad.  I have used the term as a shorthand on Twitter for things that are bland and mass produced – it can be a useful word (especially for beer). It is being used, however, to characterise any media where journalists and presenters are paid for their work.  So, the ABC, SBS as well as the commercial media are lumped in together as The Mainstream – and therefore Lamestream and suspect. Some of louder critics of this “MSM” are former employees of these organisations – which isn’t a surprise to those in the teaching profession who knows former teachers. “The journos these days…”  The problem with the expression is that a percentage of the criticism of the “MSM” is generalised, rather than specific.   If I want to make comments about a group of journalists, I personally prefer a delineation of different groups – Public Broadcasters, Canberra Press Gallery, Commercial Media – but then there’s Local Newspapers, Regional Journalists, City Specific Journalists, The Australian’s Megaphones, and the like.  This is only a personal thing, though – I am not telling anyone what to do.  It is wearying, though, for people on Twitter to see “MSM are…” without specifics. Back to Mr. Dunlop…

But my overwhelming reaction is, so what?

Of course some of the criticism is going to be second rate, but you could say that about any debate we have, from global warming to deficits. The existence of such below-averageness – even partisanship – is hardly a reason to tell people to stop talking about these issues.

A very good point – and I can’t think of anyone actually suggesting that people stop talking about it.  Plenty of people talk about it – and that’s cool, that’s Twitter, that’s blogging. However, there some who just repeat the same lines over and over, then demand a response and are amazed when they don’t get one.  They shouldn’t be surprised because they sound like megaphones at a union rally.  The “so what” comment isn’t useful, however, because it’s important that attitudes and approaches are discussed. To say a somewhat dismissive “so what” sounds like someone wanting to shut down this discussion – which I am sure Dunlop is not advocating.

It’s actually an argument for the opposite, for more criticism and more public debate. As American social critic Christopher Lasch has explained:

What democracy requires is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can only be generated by debate. We do not know what we need until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy.

I think Christopher Lasch is spot on. We should have vigorous debate. Including about the competence of media outlets. Twitter is an excellent medium for this debate. It is about asking the right questions. However, in order to be able to ask the right questions, people on blogs and on Twitter need to accept when their questions and style of asking may not be the right way to go – that those questions may not yield any answers, but do the opposite – cause people to shut down and not answer any questions at all.

One question that arises is why exactly so much attention is given to the media.

I suspect the answer is that media criticism is standing as proxy for other debates that many people feel too powerless to do anything about, issues to do with how the country is run in general. It may be a forlorn hope, but underlying a lot of the complaints about the media is the feeling that if we do something about that, we may be able to do something about our other problems.

I think this works as a very good explanation that lies at the heart of the people who use Twitter to critique the media and those media employees who use Twitter and engage with people. That is why Twitter is a great medium for that kind of activity – and blogs are good for longer forms of questioning. Again, I’m not wanting that to stop at all – not sure Peter Brent is either with that one tweet.

If that is true, it suggests we-the-audience take the media’s role as a check on power seriously. It suggests a sort of undiminished faith in the ability of the media to represent our interests as citizens, not just as consumers. It suggests there is a decent pool of goodwill out there for the media to tap into, if only they could learn to listen.

I would argue the opposite for many of the megaphones I have seen on Twitter, many of whom are endlessly harsh about journalists on Twitter and continually criticise.  Plus, this catch all “the media” that Dunlop talks about is another broad brush moment. Many journalists clearly don’t listen to criticism and block those who criticise (in my case, people from both sides of the spectrum). There are those who clearly do listen to criticism and respond to well made points about stories. I think there are many examples that prove that some of media do listen, some don’t.  I would also make the case that in my experience on Twitter is that those in public broadcasting take people on Twitter much more seriously than a majority of the commercial media journalists and presenters that use Twitter. There are, as with anything, a group of commercial media journalists, producers and presenters, who are a shining exception to that statement – as it is fair to say there are some in public broadcasting who don’t interact well with people.  I could name people here, but I am applying my teacher philosophy that instant feedback is much more useful than that given after a long time. Therefore, I think it’s more useful to do it on Twitter, much more effectively, when specific articles and issues are responded to.

Let me try and pick all this apart a bit.

Outside of the damage done to the mainstream media’s business model, the two big changes new-media technologies have wrought have been to allow the audience to talk back to journalists, and to make them (audiences) much more aware of the way the media goes about its business, the fact that journalists shape the news as much as report it.

In fact, to report is to shape.

That is true – and it goes to the heart of one of my biggest frustrations with journalists, where they insert themselves into the story and shape their bias into it. Simon Benson and Gemma Jones from Sydney’s Daily Telegraph are two of the worst at this exercise in my opinion, with their unrelenting way of angling everything away from the government.

This is why there is now so much discussion of things like ‘framing’ and ‘the narrative’, because people are learning a language that enables them to discuss what they think is wrong. Yes, such terms risk being overused, but at this stage, I think they are useful in letting us understand how news, and thus political debate, is constructed.

Agreed – Twitter has done that.  I also think we need to start recognising which terms work and what approaches work. I believe it’s specific critiques of specific stories / slips of facts that need to be undertaken. Breaking down stories and giving people specific examples of bias / poor reporting is going to have a more lasting impact and more resounding message than randomised, generalised comments about “the MSM”.

As an audience, we may not be unduly influenced by the opinions put forward by various people within the media – so in this sense, some of the ideas about the nefarious influence of the media are overstated – but as citizens, virtually our entire understanding of politics comes from what we learn via the media, particularly television.

This is another pretty accurate comment, especially in regards to people from Generation Y, whose understanding of issues can be piecemeal at best. Having taught the Howard Generation of school kids in high school, I saw how TV and media were shaping a generation that had some fairly disturbing views about migrants from the Middle East, for example – as well as a reliance on middle class welfare handouts.

Unless we have some other involvement with the political process – which most of us don’t – we rely on what they choose to tell us. As political scientist Bernard Cohen once put it, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”

Again, very true. It’s good that people do feel empowered and part of the process – and can add useful material to the discourse about political issues. I firmly believe, for example, that regional voices are being heard in a way we hadn’t before.  In my example, the woeful way most of the Canberra Press Gallery talk about “The Western Suburbs” highlights to me how people who made their way up the ladder of commercial and public broadcasters in order to get to Canberra know little about regions outside the inner cities.  It also goes for people like Joe Hildebrand, himself an inner city resident, talking about “The Western Suburbs” as if he knows things about what is important to those residents.  That ignorance of regional areas isn’t going to change soon – I can’t imagine, for example, Peter Hartcher coming out to Penrith Plaza anytime soon.

New media has not replaced the primacy of the mainstream and continues to have nothing like the reach and influence that the old companies have. How could it when so much of what the MSM does is embedded in the unchanged power structures of society more generally, where the mainstream is offered access and legal protection in a way that the new media is not?

A good point – and many came back to me in the next week talking about the “Louder and more heard Megaphones of the MSM”. Agreed, there are many megaphones, especially in commercial media. That shouldn’t mean, though, that everyone should be turning into a left wing Chris Kenny or Piers Akerman. Their words are preachers to the converted, like Alan Jones’.  Not many politicians or discerning readers would worry much about their words and commentary.  Indeed, as we saw, the words of Alan Jones became very powerful for Julia Gillard, when she managed to use the reaction to them in her withering attack on Tony Abbott.  For Gillard, however, that attack was effective because of its timing. She would have been waiting to make reference to Abbott’s attitude towards women for a while, but she waited for exactly the right moment. Perhaps there are some who could learn from that use of timing.

As for the comments of the “unchanged power structures”, it’s even the case in the new media that it’s mostly either current media employees or former media employees that attract the most respect and followers, which shows to me how entrenched it will continue to be. The issue then becomes – what relationship will new and old media have? This is an ever evolving relationship – but the way that relationship is conducted needs critiques and discussion. Like this one.

So for all its disruptive power, new media still reacts to an agenda set by the old.

But what new media has done is unleash a stream of well-informed voices – experts on everything from economics, to foreign policy, to the media itself – who provide an alternative understanding of the issues that used to be the sole province of the mainstream.

These voices mightn’t reach a mass audience, but the people who are most aware of them are the very people who are most engaged with politics and who most closely follow the news as it is reported by the mainstream media.

It is they who are increasingly frustrated by the choices the media makes and with the quality of the coverage. They know there is a better way because they read it elsewhere every day. And new media has given them the tools to voice their dissatisfaction.

All excellent points.

To put it most simply: the problem isn’t the audience and their complaining. It’s that, despite all the complaining – a lot of it serious, measured and valid – little ever changes.

We still get endless leadership speculation based on self-interested leaks; we get mindless he said/she said narratives that substitute “balance” for analysis, equal time for equal worth; we get endless goalpost shifting where, for example, the government is urged in the name of good economics to abandon a surplus and then is accused of breaking a promise when they do; or Tony Abbott is berated for playing small-target politics but is then mocked for even thinking about plans to develop new cities in northern Australia; we get endless articles about how people’s perception of the economy doesn’t match the robust reality with never a self-reflective thought about where people get their information from in the first place.

These are not passing errors: they are fundamental techniques, practices and habits built into the fabric of what we call political journalism. They are not going to change without a huge amount of effort, rethinking and restructuring on the part of the mainstream media.

Until people see some meaningful improvements, they aren’t going to stop criticising. And really, why should they?

This isn’t a black and white “this is not the problem, THAT’s the problem” situation. It’s a bit simplistic to suggest it is. I agree with the points made here by Dunlop about the media’s flaws. My Twitter account and blog is filled with such critiques, as are many. There are fundamental techniques errors and plenty make comment about it. It is the case, however, that some people shout and shout with non specific suggestions and complaints that end up looking like partisan rants, just like those on #auspol.  Plus those blogs that make criticisms without going into specifics – instead making wild speculations about the motivations of the journalists. It’s not critiques that should stop – it’s the shouty, unsupported, repetitive stuff that isn’t helping anyone that needs to be thought about.

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