On Bullshit

Bullshit. It’s so pervasive right now in our politics and media that we are losing respect for the truth. Disturbed by this barrage of bluff, a Princeton professor of philosophy Harry Frankfurt wrote a book about the phenomenon.

In ‘On Bullshit’, Frankfurt makes a neat distinction between lies (the deliberate and conscious utterances of untruths) with the humbug of pseudo-experts, dilettantes and pretenders who loosely assemble facts to support a pre-made proposition.

“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all…except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”

Does this sound familiar? Surely it resonates for anyone who puts themselves through the torture of watching politicians and culture warriors on “Q&A” each week, each of them “winging it” through the same series of “controversial” issues with prepared talking points that fit their predisposition.

Perhaps this preponderance of bluff and off-the-cuff commentary (‘The Uhlmann Effect?‘) is just another consequence of the combination of a constant media cycle and the death of the craft of journalism, where being seen to “take a position” is considered the more valuable skill than representing reality. Or as Frankfurt puts it:

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.”

But the bullshit phenomenon is about more than just a growing tendency for public figures to wing it in response to pressure to have an opinion on everything. It’s also about being seen to be “authentic” or true to oneself (or, god help us, one’s “story’), irrespective of reality. In this, no one person’s view has any more validity than another’s.

“Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature.”

Perhaps it’s too much to ask public figures and media commentators to say once in a while “I don’t know enough about this subject to offer an informed view” or “It is too early to be making conclusions” or “of course everyone has the right to an opinion, but you don’t have the right to your own facts”.

In the meantime, I commend the book to all readers of this blog and suggest you watch this interview with Frankfurt in the context of recent events.

The Public Blackout

screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-12-52-19-pmQuality journalism is expensive for media companies. But the cost to society of the absence of quality journalism is infinitely greater. No more is this loss more evident than in the slow eradication from the media of specialist reporters.

Usually the oldest (and most expensive) members of the newsroom, the specialists were the ones with the fattest contact books, the deepest understanding of the areas they covered and the most astute perception of who was pushing which barrow.

If they could combine those news-gathering skills and judgement with a flair for writing about complex issues in a way that engaged and educated the public on difficult areas of policy the specialists were worth their weight in gold.

Of course, these days media don’t have the luxury of employing people who cover one subject in depth. It’s more efficient to hire generalists who can skim the surface of issues and quickly churn out copy to meet the insatiable appetite of the 24/7 news cycle.

Among the most valued skills now are the ability to write click-bait headlines, rewrite and rejig wire copy in the house organ’s style, be adept across platforms and, most of all, exploit the heat around trending issues by whipping up “hot takes” of commentary.

This is a happy hunting ground for self-publicising dilettantes and instant experts who are parachuted into an insanely complicated policy brawls with orders to emerge with a point of view bound to rile up at least half the population while informing no-one.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, every tangled, contentious issue – climate change, alternative energy, health, education funding, debt, infrastructure, superannuation, same-sex marriage, immigration – gets chucked into the thermomix to be rearranged into a left-right slab of news meat.

In other words, every story is treated primarily as a ‘political’ story so that the red team and blue team have picked their sides and the attendant media have rehearsed the respective arguments before the public have even had a chance to hear from the real experts directly.

So It was with the recent South Australian storm and subsequent blackout, which within hours had churned through the news processor to become another front in the tiresome battle pitching the failing, but still powerful, fossil fuel industry against renewables.

The ABC’s “political editor” Chris Uhlmann, characteristically parroting the line of Barnaby Joyce and the other denialists in the federal government, almost instantly decided the problem was due to South Australia being over-reliant on wind turbines.

Never mind that that AGL, the biggest coal power generator, said otherwise or that academic experts (with no commercial axe to grind) said it was too early to tell, the idea that wind power was to blame was just too tempting an angle for Uhlmann who could exploit all sorts of divisions across and within parties.

Of course, he’s entitled to his view (which he has now shared with us on several occasions), even doubling down after a social media backlash with the quip that it would “keep the pitchfork crowd busy for days”. 

But as much as Mr Uhlmann appears to be enjoying his notoriety (you can tell, because he’s adopted his print counterpart Bolt’s martyr pose), his editorial bosses at the ABC might reflect on whether the public would be better informed on this issue if an actual energy journalist had been assigned to it (assuming they have one, of course).

One such specialist is Giles Parkinson*, a former deputy editor of the AFR and someone who has been reporting on resource issues for three decades. On his website Renew Economy, Parkinson expressed astonishment at Uhlmann’s layman confidence:

“The ABC is supposed to have a ban on advertising. But even if it was allowed, money couldn’t buy the sort of advocacy the fossil fuel industry and incumbent energy interests are receiving this week from the network’s chief political correspondent,” Parkinson wrote.

“(His view) plays right into the hands of the coal and gas lobby, and their defenders, the Coalition government and other right-wing politicians who want to slow down or even stop the deployment of wind and solar, and who want to prevent individual states from adding more renewable energy.”

Much as it’s tempting to write off Uhlmann as a shill for the fossil fuel industry, the ABC’s real problem is that it is so intent on appearing to be “balanced” that it overcompensates by shoehorning a technical, scientific story into a framework that suits the warring factions in the Liberal Party. In this way, every story becomes a proxy for something else and the vested interests behind it. He said-she said. Easy.

As another example, the enormously complex issues around retirement income and superannuation – which affect every Australian – become just another excuse for the populist right to agitate against a back-pedalling centre. Or arguments over private-public educating funding invite journalists to push the button marked “hit-list”.

The actual issues are almost always far more complex and nuanced than the ideological/cultural warriors like to think. But it suits them and a resource-constrained media to fight every issue on the same old battlefield. Indeed, it often seems as if issues such as climate change, education, healthcare and refugees exist only to further the ambitions of career politicians and to keep “Q and A” on air.

In the meantime, the lights of informed commentary are slowly going out.

*Disclosure: I worked with Giles at AAP and the AFR

 

 

 

 

Talking to Themselves

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 9.58.36 pmOne of the tropes of media election coverage is when ‘jaded’ seen-it-all ‘insiders’ proclaim to the wet-behind-the-ears public that it’s all over. The ‘people’ have already decided. Call off the election. The conservatives have it in the bag.

These stories are invariably based on opinion polls and written by telephone journalists, who having forsaken the campaign bus, spend their lives talking to other insiders who are reading the same polls and not connecting with anyone outside the bubble.

US journalism academic Jay Rosen calls this cramped perspective “the cult of the savvy”. This is the practice of journalists reporting from inside the system to others like them. The viewpoint and mindset are that of political operatives, judging each day’s developments in terms of who won and who lost the news cycle.

“Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate…. this is a clue to what’s broken about political coverage in the US and Australia,” Rosen has written. “Things are out of alignment. Journalists are identifying with the wrong people. Therefore the kind of work they are doing is not as useful as we need it to be.”

Journalists have become inward looking and disconnected from the electorate for a few reasons. One is economic. Thanks to newsroom cutbacks due to declining media revenues, there are few specialists anymore. Where formerly there might have been a health reporter, whose job it was to track health policy, or a technology reporter, who was across broadband issues, there are now only generalists. Few newsrooms have the resources to look at issues as they might affect voters, so the focus becomes the race itself, politics as a process.

The second reason, and one well canvassed, is the rise of social media, the continuous news cycle and the appropriation of new communication technologies by politicians and their staffers. Stories that might formerly have developed over two or three days now can be born, live and die within two or three hours. Journalists try to keep up, but the more they chase the noise, the less time they have to find the signal.

And when the media does try to stand back from the daily circus to identify the malaise with politics, they often end up interviewing people just like themselves or the usual paid apparatchiks like the IPA “fellows” who are as much players in the game as anyone. Rehearsed talking points are intoned in such a predictable way that you find yourself anticipating what each contributor is going to say before they open their mouths.

Everyone talks condescendingly about what the “ordinary voters” are thinking, or worse, “the punters”. No-one ever asks them directly. We hear constantly about how political parties have become scientific about picking up phrases uttered in focus groups and then cynically layering them into their communication as if this is somehow admirable.

It’s this insider mentality, this culture of a narrow group of elite opinion makers talking among themselves, that was so dramatically given the middle finger by Britons in their recent referendum on whether to stay in the European Union, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the Brexit.

If you recall, the late polls in that case were suggesting a reasonably comfortable victory for the remain camp. Indeed, even as the counting began, the exit camp was ready to concede defeat. Then, as the trend reversed, the talking heads had to change their prepared scripts.

Few people appreciate that political journalists don’t really have any special insights to the public mind. They’re guessing as much as anyone, just as financial journalists tend to talk about what has already happened in the market as if it is a guide to what happens next.

Events can occur. Polls can change. The public mood is not singular or simple. People’s appreciation of issues as they affect them is often much keener and deeper than many journalists give them credit for. But reporting depth and nuance and complexity is hard. It’s much easier to host a half-hour of thumb-sucking “analysis” of the latest Newspoll.

Keep that in mind next time you hear some smartarse on TV telling you it’s all over.

 

Tick Tick Tick

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 10.42.30 pmWatching the scandal over 60 Minutes’ apparent complicity in a violent child abduction in Lebanon, I’m struck by two things – the cynicism of Channel Nine in using a child custody dispute for ratings and the complete ignorance of journalistic ethics among its defenders.

It’s depressing that professionals need to be reminded of this, but journalists are supposed to be witnesses to the news, not creators of it. They are supposed to cover the story, not be the story.

It’s true that tabloid television “current affairs” shows like 60 Minutes have always put the theatrical possibilities of the medium ahead of the journalistic imperatives to the extent that the “stories” are as much about the glamorous reporters as they are about their subjects.

But the calculated fakery, carefully constructed set-ups and sing-songy pieces to camera were easier to accept when they merely involved Liz Hayes making moon eyes at (gay) Ricky Martin or Jim Whaley doing jowl-trembling stand-ups in a flak jacket (with price tags still on) from the rooftop bar of a central African Hilton, having been flown in that afternoon.

The news-as-entertainment thing we get. But bankrolling a desperate mother in a bitter custody dispute to fly to the Middle East, hire a gang of thugs to snatch the children away from their own grandmother on the way home from school takes the participatory news thing just a tad far.

In recent days, Nine’s PR machine has been rolling out its “personalities” to somehow characterise the effluent coming out of this broken down old relic of a TV station as somehow related to actual journalism. Here’s Karl Stefanovic, who after a quick Google search on the definition of journalism, told us that Tara Brown and her producers had the most noble of motives.

“Journalism – by definition is the work of collecting writing and publishing news stories and articles. Who, what, when, where, why are the cornerstones of journalism. It’s brilliant in its simplicity and it’s so easy to remember. Armed with those tools we go out into the wide world and ask away. At its most basic, we inform. At its best, it’s powerful. We can expose the wrongs. We can make a difference. It all though starts with a question.”

Well, here’s a few questions for you, Karl. What financial role did Nine play in facilitating the kidnap in Lebanon? Is it true that the network paid a dodgy London-based child abduction recovery service $115K to snatch the kids in the street? If Nine’s first concern was the poor mother, why didn’t you advise her to go through the Australian government?

But Nine doesn’t want to answer those questions because Nine and its heavily hairsprayed stars still live in an ancient Goanna time when the public could be expected to remain complicit in their own manipulation by “journalists” whose first responsibility is to their prime-time advertisers.

It is also very, very hard not to see the racial undertones in this case. A blonde Australian woman denied her custody rights by a swarthy man of Middle Eastern appearance. It just ticks every box of the low-to-middle brow demographic Nine targets with 60 Minutes, a show whose format hasn’t changed in 35 years.

Dollars-to-donuts that when Tara Brown and the crew are let out, we’ll be treated to Midnight Express-style “Tara’s Torment” stories for months both from Nine and the limpet-like, dimwitted magazines which act as its publicity arm.

In the meantime,  I find it incredible that defenders of Brown and her crew cannot see the ethics breaches in this case. The children were exploited, mistreated and terrorised, the “money shot” of the abduction was clearly set up by Nine, the mother was manipulated and the racial component was played up.

Oh, and in case you missed it, they broke the law.

 

 

Fenced In

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“Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens.”

That’s a quote from the ABC’s head of current affairs, Bruce Belsham, in the transcript published by New Matilda of his conversation in 2013 with the public broadcaster’s then technology editor Nick Ross about the National Broadband Network. Continue reading

‘Fourth Estate’ Documentary

Following a nine-month international screening run, the independent UK documentary ‘The Fourth Estate’ is now online for all to view, download, and share for free.

During 2015, filmmakers Elizabeth Mizon and Lee Salter hosted numerous sold-out screenings and Q&A sessions throughout the UK. They want their take on the monopolisation of the global mainstream media industry to be seen and heard far and wide, and thus they are now making their film free for all to see and screen.

Though the ‘official’ screening run is now over, anyone can still host a screening of the film, anywhere. See the official site to contact the filmmakers and organise a screening in your city. To read about the zero-budget, two-year production process of The Fourth Estate, and the filmmakers’ take on radical filmmaking, read their article in Film International.

In the meantime, watch the full film here.

Recycling the News

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Why does the media routinely “commemorate” the anniversary of major news events like the Lindt Cafe siege with blanket over-the-top coverage? Is it out of respect for the victims? Or is it about money and ratings?

The news presenters put on their grave faces for these anniversaries and roll out the boilerplate emoting. “It changed our lives forever….a day imprinted in our memories”, Producers with lots of time on their hands roll out the slow-mo and Barber’s adagio. Continue reading

The Business of Anger

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A perennial tension in journalism arises from balancing the professional requirement to accurately inform the public and the commercial one to actively engage them.

The destruction of media business models, where classified advertising subsidised across a Chinese wall the quality journalism that attracted the eyeballs, has gradually swung that balance from the professional to the commercial imperatives. Continue reading

Storm in a Tea Hat

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Are you over Zaky Mallah yet? If incomprehensible men in funny hats appearing live on our television screens were such a crime against humanity, as this episode seems to be viewed, how did Australia survive Molly Meldrum for so long?

Assailed by the manufactured outrage over this beat-up in the last fortnight, one could see the government desperately lapping up every opportunity to connect this opponent of ISIS and advocate for Australia with the murderous thugs painting Iraq and Syria red.

Continue reading

Insided Out

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It’s now four years since the US journalism academic Jay Rosen decried at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival about the “cult of savvy” in political journalism and the treatment of politics as a game for insiders. What’s changed since?

Not much, going by the hysterical coverage of the leadership change in the Australian Greens.  In what may simply have been a case of a party leader deciding to quit politics because 25 years was enough, the hacks fell over each other looking for the cute angle.

Continue reading