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.

God is Dead

An old man with long grey hair and a long grey beard standing in front of a dramatic dark sky. He is wearing a white toga and holding a wooden bar. His arm is stretched out for giving a sign or for blessing and he is looking up to the sky.

“Did the media get the election wrong?” asks Fairfax journalist Matthew Knott in an attempt to turn the spotlight fleetingly on he and his colleagues in the press gallery.

“The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes. Some insist they got it spot on. But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred. And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.”

While Knott’s moment of professional introspection is rare and commendable, he’s really asking the wrong question. The assumption buried in his gallery quick quiz is that the media’s primary role is not so much to report the news, as to predict it. But it that’s your measure of success as a journalist, you’re playing a loser’s game.

As this blog and others have tirelessly (OK, tiresomely) argued over the years, the focus of political reporting is too much on who’s winning the horse race and not on the substance. That is partly a consequence of the professionalisation of politics, the loss of specialist reporters and the commodification of straight news. Everyone knows what’s happened and is remarking on it via social media, so that encourages journalists to play up their “insider” credentials, deciphering the multiple layers of spin. They become professional pundits rather than reporters.

Peter Hartcher is one of the exemplars of this trend, often casting himself as a kind of diviner of what drives individual political leaders and connecting them to the zeitgeist in a way that can come across as toadying in pursuit of favourable scoops. Remember how he wrote up the now infamous 2014 budget?

“While Abbott was a cheap populist in opposition, he now reveals himself to be a purposeful prime minister. He’s not looking for popularity but respect. His budget is a bold political bet that people will not punish him for breaking promises but reward him for being tough and responsible.”

This isn’t to say all political reporting has to be just a bland recitation of the facts. Context and analysis are even more important now when political parties just routinely make stuff up and sections of the popular media meekly run with it. As Tim Dunlop has argued, political reporting comes alive and adds real value when it positions the noise within a wider signal.  But it achieves that not by journalists assuming the status of omniscient beings, but by admitting to their limited view and inviting others to fill in the picture.

“The new-media environment of engagement with the audience makes it easier than ever for journalists to take readers into their confidence and explain the reasoning behind a given article. Or to defend it, if necessary. In other words, engagement with the audience is the new objectivity, and any decent journalist should cultivate that approach.

On that score, I’m a big fan of the insights of Laura Tingle in her weekly chat with Phillip Adams on Radio National. What I like about Tingle is that unlike many other insiders, she doesn’t position herself as a sort of aloof Canberra Kremlinologist, deciphering the patterns in the plumes of smoke emitted from the ministerial wing. On the contrary, she often sounds worn down and just exhausted by the whole circus. It’s notable that one of the most telling images of the marathon election campaign was of Tingle on the panel during the second TV leaders’ debate, clearly exasperated by the umpteenth recitation of theatrical talking points that told voters nothing.

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The Guardian’s Katherine Murphy is also a journalist who has done more than most to break down the imaginary fourth wall that isolates press gallery members from the public they are supposedly a proxy for.  Her daily coverage is presented in diary format, exposing the often incomplete and haphazard information upon which reporters are required  to squeeze into tidy narratives. She recognises, indeed luxuriates in the fact, that she doesn’t know everything, can’t know everything and will never know everything. In so doing, she exposes the pre-spun nature of so much for what passes as “political news”, all wrapped up neatly every day and presented to the public as fact.

As an aside, it’s significant that we’re having this election post-mortem alongside the release of the damning report by former civil servant John Chilcot following his seven-year inquiry into the circumstances that led to Britain entering the Iraq war 13 years ago. While most of the focus on that debacle has been on deficiencies in intelligence, foreign policy nous and political judgement, the media’s failure to ask tough questions and their increasing tendency to identify with the spin doctors has also come under scrutiny.

“So much of the current public distrust in the media and its incestuous relationship with the political establishment can be traced back to its failures in covering the Iraq war,” writes Ian Burrell in The Independent. “Where once its access to Westminster corridors was its most valuable currency, that cosy relationship means it is now too often seen as a mere mouthpiece for the ruling elite.”

There’s a lesson for Australian media here. Journalists need to stop seeing themselves as players. Their job is to represent the public to decision-makers, not the other way around.  We don’t want them to make forecasts; we want to them to demand answers to simple questions. We want them, beyond rare exceptions, to stop reporting self-serving anonymous scuttlebutt and to insist that people go on the record. We would prefer that instead of guessing and surmising and speculating, they just said “I really don’t know what will happen next. But here are the facts.”  And we would prefer their editors to stop asking them to issue “hot takes” on every little brain fart in Canberra and leave them to get their teeth into a story once in a while.

As Russell Marks writes in The Monthly, in perhaps the best analysis of the media’s failures this election, journalists can do us all a big favour by giving up the pretence that they are god-like electoral analysts or judges of spin. Stop the second-hand running commentary on how the management of issues will ‘play’ in the electorate, turn your bullshit detectors up to 10 and start testing the “perceptions” against the facts.

“While intelligent journalists are running themselves ragged acting as unglorified public relations assistants for politicians, they’re not testing statements and checking claims,” Marks writes. “News reportage becomes quite literally a matter of ‘Turnbull said A, while Shorten said B’, which is close to entirely useless without context. In the end, we are told, the voters get it right. But that expression of faith in the democratic process depends on faith in the fourth estate to present political realities so that voters can make sensible choices.”

Journalism is a tough job, even tougher when your resources are constantly being cut, the bosses are asking you to file constantly and social media is bagging you. But journalists can make it a lot easier for themselves by giving up the pretence that they are all-seeing political sages and focus instead on asking good questions, reporting facts, placing those facts in context and admitting that neither they, nor anyone, has any idea about what happens next.

In journalism at least, god is dead.

See also:

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.

 

Do Keep Up

Man-with-megaphone-000080450985_LargeFor millions of Australians forced to save for their own retirement, ‘finance’ is Alan Kohler on the news every night telling them what happened to the Baltic Dry index that day or explaining why Stock A’s share price went up when their earnings went down.

The truth is that what happened in the global and domestic financial markets on any one day is hardly relevant to the vast majority of people  whose investment horizon is measured in years, if not decades. The day-to-day stuff is meaningless noise, of interest to day traders or speculators or financial journalists, but not to the rest of us.

Political journalism works the same way. What matters for the overwhelming majority of the voting population in relation to politics are longer-term outcomes. Politics is significant insofar as we feel the debate is about ensuring the society we live in is fair and decent and one that puts humans before the needs of the system itself.

Are our children getting an adequate education? Are they choosing the right degrees? Assuming they graduate, will there be jobs for them? How will they afford a home? Is the system fair? How are “insiders” treated in comparison to “outsiders”? What happens when we age and no longer can look ourselves? Will climate change make our grandkids world unliveable? Is our destiny in our own hands anymore?

These are tough questions, but you won’t hear political journalists talking about them to any great extent. Like their financial counterparts, they are too busy watching the daily horse race. Who won the week in parliament? Does Scott hate Malcolm? Is Malcolm “cutting through with the punters”? Will Bill’s makeover work for him in the polls?

The commentators or race callers, because that’s what they are, see their job as providing a real-time form guide for those people who view politics as an end itself, an occupation for a class of people who have never really known any other line of work. They’re not really that interested in what the wider public actually thinks, beyond the occasional condescending reference to “pub tests” or how it plays in “struggle street”. They’re more intent on representing the powerful to the rest of us, rather than the other way around.

Peter Hartcher in the SMH exemplifies this, seeing himself as a kind of unofficial chronicler or real-time biographer of whomever the great political poohbah of the moment seems to be. Perhaps there’s an element of self-interest in this, because if you sufficiently ingratiate yourself with your subject you’ll be put on the drip for “exclusives”. But whatever the motivation, this week-to-week attempt to represent noise as signal leads to the scenario where each column can completely contradict the one before.

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Like the politicians they cover, political journalists are mostly on the inside looking out. And there’s your problem. There are simply not enough people who are as plugged into or who care enough about who said what five minutes ago to offer meaningful comment. So inevitably they all end up talking to each other and reading the entrails of opinion polls, starting with the narrow window they look through every day and attempting to pan out from there. Try it. It doesn’t work.

The ABC’s Jonathan Green admirably tried to get around this issue by convening a weekly ‘Outsiders’ radio show featuring ostensibly the “unusual” suspects of the commentariat. But the underlying requirement that the show be about “the week in news” meant his talent pool was a shallow one,  inevitably including the token IPA “research fellow” or a member of the voiceless Murdoch press to keep the ABC’s balance Nazis off his back.

To be fair, political media is broken because politics is broken – or at least what we call politics – the charade that takes place in Canberra or any other world capital each day featuring people and parties who don’t really believe in anything anymore, but making sure they posture and pontificate in a way that suggests they do. And the media, having so much invested in the semblance of a left-right, blue-red, coke-pepsi contest, is forced to play along with the whole silly game.

The rest of the population senses the breakdown. And not just in Australia. This is a global phenomenon, reflecting the end of a 35-year era in which neoliberal capitalism looked to have destroyed all other contenders. Politicians of the nominal left and right swallowed the consensus whole, leaving them to fight ridiculous and infantile ‘culture wars’ to justify their own sorry existence.

But ironically “the market knows best” people don’t seem to have figured that the wider population understands the issue better than the insiders do. The big problems we face are global in nature – climate change, people movements, adequacy of resources, the impotency of central banks, the dislocations wrought by “free” trade, the rise in the power of stateless corporations at the expense of people, the encroachment of “markets” into every aspect of our lives and the power of well-funded lobbies that sell private interest as public interest and destroy the possibility of people-oriented change.

THAT’S why politics is broken. And THAT’s why the media does not appear to have a clue about what’s going on right now. Oddly enough, this is a much, much bigger story than whether Malcolm loves Scott.

Do keep up now.

(On what’s really ailing us, have a listen to Philip Adams’ excellent recent panel session ‘Advance Australia Where?’ with Bob Brown, Kerry O’Brien and Julian Burnside or for a global view, check out Paul Mason on the Guardian)

 

Fenced In

old rusty barbed wire with hand on the dark background

“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

Duty to Whom?

The debate about rolling back reforms aimed at ensuring financial advisers put clients first raises questions of how the notion of fiduciary responsibility applies to other professionals, like journalists for instance.

Do journalists have a duty of care to their readers and viewers? Or is their first responsibility to their employers? Of course, these responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. But anyone who pays attention to some of the more ‘colourful’ output of the tabloid press, radio and commercial television in Australia might conclude where loyalties primarily lie. Continue reading

Storm Damage

Who does the financial media represent? You, the investing public. Right?

Wrong. The financial media tends to serve the interests of the banks, brokers and intermediaries whose job it is to stick you into investments where neither the risks nor extortionate fees are ever explained in plain language. Continue reading

Reframing Freedom

“Members of the Gillard government think the `top legislative priority’ should be to overhaul media laws, Attempts to control how news is reported and analysed will undermine freedom of speech by restricting the freedom of the media. This is a dangerous step to take as often it is the media that is the public’s advocate for the right to know and its guardian against abuses of power.” – The Australian, Feb 27, 2013

“The ABC has now reached the point where it is prepared to believe the word of asylum seekers, who have every motivation to exaggerate and manufacture claims of mistreatment in order to secure Australian relocation, over the word of our navy and government. Rather than being evidence of navy brutality, these latest claims are evidence that the ABC is out of control.” – The Daily Telegraph, Jan 23, 2014

Continue reading

Analysts Say

‘Analysts say’: It’s the no-more-gaps of journalese. The dignifying of rent-a-quotes with the title of ‘analyst’ is all-purpose cover-up for the passing off of idle conjecture and sheer guesswork as the carefully though out prognostications of the prescient.

Financial media is full of it. Up against deadline and desperate to find facts to fit the premise snatched from the ether by an editor in search of an easy splash, journalists will find “analysts” who will say anything to fit the purposes of the story. Continue reading

The Civic Vacuum

A major theme accompanying the destruction of the mainstream media’s business model is what happens to our democracy when we lose public accountability journalism. We’re finding out.

Whether liberal or traditionally conservative, no champion of a vigorous democracy can be happy with the emaciation of the Fourth Estate to the point where it is reduced to being a passive cheerleader or booster for the well-heeled, the powerful and the connected. The civic function of journalism has been almost entirely eclipsed by the market function of commercial media. Continue reading