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:

The Certainty Myth

 

certi

“The uncertain election result is the worst possible outcome and the major parties and crossbenchers must act quickly to form a government, business leaders say.”

– AAP, July 3, 2016

Since when did the primary role of government become providing “certainty” to the business community? In fact, it’s hard to read a newspaper or turn on the TV these days without some rent-seeking plutocrat whining about the democratic process getting in the way of the grubby business of making money.

Of course, business leaders have a legitimate stake in the political debate and have a right to express an opinion. But their current tendency to drag out the “we’ll be rooned” rhetoric at the first sign that policy might diverge from their desired “reform” agenda speaks volumes for the degree the state has been captured by powerful lobbies.

We saw it six years ago when multi-national miners, fearful of an international precedent being set, ran a deceitful advertising campaign against the then Labor government’s attempt to earn a fairer share for the common wealth from our publicly owned resources. Labor, under a new PM, rolled over and neutered the tax.

We saw it again a year later in the almost effortless whiteanting by licensed clubs of the government’s modest proposal to limit the life-destroying excesses of poker machines.

One of the Abbott government’s first initiatives in 2013 was to sneak through new measures just before Christmas to water down hard-fought protections for consumers against salesmen masquerading as financial advisers. The attempt was later defeated in the Senate by a vigilant opposition working with crossbenchers.

And, of course, there was the utterly dishonest campaign against carbon pricing, fuelled by claims of $100 lamb roasts and entire towns being wiped off the map.

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In every case, rent-seeking industries attempted to mask their own grubby interests as the public interest. In every case, they pleaded that was is all about jobs and investment and the need for “certainty”. In every case, they were aided by the wilful distortions of the Murdoch media which seeks to persuade its readers to vote against their own interests.

The democratic process, in the eyes of some in the business community, has become bothersome sand in the wheels of commerce, Governments’ role, in this view of the world, should be to underwrite business profits and socialise losses.  Worker protections must be sacrificed to the great god productivity and safety nets must be minimalised. Making a profit must be separated from taking a risk.

In short, “certainty” must be denied everyone but the wealthiest and most powerful members of the community. The rest of us, through three decades of neoliberalism, have gradually been stripped of our life protectors and told to sink or swim. Our work is insecure, our healthcare can no longer be guaranteed, our kids’ education is increasingly determined by the size of our bank accounts and our retirement is at the mercy of the roulette wheel of the equity markets.

We are told that we are our on our own, that government guarantees are gone, that “the economy” trumps society. If you want to get ahead, gear yourself into half a dozen investment properties and claim the losses against your income. Honest work is not enough anymore. It’s death or the spiv economy.

Now, with another indecisive election outcome, the business cassandras are out in force again, blitzing the media with doom-laden press releases – each of them faithfully recycled by a media that has come to accept uncritically the message that business interest and the public interest are one and the same.

The rebellion against elites that is so remarked on in the media right now is in fact a fight to reclaim society from “the economy”. It is a delayed response to the financial crisis of 2008 which challenged the underpinnings of neoliberalism and the notion of “the market” as the arbiter of every aspect of our lives. People are waking up to the hegemony of a business class whose voice is automatically accorded primacy in any clash with the public interest.

According to the US economic philosopher Philip Mirowski, in his magisterial book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Crisis’  the long-term project of the neoliberals is not to depower the state but to capture it and own it.

“One way to exert power in restraint of democracy is to bend the state to a market logic, pretending one can replace ‘citizens’ with ‘customers’ ,” Mirowski writes. “Consequently, the neoliberals seek to restructure the state with numerous audit devices (under the sign of ‘accountability’ or the ‘audit society’) or impose rationalization through introduction of the ‘new public management’; or, better yet, convert state services to private provision on a contractual basis.”

The business call for “certainty”, if it continues to hold sway, will mark democracy’s final capitulation to a form of capitalism that destroys any remaining social fabric, that wipes out any possibility of solidarity, and that cripples the possibility of a human community governed by any other value than money.

Further Reading, Viewing and Listening:

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.

 

Lego Journalism

Lego

It’s not widely understood by the reading and viewing public, but a big chunk of what are purported to be ‘news events’ really are stage-managed set-pieces, minutely choreographed by the public relations industry.

The supinely lame local coverage of the recent triumphant “free trade” deal announcement between the Australian and Japanese governments provides a perfect case study in how “news” is engineered, with national leaders positioned as virtual lego figurines in a carefully constructed tableaux. Continue reading

Anonymice

When this blogger tweeted that Labor caucus members undermining the prime minister using the cover of anonymity be exposed as self-serving manipulators, there was a tsunami of outrage from journalists about the sacred nature of anonymous sources.

“Starting point of journalism, simple as that,” said one. “You’re ignoring that we have a sacred duty to respect confidentiality,’ said another. On it went, platitude after platitude from young scribblers clearly psyched up after repeated viewings of All the President’s Men. 
Continue reading

Scraping the Barrel

 

The more irrelevant newspapers become, the greater their resort to spin, deceit and wilful manipulation in the service of pandering to their readers’ deepest fears and prejudices. Come on down The Daily Telegraph.

Splashed across the front page of the Monday edition of the Murdoch Sydney tabloid was a confection of such jaw-dropping dishonesty that one wonders how the hacks employed by that rag can look at themselves in the mirror each morning.

It’s “party-time” in Java, proclaims the Tele, as refugees say “thanks Julia” for promising them welfare payments and rent assistance if they make it to Australia on their leaky boats. Continue reading

Safety in Numbers

The self-mythology of journalism is that its practitioners are dissidents, contrarians, professional sceptics and iconoclasts. But the behaviour of our media through the so-called AWU affair reveals an easily manipulated, compliant and cowardly press pack. Continue reading

Oh, THOSE ethics!

With the report of the Leveson inquiry into UK press ethics due within days and decisions from the Australian government on its own twin media inquiries now well overdue, get set for a coordinated rendering of garments and gnashing of teeth against the coming assault on our sacred freedoms.

In fact, the hysteria-meter has already been activated by brave defenders of freedom – the lone voices speaking up for ordinary folk against the intrusions of unelected busybodies and out-of-touch elites in judiciary, academia and the so-called ‘public’ service. Continue reading

News Judgement Fail

Global media:

Local media:

One principle in journalism is that the closer you are to a story, the less likely you are to see it. It’s why wire services rotate people around the world. Journalists who work for Reuters, Bloomberg and AP have a frame of reference wider than the average local reporter.

Continue reading