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.
Of course, every journalist wants their work to be seen, shared and remarked on. After all, there are plenty of people on the web and elsewhere writing worthy but dull tomes that bury the lead. (And not all of them are tenured academics).
But in the brutal supply-demand economics of new digital media, where an ever growing surplus of content competes for an ever shrinking quota of attention, the only strategy (garage band style) is to turn up the volume….and bugger the standards.
The traditional journalistic roles of Informing, engaging, enlightening and challenging give way to inflaming, enraging, inciting and cheapening. It’s the only way you can attract and maintain the punters’ dwindling attention. It’s provocation as an end in itself.
But this isn’t just a crisis within the craft of journalism. The consequences of the media cattle auction of confected outrage, hyperbole and calculated aggravation are leading our democracies into some ugly places right now.
Witness the Trump circus in the US. A billionaire reality show star, whose quest for the Republican candidacy for the US presidency was initially treated by the media as a sideshow, has become the main act. His “plain-speaking” both galvanizes the frightened multitudes and appalls the educated elites, making him ratings gold.
“Trump represents something of a quandary for the media, especially TV networks,” the LA Times said. “Privately, TV news producers acknowledge that Trump has turbocharged their ratings, making him a highly desirable booking. And Trump has taken advantage of his appeal at a time when most candidates are cautiously scripted.”
Here in Australia, our most recently deposed prime minister is finding a similarly ready-made media market for his particular brand of outrage. As politics lecturer and writer Waleed Aly noted, “the straight-talking is the brand”. The media-politics pas de deux is now so rigidly choreographed and predictable and the media so starved of diverting content that the bar has been lowered to the point where fringe-dwellers like Trump and Abbott can say virtually anything, however provocative, and be faithfully reported.
Sensible, centrist and pragmatic won’t cut it in this environment, which is why the editorial bench of Madam Defarges at The Australian are already sharpening their knitting needles and waiting patiently by Vaucluse/Versailles for Monsieur Turnbull to fall flat on his visage.
This isn’t just about political ideology, although that’s part of it. What’s less appreciated is the commercial/entertainment values at work in an industry that is scrambling for survival. In this world, polarisation and conflict drive readership. So anything that moderates conflict or increases understanding of others’ positions is a threat to the business.
It explains why Muslim community leaders cannot do anything right by much of the media. They can condemn barbaric violence carried out by murderous thugs purporting to be followers of the prophet, but it will never be enough for tabloid hacks who resist any other explanation than it being an extension of the battle between Good and Evil. And when the Muslim community does march in protest against violence, the media ignores it.
It’s the same reason the dreary Culture Wars are ritually fought day after day in the Murdoch press by cranky old men talking to themselves and a handful of similarly minded outliers. And all this is presented to us all as mainstream thinking.
The media wants conflict for its own sake. And it doesn’t just want polite and civil disagreement. It wants desk-thumping, spittle-spraying, shoe-chucking tantrums – whether it be on talkback radio or Q&A. The issues in dispute don’t much matter. It’s anger, fury, hatred, and blind incoherent rage as a business model.
Back to you in the studio, Howard.