Sunday, April 3, 2011
The Outrage Business
As in drama, conflict drives the news business. The more black and white the conflict is portrayed as, the greater the passion the issue raises, the greater its confected 'news' value. Once a savvy media organisation works out what gets people worked up, it's a fair bet it will go out of its way to construct narratives around those very issues.
Welcome to the idea of the mainstream media as a gigantic trolling device. The business model, in the absence of anything else in these days of news of a commodity, is to post deliberately inflammatory commentary and to feature as much as possible those commentators who elicit a strong reaction from audiences. Good or bad; it doesn't matter. It's the culture war as a business model.
This explains why the ABC, for instance, is so ready to provide multiple platforms for professional provocateur Andrew Bolt and his News Ltd stablemates to recycle memes aimed at outraging the intellectual and cultural left that patronises the national broadcaster's programming in the absence of any other media outlet that provides a serious analysis of public affairs.
While the ABC isn't a commercial organisation, it does face substantial pressures; in its case to demonstrate to its political overseers - particularly on the Right - that it delivers sufficient "value for money" to as broad as possible an audience and to show its programming is not a form of upper middle class welfare. It is fair to say that these overseers, who have flourished since Howard's day and who strangely continued to assert great influence even under Rudd, will not be content until such time as the ABC is a facsimile of commercial talkback radio.
In practical terms, the outcome of all this appeasement of a prickly and paranoid Right is a pandering to views that already saturate the rest of the media - particularly tabloid newspapers and commercial talkback radio. If those views also receive the endorsement of the ALP, even better, which explains why the ABC is so ready to promulgate the myth that The Greens are anti-Semitic (despite 12 per cent of the electorate giving them their first preference votes in the last federal election).
In the commercial media, the culture wars are used as a business strategy to drive page impressions and breathe life into a dying industry desperate for an audience, any audience. This is why News Ltd, for instance, spends so much money on so many columnists whose job description is to elicit condemnation from tertiary educated , liberally minded people who find their views objectionable.
How all this informs people isn't exactly clear. But then it's not really supposed to. It is part of what Kevin Rudd's former press secretary Lachlan Harris describes as The Opinion Cycle. It's about generating an ongoing wave of outrage to pull in eyeballs, put bums on seats and manufacture a reaction for commercial advantage. That reaction then becomes part of the story, so that the narrative becomes self-generating.
Believe it or not, that's the way a dying mainstream media makes its bucks these days. And it's why our political debate is so narrow and exhausted and self-serving. It's why the media desperately wants to keep alive the idea that there is serious scientific disagreement about man-made climate change. It's why the media wants you to believe that the world will come to an end if the budget doesn't return to surplus and why it is no rush to tell you that Australia's refugee "problem" pales into insignificance compared with the issue in Europe.
Ultimately, it's about maintaining a permanent rolling outrage to obscure more prosaic truths that do not lend themselves to the favoured red team-versus-blue team template. It's successful, for sure. Like the circus, it draws in big audiences to look at the ads. It is guaranteed to cheer one side and outrage the other. But it sure as hell isn't journalism.
See also: Grog's Gamut: Decline and Fall
See also: Lachlan Harris: It's a Fact: Opinion is Rising
See also: Beck's Toxic Legacy
Posted by Mr D at 8:22 PM