Sunday, May 5, 2013

The God Complex

Once upon a time in politics - not that long ago, at least in human years - the mainstream media audience sat respectfully in the grandstands watching the game. Journalists, on the  other hand, were on first name terms with players and coaches and had a cosy, inside view of the action.

Now, as is increasingly evident, the audience is invading the pitch. The old insiders' game is breaking up. And the former participants and stenographers are clearly ruing the loss of clubby exclusivity. On Twitter, they can be seen pompously blowing their whistles and citing rules that no longer apply.

There are a handful of these former mainstream media referees in social media, cutely patronising everyone with an opinion as "partisan" and arrogantly casting themselves as Mr and Mrs Reasonable. Worse, they seem incapable of seeing the pathology of their own supposed "non-partisanship".

The concepts of 'the view from nowhere' and 'false equivalence' are well documented by US academic Jay Rosen. But many Australian MSM journalists seem to be having difficulties getting their heads around the concepts, preferring instead to hide behind the shield of fake objectivity.

For those who aren't familiar with these terms, the 'view from nowhere' is the reflexive position taken by journalists in which they place themselves at the comfortable and non-controversial centre between polarised extremes. Because they are neither "that" nor "this", they get to call themselves “impartial.”  As Rosen describes it, the view from nowhere particularly suits a two-party system because it posits there are only two views about any issue; this leaves them comfortably inside a beige demilitarized zone in the middle where Truth as Defined by Public Polling reigns.
"(The view from nowhere) is an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. Journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance."
False equivalence is part of the same strand of thinking that announces itself as fair and even-handed but that is really about escaping the responsibility of judgement. It's the "on the one hand, on the other" school of reporting that grants equivalence to cranks against established and well researched fact. Think of the mealy mouthed news stories that talk about the "vaccination debate" (whose side are you on?) or climate change. It frankly suits the media to turn every issue into a bipolar circus even if "the other side" is occupied exclusively by nutjobs, cranks and conspiracy theorists.

In this world, journalists act as boundary riders, policing what is and isn't admissable in any debate and establishing the terms of our discourse. They proudly project themselves as virtual ciphers interested only in the Truth, while declaring that everybody else is playing grubby politics or crude partisanship. It's a neat trick and serves to control the rules of the game in a way that suits journalists and their corporate masters.

But as Rosen has described it, the view from nowhere really only dates from about the mid-20th century when the media sought out mass audiences and found it commercially useful to position its editorials as a kind of "Voice of God", an omniscient referee in the sky with no stake in the game. Prior to this, however, the press was nakedly partisan and would frequently publish outright falsehoods to push the case of the political or business class its publications represented. Rightly or wrongly, we now seem to be returning to that world, which is why individual journalists who cling to the romantic notion of themselves as above it all are having such a hard time adjusting.

If journalists are to succeed in a dis-intermediated world, they are going to have to stop seeing themselves as boundary riders, referees and disembodied voices of a superior being and get in amongst it with everyone else. That doesn't mean, by the way, that they can't be fair and balanced and accurate. But the notion of absolute objectivity or the journalist as outsider needs to be retired.

After all, there is nothing unique about their views. For the most part, they have no information that is not available to everyone else. Much as they might imagine otherwise, they do not dictate the terms of the debate. They are not 'in charge' and above it all. And even in their most studied 'objectivity', they can be as partisan as anyone.


  1. Dead Right. The journos are only interested in steering a controversy rather than the dismissing the bullshit and giving us the facts.
    Entertainment nothing more. And angry, cheap, divisive fear-mongering rubbish at best.
    I don't like it.
    Or them.

    1. "Entertainment nothing more."

      I left my house early on the "Simon Crean/Kevin Rudd/no challenge" day and was out until mid-afternoon. Returning home, I pulled into my garage listening to the car radio (always tuned to the ABC). There was a comment about returning to something that had happened earlier. It sounded serious, but I decided not to stay in the car to listen to it but to take my groceries inside, unpack them, and put the frozen items in the freezer. I figured I would catch up on whatever it was when I watched the news and/or The Drum.

      The Drum was not on. Instead Scott Bevan was hosting a special news program, and he said something about going back to see how the day's events had unfolded.

      "Great," I thought to myself. "This must be what I heard on the radio. And the ABC is going back to the beginning of whatever it is."

      And the ABC did just that, commenting on Simon Crean's actions, including whatever had started the whole situation a day or two earlier and going through the day, step by step, clip by clip from interviews etc.

      BUT, what did the ABC also do?

      They gave it a musical accompaniment and turned it into a theatrical drama instead of news.

      At first the music annoyed me as at times it got louder and made it harder to hear what was being said (and I have VERY good hearing) in the news clips from earlier in the day (when presumably there was no music).

      I watched the whole report, but I went from feeling annoyed to other emotions. When it was over, I couldn't decide which emotion I felt the most: disgust or anger (even to the point of fury).

      ABC News 24 was supposed to be reporting the news. Instead they chose to treat the day's events as entertainment. I MIGHT accept this from a commercial channel, but I expect a higher standard from the ABC.

      I thought about sending something to Media Watch then and there but decided to cool down before I did so. After two or three days of not cooling down, I decided to drop it.

      (I thought I had cooled down. Typing this, I feel the disgust and anger again.)

      A. N. Onymous

  2. Fabulous, Mr Denmore

    Enablers and participants, all.

  3. Excellent read. Complicit in the fear-mongering, that's the worst of it

  4. "if it bleeds it leads" is well established in MSM. Perhaps one of the great ironies is that often a leading "story" on twitter for instance is positive, humorous or "neutral". Who would've thunk it? Readers read other stuff besides death and mayhem and polarised opposites! Goodo ;)

    1. Laurel
      Now its a case of if it ain't bleeding, stab it a few times with the bosses bias first before publishing .

  5. I see how the 'false equivalence' concept applies to the media in Australia, but I'm not so sure on the 'view from nowhere' - take the Canberra press gallery, they prefer just to report based on their own "narrative". When questioned on or pulled up about stories written around this mythical "narrative", their response is that the ones reading their articles have got it all wrong, not them. The handling of the PM's misogyny speech is the perfect example, and now last week's positing that Abbott was really the winner in the NDIS funding levy result, simply reinforces the facts that a) journalists no longer represent truth in reporting, and b) they are not willing to learn from their mistakes.

  6. Another common theme of journalism these days is that you are allowed to promote a progressive view compared to the major parties - but only as long as you don't mention a political alternative to the major parties.

    The Age often has news items, opinion pieces, and even editorials that strongly support the policies of the Greens. But almost never do these articles mention the Greens.

    Over the last week I've written about the examples of this I've seen in The Age - see

    It is only a democracy if the voters are fully informed. I think the failure of the media (with the support of big business and the major parties) is so great that I now question whether or not Australia is a true democracy.

  7. The comments on that Media Watch link about vaccination are just depressing.

  8. Thankyou Mr D again clear concise factual article. By studied objectivity am I to read the use of pejorative, emotive language to "set the scene" of opinion over objective fact? The basis of my latest round of complaints to the ABC.
    I agree with the Ian the comments on Media Watch link re vaccinations are depressing. There is no debate to be had the science is definitive, there are no personal choice options, vaccination should be mandatory EXCEPT on a case by case medically certified contraindication. People with HIV are prosecuted for attempt murder/manslaughter for knowingly having unprotected/uninformed/non disclosed HIV status sexual relations.

  9. Fine commentary, Mr. Denmore. The media's opposition to regulation is not about free speech. It is about their fear of losing control over the dissemination of news and particularly the analysis of the news as it is presented to the public.

    With the concentration of media in so few hands, there is immense capacity for power. Vance Packard, in ”The Hidden Persuaders”, showed how advertisers use psychology to promote politicians to the electorate. Media uses these techniques to get us to consume their “product” - news. To the media, a country in crisis is more likely to get attention so if there is no political drama, then manufacture it.

    How politicians are portrayed depends upon whether they advance the media agenda and whether favourable / unfavourable press suits the media's insatiable appetite for continual news and increasing income.

    In vying for attention amongst the world's trillions of people, exaggeration and extremism seem to get attention in the media than the reasoned, moderate voice. Assertive aggressiveness dominates and excess sells.

    The media have accepted the notion that they are above it all to such an extent that they take offence at criticism. They support regulation of other industries to ensure ethical practices, but not their own industry.

    The global internet has shown that traditional media have censored many voices which differ from their own and which are now getting a voice via social media. What the traditional media and their masters now want to do is to reduce the power of social media where it conflicts with their own agenda. Meanwhile they provide a free dais to those who criticise regulation of the media on the basis of unsubstantiated and spurious claims of threats to intellectual freedom, while these same critics of regulation aim to limit the free speech of their opponents by the power they wield.