The antediluvian media

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Friday, 30 April 2010 11:02 by Ad astra

I’ve been wondering what chronic disability it is that has been afflicting so much of the media, wondering why its political commentary is so predictable yet so often lacking in depth, so devoid of clarifying insights.   Where have the competent columnists gone?  We know there is a handful, and we know who they are.  We are even more aware of the rabble rousers: the Akermans, the Bolts, the Milnes, and those who, while being capable of writing decent articles such as the Shanahans, so often abandon journalistic standards to write disgracefully partisan pieces with one aim – to demean and pull down Kevin Rudd and his Government, to make it a ‘oncer’.

A plausible diagnosis of this affliction is journalistic sclerosis, a chronic and incurable condition, the result of advancing age and an unwillingness or incapacity to undergo renewal and adapt to the realities of contemporary communication and the trends of latter day politics.  This condition is aggravated by an infective process, the organism responsible being Coalitiococcus which leads to partisanitis, a chronic condition subject to acute exacerbations.  There is no cure once the condition is established.  Even when it appears to be quiescent, it can flare up with the slightest aggravation into a fulminating illness that only time can resolve.  Immunization against the offending organism might reduce the prevalence of partisanitis, but the sclerosis appears to be irreversible.

How has this condition taken hold?  Since most of the mature journalists are now middle aged, their background is from another era.  The Internet has come upon them, Facebook and Twitter have arrived, the Fifth Estate has proliferated and is challenging their previously exclusive right to report political events, offer opinions, pontificate, and sit in judgement on politicians, their actions and the political process.  Their authority and their right to do all this has not been challenged until fairly recently, but the blogosphere has arisen to contest that right, and they don’t like it.

Reflect on the era in which they grew up professionally.  While some like Paul Kelly, Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oakes, Malcolm Farr and Paul Bongiorno would remember well the days of Hawke and Keating, even Whitlam and as far back as Menzies, many contemporary journalists would be more familiar with the Howard era that stretched for so many years.  They would be used to his style of governing and the way he used the media.  But it seems as if they have failed to progress as fast as John Howard did.  He made talk back radio an art form, appeared regularly on TV, and paid careful attention to the media cycle. 

Kevin Rudd has followed this trend and extended it.  Although it might be expected that the media would welcome Rudd’s attention to the media cycle, instead he is incessantly criticized for being ‘obsessed with the media cycle’.  Can you understand this?  Why would they be so upset?  Is it because Rudd’s media focus causes them to get off their butts to cope with it?  Is it because they believe they should control the media cycle, not Rudd?  They seem to suggest that policy formulation and attention to the media cycle are incompatible.  They are not.  Rudd believes that if he is to communicate effectively with the electorate he needs to be out there every day with a photo opportunity, a grab for the evening TV news, a message that his Government is active, doing things.  Why is he pilloried for this?  Are the journalists upset that Rudd is calling the shots, not them; is it that they feel he is using them and the media for his political advantage?  Well that’s exactly what he’s doing; they had better get used to it.  And when he uses Twitter and Facebook and his website to promulgate his messages to different audiences, they pour scorn on these mechanisms.  Why?  Is it because they bypass their conduits to the people?  Is it because they believe they are the media and how dare Rudd circumvent them?  Is it because Rudd reportedly treats many of them with utter disdain?  It’s said that journalists dislike Rudd but like Abbott, a good bloke that they find easy to relate to.  Maybe this results in payback because Rudd declines to be obsequious, and so they strike at him with the power of their pens.

There is a preoccupation in the media with what it regards as the ‘cynical use of the media’ for political purposes by politicians, especially Rudd and Government ministers.  They regularly look for some sinister reason for an announcement.  Is it to distract from the Government’s problems?  Is it to steal a march on his opponents?  Is it to get ahead of some unpleasant news?  Is it a way of making the pace?  Yes, it is all those things, and the media doesn’t like it.  They like to be in control; who does Rudd think he is?

So they counter this upstart through two approaches:

First, they demean the man as often as possible with as many of his supposed ‘misdemeanours’ as can be mustered, and repeat them endlessly with the hope they will be burned, mantra-like, into the psyche of the voters.  You know them well – the bad-tempered Rudd, the rude Rudd, the slave-driver Rudd, the control-freak Rudd, the fight-with-friends Rudd, the unpopular Rudd, the use-religion-for-political-purposes Rudd, the Jekyll and Hyde Rudd, the policy-on-the-run Rudd, the all-spin-no-substance Rudd, the all-promise-no-delivery Rudd, the petulant Rudd, the bullying-the-premiers Rudd, the fake pseudo-ocker Rudd, the he-uses-funny-talk Rudd, the fair-shake-of-the-sauce-bottle Rudd, the sham hollow Rudd.  Even the nerdish Rudd, the hardworking Rudd, the policy wonk Rudd, the reviewing Rudd, far from attracting a modicum of admiration, are all held up for scorn.  Examples are catalogued – Scores, Burke, RAAF hostie, hairdryer story, overworked staff that never see their kids, excessive staff turnover, bullying colleagues stories, murmurings about a successor and talk about Julia Gillard as the next PM.  These bits of boilerplate are trotted out monotonously to make the case that Rudd is no good, no good at all, and very temporary.

Second, they paint everything he does as cynically opportunistic.  They foster a high level of suspicion.  Why did he announce that today?  What was he trying to hide or obscure?  What’s the reason for this or that action?  Whatever it is, it must be sinister, devious, insincere, because you know that’s the way Rudd is.  They castigate him when he seems to them to discard what they consider to be lofty principle in favour of pragmatic solutions, although his predecessor did this repeatedly without the disapproval they reserve for Rudd.  They set up straw men of high principle to which they pay allegiance so they can lament Rudd’s lack of adherence to them.  They fume with righteous indignation, insist that he must use up his ‘political capital’ to stand by the principle, yet by their very words furtively hope that he will use all of it up and stand exposed as a target for their venom and for untimely defeat. 

The media, by and large, is mad with Rudd, and they intend to punish him.  So they have embarked on the most intense and unremitting attack on almost everything he does.  Even the announcement of an increase in the tobacco levy and the changes to cigarette packaging are greeted, not with praise for an important health initiative, but with suspicion regarding the timing of the announcement, with cynicism about his intent.  They do not accept that the move is to improve health, reduce deaths, lower health costs and fund prevention – no, it’s to fill a budget void brought about by the ‘bribes’ he offered the premiers to get his health reform deal accepted.  His motivations are always suspect, never pure.

The uncomfortable fact for them is that Rudd keeps them guessing.  He runs his own agenda.  He refuses to comply with what the media thinks a PM should be, should think, and should say.  Why can’t he be predictable like Howard was?  Why can’t he be the sort of politician they want him to be?  Why can’t he go along with their expectations?  Why does he despise some media outlets and refuse to use them?  They rail against what they see as the arrogance of the man in not complying with what they have come to expect as their right.

Instead of trying to placate them, to go along with their self-centred demand for recognition, their self-seeking insistence on compliance with their requirements, he thumbs his nose at many of them and goes his own sweet way.  They long for the good-old-days, oblivious of the reality that they are long gone and will not return.  They have lost control of the media flow.  There are too many others involved, too many other modes of communication, too many listening to others outside the MSM.  Their power and influence is fading and they hate it.  The Fifth Estate calls them to account, and they resent it.  After all they have always called the shots; they have been the king-makers and the king-dethroners.  How dare the people ignore them, how dare they no longer buy their papers as before, how dare they ignore their privileged position?

Their journalistic sclerosis, complicated by recurrent bouts of Coalitiococcal partisanitis, has rendered many MSM journalists redundant and ineffective, ignored by more and more of the people.  Have they ever asked why it is that despite their malignant attacks on Rudd over many, many months, he still comes out smelling like roses in most opinion polls?  Have they queried why their perpetual condemnation, their endless venomous stories, their unwillingness to give more than perfunctory credit when it’s due, is having so little effect on Rudd’s ratings?  While they are down somewhat from their stratospheric highs, for all the vitriol poured on him, Rudd should now be well into in negative territory if the people were taking notice.  Do journalists ask themselves why that is not so?

The simple answer is that all except the rusted-on voters have stopped listening, have stopped believing what groupthink-afflicted journalists are feeding them day after day.  The Rudd they see and know from TV clips on news and current affairs programmes, talkback radio and personal contact during community visits does not correspond with the Rudd the media paints.  And they prefer to believe what they see and hear.

This piece offers the view that much of the MSM is antediluvian – a pitiable state of being sadly out of touch with contemporary political reality, alas unrecognized by so many of the journalists who inhabit that space.  Recovery is unlikely.

What do you think?