Bell-shaped (Gaussian) curves abound in nature and human endeavour, no less among political journalists. They are scattered along a normal distribution curve in more ways than one. Their political orientation varies from the extremes of conservatism on the one hand, to extremes of socialism on the other. The vast majority lie between these extremes. In terms of quality, they vary from the excellent, several standard deviations above the mean, to the bulk that could be described as ordinary or maybe even mediocre, to the shabby, several standard deviations below the mean.
In his 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – An Inquiry into Values, in which he explores the metaphysics of quality, Robert Pirsig asserts that quality is indefinable, but goes on to say "But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is!". Put another way, you recognize quality as soon as you see it. In the area of rhetoric Pirsig singled out aspects of quality such as unity, vividness, authority, economy, sensitivity, clarity, emphasis, flow, suspense, brilliance, precision, proportion, depth and so on, but found them too difficult to define. Pirsig also reminds us that the Greeks equated quality with truth, a notion that might help us to discern quality among journalists.
This piece confines itself to journalists who focus mainly on politics. [more]
Readers of this piece will have their own idea of what constitutes quality. Assuming that no one should be in journalism unless they can write decent English, of all the markers of quality among political journalists, I would place at the top ‘balance’ the capacity to give equal or appropriate weight to conflicting arguments or positions before drawing conclusions. Next, would be the related ‘lack of bias’, if bias is defined as an inclination or prejudice in favour of a particular person, thing or viewpoint. Truthfulness and accuracy in representing the facts would follow, along with preparedness to clearly separate truth, that is the facts, from opinion. By truth, I mean all the facts, not a set selected to underpin an argument while omitting countervailing facts. A little humour when appropriate, and a creative turn of phrase would be lesser markers, but nonetheless important.
Next, consider what might influence journalists, whatever their quality, to write what they do, apart from reporting the facts, drawing conclusions, and offering opinions or comments. In June of last year I asserted on Possum Box in a piece Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink? that groupthink was a potent force that influenced political journalists. Only the mavericks prefer to be the odd man out, so what is buzzing around press circles is likely to be picked up and promulgated. Sometimes this is simply consensus, but it can be just the blind leading the blind. At times such as the budget week, there is another factor that assumes greater than usual importance: the urge to be different from the others – with a catchy headline, or a unique angle, or a breaking story, or exclusive intelligence.
Imagine all the journalists confined in the Budget lockup, scores of them, all given the same information, trying to outdo each other in catching public attention. It is a hothouse that fosters searching analysis, odd angles, dredging up a killer headline, seeing something someone else misses. But sometimes they revert to plain old groupthink. We’ve seen examples all this week.
How many times have you heard on radio and TV, and read in the press that Wayne Swan did not mention the actual deficit figure in his speech. This has been said to be highly unusual and significant, and played as his being too ashamed to admit it. There’s much speculation about why this occurred, as if this omission is more important that the thousands of words he uttered about the budget, and detail in the budget papers. The most plausible guess is that the Government wanted to deprive the Coalition of a telling grab for their election campaign. But how significant was it? Very significant, if one can judge from the coverage it received.
How many times have you heard that the budget was not tough enough, or not matching the tough pre-budget rhetoric? This was an almost universal theme immediately after Budget night. Was this groupthink? Now journalists are doing a bit more thinking and realize that there are plenty of tough measures there, some not to come into play until later, but tough nevertheless. The Government has been given little recognition of the importance of its timing of these tough measures, designed to effect structural changes in the budget to get it into better shape in future budgets when conditions have improved, but delayed to avoid setting the economy back when it’s in recession. The quick-to-jump-to-conclusions journalists are having second thoughts. On ABC TV’s Insiders this morning, George Megalogenis drew attention to the difference in response to the ‘tough’ measures in the broadsheet and tabloid press. The former emphasized the budget was not tough enough; the tabloids featured how tough the measures were, headlining, for example, having to work to age 67 before being eligible for the age pension.
A few examples will illustrate some of the attempts to grab an unusual headline, to find a unique angle, and to one-up fellow journalists.
For digging out something others had not noticed take a look at Neil Mitchell’s We can be trusted, PM in The Herald Sun “There are always hidden gems in a federal Budget and the instructive little bauble this year is confirmation that, while the rest of the world is doing it tough, Kevin Rudd's own department is hiring 65 new people and boosting its spending by 10.5 per cent. Why? Funny you should ask, because the Prime Minister is not very good at explaining that, or anything else for that matter.” In case you missed Mitchell’s political orientation, at least in this article, he continues: “For that reason let's hope the new staff is not made up entirely of butlers, shoe-shiners and people who carry emergency hair dryers.” He goes on in that vein, lambasting the PM for not admitting to ‘broken promises’. Kevin Rudd said he was “unable to fulfil some of these policy commitments" and for that he would take "full responsibility". But that was not enough for Mitchell, he wanted Rudd to say the words “I have broken a promise” and apologize. He was looking for a gotcha moment.
Examples of the search for catchy headlines can be seen from a selection of some that appeared in the press the day after the budget. The following were extracted from an admirable new website OneStopPolitics, which is a valuable source of references to the political stories of the day.
Take the right out of debate and what's left? - Peter Costello
Fighting strategy may need miracle - Paul Kelly
Here comes hard Labor - Michelle Grattan
Rudd's surely itching for early poll - Paul Williams
Tough decisions still required - Michael Stutchbury
Rudd and Swan's risky management - Malcolm Farr
Putting on a brave face, but never mentioning the war - Tony Wright
Cuts neither deep, nor too unkind - George Megalogenis
Deep pockets hamper grand ideas - Stepehn McMahon
Unpopular decisions can wound, but are not necessarily fatal - Michelle Grattan
Hang onto the pennies - Lenore Taylor
It's manana from Kevin - Andrew Bolt
Plan depends on a fast turnaround - Jennifer Hewett
Rudd and Swan's risky management - Sue Dunlevy
Optimist Swan tips rapid return to boom times - Stephen Long
Labor tackles its own climate change - Shaun Carney
Middle class takes its medicine - Steve Lewis
Dangerous twist in dark arts of spin - Janet Albrechtsen
The ugly side of the Budget - David Penberthy
Budget fails to match tough talk - Michael Brissenden
Rudd has lost his boldness and roar - Peter Hartcher
Left behind on building bridges - Nick Dyrenfurth and Philip Mendes
Axeman has to settle for a scalpel - Annabel Crabb
Rich lose but poor don't win - Susie O'Brien
Fairest gift may be to do nothing - Greg Melleuish
Horizon is pink and red - Terry McCrann
The first careful steps on the long road to recovery - Phillip Coorey
Infrastructure spend only start - Adele Ferguson
Swan is the bogeyman of this fiscal fairytale - Piers Akerman
Labor fails to uphold its values for society's most needy - Adele Horin
New unemployed need more than this - Mike Steketee
Planning the clean-up before the storm has even arrived - Ross Gittins
Change needed if targets to be met - Peter Walters
Wayne channels Evita in Budget - Tim Blair
A decade of debt until we're free - Phillip Coorey
Roxon a Robin Hood? No way - Adam Cresswell
No reward for effort in a time of crisis - Andrew Bolt
Just a glance at the headlines and a quick read of a selection gives a feeling for the diversity of opinion expressed in the media, the consistencies (often a manifestation of groupthink), the inconsistencies, the balanced, the biased, the outrageous and the pathetic. Our journalists are indeed stretched across the bell-shaped curve – the good, the ordinary, the mediocre, the bad, and the ugly.
What do you think?
In the next in this two-part series, titled How do you rate our political journalists? the expertise or lack of it, that individual journalists bring to their work, will be appraised. The influence they have on public thinking should at least be matched by the quality of their journalism. Sadly that is often not so.