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Freedom of the press … only if you own one?

August 23rd, 2014

As well as my Courier-Mail piece on privatisation published yesterday, I had this one, at the Guardian on the obsolescence of the late 19th and 20th century idea of the Press (or the media) as an institution with special rights and responsibilities.

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  1. Robert (not from UK)
    August 23rd, 2014 at 20:07 | #1

    The title of Professor Quiggin’s Guardian piece (a title that might or might not have been chosen by a sub-editor) is “We can no longer assume that a story is true because it appears in the paper.” But could we ever assume this, really?

    Although I am not that old, I am old enough to remember from my childhood and adolescence a great many working-class ALP types – Mick Young was about the last survivor of them – who, like their forebear Arthur Calwell, had a healthy suspicion of everything that Australia’s mainstream newspapers printed. (Calwell’s attitude was even noted by cartoonists, who would often depict him as a cockatoo repeating “Curse the Press! Curse the Press!”)

    During the four decades or so before the Internet came along, the main Australian newspapers were always pro-Masonic, usually pro-Big-Business, often enough pro-Communist (particularly during the early 1970s’ height of Maoist fashion), and equally often mindlessly pro-Zionist. So if one lived even in a major Australian city – let alone back of Bourke – and did not have the boundless privilege of belonging to any of those four approved categories, then one might as well have been stuck in Cold War Moscow with Pravda, for all the possibilities one had of discovering objective truth, at least on narrowly political issues. (I’m not talking about the newspapers’ literary/arts pages, which frequently achieved a higher standard.)

    One typo in Professor Quiggin’s article, I note. “Rudyar” should be “Rudyard”.

  2. Megan
    August 23rd, 2014 at 21:01 | #2

    You beat me to it – “Rudyar” jumps out at you!

    Since I appear to be banned from including links, I’ll apologise in advance for simply partially reproducing a book review:

    Those who believe that the media have a duty to the public, and an important role in a democracy, to objectively report facts and inform readers should take an interest in how well the media fulfil that duty and role. “Killing the Messenger: 100 Years of Media Criticism” is a collection of pieces by media critics from magazines, journals, official reports, public speeches and books going back as far as 1890.

    Structurally, Killing the Messenger is set in five parts each containing three or four works. Goldstein writes an introduction to each, explaining his selection, and distilling their common themes. The diversity of the material, spreading across so many disciplines and years, makes the book an eclectic read. For example, the first essay, The Right to Privacy, comes from the Harvard Law Review, December 15, 1890 and is a legalistic argument about privacy and the lack of protection from the media glare. By contrast, the next piece is a light and brief collection of editorials by William Allen White: Editorials from the Emporia Gazette, 1901 – 1921, makes an unconvincing case about the editorial decision to publish personal details in some instances and not others.

    Some commentaries lament lack of quality or sloppiness, while others are far more critical of the often sinister motives of the media. What resonates throughout the book is the persistent currency and validity to this day of every one of the criticisms made of the media. Judging by the current “health” of the media, I was left with the impression that Goldstein was either mistaken or that media needs vastly more criticism.

    The essay by George Seldes, published in 1935, is a scathing analysis of the media treatment of four men, including Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr. According to Seldes, Lindbergh was “a great enemy of the bankers, he believed in the public ownership of the power companies as well as the public ownership of natural resources” and in December, 1915 he warned President Wilson that “speculations and loans in foreign fields are likely to bring us into war. The war-for-profit group has counterfeited patriotism”. (24) Seldes sets out the media cooperation and compliance in attacks on Lindbergh and includes the following example from an editorial in 1918, when Lindbergh was running for governor of Minnesota: “A vote for Burnquist will cheer our soldiers in France. A vote for his opponent [Lindbergh] will be sad news to them and will bring a smile to the Kaiser.” (25)

    The depressing familiarity of that kind of media tactic is illustrative of the book’s weakness. While Goldstein offers a fascinating look at the many persistent failures of the media, it doesn’t offer the reader any sense of hope for solutions. Even the second part, titled provocatively: ‘The Power of the Press and How to Curb It’, can only suggest that: maybe the next generation of journalists will be better (Will Irwin’s piece from “Colliers” in 1911), maybe the perfect media proprietor will emerge and publish only truth (and “groups of truth-loving people will buy these papers by the thousands” forcing all media to adopt these high standards for fear of losing money, according to the extract from Upton Sinclair’s 1919 book ‘The Brass Check’), by adopting a blend of mild self-regulation and market principles (the thirteen recommendations from the publisher-funded Report of the ‘Commission on Freedom of the Press’, 1947) or, lastly, leave it to itself and see what happens (‘The End of Free Lunch’, A. J. Leibling, 1963).

    Parts three and four, Journalists and Their Biases and Telling Stories, continue the sense of futility even though they contain damning examples of media failures. The extract from the Walter Lippmann and Charles Merz article in the New Republic from 1920 is a thorough analysis of the reportage of the New York Times covering the Russian Revolution. Lippmann and Merz found that: “From the point of view of professional journalism the reporting of the Russian Revolution is nothing short of a disaster. On the essential questions the net effect was almost always misleading, and misleading news is worse than none at all. Yet on the face of the evidence there is no reason to charge a conspiracy by Americans. They can fairly be charged with boundless credulity, and an untiring readiness to be gulled, and on many occasions with a downright lack of common sense.” (158)

    This theme pervades the book, with Goldstein constantly and undeservedly allowing the media slack over persistent failures, as if to avoid causing offence to the offenders. In this way, Lippmann and Merz say of the media: “They were performing the supreme duty in a democracy of supplying the information on which public opinion feeds, and they were derelict in that duty. Their motives may have been excellent. They wanted to win the war; they wanted to save the world.” (158)

    John Hersey’s excellent essay from 1980: “The Legend on the Licence”, unfortunately prescribes the simple logical solution:

    But how could the blurring possibly be corrected at this late date? Hasn’t the process gone too far? Isn’t all this much too complicated? Aren’t the shadings too subtle? Not at all. It is very simple. To redraw the line we need merely to think clearly about the legends on the licenses. All we need do is insist upon two rules: The writer of fiction must invent. The journalist must not invent. (232)

    True, but with all manner of media shillery still going on we don’t know how exactly to “insist” upon those rules. Plummeting newspaper circulation hasn’t resulted in improvement in that medium. The ABC’s Media-Watch being reduced from 15 minutes to 10 minutes comes to mind as an example of the reverse of the remedy.

    The collection documents all manner of failings, but there is never a calling to account. In this way, the final part of the collection, Making the Press Professional, was particularly disappointing. Joseph Pulitzer’s essay from the North American Review, May 1904, is full of worthy but unattained ideals. He founded and permanently endowed the College of Journalism at Columbia University with the idea that “professionally” trained and educated journalists would change all that is wrong with the media. Leo C. Rosten thought that something fruitful could come from an analysis of the demographics of “Washington Correspondents”, his 1937 essay is interesting but makes no useful point.

    The collection fizzles to a conclusion with the reproduction of the 1968 report of the Commission on Civil Disorders. In the introduction to part five, Goldstein writes: “The commission found that too often journalists were reporting solely ‘from the standpoint of a white man’s world’ and that more black journalists were needed to report on issues relating to race.” (234). The actual recommendations of the Commission are equally devoid of insight.

    Killing the Messenger is a frighteningly good read, but probably not in the sense that it was intended.

    Killing the Messenger:100 Years of Media Criticism
    (2007)

  3. Megan
    August 24th, 2014 at 00:21 | #3

    Over 120 years of – valid – criticism of the media, as well as a variety of suggestions for improvement.

    Nowhere will you find an argument that improvement of the media might be achieved through concentration of ownership and control.

    Even when Australian governments from Hawke to Howard to Gillard (Abbott hasn’t done it, yet) were facilitating that narrowing of media control – nobody ever argued it would give us a better media or democracy.

  4. hc
    August 24th, 2014 at 06:56 | #4

    Thoughtful piece. Is there a market for a high quality, unbiased press these days? Your argument seems to assume there is not so traditional features of the press are now irrelevant. The Guardian itself and also the ABC news service suggest to me there might be.

  5. Newtownian
    August 24th, 2014 at 09:33 | #5

    Such a great summary and historical take!!!! Tks. Indeed we are in uncharted waters.

    A good companion piece if you had a mind to it would be something on the rise and fall of ‘objectivity’ and the impact of postmodernism. Don’t get me wrong. I think Pomo’s highlighting of different framing of issues is good. But the discrediting of the good v evil concept has allowed the return of lot of preenlightenment humbug and allowed the likes of ABC tony Jones to cast critical realities as debatable in the fashion of high school rhetoric.

  6. rog
    August 24th, 2014 at 13:35 | #6

    Writing in Fairfax ex News Corps CEO Kim Williams says that that the media, in its current format, is toast.

    http://m.smh.com.au/comment/kim-williams-calls-news-corp-leaks-a-festival-of-vengeance-20140821-106r64.html

  7. Midrash
    August 24th, 2014 at 15:54 | #7

    Anyone can appropriate a noble name but speculation is right in one respect. In my case the real authentic not to say sincere and scrupulous Midrash can say truthfully “my name is legion”. On how many thinly populated web blogs I have boosted the numbers and clicks to keep up the morale of the moderator and chief opiniator whose wisdom goes so widely unrecognised as is the usual case I cannot say.
    But surely someone with J-D’s gift for literalness and trivial precision has run the algorithm which detects these frolics and can tell us how many alter egos I have and who (else) the false Midrash impersonates.

  8. Nevil Kingston-Brown
    August 25th, 2014 at 10:34 | #8

    Yuri and Midrash do share patterns of very long run on sentences, slightly mangled syntax and misused vocabulary, and shameless self-praise.

  9. J-D
    August 25th, 2014 at 18:47 | #9

    @Midrash

    I have to thank you for the pleasure you’ve given me by signalling that I’ve made an impression on you. That makes my day.

    I don’t care who you are. The merits (or lack of them) of your contributions to discussion are independent of your identity.

  10. Ikonoclast
    August 25th, 2014 at 19:21 | #10

    If I might speak about the TV medium, I had the misfortune today to watch a bit of The Drum on the ABC. They had Marr, Kelly and Chikarovksy as guest commentators. In a nutshell, the economic segment with these three guests treated the audience to unrelieved, unexamined neoconservative rhetoric and propaganda. All three agreed the budget had to be got back into surplus. The very clear implication was that the budget had to ALWAYS be in surplus and surpluses were ALWAYS good. It was clearly accepted by all, even the moderator or host, that it was axiomatic and that surpluses are unquestionably and always good. There was no discussion of economic cycles, unemployment, youth unemployment or unmet need in society (health, welfare, education, infrastructure). Absolutely nothing.

    Where should I lodge a complaint about the strong and blatant neoconservative bias of the ABC? I also want to complain about the one-dimensional, intellectually bankrupt discussion of budget balance numbers without reference to any other macroeconomic, business cycle or social issue.

    I find it incomprehensible that people can still complain about the left wing bias of the ABC. In economic matters at least its bias is hard neoconservative. There’s no other description for it. This country has no hope now and will end up just like the US with a super rich 1%, a comfortable 9%, the broad middle class rapidly collapsing and a very large underclass of about 20% (and growing) in total poverty. Note: The US has 20% of households on foodstamps.

    Mindless (and refuted) neoconservatism dominates the MSM (including the ABC) about 99% of the time. It’s as if the GFC didn’t happen; as if junk bonds, Enron, Madhoff, derivatives, mortgage market collapses etc. etc. just haven’t happened.

    The neoconservatism zombie dances on. (Warning: simuated gun violence, gangsta and zombie themes). Note , I have removed the http, colon, double slash bit.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDsQl2-_JAg

  11. Ikonoclast
    August 25th, 2014 at 19:22 | #11

    Oops… or not. :)

  12. Ikonoclast
    August 25th, 2014 at 19:24 | #12

    Oops… or not. :)

    Here’s a better quality link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_3_WgAMXAv4

  13. Donald Oats
    August 25th, 2014 at 19:50 | #13

    @Ikonoclast

    I also saw that episode of The Drum and felt a tad irritated. They had Paul Kelly, long time senior editor/correspondent/political guru of The Australian newspaper, expressing his exasperation at how so many eminent economists and politicians have pointed to the structural issues with our growing debt (to be debated another time) and how if we don’t address it soon, our kids and their kids will be saddled with a serious problem. Without accepting the specific claims made, still, I was waiting for someone to say, “Gee, isn’t that just like the issue of the modern human factor in climate change? We get all these very experienced climate scientists and eminent people (of the relevant backgrounds) pointing to the ever-mounting evidence, and yet we either do nothing of significant consequence to address it, or even resort to running on an agenda of dismantling what pathetically little progress we have made. Isn’t it ironic, Paul Kelly, that The Australian has run a relentless campaign against anyone who speaks sense about human-caused AGW, countering them with a running faux-debate from a noisy and well funded minority?”^fn1

    Sadly, noone brought this up…sigh.

    fn1: I am not claiming that the assertion in the question is either true or false, but given a similar question put to Paul on the central claim about a breakdown in the political system, in which (some specific) elements of the media were asserted to have had a significant role to play, it would seem just as reasonable to put the above question to him as well.

  14. Ernestine Gross
    August 25th, 2014 at 19:54 | #14

    @Ikonoclast

    You could make a submission to the Financial System Inquiry regarding the GFC and its consequence for people, including the additional debt taken on by the government to deal with the accute risk of system failure. The deadline for submissions is tomorrow, 26 August 2014. The following link provides access to further relevant links.

    http://fsi.gov.au/publications/interim-report/executive-summary/

    I realise my suggestion does not deal with your specific complaint about an episode of the ABC program The Drum, I do believe the message would be addressed to a relevant body.

  15. Ikonoclast
    August 25th, 2014 at 20:18 | #15

    It’s a total lie by Paul Kelly or anyone saying that Australia has structural issues with Aust. government debt. It is such BS.

    “Australia recorded a Government Debt to GDP of 20.48 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product in 2013. Government Debt To GDP in Australia averaged 20.20 Percent from 1989 until 2013… ” – Trading Economics.

    US Net government debt as % of GDP (IMF) = 87.86%.

    Go and sort countries by debt to GDP ratio on Wikipedia. Australia is waaaaaay low on the list even on 2012 figures.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_public_debt

    They complain about people being alarmist about Climate Change. (What’s a little old Arctic ice cap between friends?) Yet we get this ridiculous alarmism about our government debt when it is very low by world standards. What stunt are they pulling? Do they believe it (all the neocons) or is it just a convenient excuse to cut spending on the poor and cut taxes on the rich? Well , I reckon we know the answer to that. The ultra neoconservative bias of our whole media including the ABC makes me very angry. In fact, I rarely watch any current affairs even on ABC the ultra neoconservative bias is just so sickening and their propaganda so blatantly false.

  16. zoot
    August 25th, 2014 at 23:25 | #16

    I thought Joe Hockey had put all of this talk about budget crisis to bed on his visit to New Zealand.

  17. August 25th, 2014 at 23:35 | #17

    @Donald Oats

    And it seems that doing the obvious thing to fix the budget – increasing tax levels back to what they were 15 years ago, is just a big a no-no, in the same was as an ETS is not the way we are supposed to be reducing carbon emissions.

    Lets do both. Raise taxes and have a decent ETS.

  18. August 25th, 2014 at 23:38 | #18

    Oh, and while I’m being a sad lefty, a friend of mine recently returned from Japan for a short holiday. Over there, they are really suffering from their 25 years of slow growth. He lives in a university subsidised 3 brm apartment and they’ve had to put his rent up to $240. He tells me that if he had to rent in the private market, a 3 brm apartment would cost him $600.

    Oh, did I mention that these are monthly rents? It must suck to live there.

  19. Fran Barlow
    August 26th, 2014 at 07:58 | #19

    @John Brookes

    And it seems that doing the obvious thing to fix the budget: (…) Raise taxes and have a decent ETS.

    I have no problem with this but …

    a) the budget balance sheet is not in need of ‘fixing’ It’s time to move away from surplus fetishism.
    b) The budget could be trimmed in areas such as superannuation and subsidies to mining, fossil fuels etc. ‘Defence’ and ‘national security’ could be pared back a very long way. Most of it is pure ‘wag the dog’. Of course Australia shouldn’t be spending a billion each year or more brutalising asylum seekers.

    The warrant for improving collections is in equity, and the need for new provision for those in the bottom half or so of incomes.

  20. Ikonoclast
    August 26th, 2014 at 08:13 | #20

    @John Brookes

    Slow growth and no growth is becoming the norm around the globe. The globe is trending towards 0% economic growth. Because of resource exhaustion and overshoot we will perforce enter a long contraction soon. Population growth will also cease and then population will decline. The real challenge will be developing an economic system which works in a contraction setting.

    The collapse of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is underway. The periphery of the Eurozone is collapsing and growth has also stalled in the Eurozone as a whole. Europe will never grow economically again. It cannot grow because the European continent west of Russia is resource depleted and they cannot generate enough revenue to import the required resources.

    We see the results of MENA collapse in the ongoing civil wars and internecine wars in Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Israel/Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. Egypt and Yemen continue to teeter on the brink. Elsewhere; Nigeria, Ukraine, Mexico (drug war). This indicates many more regions are likely to collapse into internecine war when resource shortages begin to bite.

  21. Megan
    August 31st, 2014 at 17:37 | #21

    Speaking of “the press”, the MEAA had its Qld love-in last night, the Clarion Awards.

    Every good kiddy gets a prize. The “journalist” of the year went to a News Corp hack.

    They included what I thought to be a startlingly frank admission in the blurb about the article that won her the prize:

    This work, carried out over months, was self-generated. There was no PR machine, no agenda, and no product to sell…

    The obvious implication being that it is unusual for a piece of “journalism” these days to come without a PR machine origin, an agenda and/or a product to sell. Of course everyone knows that, but I was surprised they’re openly admitting it now. They usually go to great lengths to deny that reality.

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