The slow lingering death of journalism

Not everyone seems impressed, but in my view Lindsay Tanner raised substantive points in his interview with Leigh Sales this week in the 7.30 Report. Tanner was arguing from his new book Sideshow where he says the media are largely to blame for the shoddy state of our polity. The argument was never fully teased out. The interviewer took the adversarial role of blaming the politicians for the problem and the issue of media behaviour was ignored.

Sales didn’t address the problems Tanner raised: “gotcha journalism”, the treatment of gaffes, the trivialisation of politics as a game, and the glorification of the aggrieved whenever reform is proposed. Instead she took the easy line, pushing back on the duty of the politician to rise above the shackles the media has imposed. As Kerryn Goldsworthy pointed out, it was a textbook example of the problem Tanner was describing.

Sales kept asking why politicians couldn’t rise above it, but never once explored the other half of the problem, or even acknowledge it existed. It is as if the commodification of news is a taboo topic, which is somewhat understandable. After all, what media will admit to its audience the inconvenient fact they are part of the problem they are analysing?

Certainly none of the media organisations that spent millions of dollars giddily covering Friday’s Royal Wedding would make any such admission. As Dan Rather pointed out, we should remember this next time a media company closes a bureau or is unable to cover a “foreign story with full force”. This week-long extravaganza saw hundreds of journalists stationed in Green Park seeking mind-numbing excreta on the edges of the wedding. The one snippet I caught of Channel 7’s Sunrise on Wednesday morning featured an in depth article on Kate Middleton’s stripper cousin or to use the parlance beloved of media pretending not to be prudish while being prurient, Middleton’s “saucy cousin”.

I don’t blame the journalists. Short of News of the World tactics and hacking the Royals’ phone service, they are not going to get an exclusive royal story outside the long lens. They’re hard working hacks who devote their talents to a Kevin Bacon game finding news in saucy strippers two irrelevant stages removed from another irrelevancy. The only newsworthy elements of the Royal Wedding are the fuss over the Bahraini ambassador, the snub to Blair and Brown, and the censoring of the Chaser’s attempt to satirise the wedding. Tanner’s Sideshow has moved into centre stage.

The problem is, as Robert McChesney puts it, media companies are a government sanctioned oligopoly, owned by a few highly profitable corporate entities. They guard their privilege through legislative influence and control of news coverage; they distort understanding of media issues. According to Eric Beecher it is a convergence of economic, technological and societal trends threatening “quality media” in an unprecedented way. He blames a media obsession with celebrity, fame, trivia and lifestyles as serious analysis cannot attract a broad constituency “without large dollops of celebrity gossip and soft lifestyle coverage.”

The Royal Wedding is easy news – controllable, glamorous and unthreatening. No journalist is taking chances like Mohammad Nabous or Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. These men died trying to communicate things people don’t want you to know. But as Lindsay Tanner points out, the companies they work for don’t want you to know either. The model is borked. Investigative and analytical journalism do not pay their way. With the ABC entrenched in the status quo, only the unpaid fifth estate is showing any interest in saving democracy. But without the power and kudos of the fourth, I don’t fancy their chances.

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