Cruel irony: partisans and the media

datePosted on 21:25, November 5th, 2011 by Lew

Here’s a thing I don’t get. Lefty partisans (in New Zealand and elsewhere) are overwhelmingly convinced that the Main Stream Media is:

  • Run by a shadowy cabal of Dr Evil types whose main goal is to bring the political right to power and keep them there;
  • Obsessed with prurience, trivia, conflict (falsified or trumped-up if necessary), outrage and scandal to the total exclusion of “serious” topics like policy;
  • So credulous as to be unable (or so captured as to be unwilling) to distinguish between competing accounts of differing veracity, reporting all opinions as nominally equal;
  • Selective, punishing the left more harshly than the right; and
  • All of the above is strongly contributing to the decline of civilisation as we know it.

The right believes much the same, just with a different polarity.

And yet, despite these deeply-held beliefs, partisans on both sides react with shock and dismay whenever the terrible old Emm Ess Emm lives up to these expectations. They wail and they gnash their teeth, but they don’t adopt (and don’t require their political representatives to adopt) strategies to deny the Emm Ess Emm the opportunity to fulfil this brief, or to force it into “responsible coverage” mode, and they refuse to acknowledge any responsibility for giving the Emm Ess Emm exactly what it needs to do exactly what it does.

Seriously. As a political movement, the more you believe all of that list — and in general, the lower your opinion of the media — the more you should be obsessed with ensuring that your strategy is freaking watertight so you don’t fall foul of it. Moreover, if you believe the last point (that it’s hastening the end of the world) you should be all the more committed to getting into power so as to implement reforms that will change this state of affairs.

But enthusiastic adherence to these beliefs correlates strongly with a poor understanding of the function of the media and how it works in reality. So those most exercised by the media’s obvious bias against their team are those least able to remedy it. Because they don’t understand the system, they tend to misdiagnose the problem. Having misunderstood the problem they are unable to respond strategically, and the typical result is inchoate fury.

L

categoryPosted in Media

33 Responses to “Cruel irony: partisans and the media”

  1. peteremcc on November 5th, 2011 at 21:33

    Your description of the left’s belief seems to fit with what I hear from my lefty friends.

    But most right wingers I hear complaining about the media don’t believe it’s some big conspiracy, they just think that most journalists are idiots and incompetent, and therefore naturally favor the left.

  2. Whaleoil on November 5th, 2011 at 21:58

    I don’t believe for a moment even a single one of your list.

    Point three is the closest, though I just believe it is sheer laziness rather than anything else. Certainly I don’t think credulity even comes close.

    I’m pretty certain though that many commenters at Red Alert and The Standard would say your list is the definitive guide for measuring media bias.

  3. Peter Martin on November 5th, 2011 at 22:01

    Perhaps shock and horror is easier than think and comprehend.
    When it comes down to ratings.
    What sells?

  4. Alex on November 5th, 2011 at 22:09

    No one believes there’s a conspiracy (if they do, they’re idiots.)

    Media that is run on a for profit basis has an interest in turning a profit. If it doesn’t it goes under. To do that it needs money from advertisers – who are also in business to turn a profit. All of these people, therefore, have an interest in maintaining an economic system under which they can continue to turn profits as large as possible (and they not only have an interest in doing so, they must do so – if they turn a smaller profit than their competitor, they risk being driven out of business through economies of scale). Any public policy that poses a risk to profit accumulation is neither in the interests of the owners of media nor their funders who operate under a profit system. The problem is systemic – not a conspiracy. I’m not sure what the left’s strategy should be apart from destroying that system (I’m talking radical left, not Labour “left” here).

    Also it’s not that the media is biased against Labour, or in favour of National – sometimes it favours one party, sometimes the other because both parties are broadly the same. Neither advocates a break from the policies we’ve lived with since the 80s and 90s and so both are basically acceptable to the media because they support their interests. It is, rather, that their interests lead them to promote a discourse which favours the interests of established power – of owners of vast amounts of wealth, because the owners of media outlets themselves own vast amounts of wealth (and necessarily so – by this I mean it’s not like you can own Fairfax and be poor at the same time), as do those who fund them.

    Essentially, it is that corporate media will promote corporate interests and this should not come as a surprise to anyone.

  5. George D on November 6th, 2011 at 09:24

    You’ve made a caricature of the views of the critics.

    I turned on the TV this morning, to see Colin James tell another pundit that the policy debate was relatively unimportant to this election, it was all about the personality. This was followed by an interview with Tony Ryall in which the interviewer was unable to understand, let alone meaningfully critique his views (particularly in health policy, which is where the debate should have taken place).

    Is this a conspiracy? No, of course not. It is merely the function of a business whose job it is to sell advertising.

  6. Lew on November 6th, 2011 at 09:46

    A caricature, yes. But the general point stands.

    Colin James is right. As much as Labour wants to turn it into a contest of policy, elections almost always aren’t decided on such matters. That isn’t a judgement; it’s just an observation.

    L

  7. QoT on November 6th, 2011 at 09:48

    I’m also going to jump in on the “conspiracy” angle, Lew, just because it reminds me of the way some anti-feminist critics like to roll their eyes and say “come on, it’s not like there’s some shadowy smoke-filled room where men get together and say “hey, let’s ensure 1 in 4 women get sexually assaulted!””

    No, there’s not a conspiracy, but there is a system in place which stifles genuine, policy-focused, informed political debate – and like Alex and George says, it comes down to money. Quizzing Key and Goff on how manly they are requires much less expert labour and much less effort than actual investigative journalism, and when you’ve already got a mainstream audience primed to accept that kind of rubbish as normal, sensible, the correct depth of political discussion … you don’t need a shadowy smoke-filled room.

  8. Lew on November 6th, 2011 at 10:19

    Another irony is that exactly none of the people who’ve replied are among those most guilty of the things I’ve discussed.

    But here’s a question for those of you who lament the lack of policy discourse in the popular media: why should voters base their political decisions entirely on the pronouncements of various politicians on complex technical matters, the veracity of which they don’t have the expertise to assess?

    The policy debate matters, yes. But the other stuff matters as well, and issues of personality and character are a fair heuristic to determining political “fit”.

    L

  9. George D on November 6th, 2011 at 10:24


    Colin James is right. As much as Labour wants to turn it into a contest of policy, elections almost always aren’t decided on such matters. That isn’t a judgement; it’s just an observation.

    Colin James is not making an observation. He is endorsing such a state of affairs – his tone was from a position of authority.

    Now, do political parties have to play this game? To the extent that things remain this way, yes. As you are aware, National do it very well, and Labour occasionally so (moreso when they have former gallery hacks in board). I also happen to know activists (there are a couple) who understand the way things work well enough to consistently manipulate media coverage.

    Do the rest of us have to enjoy or endorse it, or refrain from criticising it and suggesting ways in which things could change? No. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about the current state of affairs. It is the result of a commercial and policy environment which you note is entirely within the power of politicians to control. There would be some costs to exercising that control as well as benefits, and that balance was sufficient for Cullen to decide that the de facto commercial duopoly (and monopoly in print) across every media market was acceptable. I don’t believe it is, and the Labour Party appears to have realised that it is unsustainable – but they again are unwilling to rock things heavily and hence have a tentative rather than definitive media policy.

    There are other things that shape coverage, such as class and other interests, but I don’t have the time to expand on them right now.

  10. Whaleoil on November 6th, 2011 at 10:30

    Everyone has a different view on what politics is….for some they think in the purist of terms based on the etymology of the word.

    Other think it is a game, admittedly played with high stakes but a game nonetheless. Still others think it is a deadly serious business that warrants cerebral analysis of the minutiae.

    That is what is so enjoyable about being involved in politics…the breadth of what it is and what it means. Farrar likes polls, policy and statistics…I like personality, guts and positioning. Meld the two together and you get a broader picture…add in others from different world views and you start to see why a MSM focus just on personality or just on policy gets very boring when there are plenty of other angles and takes.

    Only the truly sad exist in the echo chamber. When you do you run the risk of also entering the circle jerk.

    This is why I read this blog, Trotter, DimPost, No Right Turn and a few others. Of course it is also all about knowing the “enemy” and how they think.

  11. Chris Trotter on November 6th, 2011 at 11:18

    Perhaps, Lew, you should make clear to the readers of Kiwipolitico the precise nature of the work you do (or, if the nature of your employment has changed recently, did), and who pays (or paid) your salary, before indulging in such brazen stereotyping of both right-wing and left-wing critiques of the news media.

    Voluntary disclosure of potential conflicts-of-interest is one of the most basic ethical obligations of all forms of public discourse.

  12. Tiger Mountain on November 6th, 2011 at 14:36

    Media discussions remind me of a verse in an old Cher song “10 rounds in the ring with love-do you lose and win, or win and lose…”

    While happy to criticise the poodle media personalities such as Espiner the simpering Armstrong and Garner etc., in the real world I build relationships with editors and journalists relevant to my geographical area and area of activity. You can create your own media, I produce a local newsletter that prints anything from anyone. Funded by sponsors including me and the local vet and RD contractor. You use the internet as we do. The old maxim-“work with and struggle against” applies rather well to the media. There are numerous work arounds apart from whinging about being hard done by.

    Amazingly ‘Fear Facts’ did not sack the local Far North editors when they took over the last 2 remaining independent papers. The editor of one is such a tory that he has his own swipe card entry to the local cop shop! Years back a greenie mate of mine asked him about a 1080 article he had sent in and got the reply “it’s in my second draw and that’s where it’s staying”. Nowadays he runs almost anything the lefties send in as trust has been built regarding accuracy and timelines. So I don’t buy into the left victimisation conspiracy theory, but I do accept the systemic and business argument as to why the left gets less column centimeters.

  13. ak on November 6th, 2011 at 16:22

    I mean it’s not like you can own Fairfax and be poor at the same time…corporate media will promote corporate interests

    Onto it Alex. Little surprise that the most screaming example, probably ever, (red front page, “Death of Democracy!” Lenin/Helen figurines) resulted from a direct threat to advertising revenue and bought, right-wing opinion-making.

    A caricature, yes….irony is that exactly none of the people who’ve replied are among those..

    No irony, Lew, just a truism. Caricatures cant’t type. Screaming, gnashing Dr Evil believers only seem to appear in this post.

    People with first-hand experience of starboard-listing media censorship and manipulation, on the other hand, actually exist. Tiger’s example is by no means unique.

    And the content matters not a whit; whether fluff or substance, it’s how it’s related that counts. The other stuff matters, all right, and it’s so, so much easier to steer.

    “Saw it in the paper” is still, sadly, the authority for Joe swinger. If that nice chubby bloke in the lounge last night said Goff was crushed and crucified, it must be true. Nuff said, no need to feel the nail holes (actually Thomas Public can’t, in this case), let alone ask why.

    No easy answer, as others note. Your “Responding strategically” and “adopting strategies” to “deny” or “force” the media any which way are lovely-sounding fluffies, but strikingly short on specifics. If the best strategic plan in the world is locked in Tiger’s pal’s second drawer, does it make a sound?

    As for pushing reform once in power, reflect again on how the EFA was received – and by whom annihilated.

    Erosion of that false authority is the only hope for Sanity Politics – and already evident. New media and leaflets could finish it off. Synthetic PM Idol inanity where the best face for TV will win, in the meantime.

  14. QoT on November 6th, 2011 at 17:44

    You’re right, Lew, I should’ve followed the old “if it’s not about me, it’s not about me” maxim :P but that being said, I have probably said all of the above about the media at some point.

    Seems to have struck a nerve with Chris though …

  15. Lew on November 6th, 2011 at 19:45

    Chris,

    As I tell everyone who asks, I work for 360m as a media analyst. But this blog (and all my other writing in the public sphere) is personal. These opinions are my own and don’t represent the views of my employer.

    I’m not sure what conflicts of interest you’re driving at; generally speaking to avoid conflicts I simply don’t write publicly about our clients or their affairs.

    L

  16. Lew on November 6th, 2011 at 20:35

    Some good arguments here.

    AK, a couple of things — re the EFA; sure, it was brought down by a reasonably cynical partisan lobby formed for that express purpose, but let’s not forget that such ardent Tories as the Human Rights Commission also criticised the act, saying it went too far and had a chilling effect on political discourse.

    Also, your line about the second-drawer missive not making a sound is a nice one, but the remainder of TM’s story shows the way: “Nowadays he runs almost anything the lefties send in as trust has been built regarding accuracy and timelines.” That’s an example of sound strategy — building trust and relationships — rather than inchoate fury, and I bet you the issues that matter to those people get a better airing than they otherwise might.

    What George says is true — there are those among the activist communities who “get it” and find ways to fabricate the proverbial silk purse. And of course the rest don’t have to just sit idly by, but the point of my caricature is: if people really think it’s as bad as all that, you’d think they might do something about it, no?

    L

  17. MeToo on November 6th, 2011 at 21:22

    One of my great disappointments with the Clark administration was broadcasting policy. Whenever I raised it with party activists they’d reply that they had other more important things to attend to (like workers’ rights etc). They never got it – that without properly funded public broadcasting (which is NOT the same as local content), all the issues they held dear would be ignored or reported in a vacuous way.

    Now they are talking about it – but it is too late. There won’t be anything left of RNZ or TVNZ worth saving by the time they get back in.

  18. Jordan Carter on November 6th, 2011 at 22:57

    Interesting post Lew, and interesting comments stream. To MeToo @2122: I think our policy’s headed in the right direction, and I am not as down about RadioNZ’s resilience as you seem to be. With the rise of the Internet, and digital content technologies, making public broadcasting work is not as expensive as it was in analogue days. I’m confident we’ll get it right.

  19. Matthew Hooton on November 7th, 2011 at 06:39

    MeToo, do you realise what a sinister post yours is at 21.22 (and to a lesser extent Jordan Carter’s at 22.57)? You want to use taxpayers’ money (“properly funded public broadcasting” above the $34 million or whatever per year RNZ already gets) to ensure coverage of “all the issues [the left holds dear” in a way that you approve of, in order to help you win future elections.

  20. Lew on November 7th, 2011 at 08:00

    Matthew, I don’t think that’s a reasonable inference to draw. Their argument is that the quality of hard-issue coverage is higher in the public service media, and that higher-quality reporting of hard issues benefits the left.

    I don’t really agree with their analysis — my view is that media markets thrive on robust competition, and that strong public service broadcasters raise the competitive bar and enforce discipline on commercial participants. That tends to improve the quality of all media outlets — it doesn’t automatically provide advantage to either “side” but has a generally beneficial effect on the wider discourse. I don’t think ‘sinister’ is the word. What you’re suggesting is a variation on my “Dr Evil” argument above, which is a bit disappointing from someone of your stature.

    L

  21. Jackal on November 7th, 2011 at 11:16

    It’s interesting that the premise of the article is that conspiracies don’t exist based on the medias bias when in fact most people are politically biased in some way shape or form.

    That is the crux of the matter whereby good journalists are required to put their own belief system aside and report facts. Such reporting is often boring and does not compete well with the current style of politics and reporter bias.

    Lew argues that the media is a buffer between the intelligent politicians and the dumb public. This is a problem because he/she is placing the onus on the media to convey what politicians mean. Unfortunately they often end up telling the public what to think.

    It’s a requirement of politicians to be able to convey their message appropriately. It should be a requirement of the media not to misconstrue what is said. Those who cannot adhere to these simple rules will soon disappear into obscurity.

    Slater postulates about the echo chamber when he is perhaps its biggest proponent. Critical analysis from him is similar to Duncan Garners… it’s a circle jerk!

    The interesting thing here is that blogging is starting to become more relevant within the political debate… even the old guard is noticing.

  22. Lew on November 7th, 2011 at 12:51

    Jackal,

    Lew argues that the media is a buffer between the intelligent politicians and the dumb public.

    I absolutely do not. It’s not a matter of ‘dumb’ or ‘intelligent’ but different fields of expertise. Politicians need to know and care about policy and the business of government; most others do not (and are better off focusing their attentions elsewhere). In my experience it’s usually lefty activists who deride members of the public who lack a wonkish attention to policy detail; frequently referring to them as “sleepy Hobbits” and similar.

    It should be a requirement of the media not to misconstrue what is said. Those who cannot adhere to these simple rules will soon disappear into obscurity. […] Critical analysis from him is similar to Duncan Garners… it’s a circle jerk!

    One moment you agree that the system is self-regulating inasmuch as overt bias will be weeded out. The next you’re arguing the 3 News political editor is a craven Tory hack. Both these things can’t be true. (Personally I don’t accept either; both are more complicated than that.)

    L

  23. WH on November 7th, 2011 at 13:13

    Lew – I agree with your comment at 12.51. I’d expand and say left and right activists who deride the public, which is just a lazy way for both groups to say “My message is so awesome that if you don’t see my awesomeness then you can’t be awesome and if your not awesome then I don’t want to be BFF with you, so there!”

    People/Public have other interests that are equally valid and directly relevant to them compared to professional and amateur policy wonks. I defer to Robin Hansen http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/10/a-theory-of-status.html about what policy wonks are actually signalling when they make such statements.

  24. Hugh on November 7th, 2011 at 16:05

    “In my experience it’s usually lefty activists who deride members of the public who lack a wonkish attention to policy detail; frequently referring to them as “sleepy Hobbits” and similar.”

    In my experience they usually go for something a bit less cutesy.

  25. Jackal on November 7th, 2011 at 16:38

    Perhaps I read too much into this paragraph:

    Why should voters base their political decisions entirely on the pronouncements of various politicians on complex technical matters, the veracity of which they don’t have the expertise to assess?

    You’re either arguing for an intermediary between the public and politicians so that “complex technical matters” are understood, or you’re not. This infers a judgement on the intelligence of the public “to be too dumb to understand government”.

    In my experience it’s usually lefty activists who deride members of the public who lack a wonkish attention to policy detail; frequently referring to them as “sleepy Hobbits” and similar.

    Your statement refers to Bomber Bradbury’s sentiments. I do not believe he uses the “sleepy hobbits” as a judgement on the people but rather a “why the **** believe National” message to bring peoples attention to the problem.

    The current system is slightly self regulating in that politicians who cannot effectively communicate their ideas to the general public are weeded out through elections. However my statement concerning media hacks is in reference to a changing dynamic.

    I very much doubt that untruthful reporting will be acceptable in the future, despite many politicians relying on a biased media to hide their political failings.

    In essence I think it is time for a change… many thousands of Occupy protesters around the world appear to agree.

  26. sam on November 7th, 2011 at 17:48

    wow

    I guess I’m not allowed to call Matthew Hooton [nope, you’re not], but really, is the public good of public broadcasting no longer recognised in this country?

    Particularly when we are such a small country.

    Surely, Matt, it is much more sinister to politicise public broadcsting by appointing an former prime minister’s spin doc to run it,and having former cabinet ministers on the board?

  27. Lew on November 7th, 2011 at 19:32

    Jackal,

    You’re either arguing for an intermediary between the public and politicians so that “complex technical matters” are understood, or you’re not. This infers a judgement on the intelligence of the public “to be too dumb to understand government”.

    First: implies, not infers.

    But it emphatically does not imply any such thing. You have mistaken intelligence for expertise. I fancy myself a pretty smart guy, and there are a couple of fields in which I have some expertise, but I could no more tell you the different properties of a quasar and a pulsar than a randomly-selected astrophysicist could bore you to tears about the distinctions between thick and thin conceptions of democracy. Pretty basic stuff within the field, but specialist knowledge nonetheless.

    People who aren’t equipped to judge an expert’s policy pronouncements aren’t stupid; for the most part they just know about other stuff. Treating them like idiots, in the elegant way that WH has put it, is both unjustified and bad strategy.

    More to the point, I’d bet that most people who aren’t subject-matter experts but who claim to be able to judge the policy pronouncements of those who are do not in fact judge the policy as much as they judge its source.

    Sam; no, you’re not allowed to abuse other commenters, even in an indirect fashion. The more substantive part of your comment is fine, though.

    L

  28. Pascal's bookie on November 7th, 2011 at 20:24

    I think the expertise point is the important one, and well made. People can’t all be wonks.

    But that only gets us there for wonkish stuff. Other criteria for judging politicians; trustwothiness, quick wittedness, responding under pressure, and the like are important as well, and I don’t think anyone would really deny that.

    But I’m not sure that those are things that we need experts to tell us about. Many of the non-wonky things are gutfelt responses to seeing a politician talk about things we don’t understand.

    Having expert political analysts, or journalists, telling us their prediction of how we will respond to a debate performance, or an utterance or what have you, doesn’t seem to me to be adding much. And that’s what I seem to see a lot of.

    A lot of political reporting is not reporting of what politicians have said or done, but reporting of how those things will play out in the electorate, in the view of the experts. In other words, they are offering their expert opinion of the electorate, not the politicians.

    Their view may well be correct, I’m not denying them that, but I still question the value of it.

    It’d be hard to argue that that model of political reportage, (which I don’t think stems from political bias at all), doesn’t effect the outcomes. The experts are not above the fray. They are in it. They shape it.

    We don’t need experts to tell us if we feel that a politician comes across poorly. That’s something we are the experts in.

    We are not the experts though in remembering, for example, what the rate of unemployment was in 2005. So if a politician was to use that stat in a debate, forcefully, in what appeared to be a commanding way, then I think that it would be up to the experts and journalists to fact check that for us. That would give us actual information to make those non-wonky judgments with.

  29. Lew on November 7th, 2011 at 20:37

    Bookie, I think there’s a great deal of value in that, in a polity where most people have neither the time nor the inclination to immerse themselves in an election campaign. I don’t need to tell you, of all people, this but the fundamental job of the news media is to take all the stuff that happens in the world and pick out the bits that people are most likely to — or ought to — care about. People need the campaign filtered and summarised just like they need to have the other thousands of important events around the world each day filtered and summarised. A general discussion of how others will likely respond is important as well, because voting is coordinated group behaviour.

    I think people should be more engaged with the running of the country, just as I think they should care more about the plight of child soldiers in Central Africa and less about the bedamned Kardashians, but I try to separate my wishes from the analysis of why, and particularly from how we develop strategies to persuade people to care more about the “stuff that matters”.

    L

  30. l_f on November 7th, 2011 at 23:10

    In the US context,
    The end result are two distinct, yet different approaches to media analysis.

    Left media research Thesis = http://mediamatters.org/
    +
    Right media research Antithesis = http://www.mrc.org/

    = Synthesis (End of Left/Right Political Paradigm)

  31. Pascal's bookie on November 8th, 2011 at 05:24

    yep, that’s all fine. I just think that it’s out of whack. People with virtually no time are well catered for. People with oodles of time can find what they need, if they know where to look.

    But I do think there’s a gap in the middle there. Spoon feed people, and they won’t learn to use their goddamn fork, even if they’d like to.

    I also think that media criticism is a part of “how we develop strategies to persuade people to care more about the “stuff that matters”.

    Much of that criticism will be ill informed and simplistic. Like everything else. Which is why we have different degrees of specialisation, right?

  32. ak on November 8th, 2011 at 17:45

    e.g: Labour puts out a fairly damning list of NACT’s “achievements” and even sets it in a fairly a- propos-of-Letterman and (one might think) newsworthy format and

    nek minnit

    Current Granny headline:
    “Goff ‘in denial’ over economy – Key”

    and just below, speech balloon from Armstrong:
    “Labour is counting on most voters only picking up on headlines…”

    Good for a bitter wee larf at least i spose….

  33. Kiwipolitico » Blog Archive » Poll dancing on November 10th, 2011 at 20:51

    […] their tribe is staring down the barrel of a(nother) heavy defeat. It’s an attempt to make the evil media cabal responsible for poor performance, and to minimise the effect of weak leadership, institutional […]

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