Posts Tagged ‘media theory’

Know your enemy

datePosted on 19:46, December 4th, 2011 by Lew

The image above is “scientifically formulated to enhance [women's] perception of men who drink Molson [...] a perfectly tuned combination of words and images designed by trained professionals. Women who are exposed to it experience a very positive feeling. A feeling which they will later project directly onto [men who drink Molson].”

That’s not my analysis; it’s what the creatives who developed the ad said about it, in another ad. The first ad, the one you see above, ran in Cosmopolitan and was pitched at women. The ad from which the explanatory text was drawn ran in Playboy under the heading “Hundreds of thousands of women. Pre-programmed for your convenience.” The full analysis is here, on the Sociological Images blog.

The lesson is essentially that propaganda relies on market segmentation; messages crafted and pitched with accuracy and intent. If you read what you’re told to read, you’ll think what you’re told to think. Avoiding such a fate means embracing diversity of input, understanding your opponents’ arguments and their reasoning even if you disagree with it. To a large extent that means consuming their media. For a rounded perspective you’ll need, at least occasionally, to read sites like DailyKos and Free Republic, infuriating and interminable comment threads on The Standard and Kiwiblog, and SOLOpassion and Gates of Vienna and WSWS and the Wall Street Journal; listen to talkback, watch Fox News and pick up both Cosmo and Playboy from time to time, for the articles or whatever. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but the point is: read, listen, watch and discuss promiscuously. Argue with those folks you disagree with; drink beer with them from time to time. Take them seriously. Insist that they take you seriously, and give them reasons to do so.

It might hurt; in fact, it often will. But it beats being a dittohead.

L

Edit to add: Anita points out that the Sociological Images post created a bit of a stir. They write:

Apparently the company has been getting calls from consumers and reporters regarding the Molson Cosmo/Playboy ads we posted about yesterday. It turns out the ad campaign is quite old (2002/2003) and they would like to distance themselves from it now.

As you would. Not clear whether they now regret the decision to run such ads, or whether it’s a pro-forma blowback response.

The disappointment of Atlas Shrugged Part I

datePosted on 18:51, November 25th, 2011 by Lew

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged isn’t a work with universal appeal, but it interests me as a work of propaganda. It is a powerful text, and one that has had an enduring influence on Western politics. While my disdain for Objectivism and the sanity of most of its adherents is pretty well documented, I do, at least to an extent, get the appeal.

There are some things that were inevitably going to be bad about the recent movie adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, the first in a trilogy: the utopian pseudo-philosophy at its core; unlovable heroes and pantomime villains; the absurdity of a mysterious stranger going about making zillionaires offers they can’t refuse to leave it all behind, and so on. This is all the usual stuff of Atlas Shrugged criticism and while fair enough, it’s not really pertinent to criticism of the movie, because the movie couldn’t have been made authentically without it. (The question of whether it should have been made authentically at all is another one; I think it should.) So this review isn’t a critique of the novel, or Rand’s philosophy; it’s a critique of the film.

There’s a scene early on in the story where Paul Larkin, a business-courtier of sorts, counsels Hank Rearden about the importance of public opinion. The movie plays it pretty straight and is much shorter than the novel text, so the dialogue is transcribed here:

Larkin: You’re not very popular, Hank.
Rearden: I haven’t had any complaints from my customers.
Larkin: That’s not what I mean. You know what you should do? You ought to get yourself a good press agent, to sell you to the public.
Rearden: It’s my metal I’m selling, not me.
Larkin: But you don’t want the public against you. Public opinion can mean a lot.
Rearden: As far as I can tell it doesn’t mean a damned thing one way or another.
Larkin: The press is against you.
Rearden: They have time to waste. I don’t.

This theme — to hell with what the peasants think, only quality matters — it central to Rand’s work, and the filmmakers here have taken it entirely to heart. They have made a film that is almost incomprehensible to those who aren’t familiar with Rand’s text, presumably on the premise that anyone who matters will know the story already, or will be able to divine the work’s innate and self-evident quality for themselves.* The result is a simplistic, primary retelling of Atlas Shrugged: a film without cinematic appeal or narrative cohesion, and that doesn’t effectively convey Rand’s milieu, her ideas, or her ideology, and consequentially fails to live up to her vision.

The first and most immediately evident failure is that the film is talky to a fault. Before it was released I expressed concerns that a production team of Objectivist True Believers would lack the necessary courage to take the red pen to the hallowed text. This fear has been fully borne out. What works on the page — and what worked on the page in the 1950s — does not always work on-screen. The iron law of the moving picture is show me, don’t tell me, and it is not unfaithful to cut an author’s prose to suit the needs of a new medium. Yet it seems every cut, every edit (and of course there are many; it’s a long book) has been made reluctantly.

Seriously: as Hank and Dagny retire to their rooms after celebrating the John Galt Line’s maiden run, we don’t need Hank to confide in a stage-whisper to Dagny that he wants to kiss her, or for her to say “what’s stopping you?”. Earlier, after about 40 minutes of wondering when the hell the movie is going to start, we got a brief conversation about dessert, banana or chocolate? In other cases Rand’s phraseology intrudes: the introduction of John Galt — the first meaningful piece of dialogue in the film — comes almost verbatim from the novel: he introduces himself as “someone who knows what it’s like to work for himself, and not let others feed off the profits of his energy”. Come again? Rand’s hackneyed ideological tropes (“Anti Dog Eat Dog Act” &c) are retained without the benefit of the novel’s context, in which they make sense. The screenplay manages to fail both the tasks of good exposition: convey a vivid sense of milieu, and do so efficiently and with congruence. While you could argue it sets the scene, it’s still not entirely clear what that scene is, or why so many words were needed to set it.

Casting and direction is poor, as is to be expected from a first-time director possessed of sufficient (and archetypically-Randian) hubris to cast himself as John Galt. There is an utter dearth of chemistry between the characters; the actors do a mostly serviceable job, but they are given precious little to work with. Rand’s heroes are notable for their severity, but also for their passion, and while the emotional top-note of severity is overplayed, the undertone of passion for the most part just fails to cut through. There are, in this film based on a very emotionally-intense novel, about four moments of genuine emotional intensity. The first is about half-way through, when Ellis Wyatt shouts at Dagny in her office. It is a jarring moment, and not in a good way — the first moment in the film where anyone on-scene is speaking above a low conversational tone, and is totally off-register. It comes out of nowhere — in the novel, again, it was cushioned by exposition — and confuses the relationships between the characters. This is a particular problem in a film where it is already unclear who are supposed to be the “good guys” and who the “bad” (again, a lack of effective exposition).

At other times, despite remaining slavishly faithful to Rand’s dialogue, the film alters the register of a scene so utterly that it is unrecognisable. The sex scene between Hank and Dagny is one of the central events of the first part of the novel: two kindred spirits, having previously thought themselves alone in the world, consummating their relationship with violent intensity. Her “highest achievement”, Dagny calls it, in the novel; in the film we are treated to a slow-motion desaturated montage of soft fades, arched backs and half-open mouths. Its only redeeming feature is its brevity. I mentioned that there were about four moments of genuinely intense emotion in the film: this was not one of them. Going to such lengths to retain Rand’s words while neglecting to retain the tone and sense of her narrative is penny-wise and pound-foolish, as far as authenticity goes.

Deeper than the failure of narrative, though, is the film’s failure to deliver its ideological payload. The expression of Rand’s ideology is garbled, the narrative itself is poorly explicated. Nor is it carried by structure, or image or performance, or anything, really. Signature scenes that conveyed this material vividly and at tiresome length in the novel are all but absent — such as the encounter with Hugh Akston, which becomes a trivial footnote in a weird road-trip montage — while other aspects, such as Rearden’s sell-down and the implementation of various acts and regulations, are bogged down in irrelevant technical detail. We learn a lot about the structure of the steel and railroad industries in Rand’s America, but very little about why these things matter to the story.

So although the filmmakers have remained quite true to the text this is not a film that is true to Rand’s vision. It’s barely a film — it’s more like an illustrated audiobook, badly abridged. Rand was a screenwriter whose work was produced on Broadway; someone who understood drama, who wanted Clint Eastwood and Farrah Fawcett to play the leads in the movie of Atlas Shrugged. She worked to have it produced twice, as a film, and then as an eight-hour miniseries; both failed. At the time of her death she was (re)writing the screenplay herself. She had great ambitions for the movie. As an ideologue and a propagandist she knew and understood deeply the power of words and images, of ideas and argumentation, to move people, and for all their faults her novels — or this one, at least — did that.

Film’s use as a propaganda medium was by no means alien to her. Early Soviet Russia had the best-developed ideological film tradition of its time, and Rand was also said to have caught what Lev Kuleshov referred to as “Americanitis”, infatuation with America, from watching the Hollywood films that so eloquently portrayed the bourgeois individualism of American life. The films of the Soviet tradition in which she grew up, no less than those of the classical Hollywood system in which Rand later worked, were profoundly cinematic works, used quite purposively to convey ideological material in every cut, every frame, every note. It was not a tradition of simplistic, literal narrative adaptations, but works of political art in their own right.

Like the exponents of Soviet montage, Rand tirelessly inferred ideological symbolism into arbitrary works of art. She was not afraid to challenge readers, to shock or outrage them. For all it may be nominally faithful to the text, this film fails to use the aesthetic tools of the medium to convey its message. It fails to challenge, or shock, or outrage. It fails to do anything, really. This movie of a novel about the primacy of action over inaction, preoccupied with the most immense mechanical and ideological forces, literally about the engines that drive humanity, is shamefully static.

The film’s dearth of cinematic character means that not only has it failed to make money (an Objectivist KPI), but it also fails to fulfil the purpose of an ideological text: to engage, to inspire, to move people. Other than those for whom the text is sacred, who overlook the faults of the adaptation out of fawning affection for the source material, nobody is watching Atlas Shrugged: Part I; there were no queues, there is no buzz. At a time of deep and divisive public debate about the nature of the relationships between business and government, between the state and the individual, at a time when Rand’s latter-day apostles are so fond of declaring that her work has never been more relevant, and that her ideas are enjoying a renaissance, there isn’t even any outrage about this film. In this regard it is no better than the preachy Bible films, full of hollow, lazy sentimentality, that get replayed to captive audiences of bored children every Easter and Christmas. The Gospel According to St Matthew this ain’t.

For all I disagree with her philosophy, Rand’s novel deserved better. As noted, her work is packed with references to the expression of ideology and exaltation in the everyday — in the structure of a building, a person’s voice or bearing; or most notoriously, in their approach to sex. This film is no such expression of any innate excellence. Echoing the conversation between Hank Rearden and Paul Larkin, a motif of Atlas Shrugged is frequent reference to the composer Richard Halley, one of the “strikers”, whose work is described as so profound that it is misunderstood and mocked by the ordinary workaday folks, the leeches and moochers and second-handers, and by the time they come around to appreciating it Halley has decided they are not worthy.** Objectivists certainly consider Halley’s work as being analogous to Rand’s, and I get the sense that the principals of Atlas Shrugged: Part I fancy themselves as having created such a work — one that can only be properly appreciated by those of a nobler character. That they, as Galtian Übermenschen, would succeed where everyone else had failed by sheer force of will, and in spite of the doubts and limitations placed upon them by the second-handers. Their conceit could hardly be greater.

Perhaps those of us who are not Objectivists should be grateful; Atlas Shrugged made to Eisenstein, DeMille, Capra or Pasolini’s standards would be a mighty work of propaganda indeed.

L

* Fitting irony: this review also assumes readers are familiar with the story.
** This is a serious business within Objectivism: the arguments as to whether Halley’s fictional music is best represented by Rachmaninov or Mussorgsky are quite something.

Stop/Go

datePosted on 20:13, November 9th, 2011 by Lew

National’s initial Stop/Go TV ad is a pretty good one. Clean, to the point, not bogged down in detail but jampacked with symbolism:

Toby Manhire, writing on The Listener‘s excellent new website, has already done the analysis so I’ll quote him:

Red STOP Labour sign-guy looks a bit tense, uncomfortable, slouchily off-centre. His fist is closed, zip sloppily undone, and look at the state of those shoes.

He looks like he might just call in sick tomorrow because he feels like it, even though the country’s economy will suffer, while he just lies around, stuffing his face all day.

Green-blue GO National sign-guy looks comfortable but focused. Shoes are good. Sensible. He’s a little unshaven, but that’s because he’s a bit like the All Blacks, don’t you think? Like John Key is a bit like the All Blacks.

Check out the clouds, too. Fluffy, familiar things above Green-blue GO sign-guy; grey, foreboding, riskier bastards above that Red STOP man.

It can be no coincidence, what’s more, that the shadow GO Blue Green GO sign GO the All Blacks sign guy casts a shadow pointing where? The centre, people, the centre of the road.

But hang on a moment. The symbolism of a lazy Labourite and a clean-cut Tory is laid on a bit thick — and the scruffy old Labour guy looks just a tiny bit “ethnic”, if you know what I mean. Moreover the whole Stop/Go metaphor is a bit trite — trite enough that it was the basis for a satirical diary piece by David Slack in December last year:

And If you think about how traffic control actually works, the metaphor has coherence problems. Last night, Anna Hodge tweeted the following observation, which in hindsight seems so obvious:

Also, does National understand road works? Or fairness? You need sign-holding dudes with both GO *and* STOP to keep traffic flowing.

Um, quite. For some to go, others must stop (at least until we get reef-fish-inspired traffic management systems.)

Anna’s tweet generated a bunch of responses as the narrative of the ad began to unravel. Mine was that if you’re at the front of the queue, only the GO sign matters; others were about the size of your SUV, the increase in inequality between north- and south-bound traffic flows, and the fact that Stop and Go signs are the same sign, just viewed from different angles.

Aaron Hicks remarked that the STOP sign at road works means that there’s actually work going on, a point you’d have thought might be clear to a government undertaking such an aggressive roading policy. And did the green of the go sign hint at a National alliance with the Greens? But they’ve spent the last decade and a half telling us that the Greens’ green means stop so green is basically red, and now their own green (not even a Blue-green!) means go?

The more you think about it, the more tangled and incoherent the narrative gets. And yet for all its flaws the ad works. It relies on people not thinking too hard about it — upon audiences swallowing whole the top-level symbolic material Toby described, making what Stuart Hall called a hegemonic reading of the text. In Hall’s model the second audience position is a ‘negotiated’ reading — such as Toby’s analysis itself, which recognises the hegemonic aspects of the discourse but doesn’t necessarily accept them, and the third position is ‘contrary’; consciously reading against the text’s hegemonic meaning — what Anna did, as did those of us who responded to her observation.

A lesson from this is that reading a tightly-encoded text counter-hegemonically is hard work. Audiences are not sponges or “sheeple”; they will often take a negotiated position, but in general such a position doesn’t prevent the text from having some impact. This illustrates a point of strategy that my regular readers must be bored tears with by now: you can’t rebut a text like this head-on with wonkish facts and figures. Dry details about Labour’s record and plans on economic progress wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the effectiveness of this particular ad, for two reasons: first because the hegemonic material doesn’t lodge in the head, it lodges in the guts (it’s truthiness, not truth); and second because such a rebuttal implicitly accepts the framing of the original text, and that framing is half the payload. But subverting the paradigm, man, that’s where the action is.

I’m not suggesting a comprehensive strategy to counter the National party campaign could be composed around a response to one 15-second ad, but if a counter-strategy was to be composed, that’s how you’d do it. Don’t berate people for accepting the hegemonic position, or for negotiating: find ways to make them see it in a different light.

L

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

Dollar dollar bill y’all

datePosted on 22:56, July 11th, 2011 by Lew

Tonight’s Native Affairs debate between Pita Sharples and Don Brash is now up on their website, and it is must-watch television for a few reasons. The first and most immediately evident is Julian Wilcox’s quality as an interviewer and moderator — this was not a structured debate, with time allotted and mechanical switches between speakers, nor preset, pre-scripted questions. It was a free-flowing affair, with Wilcox acting as both interviewer and moderator; and throughout the two speakers were respectful, genuine, and both had ample opportunity to get their points across. It was superbly done. (Hone Harawira, in a later discussion, twice jokingly invited Wilcox to stand for Te Mana, but for mine he’s too valuable in the media.)

Another reason it was remarkable was because of Don Brash’s bizarre, out-of-touch equation of sentimental or cultural attachment to natural features — maunga, awa, moana and so on — with “animism”. It’s a perverse position to take, given the deep connection New Zealanders — both Māori and Pākehā — have to their landscape, about which I’ve written before. Imagine, if you will, a series of billboards featuring Aoraki Mt Cook, the Waitemata Harbour or Rangitoto, the Waikato or the Whanganui, Wakatipu, Taupo, or my own ‘home’ mountain of Taranaki — with the legend “Brash thinks this is just a lot of water”, or “Brash thinks this is just a rock”. If ACT were politically relevant, it might be worth doing.

Cash Rules Everything Around Me
C.R.E.A.M, get the money
Dollar dollar bill y’all
– Wu-Tang Clan

Like the gangstas of Staten Island legend, this sense that only what’s literal and material matters, that when push comes to shove, money trumps everything is integral to the faux-rational actor model to which ACT subscribes, and this leads into the major thing which made this interview important:

(Image snapped by Michael John Oliver, via twitter, thanks!)

And a brief transcript:

Brash: “Pita, I put …”
Sharples: “No, you didn’t.”
Brash: …”Apirana ta…Ngata on …”
Sharples: “The country put that on. Let’s be clear about that.”
Brash: “I made the decision. I made the decision, as governor. And I put him on that because I think he’s one of the greatest ever New Zealanders.”

Don Brash, the archetypal white rich guy, brought along a fifty dollar note — a note that many poor Māori voters rarely even see — to a debate that was substantively about the reasons why Māori are politically, socially, and economically deprived.

To appeal to Sir Apirana Ngata in a newspaper advertisement — as Brash did this weekend — is merely crass. To bring that actual visage in as a prop in an argument to dismantle the Aotearoa that Ngata and others had worked to build — that, as Sharples said, Ngata was criticised for being a “radical” by rich white guys like Don Brash — and seeking to imprint his divisive and offensive policies with Ngata’s mana is offensive to the man’s memory. To seek to take personal credit for Ngata’s mana being properly recognised — “I made the decision” — is obscene. To play a statesman’s memory like a chip on a weak hand at the last-chance saloon is no sort of respect. It is the ultimate “I’m not racist” gambit — “look, some of my best banknotes have Maaris on”. I wonder if he would treat the memory of Sir Edmund Hillary or Kate Sheppard in this way. Distancing himself from John Ansell’s misogyny by saying “hey, I put a broad on the $10″ would be a thing to see. He had a decent crack at “I’m not racist, my wife’s from Singapore” back in the day.

Don Brash, during his brief run in politics, accumulated a series of bad images — “poor optics” as the lingo goes. Walking the plank, struggling to climb into the racing car, scooping mud out of his mouth at Waitangi, and so on. This image — of Brash big-noting to Māoridom, if you’ll excuse the phrase; showing them who’s got the Benjamins, or the Apis — should be one of the enduring memories of the campaign. Brash probably thinks it’s a smart symbolic play, but it calls to mind a bunch of things he doesn’t want to call to peoples’ minds — his own wealth, the extent to which he’s economically out of touch with those he claims to want to represent, and perhaps most of all an almost unspeakably flawed sense of political and historical reverence, which places him out of touch at a deeper level; a level of shared sentiment and aspiration, of common culture and values.

In television, the rule is: don’t tell, show. No matter how often he tells Aotearoa that he shares our views and aspirations, we won’t believe it unless he shows us. Since storming the lofty heights of the ACT party Brash is busily telling us that what we stand for what he stands for, despite 98.3% of the evidence contradicting that assertion. And now he’s showing us exactly the same.

L

Capital punishment

datePosted on 09:23, July 6th, 2011 by Lew

Do yourselves a favour and listen to this morning’s debate between Chris Trotter and Deborah Coddington on Morning Report. This is (or ought to be) the agenda for this year’s election, and this is (or ought to be) how the national debate runs.

The leak of Labour’s purported capital gains tax (by former One News deputy political editor Fran Mold, now Labour press secretary, to her former colleague Guyon Espiner) is undoubtedly Labour’s play of the year to date. It takes an issue of great public interest and thrusts it into the national debate at a time when the electorate is preoccupied with less directly political considerations. As Maxwell McCombs famously said, what the voters think isn’t as relevant as what they think about, and this is a great example of taking the initiative and giving the electorate something to think about.

But not just the electorate. Everyone is thinking about this, because it is — finally — a genuine flagship policy from Labour. John Key’s comments on the topic take up two-thirds of the Vernon Small’s Stuff article yesterday. The property investment lobby are predictably livid about it. David Farrar has come out swinging, despite having been cautiously supportive of considering a CGT earlier in the term. Deborah Coddington, in the linked discussion above, saw fit to analogise CGT to child prostitution laws. Seriously.

The announcement has riled ‘em, and it’s not even official yet. They’re scaremongering furiously, and if Labour have an ounce of sense the pitch of the official policy announcement (tomorrow next Thursday) will be to allay the worst of these fears. It should be framed as “redirecting investment to more productive sectors in theeconomy” and “paying our fair share”, with Phil Goff and Labour MPs (many of whom own investment properties) laying down a challenge to others: “we’re prepared to suffer a bit for the good of the rest of the country: are you?”

And then there’s the class-consciousness, demographic wedge, which Chris Trotter got pitch-perfect: property speculators are “landlords”, and the object isn’t to win back disgruntled National voters, but to engage the 20%+ of the electorate who didn’t vote last time because they felt none of the parties spoke for them, and the thousands of people who were too young to cast a vote in 2008 and are now even further from the possibility of home ownership because even the worst recession in half a century has failed to bring sanity to real estate markets.

This is positive-sum, strategically sound and tactically smart politics. Now what remains to be seen is whether Labour can win the battle of ideas over it.

L

Today has been a remarkable day. Rarely do we see such an epic failure of communication as we have seen from Alasdair Thompson. Because these events have played out mostly in public, they also present an unusually transparent example.

What follows is ten specific strategic communication lessons which are clearly evident from these events. My analysis isn’t political — I have political and ideological views on this matter, and I intend to write these up after some reflection, but the purpose here is to look at things dispassionately and pragmatically and consider what was done wrong, and what might have been done differently. They are framed quite generically and can be pretty widely applied. This is a long post, so I’ve hidden most of it below the fold.

Everything here is presented on an “in my opinion, for what it’s worth” basis, and should under no circumstances be interpreted as reflecting the views of my employer, or anyone other than me personally.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off the hook

datePosted on 19:29, March 27th, 2011 by Lew

On Red Alert, Clare Curran has a hapless pro-forma whinge about the standard of media coverage in New Zealand vis-a-vis in the UK, where a quarter million people are presently engaging in running battles with police; compared with here, where the media are obsessed with Darren Hughes.

Excuse me if I sound like a broken record, but the fundamental issue here isn’t exactly uncharted territory, and the fact that Clare has a lower opinion of the media than I do should make it easier to accept my advice, which is this: If you want the media to talk about something, Clare, give them a reason to talk about it. Make a stink, cause a scene, do something which makes not talking about it impossible. As a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin says: write a book, or do something worth writing a book about.

If you don’t give the media a compelling reason to care, don’t be surprised if they don’t. If you don’t provide them with something powerful to cover, they’ll go with scandal and innuendo every time. In the fable of the scorpion and the frog, the scorpion stings the frog. Why? To do so is in its nature. Frogs, while unable to prevent scorpions from stinging, would at least be wise to deny them the opportunity.

With that in mind, some of the following in this case might also have helped:

  • Have frontbench MPs not do stupid stuff which appeals to the public (not the media) sense of scandalous voyeurism;
  • Have your party leader do more than the absolute minimum possible in response to said scandal;
  • In doing more than the absolute minimum, have the party leader respond in just one move rather than in several successive ineffectual steps which maximise the coverage across several news cycles, including a weekend leading into a Parliamentary recess when political news is going to be thin on the ground anyway;
  • Ensure the party president is sufficiently apprised of said scandal that he finds out about it by some means other than reading the papers;
  • Even in the incredibly unlikely event that you can’t do the preceding, at least have your party leader and president sit down together for long enough to agree on a unified position, so as not to give credence to rumours of a leadership challenge.

It’s not that Labour didn’t give the media something to cover, so the media covered the Darren Hughes scandal by default: it’s that Labour gave the media the Darren Hughes scandal to cover, covered in juicy scandal juice, and then didn’t give them anything more compelling to cover instead. (As if there is something more compelling than a sexual investigation into a male frontbench MP’s alleged dalliance with a teenaged male youth MP in the house of the deputy leader after a Parliamentary function, which was covered up for two weeks by the party leader.)

Let me be crystal clear: the issue here is not about right and wrong, or about justice. Perhaps it should be, but electoral politics is not about what should be; it’s about what is. If you choose to privilege ‘justice’ over ‘politics’, as Phil Goff claimed on Q+A this morning, there’s a political cost to doing so; a political cost which, while it might be regrettable, isn’t something to whinge about. After all: if you made the choice you’re presumably better off than if you’d chosen differently. To behave as if it were otherwise, and to blame the media for their role in exacting that price is to blame the scorpion for having a sting in its tail.

Anyone to whom this dynamic isn’t clear has no business running strategy for a Sunday book club, much less a political party which aspires to government. As long as Labour continue to fail at this, one of the most basic tasks of politics, the phone will remain off the hook.

L

Put it out of its misery

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2011 by Lew

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.

L

What the media is for

datePosted on 13:03, February 28th, 2011 by Lew

There has been a lot of coverage about the coverage of the second Canterbury earthquake, and this is another post on that general topic. However rather than deal with the specifics — already superbly examined by Mediawatch (45 minute audio) and others — this is a comment on the purpose and functions of media in a society such as ours. It should be read in light of my previous post on the topic.

A commenter on Tim’s piece at Pundit makes the following objections about the media coverage of the most recent Canterbury earthquake:

I always thought the media collected news, let those involved explain the significance and do their best to give complete and balanced coverage.
It is not the media’s job to carry on carrying on “to show support.”
Media should be getting out the information to those affected and to the general public. Not manipulate us with their constructs of “courage” and “tenacity” but provide the important facts.

It is common, but this is just the sort of idealised notion of the media’s role which I referred to earlier in that comment thread when I said:

So the trend I’ve observed, here and in other discussions on the topic, is that a few of those who don’t really understand the media or its social role, or who have idealised notions of that role, or who are amateur ‘MSM’ critics with an ideological beef, just hate it all the more for doing more of what it does. On the other hand, those who work in or with the media, or have a broad understanding of its wider functions down here in the real world pretty much agree — with a few notable exceptions, like Steven Price — that there’s some sort of social purpose being served by all this additional coverage, even if it’s imperfect; and at least have some respect — if not awe — for the magnitude of the undertaking.
Haters gonna hate, I suppose.

The media’s job is not “just the facts, ma’am”. The media’s job is right there in the name: to mediate events for a society which, by and large, will never experience them firsthand but which nevertheless relies on a strong baseline of common experience. Most New Zealanders’ main exposure to the Canterbury earthquakes will be via the media. So their job is not simply to report the facts of a situation, but its essential truth, or — as usually happens — the various truths. It is incumbent upon the media to present more than a dessicated, dispassionate view of the Canterbury quake, for it is not a dessicated, dispassionate situation for those involved. As a matter of fairness to Cantabrians, if the events they cover speak to narratives of courage and tenacity, or loss or anguish or triumph or solidarity or whatever, then the media has a responsibility to convey those narratives more or less faithfully. And as a matter of national cohesion they need to convey a sense of the magnitude and intensity of it all to the rest of the nation. This is the rough-cut of history, after all, and history is neither dessicated nor dispassionate. So that’s a very open-ended task; incorporating also the functions Bruce mentions. These are non-exclusive.

There are other roles, also. Not least among the media’s other functions down here in the real world is to attract and hold audiences (without which they cannot survive), and to strengthen their newsmaking reputations (without which they cannot retain any credibility). In the case of disaster coverage, the former is almost totally subservient to the latter, since the cost of producing wall-to-wall coverage in trying conditions far outweighs the advertising return from doing so — especially since much of the resulting coverage has been shorn of commercials or aired in place of other, much more lucrative programming. But this is a rare example of a genuine crisis, an opportunity for the news media to put their worst-case-scenario plans into action These are (some of) the self-interested aspects of media conduct, and many of the media’s critics like to pretend (or wish) these imperatives don’t (or didn’t) exist; that the job of the media is simply to be altruistic without consideration of the cost, and without an eye to the benefits they might draw from their coverage. But all major media outlets in this country operate along essentially commercial lines (even those which are not commercially funded, such as Radio NZ, are benchmarked on ratings in ways similar to how commercial media are), so these imperatives apply almost as much to the ‘public service’ broadcasters as to those owned by foreign venture capital firms whose sole interest is shareholder returns.

I mention this because, right or wrong, it is a crucial link in the chain: without some sort of return accruing to media outlets (whether directly financial, or in terms of strengthening their brand, or the profile of their top people, or whatever) they won’t — can’t — dedicate resources to covering an event. As long as media outlets’ performance generally rests on attracting and retaining eyeballs and earholes, media outlets will engage in the sorts of behaviours which tend to maximise their attractiveness to those eyeballs and earholes. (I’d argue that even in the case of public service broadcasters like Radio NZ, this isn’t a bad state of affairs, since a medium not accountable to an audience basically enjoys impunity, and impunity is bad wherever it exists.)

Among the most crucial roles is the ‘fourth estate’ function of holding power to account. Without more than half of the country’s best journalists in Christchurch this past week, this most crucial democratic function would be severely atrophied. While the crisis response capacities of the media are stretched, those of wider civil society are far more so. It is crucial that the quality of the social response, and especially the elite response of the government, civil defence, police, emergency services and the military is adequately scrutinised. Wall-to-wall coverage makes it worthwhile for Mediaworks and Fairfax and TVNZ and APN and RNZ and TRN to give those journalists a reason to be there. Without that strong presence, those whose job it is to coordinate the response and recovery — during a state of national emergency, which gives them the legal authority to do very nearly anything they like, as long as it can be argued to serve the response — would be working with considerably less scrutiny than they are. Impunity, in other words. And that’s no good for anyone. There have been few, or perhaps even no ‘gotchas’ revealed so far. Absent strong media scrutiny this would give rise to suspicions that failures were being hidden. Because the scrutiny has been there — including the constant and often distasteful badgering for an updated death toll — it rather suggests a competent and transparently-run response. That’s something which is good for everyone.

L

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