Peddling drivel.

As an admirer of the eloquent written word and nuanced argument, occasional op-ed writer and someone who grew up reading the editorial pages of major newspapers in several countries, I have long seen the editorial pages of newspapers as places where public intellectuals debated in some depth the major issues of the day. Those who appeared on them came from many walks of life and fields of endeavour, with the common denominator being that they were thoughtful exponents of their point of view and grounded in the analytic, philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the subjects that they discussed. Unfortunately, at least in NZ, that is no longer the case (if it ever was).

Over the last decade or so there has been a pernicious two-track trend in NZ media that has not only resulted in the dumbing down of the “news” and public discourse in general, but the substitution of informed and considered debate by shallow opinionating by celebrities and charlatans.

The first trend is the move toward consolidation of media “empires” (in NZ, mostly Australian owned), in which previously autonomous entities in television, radio and print are amalgamated into one parent entity with several platforms. As with all media enterprises, the parent entity seeks profit mainly through advertising (as opposed to subscriptions), including digital advertising promoted by so-called “click bait” and sponsored “news ” (i.e. stories paid by entities seeking brand publicity). In NZ the two big players are Mediaworks and NZME. The former controls TV3, Radiolive and various pop culture radio stations. NZME controls Newstalk ZB, the NZ Herald and various pop culture outlets. It has connections to TV One (at least when it comes to newsreaders), while the Mediaworks TV News platforms appears to episodically share personnel with Prime News. Fairfax Media is also in the mix, holding a portfolio of print and digital vehicles.

Because the NZ media market is small and saturated, the “race to the bottom” logic for getting readers/viewers/listeners in a shrinking print advertising market is akin to the “bums in seats” mentality that pushes academic administrators to demand easing up of marking standards in university courses. Although in the latter instance this creates a syndrome where unqualified people are admitted, passed and receive underserved (and hence meaningless) degrees, in the media realm this means that scandal, gossip, “human interest” and other types of salacious, morbid, tragic and otherwise crude and vulgar material (think of terrorism porn and other prurient non-news) have come to dominate the so-called news cycle. This is accelerated by the presence elf social media and 24 hours global news networks, which makes the push for original content that attracts audiences and therefore advertising revenues increasingly focused on sensational headline grabbing rather than in-depth consideration of complex themes. Among other things, this has led to headlines that trivialise serious matters in favour of witty one-liners, e.g., “kiddie fiddler put in time out.”

In the editorial opinion field what we are increasingly subject to is the often inane and mendacious ruminations of celebrities, “lifestyle’ gurus  or media conglomerate “properties” who are used to cross-pollinate across platforms using their status on one to heighten interest in another. That squeezes out op-ed room for serious people discussing subjects within their fields of expertise. What results is that what should be the most august pages in a newspaper are given over to gossipy nonsense and superficial “analyses” of current events.

Consider what we get these days: two NZME “properties,” a married couple who do back-to-back morning shows on NewstalkZB (and previously worked at TV One), are now filling daily column inches (at least in the digital version) at the Herald with their thoughts on things such as high housing prices  and deporting families (he thinks the former is good because it means that everyone is doing well and the latter is good because to do otherwise is to “send the wrong message”) or relations between school students and displaying breasts in public (she thinks the former are good but the latter bring consequences). Given their ubiquity this “power” couple apparently are renaissance-like in their command of subjects and thus worth the daily attention of the masses, although it is also clear that their views only cover already established news stories and are presented along strictly gender lines–he addresses “serious” issues while she covers topics usually found in women’s rags. The Herald also offers us the received (and sponsored) wisdom of lifestyle bloggers  (“how to have the best sex at 60!”) and buffoons such as the U Auckland business lecturer who poses as a counter-terrorism expert (she of the advice that we search every one’s bags as the enter NZ shopping malls and put concrete bollards in front of mall entrances), gives cutesy pie names to the (often sponsored) by-lines of real scientists (the so-called “Nanogirl,” who now comments on subjects unrelated to her fields of expertise) or allows people with zero practical experience in any given field to pontificate on them as if they did (like the law professor who has transformed himself into a media counter-terrorism and foreign policy “expert”).

Fairfax is less prolific in its use of “properties” to sell product, but instead have opted to fill newspaper space with lifestyle and other “fluff” content at the expense of hard news coverage and informed editorial opinion.

The pattern of giving TV newsreaders, radio talking heads and assorted media “personalities”  column inches on the newspaper op ed pages has been around for a while but now appears to be the dominant form of commentary. Let us be clear: the media conglomerates want us to believe that the likes of Hoskings and Hawkesby are public intellectuals rather than opinionated mynahs–or does anyone still believe that there is an original thought between them? The only other plausible explanation is that the daily belching of these two and other similar personages across media platforms is an elaborate piss-take on the part of media overlords that have utter contempt for the public’s intelligence.

The trend of consolidating and regurgitating extends to the news. Most of the international news stories on NZ newspapers, TV and radio are obtained from overseas sources, particularly media outlets owned by the Australian based investment funds that control Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks. There are few international correspondents left in the NZ media scene other than “properties” who share views on multimedia platforms such as the single “news” correspondents assigned by NZME to the US, UK and Australia. Some independent NZ-based foreign news correspondents still appear in print, but there too they are the exception to the rule.

The evening TV news and weekend public affairs shows are still run as journalistic enterprises, but the morning and evening public affairs programs are no longer close to being so. “Human interest” (read: tabloid trash) stories predominate over serious subjects. The Mediaworks platforms are particularly egregious, with the morning program looking like it was pulled out of a Miami Vice discard yard and staffed by two long-time newsreaders joined by a misogynistic barking fool, all wearing pancake makeup that borders on clownish in effect. Its rival on state television has grown softer over the years, to the point that in its latest incarnation it has given up on having its female lead come from a journalistic background and has her male counterparts engaging as much in banter as they are discussing the news of the day. The TV3 evening show features a pretty weathergirl and a slow-witted, unfunny comedian as part of their front-line ensemble, with a rotating cast of B-list celebrities, politicians and attention-seekers engaging in yuk yuk fests interspersed with episodic discussion of real news. Its competitor on TV One has been re-jigged but in recent years has been the domain of–you guessed it–that NZME male radio personality and an amicable NZME female counterpart, something that continues with its new lineup where a male rock radio jock/media prankster has joined a well-known TV mother figure to discuss whatever was in the headlines the previous morning. What is noteworthy is that these shows showcase the editorial opinions of the “properties” on display, leaving little room for and no right of rebuttal to those who have actual knowledge of the subjects in question.

These media “properties” are paid by the parent companies no matter what they do. Non-affiliated people who submit op ed pieces to newspapers are regularly told that there is no pay for their publication (or are made to jump through hoops to secure payment).  That means that the opinion pages  are dominated by salaried media personalities or people who will share their opinions for free. This was not always the case, with payments for opinion pieces being a global industry norm. But in the current media environment “brand” exposure is said to suffice as reward for getting published, something that pushes attention-seekers to the fore while sidelining thoughtful minds interested in contributing to public debate but uninterested in doing so for nothing. The same applies to television and radio–if one is not a “property,” it is virtually impossible to convince stations to pay for informed commentary.

To be sure, the occasional “deep thinker” comes along to share their ideas and opinions in print or audio-visually. Some, like good ole Chris Trotter, still pound their keyboards and pontificate on radio and television for a handful of coin. There is even some young talent coming through. Blogs have begun to substitute the corporate media as sources of intelligent conversation. But people of erudition and depth are increasingly the exception to the rule in the mass media, with the  editorial landscape now populated in its majority by “properties” and other (often self-promoting) personality “opinionators” rather than people who truly know what they are talking about. Rather than a sounding board for an eclectic lineup of informed opinion, editorial pages are now increasingly used as megaphones to broadcast predictably well-known ideological positions with little intellectual grounding in the subjects being discussed.

With over-enrolled journalism schools churning out dozens of graduates yearly, that leaves little entry room and few career options for serious reporters. The rush is on to be telegenic and glib, so the trend looks set to continue.

This is not just an indictment of the mass media and those who run and profit from it. It undermines the ability of an educated population to make informed decisions on matters of public import, or at least have informed input into the critical issues of the day.

Perhaps that is exactly what the media and political elites intend.

15 thoughts on “Peddling drivel.

  1. News is now the non-fiction section of the entertainment industry, where “non-fiction” is anything that doesn’t appear to be immediately and obviously false to the editor that publishes it.

  2. Very nicely put, Pablo. The standards of what is called “news” in NZ are so low I can’t be bothered with it.

    Personally, I had an extended OE from 2003 to 2011, and every time I came back to visit I was stunned and disappointed by how much shallower the media was getting.

    Since we moved back to NZ I hardly consume any NZ news, only specialist blogs and overseas news. It’s sad, but what can we do about it?

    BTW I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on the influence and potential of specialist blogs such as Greater Auckland. Do you think there is any hope for them to contribute significantly to society, or is some sort of improvement in the mass media essential to the health of discourse in NZ?

    Could RNZ perhaps set some sort of an example for the rest of them…? Keen to hear your opinion. Thanks!

  3. I sometimes wonder whether I might be missing something as a result of following the New Zealand main stream media less than assiduously. Thanks Pablo, you have put my mind to rest on that score. At the same time, for anyone who has great hopes for the future of “New Zealand democracy” (what I prefer to call the colonial regime) the “Peddling Drivel” article should provoke some serious concern.

  4. GM:

    Indeed, RNZ is the last bastion of “hard” news reporting, and its web site is particularly good at covering things that do not see the light of day elsewhere (e.g. reporting on the Pacific). I completely support the idea that TVNZ spin off a dedicated 24/7 news/current affairs channel with real journalists covering serious stories, particularly “long form” investigative reporting.

    Mind you, there are shows on RadioLive where serious topics are discussed. Mitch Harris, although overshadowed by various Mediaworks properties, delivers good value on his shows.

    Another bit of good news is that specialist blogs are increasingly used as sources of serious information. You mentioned Greater Auckland but think of the Auckland Transportation blog and a raft of other outlets that cover a variety of topics in depth. For me that includes the libertarian blog Not PC and the irreverent (and irregular) Fundy Post, as well as established vehicles like Public Address, the Hand Mirror, Bowalley Road, No Right Turn, Offsetting Behaviour, etc. The major rightwing blogs have descended into troll fests, but at least reading them gives me a sense of what the ideological enemy is thinking (and how it thinks–check the comments on the Kiwiblog post about Jacinda Arden’s pregnancy news).

    To be sure, there still are serious columnists on major newspapers, and outlets like the Spinoff, Newsroom and the NBR fill the gaps in mainstream coverage of hard news, albeit from different ideological angles. But that is all good for a reader like me, as I try to cover a wide range of views for both personal and professional edification.

  5. Thanks for the tips about blogs, and it is good to hear that RNZ has stood strong as a source of hard news. There is indeed some hope.

    In terms of what we can do, I guess firstly we can support individual bloggers or blog sites who do a good job, e.g. Greater Auckland is having a movie night fundraiser in March, which is a good way to bring people together and cover operational costs.

    On a different note, do you think there any hope for more funding for RNZ and the TV NZ 24/7 channel from the new government?

  6. GM:

    One would hope that Labour would be more reasonable when it comes to funding a dedicated new channel, but so long as it continues to subscribe to variations of that 3rd Way, market-oriented ideology, it will always be dogged by, and at the mercy of, pro-market ideologues who see no benefit in such things and who, in fact, are the intellectual giants behind the dumbing down of the mainstream news.

    Best for us to support RNZ and other NZ on Air funding increases as well as serious blogs (Pundit is another one) and alternative sites like and (both run by veteran journalist Selwyn Manning). Although much diminished since its heydays and often full of silly items, Scoop ask offers an alternative to the corporate platforms I have critiqued here.

  7. Erewhon:

    That would have to involve a discussion with Lew and Anita, who if infrequent contributors as of late are part of the original collective that started the blog. We never intended KP to use advertising or contributions and as things stand Lew and I rotate paying for the server and web host (WordPress) charges (in fact, Lew carried the load during the time I was in the US and I am due to take over the next billing cycle).

  8. I get the top 8 Radio NZ stories email sent to me every day, that makes sure I don’t miss any big news. Other than that I visit Newsroom,, and The Spinoff a few times a week. I also RSS about a dozen NZ bloggers. That’s it for NZ stuff.

    I’ve really tried pairing back on reading news lately.

    Oh, and none of Facebook/Twitter/social media crap, I don’t use that at all.

  9. Whatever their individual merits, personal blogs are there for the expression of opinion rather than the dissemination of factual news. Like the main stream media, they also happen to be mini-autocracies, in which the blog owner decides which opinions will be allowed, and even such a respected blogger as “good ol Chris Trotter” can make seemingly inexplicable decisions on what he will and will not publish in his comments column. New Zealand bloggers including those on the left(present company excluded) need to adopt a more open and constructive approach to political debate if they are to do anything to facilitate positive action. It is not just the “main stream media” which fails to deliver what is needed for a healthy democracy.

  10. “even such a respected blogger as “good ol Chris Trotter” can make seemingly inexplicable decisions on what he will and will not publish in his comments column”

    Ouch. Sounds like you’ve had a bad experience – care to share?

    You’re right, though, a lot of bloggers, even on the left, could learn from Pablo when it comes to what is and isn’t acceptable.

    What I admire about Pablo is that he will accept a dissenting view as long as it is eloquently expressed by someone with an acceptable standard of education and knowledge. Uninformed comment isn’t welcome, but nor should it be.

  11. I have had no bad experience on Bowalley Road, but I am interested in how Chris Trotter, and bloggers in general, engage with their readers. As I said, bloggers are the autocrats of their own blogs and they set the rules as to what may be allowed in the way of comment. Some basic requirements are that comments should be coherent and relevant, and not repetitive, obscene, abusive, defamatory or gratuitously provocative. Most bloggers allow anonymous comment but some do not. I see the case for such rules, although they do require the blog owner to exercise a degree of personal judgement in which it is probably better to err on the side of allowing freedom of discussion rather than being overly insistent on courtesy. However many bloggers who have passionately held beliefs of their own will go beyond that and censor opinions which conflict with what they themselves believe. In my experience this tendency to censor unacceptable opinions cuts across the left/right divide. So where the broad left and the far right are in agreement, as they are on social issues such as gay rights, euthanasia, decriminalization of recreational drug use, abortion and so on, there is a sense that conservative (non-liberal) opinion is anti-social in the same way that obscenity is anti-social. The assumption is that no decent person thinks that way anymore, so those opinions should no longer be tolerated in the public space, and left-wing blogs will often censor such views which they regard as highly objectionable.
    Bowalley Road though, is as much mainstream media as left-wing blog. It is as professional as any daily newspaper, its content starts out or ends up in daily newspapers, and the way in which comments are ruled in or out can be difficult to fathom. All I can suggest is that Chris, as a mainstream journalist and a member of the fourth estate, believes that he has a duty to the public good and an obligation to defend the existing system of things. That does not stop him being critical of policies, parties, individual politicians or even governments (in fact making such criticism is an essential element of his public duty) but it does stop him from publishing comment which might undermine public confidence in the fundamentals of the political system. That would be true of virtually all New Zealand journalists working in mainstream media, and also of those blogs which are written and managed by career journalists working in their private capacity. Unfortunately, whereas they can say “I won’t publish that comment because it is obscene, or defamatory” they can’t say “I won’t publish that comment because it would subvert confidence in the political system” because to give that explanation would itself have the effect of undermining confidence. So the mainstream media, passionately partisan left-wing blogs, and quasi-mainstream blogs like “Bowalley Road”, will continue to censor content on political grounds. I however believe that at some point we will need to assert a tikanga which is tolerant of any political commentary which is not incoherent, obscene, abusive or defamatory.

  12. I appreciate the kind words but I had to chuckle at the compliments because a recurring accusation made by critics from the Left and Right is that I am an authoritarian censor freak who only wants an echo chamber full of brown nosing toadies.

    To be honest, I have deleted posts from assorted trolls and idiots, and have on more than one occasion succumbed to anger and flamed people about their ignorance or illogical obstinance. I have even baited people who piss me off. So the accusations are not entirely without merit but the attribution of motivation is wrong. Shoot, I live with a political scientist who is smarter than me so I cannot even get an echo chamber in my own home!

    For the record, I value intelligent discussion on the part of people who know what they are talking about regardless of their ideological position.

  13. Pablo, if you are taking flak from extremists on both sides, it is probably a very good sign that you are in the right. Don’t apologise for calling people out for being ignorant or obstinate. The world needs less tolerance of ignorance, not more.

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