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 Â 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 Â 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 Â (“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” Â 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). Â That means that the opinion pages Â 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 Â 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.