Journalists need to do better

By December 30, 2018Australian Politics, Media

Seth Abramson is a former lawyer and Assistant Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at the University of New Hampshire1,2, and is the person to heed if you want to find out what is going on in the Mueller investigation into the collusion of Trump with Russia. Indeed, he has published a book on the matter, entitled Proof of Collusion: How Trump betrayed America.2,3

Abramson regularly tweets when significant developments in the Trump-Russia scandal occur, often as a fairly long series of tweets explaining these developments in significant detail. He also does serial tweets on other topics. This is one of those serial tweets and it is on the failings of modern journalism.4

“Many journalists don’t understand the role they play in keeping politicians honest—which their audience says they want. When Trump told us on live TV that the shutdown was his, it became his—it could be reported as the ‘Trump shutdown.’ The media now acts like it’s a coin flip.4

Trump can’t be held to his word because US media fails to ‘scaffold’ coverage: folding into tomorrow’s news (in an ineluctable—i.e. fully ingrained—way) the info we learned today. Every headline mentioning the shutdown has a responsibility to call it the ‘Trump shutdown.’4

Once media decides that scaffolding yesterday’s facts into today’s coverage is somehow biased—which any journalism professor will tell you it isn’t—you create an environment in which Donald Trump knows in advance that he can lie today with few media repercussions tomorrow.4

The worst part is this media failure (a) alienates progressives and moderates, (b) betrays journalism, and then (c) produces no benefit whatsoever for American media in its efforts to bring radical conservatives into the fold—as whatever media does, Trump attacks them anyway.4

When I turn on CNN and see a clock (say) counting how long the shutdown has gone on, the title atop the bottom left-hand corner graphic should read, TRUMP’S SHUTDOWN. That is not biased coverage—it’s literally what the man said before a live national television audience.4

I speak for many cable-watchers in saying what I’ve said here. But cable news producers won’t ‘hear’ this criticism from its viewers, or from me, because contemporary media often seems to only hear ‘criticism’ from within—which usually just blames viewers for poor performance.4

So let’s be clear: Pelosi has NOTHING TO DO with this shutdown. Schumer has NOTHING TO DO with this shutdown. And I’ll go further—in many respects Congressional Republicans have LITTLE TO DO with this shutdown. This is Trump throwing a big man-baby TANTRUM—and it’s killing us.4

In a better media environment, the facts of Trump’s shutdown would be these: we have a dangerously mentally unstable president who’s a pathological liar beholden to far-right radicals in media. He can’t be negotiated with in good faith and is a danger to democracy.4

Mainstream media thinks everyone in independent media (particularly digital media) wants Old Media to die. Well I, for one, do not. I want Old Media to be better. I want to do what I can to help it be better. But right now Old Media has circled the wagons and is failing.4

Citizen journalists—and citizen journalism—isn’t the enemy. Independent, digital and freelance journalism isn’t the enemy. Right now millions of Americans are saying to corporate media, “This is how you can do your job better and more responsibly.” We get a middle finger.4

If you’re a fulltime journalist, I beg you to never forget the difference between conservatives and progressives when it comes to Old Media and digital manifestations of Old Media: they want you to be destroyed—we want to offer loyal, constructive criticism to help.”4

This explains, by way of an American example, why I started this blog. Because I was dissatisfied with the current state of journalism, as well as politics, in Australia. When a politician appeared on television to be interviewed, I often ended up shouting at the television because, often, the politician did not answer the journalist’s questions, misled the journalist, or simply lied. While politicians have been doing this for at least as long as I have been watching them, the fact that the journalists let them get away with it more often than not, either by choice or because of ignorance, is what is supremely annoying, and is why I end up shouting at the television. In effect, by shouting at the television, I am attempting, pointlessly, to do the journalist’s job for them, by taking the lying politician to task. Given that a journalist’s job is to keep a government accountable to the people, thereby protecting our democracy, this is extremely concerning.

Any media outlet owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp is simply an organ of conservative political lies and spin, with many of its journalists lacking any integrity, while simply operating as a mouthpiece for the Coalition government. As a consequence, I never subscribe nor watch any of them. I only ever write a piece on them when someone points out one or other of their more unsavoury depredations against journalism5,6,7, and when I can get access to it (they are usually behind a paywall). While other media organisations are vastly superior to those of Murdoch, sometimes their journalists appear to be unprepared, underprepared, or somehow derelict.

There are a few instances which I have stumbled across in my peregrinations where the journalists have, or almost have, picked apart the equine ordure that comes from politicians. The first, was when Environment Minister, Melissa Price, in a shambolic interview with Sabra Lane, wasn’t allowed to get away with much. However, Lane failed to pick up Price, when the latter tried to pretend that our emissions are decreasing by rehashing the Morrison lie that per capita emissions are what matters8,9. The second is the assertion that African gangs were terrorising Melbourne to the extent that people were afraid to go out at night. This turned out to be a load of rubbish10. It took the media a while to work this out. Indeed, there is a recent editorial in The Age hammering this very point11, that the statistics show that Dutton was lying. Unlike the traditional media, the people on social media were all over this like a cheap suit in a matter of minutes or hours.

While it is difficult for journalists to be across statistics on everything when they are unaware what a politician will be talking about when the latter step up to the microphone, it should be an opportunity to query them about previous lies or obfuscations. If they will not address these immediately (and they won’t), they have to be called out, as Rick Morton (one of the decent journalists at The Australian) did regarding government funding cuts for aged care12. An unnamed journalist did the same with regard to Morrison’s bogus ‘bus trip’. While there is an element of luck involved in the latter instance, the former is a case of Rick Morton being prepared with the pertinent data, sufficient to catch Morrison in a lie. And politicians wonder why they are held in such low regard.

As Seth Abramson says, many independent and amateur journalists and even bloggers are on the side of the traditional media. We are just frustrated by its failings. We want journalists to do what they do, but to be better at it. Our democracy depends on it.



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