Monday night’s Media Watch ran another of its ‘special’ episodes where it tries to explore a particular issue relating to journalism in more depth. Unfortunately, both the time constraints and the limitations of the current host tend to cripple the show’s ability to really nut out the issues in sufficient depth. In an interesting exploration of the phrase ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’, Media Watch really wants to achieve something amazing, but has neither reach nor grasp.
Which is a shame.
In an episode filled with unchallenged assumptions, one stood out to me in particular because it’s quickly becoming the dominant ideology in discussions about the media.
And even as their numbers dwindle, more and more senior journalists appear to be spending time analysing and opining, rather than digging and reporting. […] Laurie Oakes is hoping – vainly, perhaps – that the mainstream media will see that fact-based reporting, not endless opining, is what it can do better than the blogosphere. But he, and I, both fear that it may be too late. [Souce: Media Watch, 22 April 2013]
In the comments of the transcript, one comment echoes this ‘fear that it might be too late’:
The media doesn’t have any interest in reporting facts. I’m sick to death of listening to journalists opinions. I want the facts. As a result, I now look for my news and facts outside of the usual news outlets. [Source: ‘Jason’ 23 Apr 2013 8:12:40am]
As a person interested in theory, I worry when people start to divide the world into ‘fact’ and ‘opinion’. Facts, it seems, are independent of the observer and, as such, are the correct material for newspapers and journalism. But we know that the world doesn’t work like this.
Take the discussion about live exports. People were extremely passionate about the subject and had radically different ideas about what was at stake. In the middle of this was an internal-ABC paroxysm about whether the ‘correct’ word for the building where animals are killed was ‘slaughterhouse‘ or ‘abattoir‘. Both words denote the same thing (broadly), but one has the word slaughter in it. Is it neutral to use a word which does not include that connotation? Is it neutral to use a word which does?
In January, Australians celebrate ‘Australia Day’ which marks… settlement? colonisation? invasion? Which is the neutral word?
More than the prevalence of opinion (to which we’ll return in a moment), I’m worried about the pretence of ‘neutrality’. Time for some Zizek!
In his review of Zero Dark Thirty, Zizek noted the director’s claim that it was supposed to be a neutral account of the events leading up to bin Laden’s… death? killing? murder?
One doesn’t need to be a moralist, or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally – ie to neutralise this shattering dimension – is already a kind of endorsement.
Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic, or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?
Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel”. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its purest and most efficient – there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: the psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale. [Source: Zizek, ‘Zero Dark Thirty: Hollywood’s gift to American power’ The Guardian]
Zero Dark Thirty is a really good case study in ‘neutrality’ as a way to obscure the ideology of the author. Watching this film, you get the impression that torture was useful in the hunting down of bin Laden even though no particular point of the film outright makes the claim. When confronted with the allegation, the director was able to hide behind the air of neutrality: ‘Oh, I’m not really saying anything or pushing a particular message. I’m being neutral.’
Journalism should not go down this path. Journalists and editors are just like directors, they make decisions about what goes into the news and, equally as importantly, make decisions about what is not covered. When we, the ordinary public ask, ‘Why did you cover this story in this way, and why didn’t you cover that story?’ the answer is not ‘We objectively presented the facts!’ but ‘We made decisions about what we thought was important based on our own judgement.’
In this respect, I wish journalists were a little bit more human. Instead of hiding behind the phony veil of objectivity, I wish we could get a better understanding of how they view the world first so that we can see the perspective from which they’re writing. Alas, we’re never going to get that because of journalists’ pretension of professionalism. Objective and impartial…
Don’t get me wrong. Worse than trying to be objective and denying subjectivity is the greater evil: being extremely partial and pretending to be objective. Going holus bolus after particular political parties, &c., &c., &c., in the ‘news’ is flatly unprofessional. It was unprofessional when Murdoch’s media empire backed Gough in the 1970s and it’s equally unprofessional today. All of that said, I wrote in New Matilda that the attacks on News Ltd weren’t always entirely justified and still agree with that position:
It’s like watching the hyenas maul Scar at the end of The Lion King. Sure, Scar wasn’t exactly the hero of the story, but did he deserve to be torn to shreds? [Source: Fletcher, ‘Has News Ltd Actually Done Anything Wrong?‘ New Matilda]
So, just to reiterate: outright bias masquerading as objectivity is a Bad Thing, but feigning objectivity without admitting subjectivity is also a Bad Thing.
What I argue now is that the same principle can be applied to opinion writing. Further, good opinion writing is absolutely essential to a well-functioning democracy.
The difficulty in making this argument is that we are much more familiar with bad opinion writing than we are with good opinion writing. From both sides of politics, we are more familiar with the asinine restatement of partisan party lines as opinion than we are with opinion writers who are able to put into words those ideas that we’re struggling to express.
Forget journalism for a moment and turn to applied ethics. Everybody has ethical intuitions. Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad. The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics. The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.
Opinion writing — good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework. The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.
It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter — presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.
Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important? We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument. ‘Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’ But it’s not actually true. Some people have much better opinions than other people. Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others. Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman (see, for example, the recent atheism debate where a white guy straight up told me that there was no problem of gender in pop-atheism and that I should STFU for claiming such a thing).
When we live in a Republic of Reasons, it is important that people have the tools necessary to discuss and debate their reasons with others. Good opinion writing provides that tool.
And we see the outcome of our modern landscape of poor opinion writers. Tony Abbott puts up a sign with some potentially inaccurate words; people freak out about those words, vandalise the sign, and then completely forget to analyse the policy. Meanwhile, millions of voters have their bellyfeel instincts about both border control and asylum seeker activists confirmed. We have protests filled with people of both political tribes who can barely mumble out what they believe. Meetings of the WTO and G20 are bombarded by people screaming ‘Something something globalisation something something.’ We see crowds gathered at Parliament House with ‘Ditch the Witch’ signs. You could replace all journalists with objective robots who dutifully conveyed information in some value-neutral way (i.e. with magic) and you’d still see this depressing obliteration of public discourse. Why? Because people don’t have good quality resources for forming opinions.
So let’s get back to Media Watch. Jonathan Holmes and Laurie Oakes fear ‘endless opining’. They shouldn’t. The current batch of opinion writing is not unlike a sewer gushing out into the wilderness and we should fear that the rivers will never again run clean, but we shouldn’t fear opining itself. What we should be doing is looking for ways to improve the content of our opinion columns. We should look for ways to promote diversity in columnists for one, and to promote quality for another.
But we already know why this won’t happen: the market. When it’s more profitable to pump out blogs and columns by trolls (leftwing and rightwing) who can draft up linkbaiting garbage with very little research, you’re going to tap that resource dry before you start to look for well-researched opinion pieces which (shock, horror) will be expensive.
I have a dream that, one day, I’ll be able to read the opinion pages of an e-newspaper which won’t be flooded with ‘comedians’, ex-politicians or their staffers, or think tank miscreants. I suspect I’ll be dreaming for a long time to come.