So free your love. Hear me, I’m coming… Why opinion writing matters #MediaWatch #auspol #ausmedia

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.

Sun in the sky, you know how I feel… Why @MargaretSimons is wrong about RDA 18C #auspol

In ABC’s The Drum yesterday, Margaret Simons continues to make very strange comments about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.  Admittedly, Simons is known for making strange comments in this space, having once championed a ‘Pub Test’ for newspaper content: if you can hear it opined in a pub, you should be able to read it on the front page of a newspaper.

I even agree with Abbott about the obnoxious nature of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which was used against an Andrew Bolt column. The Bolt piece was a nasty and sloppy piece of commentary, but it should not have been illegal [sic]. [Source: Simons, ‘Media regulation: Abbott speaks sense and nonsense‘, ABC The Drum]

Simons — along with people like Jonathan Holmes, Chris Berg, the IPA trolls, and Tony Abbott — are outraged at the idea of a ‘hurt feelings’ test.  18C makes it unlawful to be frank and fearless with your freedom of speech which, of course, must be identical to the freedom to offend.  The assumption is that 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act is a way for people with thin skins and hypersensitivity to silence people who make them cry.

Utter, utter nonsense.

Let’s go back to the Act itself:

(1)  It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if:

(a)  the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and

(b)  the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group.

(2)  For the purposes of subsection (1), an act is taken not to be done in private if it:

(a)  causes words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public; or

         (b)  is done in a public place; or

(c)  is done in the sight or hearing of people who are in a public place.

(3)  In this section:

“public place” includes any place to which the public have access as of right or by invitation, whether express or implied and whether or not a charge is made for admission to the place.  [Source: Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) s18C]

So there are two prongs to an unlawful act under 18C.  First, you perform an act in public which a reasonable person would think is likely to upset a person or a group.  Second, the act is motivated by the ‘victim’s’ race or ethnicity, &c.

It’s not just a hurt feelings test.  It’s a ‘don’t be a jerk’ test.  Unlawful acts are only those which are reasonably likely to upset somebody and which are motivated by race/ethnicity.

But that’s not even the full story.  Check out 18D:

Section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith:

(a)  in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or

(b)  in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or

(c)  in making or publishing:

(i)  a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or

(ii)  a fair comment on any event or matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment. [Source: ibid. s18D]

Where 18C outlines what an unlawful act would be, 18D provides a defence for upsetting a person (or group of people) based on the colour of their skin.  18C and 18D together say, ‘People shouldn’t feel humiliated for the colour of their skin and, if somebody does humiliate them based on the colour of their skin, they should have a really good reason for doing so.’

 

There’s an important underlying philosophy to 18C and 18D.  We are supposed to live in something like a ‘Republic of Reasons’.  In order for me to do some harm to you, I need to have your permission or a really good reason to do it.  For our social order to function, we rely on a problematic notion of consent to inform the extent to which one person interacts with another.  This is what’s being reflected in 18C and 18D.  People of all skin colours should be able to enjoy the fruits of civilisation without being subject to ridicule and humiliation.  And if they are ridiculed or humiliated, there better be a damn good reason for it.

The real question here is not whether 18C goes too far.  The question is whether it goes far enough.

Simons is correct when she says Abbott makes sense in places, she just incorrectly identifies those places.  As I’m an atheist, it will probably shock readers to know which part I think he gets correct:

If it’s all right for David Marr to upset conservative Christians, why is it not all right for Bolt to upset activist Aborigines?  [Source: Tony Abbott ‘The job of government is to foster free speech, not to suppress it‘ The Australian]

The question (if questions can have a truth-value) is correct.  Why is it all right for David Marr to upset conservative Christians?  If we apply the same reasoning from before (about being in a Republic of Reasons) then there should be some good reason for Marr to ridicule or humiliate a section of society based on their religious beliefs.  Indeed, that goes for a lot of the pop-atheist crowd who seem to think they’ve got some God-given right to ridicule and humiliate Christians just because they have different beliefs.

You could argue that people choose their race but don’t choose their religion.  Not only is this naive (most people don’t choose their religion) but it also fails to grapple with the point.  Why does choice matter?  Why shouldn’t people be able to choose what they like without being ridiculed or humiliated for those choices?  I’m on ‘Team Non-Biologically Determined’ when it comes to the question of sexuality, but I’m also on ‘Team If You’re Attracted to The Same Sex but Don’t Have the Gay Genes You Have Made An Awesome and Perfectly Legitimate Choice and Nobody Should Question Make You Feel Bad for That’.  It’s not choice vs non-choice; it’s respect vs disrespect at play here.  In a sense, opponents of 18C are asking us to respect the choice of people to humiliate and ridicule others based on their race.  People who don’t want to extend 18C to religion are similarly asking us to respect the choice of people to humiliate and ridicule others based on differences of belief.

Which brings us back to Simons.  Simons believes that we should have legislative room to be disrespectful to each other without the consent of the person being harmed.  She couches this in the entitled and undergraduate language of ‘freedom of speech’.  It is clear that, if we want to live in a Republic of Reasons, we need a more mature model of this freedom, especially when it affects the apparent right of others to engage in society unmolested.

They could appear to themselves every day on closed circuit TV… Holy crap, I need to update more often

Yes, I’ve been so utterly flat out the past month that I haven’t got around to updating.

I decided to reward myself for all the hard work lately by purchasing Civilization V.  It is both a wonderful, brilliant game and a crushing disappointment. Continue reading “They could appear to themselves every day on closed circuit TV… Holy crap, I need to update more often”