Depressed by the press: journalism bows to the authoritarians

Dec 12, 2021
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In-depth coverage is scarce in today's media. (Image: Unsplash)

Weakened by commercial and political pressures, legacy media are struggling to counter the antagonism of vested interests, writes Lucy Hamilton.

In a moment when authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, our mainstream journalism is not up to the task of confronting the nation with the scope of the threat. Trapped in a paradigm shaped for a previous era where major parties roughly followed the same rulebooks, too many media bodies continue to normalise the shocking.

Of course the capacity of the media to change our awareness of norm-shattering behaviour, and provoke change, has collapsed since the “Moonlight State” and Watergate eras. Social media has crushed the business model based on advertising dollars and stolen much of the audience. Specialist journalists have too often been sacked in exchange for overworked and cheaper young entrants to the profession, who need to churn press releases into articles to fill space. Older heads are too often caught up in chummy friendships or the binds of “access journalism” where they can’t burn their sources.

Some great journalism remains: specialists who have the capacity to expose the crimes and scandals that betray our trust; people with integrity who challenge the whirlpool of nonsense with which our leading figures parry off the swords of enquiry; investigative heroes who adhere to the vocation of performing the role of watchdog to our democracy.

Too often these crucial individuals — and teams — are forced to operate in smaller organisations. Australia’s legacy media by contrast shames itself regularly. As a result, Australians’ news knowledge in is comparatively superficial. We have also lost the sense a shared reality, based on facts that can be interpreted differently but remain crucial to the discussion.

News Corp in Australia has increasingly taken on its American decay into propaganda for a frighteningly radicalised right. Culture-war framing shapes most stories. Victorians in particular have borne the brunt of its campaign to discredit the Labor Party. The pandemic hit the state hard for a number of reasons, but News Corp never missed an opportunity to make it worse, and redirect blame from the federal government. No wonder the “Freedom” rallies on Australia’s streets are largest in Melbourne.

One of the key strategies in a competitive authoritarian regime (where elections still happen but it is ever harder for the democracy-embracing party to win) is to cripple honest media. The ABC has borne the brunt of intimidatory attacks from our Coalition politicians with funding slashed, constant parliamentary attacks and investigations. It has also faced partisan appointments limiting its capacity to hold government to account. Discussion panels are made up of disingenuous political spin merchants or populist distractions, leaving expertise out in the cold. Acts of brave journalism still happen. These, however, are met with revenge in the form of inquiries such as Senator Bragg’s most recent effort, now delayed. Even the ABC’s co-operative chair, Ita Buttrose, was provoked to describe this one as an “act of political interference designed to intimidate.”

The audience is already primed to disregard disturbing revelations from the ABC anyway, since the News Corp outlets have joined the government in inoculating their people against trusting it. Just as Trump cast the mainstream media as “the enemy of the people,” the right has depicted the ABC as “lefty propaganda.”

Fairfax has also suffered. Its financial decline culminated in its “merging” with the Nine network headed by former Liberal Party deputy leader Peter Costello. The print mastheads are slipping towards partisan framing of their coverage.

Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald published an opinion column by the Human Rights Defence Alliance’s John Steenhof. He defended Morrison’s Religious Freedom bill as anodyne and safe. The broadsheet failed to declare that this is a body born of the Australian Christian Lobby and Steenhof a writer who has little time for the LGBTQI individual’s right to be free from discrimination. Paul Keating’s response to Peter Hartcher’s coverage of his National Press Club speech also highlights the limitations of some leading Fairfax journalists.

Older Australians still dependent on print news struggle to find honest coverage of issues and are often unaware the degree to which their preferred paper has declined.

Our commercial television news, which often takes its more important stories and their shaping from the print press, is similarly beholden to its corporate masters’ interests. Its viewership too has declined and the resultant sensationalism is partly to blame for the fact that too many Australians’ worldview is distorted.

The crisis in our federal government’s lack of integrity, with failures in facing both pandemic and climate threats, is thus not understood by too many. The decay of our democracy is not perceived by the establishment who still consume legacy news, as the crisis it is.

On Sydney’s streets last week, a former soldier in uniform spun a beguiling story to the “freedom” protest crowd that began with a prayer. He pointed out immediately that he was a prayer-and-bullets kind of guy, and lots of bullets would be needed. His QAnon speech bemoaned the infiltration of all arms of the Australian establishment with communists and pedophiles who need to be brought down. It was met with rapturous applause.

In Melbourne 10,000 of the noose-wielding mob were on the streets. People of the artsy left as well as the angry right believe in Clive Palmer and Craig Kelly to promise freedom from oppression and access to ivermectin.

This might all die down as our strong vaccination rates grant most of us the ability to go back to life as “Covid normal.” We would be foolish to trust in this, however.

In the US, the commentariat is just beginning to confront the crisis of journalism that helped take them from Obama’s 2015 to a nation on the brink of authoritarianism or fracturing into civil war, a mere six years.

The hilarious and shocking Trump clown-car candidacy was given millions of dollars worth of free coverage because institutions like CNN didn’t see any downside to the boost to their own business. News Corp’s Fox News and the right’s talkback shock jocks continued to spin a nightmare vision of the country detached from reality to thrash up a profit as well as a terrified Republican voter base. Eminent establishments such as The New York Times gave harsh critiques to Hillary Clinton while largely ignoring the ridiculous Trump campaign as irrelevant.

While the organisations that confronted their role in electing Trump, or failing to pick his victory, spent much time trying to hold Trump to account in the years that followed, they have returned with frightening speed to “normalcy bias.” While leading Republican political and media figures try to overthrow democracy and foment racial violence, the press returns to “both sides” coverage. In a year with a constant and overlapping series of climate crises, they continue to try to avoid sounding hysterical, but instead promote a sense that little is at stake.

The ABC has shown something of the tendency, in an echo of US media, to practise “refuge-seeking journalism” where exaggerated efforts to display “balance” have crippled important civic debates. Accusations that the media has a “liberal (left) bias” in the US are met with overcompensatory coverage of news and argument. Some resultant timidity at the ABC can give undue weight to government distortions from our non-commercial source of news.

Clever spin from well-funded and -organised lobby groups helps shore up discredited arguments or give them heft far beyond their worth. Understaffed media organisations, aiming to meet frenetic deadlines and demands for immediacy, are grateful for the easy filler.

Both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review in August this year accepted the government line that coal must continue to be subsidised to shore up the energy grid. The headlines — “Grid and bear it: subsidise coal” and “Coal will be paid to firm up the grid” — could have been written by the government’s, or lobby’s, own writers.

The fact that the global trajectory would demand this taxpayer money be spent on developing renewables is framed out of the discussion. And it is this issue of “framing” that is at the core of the failure of journalism.

The right in America has shown itself adept at “playing the refs.” This ability to daunt media organisations into accepting the right’s agenda setting and framing of a topic is one key to their crisis of democracy. Rather than focusing on the crisis of democracy which the Republicans are forging, the mainstream media obsesses over the comparatively trivial “Dems in disarray” as the leadership negotiates with its two golden-handcuffed senators.

In Australia, for example, coverage of asylum seekers in the conservative, particularly tabloid, media has over the last decade been based too often on the incorrect framing that they are “illegal” and “queue jumpers.” Too rarely is the coverage based on the facts. This media failure has enabled the government to continue to persecute innocent people who came to us seeking safety.

Culture war “games” have thus turned life and death issues into something too “political” to address intelligently.

Whether many mainstream journalists are too inexperienced to place PR in context, too overworked to have time to discover the background, too immersed in the truthiness of their world’s beliefs to challenge disinformation, they are letting the nation down. The spirit of Schwartz Media, Michael West Media and our other organisations dedicated to holding the powerful to account needs to be embraced by our legacy masthead writers.

We need to consider the laws that can be crafted to balance the damage done by Malcolm Turnbull’s 2017 slashing of our media ownership laws. In a moment when the climate and democracy decay form a deadly helix, we cannot afford to have entertainment or agenda masquerade as news.

We need to debate new ways to fund the reliable news utterly critical to the functioning of democracy.

Too much is at stake to allow our news to frame this moment as “business as usual.”

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