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Jay Rosen: ‘Don’t you think that’s a little strange?’

The text of Jay Rosen’s Big Idea presentation from the MWF is available in full. There’s lots to like in it: his instinctive revulsion at a TV program called Insiders on which journalists interview journalists, his dissection of the ‘cult of saviness’, his argument about the cult of innocence that plays out in ‘he said, she said’ journalism. Here, for instance, is his analysis of a recent (and, as he says, not especially obnoxious) piece on the Labor Party and gay marriage:

The insiders are worried about how their conference is going to “play” in the media. They are trying to make the story come out a certain way. Reporters grant them anonymity so these struggles can be publicized. But if today’s media report about politics is about how the media will be reporting a political event tomorrow, there’s obviously something circular in that. And this is how it begins to make sense to call the journalists “insiders.” Everyone is engaged in the production of media narratives. Journalists and politicians are both “inside” the story making machinery.

The thrust of his piece is clearly right — and for evidence of that you only have to look at the response from an insider journalist, denouncing Rosen for outlining how the media works since … that’s just how it works.

I do, think, though that Rosen’s analysis doesn’t go far enough. For while the ‘how’ matters, the more important question is ‘why’. Yes, the political media is dysfunctional and, yes, it seems to be getting worse. But what’s behind that degeneration?

Here’s my attempt at an answer, from a Drum piece some time back.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Thanks for pointing to this, Jeff. In the English-speaking world, the symbiotic relationship between the mass media and political hegemony is best encapsulated in the excavation of the Murdoch empire’s operations, currently underway in the UK. Murdoch’s comings and goings via the tradesmen’s entrance at Number 10 is a metaphor best left unexplored but comes as no real surprise to observers of the ‘insider’ culture. In Australia, where Murdoch controls 70% of the newspaper market and a sizable portion of the pay television sector, it would be foolish to think that his enterprise does not exert a similar level of political influence as it does in the UK. The modus operandi may differ from that of News of The World but, as Sally Neighbour’s recent profile of Chris Mitchell illustrates, News Ltd’s characteristic political zealotry is in safe hands at The Australian. Jay Rosen has tweeted that there is an as yet undisclosed culture of intimidation at News Australia but it appears it will take a brave journalist to fully reveal it.

    Rosen is correct in his observations of the ‘horse race’ phenomonen in political reporting but, as any mug punter is painfully aware, the jockey may control the horse but just who controls the jockey is another matter entirely. As you point out in your piece on The Drum, there is no political reality other than the one perceived by voters and the role of the mass media is to align with a favoured candidate to create a critical mass of public opinion. The current narrative in Australia, common to almost all major insitutional players in the media discourse, has Tony Abbott well ahead in opinion polls despite having nothing of any substance to offer in terms of policy or vision.

    Abbott’s singular vision is to destroy the Gillard government and his means of doing so is to focus unrelentingly on his opponent’s weaknesses. He is like a hyena circling his prey, moving in and out, srtiking when necessary, until his quarry is exhausted and succumbs. And don’t the public love it. They may not love him but a large swathe of the electorate wants blood and is willing to have him as their assassin. This kind of narrative is ideal source material for a media that is, by and large, systemically entwined in the maintenance of a political status quo underpinned, as you suggest, by the economic rationalism kick started by Hawke and Keating, championed by the neoliberalism of Howard and Costello and for which the Gillard crew is trying so desperately to prove its credentials.

    Paradoxically, the minority government, by objective measure, has been largely competent and productive. Peter Hartcher, an insider I’m no particular fan of, points to this in his column in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. The government is passing legislation at a high strike rate and beneath the roar of the public narrative is getting on with the business of governing the nation. Undeniably, there have been blunders both in policy formulation and delivery and, perhaps lethally, in the construction and communication of a credible counter-narrative to Abbott’s “peoples’ revolution” (which in numerical terms, as Hartcher points out, amounts to very few sensible shoes and thongs on the ground). But as The New Yorker’s Henrik Herztberg observed some months ago when writing about the rise of the Tea Party in the USA, people have an uncanny knack for passionately advocating for change, if not revolution, that can be demonstrated to be clearly against their own best interests. Hertzberg referred to this phenomonen as ‘cognitive dissonance’ and we see it in full swing in Australia at the moment.

    Why? Well, a simple answer could be that ‘we’, or very large numbers of ‘us’, have a deep, existential need for blame and politics provides the perfect forum for expressing displeasure, anger and retribution. The angst that lurks inside the average driver and leads to spontaneous outbursts of uncontrolled rage directed at some complete stranger who failed to indicate, is a neat metaphor for the kind of trouble brewing not too far below the surface in many western, capitalist nations, an anger prone to lethal eruptions by “lone wolves” and disgruntled coteries of hate. Could it be that despite our relative, collective good fortune, many of us, for one reason or another, are simply not content, ever, and harbour a pathogical need to punish? The irrational, jittery forces swaying political opinion are of the very same breed as the “wild spirits” that inhabit the market but with manifestations beyond the impulse to sell or hoard. Prone to a reflexivity fuelled by fear of boat people, Muslims, Greens, budget deficits, bicycles, mining super profit taxes (a fear that is the ultimate in cognitive dissonance), unions, carbon and – the ideal target for media assassination – a female Prime Minister with dyed red hair, an ample backside and annoying voice. This is a visceral fear, almost childlike, that quickly turns to anger and retribution.

    In your piece on The Drum, you refer to a desire for authenticity in politics and politicians and you argue that “…the very weightlessness of the global market creates a yearning for something more, a desire that is then sold back to us in the form of authenticity.” As you say, the quest for authenticity comes to us during elections – faux or real – in serial “Turnip Days” when politicians devote shoe leather and loss of dignity to media stunts designed to function as a form of entertainment presumably to stamp their brand onto public consciousness. But in current times, the credibility of political culture itself is badly damaged and when that happens the conventions and institutions of government and democracy can be called into question in quite unreasonable and even dangerous ways. The demogogue is, above all, authentic to the masses.

    Lots more to be said but I’m rambling now so I’ll stop. Thanks for the post.

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