Monday, September 05, 2005

Erasing Standards

A report on the ABC’s evening news and current affairs program, PM, about the plight of Australians stranded in New Orleans and the slow response by government, is typical of many news reports where the treatment of important issues is reduced to, or subsumed by, petty theatrics and party political point scoring.

This is exactly the sort of “news story” that reflects poorly on both politicians and journalists.

It seems every issue has to be portrayed as a party political struggle, right versus left, us against them, with a winner and a loser. There is little intelligent debate based on factual evidence or rational thought, instead there is a steady stream of personal abuse and character assassination.

Consequently, both journalists and politicians end up losing respect and credibility.

Even worse, the public remains ill-informed and disempowered.

The media likes to absolve itself by claiming it is simply the messenger, but it is the selection of news stories and the focus of attention that ultimately determines public perception.

For example, in the story referenced above, the producers may well claim that they were simply highlighting the “poor behaviour” of politicians in general by giving airplay to parliamentary antics.

Such an argument would carry some weight if there really was an effort to analyze and critique the behaviour in some way, but there never is. Instead, political rhetoric and partisan grandstanding is simply piped wholesale, with very little relevance to anything at all.

There seems to be an aversion to critical thinking when it comes to dealing with current affairs and political issues in general, with a tendency to trivialize or ignore serious concerns about some issues (eg. the effects of western aggression) while enflaming passions on others (eg. the threat of terrorism).

There appears to be little rhyme or reason to the waft of daily news, with very little thought given to the role media plays in portraying reality, nurturing fantasies and promoting conformity.

The media is not a passive player in shaping public opinion, and nor should it be. But if the media is to truly serve the public, it must operate on a moral basis. It must clearly differentiate between truth and falsehood, between the trivial and the significant.

The media - reporters, journalists and editors alike - share a great responsibility to serve the public good, not just by accurately reporting events, but equally important, placing those facts into context, whereby they make sense and provide useful information.

In the matter of the story referenced above, the debate could have focused on the lessons we can learn about how and why human systems fail under extreme circumstances, and how best we can translate those lessons into methods for preparing and dealing with future disasters.

Instead, the debate degenerates into the tired old charade of empurpled politicians abusing each other across parliamentary benches.

If journalists were not entirely comfortable with such a puerile performance, surely they would find more important stories to report, or at least treat it with the disdain it deserves.

But the fact that AM, PM and the World Today routinely channel this sort of political bombast, without ever intelligently addressing the practice, suggests that many ABC journalists simply don’t realize how low standards have dropped.

Unfortunately, journalistic standards do not appear to be very much better than parliamentary standards, and neither journalists nor politicians seem to care much about raising their standards.

Raising Standards

I listened to an interview with Liberal Senator Russell Trood on The National Interest this week, and I was startled to hear something so unusual as to be almost unique.

What I heard was a pro-war politician actually being asked challenging questions about why he supports war in Iraq.

At first I was amazed, excited and impressed, and even felt some grim satisfaction that at last a war supporter was being put on the spot.

But as the senator’s responses reverted to the impenetrable dissembling and obfuscation that has characterised pro-war propaganda from day one, the memory of the nightmare that was “the making of the case for war” came back and hit me like a Mack truck.

Half-baked, flimsy, incoherent arguments and unsubstantiated allegations, absurd and irrelevant analogies, outright conceit and deception. Twisting the truth, rewriting history, this is how war was and is justified.

The spin, the hype, the lies, the blood lust that spread and engulfed the mass media, the corruption embedded at the highest levels of government, the disdain for the United Nations and international law, the catastrophic loss of life ... all this and so much more has been buried from view, rarely mentioned in the mainstream media.

The architects and perpetrators of this stupendous scandal remain revered and protected from public scrutiny by a servile, complicit mass media establishment.

Pro-war politicians have been allowed to shift all responsibility for the war in Iraq to “faulty intelligence”, without so much as a peep from mainstream media commentators.

Government inquiries have cleared their governments of any wrong doing and ministers have dismissed claims they manipulated intelligence to support the case for war.

The mainstream media has not challenged the official denial of government culpability in the decision to attack Iraq, nor has it seriously reviewed the case for war.

Sure, they want us to move on, put all that behind us, what’s done is done, mistakes were made, blah blah... but of course they would say that, because in truth, they know their actions were illegal, immoral and unjust, and of course, they are shit-scared of the consequences should the depth and extent of their crimes of complicity ever surface to public view.

Which is why we so desperately need the sort of quality journalism offered by shows like The National Interest, Late Night Live and a (very) few others. Keep up the pressure, don’t stop questioning, it’s really important we get to the truth and expose the deceit and corruption that has led us to war.

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