Gordon Campbell on journalism, and John Armstrong

Column – Gordon Campbell

Watching a round of hair pulling and name-calling between journalists is rarely a rewarding sight, so I apologise in advance to anyone of a nervous or irritable disposition for this morning’s column. Allegedly, I have been unfair and mean to John Armstrong …

Gordon Campbell on journalism, and John Armstrong

by Gordon Campbell

Watching a round of hair pulling and name-calling between journalists is rarely a rewarding sight, so I apologise in advance to anyone of a nervous or irritable disposition for this morning’s column. Allegedly, I have been unfair and mean to John Armstrong of the NZ Herald, who spent an entire column on Saturday denigrating me and Otago University academic Bryce Edwards (who provides the Herald’s regular summary of political coverage) for our supposed sins against him, the press gallery, and the entire journalism profession.

Is this kind of attack ignorable? Not really. Even though I can’t help feeling that I was merely the pretext, and Edwards the real target of Armstrong’s injured pride. (One of Edwards’ alleged “echo chamber” crimes is that he has occasionally recommended my work.) In addition, Armstrong’s Herald colleague Fran O’Sullivan has been taking a few potshots at Edwards of late on Facebook. The goal appears to be to shore up the old regime and drum any trace of liberal thought out of the new Herald altogether. The money shot in Armstrong’s column comes here:

The rapidly growing influence of Edwards’ blog was initially down to its being an exhaustive wrap-up of all of the day’s political news. It is now starting to develop a much more political dynamic that is unlikely to please National.

Unlikely to please National? Off with his head. For the record, the column of mine that triggered Armstrong’s outburst was this one. In it, I contrasted the quality of the Canadian press analysis of APEC with what was emanating from the NZ journalists on tour with the NZ delegation. I thought NZ readers were being poorly served and explained in some detail the dimensions lacking from the NZ coverage. Armstrong doesn’t really engage with the points I made. Instead, he scoffs at any attempt to put the emergent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact at, or near, the forefront of this year’s APEC gathering in Vladivostok as being (a) journalistically inappropriate and (b) the product of my own and Bryce Edwards’ alleged ideological bias.

That’s a shame, and a good example of the crap journalism I was criticising. And not only because the Guardian, and the Globe and Mail, and that well known left wing organ the Wall Street Journal all saw the TPP as an active and relevant backdrop to the APEC proceedings in Vladivostok. Being on the ground at APEC, I would have thought, provided a golden opportunity to explore the region’s sensitivities about the TPP’s role as a security device to rein in China, as much as a trade pact. Or to investigate – for instance – how Japan’s actual (as opposed to its immediately election-driven) position might pan out next year with respect to the two competing trade options that were being touted behind the scenes at APEC. Namely, the China-led tripartite pact with South Korea, and the US-led TPP. To both camps, as I said in my column, Japan is the main prize. Does Japan, as some in the Canadian media seem to think, regard those options as either/or? Or does it think it can continue to play footsy with both sides throughout 2013? Just wondering, as a reader. BTW, only in New Zealand would a journalistic interest in the TPP and its implications, be treated as a sign of lefty bias.

All that aside….given a media industry starved of resources, you’d have hoped that having a team on the ground in Vladivostok would have yielded better analyses than what we got. It is at this point that Armstrong’s complaints become weirdly fascinating. According to him, I just don’t understand how hard it is to go to a big event overseas and keep up with the play, and file stories on the run. (In fact, I did that while covering South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, and the US election campaign in 2004. They were no picnics either, but totally exhilarating.) Allow me to repeat the poignant details of Armstrong’s Lament:

Few media representatives travelling with John Key would have got more than four or five hours’ sleep each night – probably less – because of the Prime Minister’s schedule, which ran from 6am (earlier if a flight was involved) until well into the evening. Days were spent clambering on and off buses in 35C heat and 100 per cent humidity.

Time has to be found within that schedule to write news stories and other articles – but not just for the following day’s newspaper. News organisations’ websites have to be fed – especially if there is “breaking” news. Deadlines in Asia are punishing, as countries such as Japan are three hours behind New Zealand, meaning deadlines are effectively even tighter. Then there is the no small matter of filing stories back home. Equipment breaks down, mobile phones that are supposed to be in harmony with Japan’s system turn out not to be.

To which I’d say: put a cork in the self pity and the passive aggression, feller. You were on an employer-paid trip to Russia and beyond, one that offered remarkable access to the deeds and intentions of some of the most powerful people on the planet – and you’re complaining about it, and whining about the workload? And offering the humidity up as an excuse? Here’s a positive suggestion. Next time, do some homework before the APEC conference. That way, you’ll have a basis for understanding what is unfolding before your eyes, or behind the arras. It will be an adrenaline rush, and you’ll thank your lucky stars for being so privileged, just to be there.

Between the lines in Armstrong’s column, a morality play is being presented. It is a pageant in which he, the humble scribe from the mainstream media, is heroically doing the hard yards under deadline and dutifully observing the rules of good journalism – while Bryce Edwards and I are being cast as the Flash Harrys from the blogosphere who allegedly (a) reek of bias (b) feed parasitically on the fruits of his honest graft and (c) pay scant heed to the facts and to the truth. What a pair of arrant bounders we are!

Variants on this fantasy are routinely peddled in the mainstream media and the fantasy is worth de-constructing. For one thing, truth was being herded into the boneyard by the mainstream media long before the blogosphere was ever invented. Let’s also look at a few details here. Was Armstrong really the driven scribe shuttling from one APEC-driven, equipment plagued, hot and humid deadline after another, in faithful service to the folks back home? If so, who was the John Armstrong who wrote this travel piece drivel from APEC about old Vladivostok?

The faded, but quaint, charm of Vladivostok is a relief to the eyes after the cheap, sterile, modern architecture of Russky Island…Vladivostok’s two new suspension bridges dominate the city’s skyline to its detriment. Just how much traffic they will carry is a moot point after delegates start leaving today… etc etc etc.

Secondly, Bryce Edwards and I allegedly rely on ideological bias? Well, there’s nothing in our analyses that remotely equates with the lazy personal abuse and dog whistling that Armstrong indulges in with such irresponsible abandon: “Greens propagandist” (allegedly, me) “ former Alliance staffer” (Edwards) “two old-style Aro Valley socialists” (allegedly, Edwards and me) and so on…all this, while trying to lay claim to the moral high ground. Supposedly, we’re parasites to boot. That’s really rich – coming from a mainstream media that is dependent for about 95% of its political content on recycled press releases, self interested tip offs from politicians and feeds from prime ministerial press conferences – the attendance at which Armstrong touchingly depicts as being a hallmark of real journalism. Believe me, it isn’t.

Let me just say that, beyond the name-calling, there are two substantive issues involved here. One, it has been true for years that the only ideology in media circles that gets called as such is on the left. Right wing propagandists are taken as the sensible norm by the corporate media. That ethical blind spot is now coming under scrutiny on the Net, and the journalists involved clearly don’t like it. To repeat: the name calling and the charges of ideological bias against Bryce Edwards and me are coming from journalists whose own ideological foundations and job performance are now (thanks to the rise of citizen journalism) being held up to public scrutiny for the first time.

This trend towards political transparency is an entirely welcome development. As a reader, I want to know (or want to be able to quickly discern) where the writer is coming from. That’s why I think its great that Armstrong wrote that line about Edwards being ‘unlikely to please’ National – because it means that if the Herald does move to drop Edwards’ column sometime in future, the reason will be crystal clear to its readers. The readers would regard it (accurately) as Old Granny Herald sucking up to its boy, National.

In sum, the days of journalism are over when only one truth could possibly be entertained by a Rational Gentleman of Commerce, as defined in say, the pages of the Economist or the columns of Fran O’Sullivan. The gallery pack consensus has broken down, and a multiplicity of viewpoints are now contesting the political discourse. Obviously, that’s a good thing. The difference now – for both the mainstream media and the blogosphere – is that if you screw up, or fall short, or have a bad morning, informed readers will be all over you like a rash. Again, that’s good for the readers, even if it takes some established journalists out of their comfort zone. As this evolution is taking place, Armstrong has been left behind in trying to paint the blogosphere as parasitic on the honest toil of the mainstream media – as if the mainstream media has never used the blogosphere for insights, information and story leads. In fact, the relationship is not parasitic, but symbiotic. Get used to it.

Finally – one should ask – how did the POV of the press gallery elite become so de-legitimised? The answer isn’t just a technological one, and attributable to the rise of the Internet. A more important reason is that over the past 30 years, the old tenets and work practices of ‘objective’ journalism have failed the public. (This 2003 essay by Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Re-Thinking Objectivity” is still highly relevant to this argument.) The problem being, politicians and their spinmeisters have learned how to play the lazy ‘two sides to every story’ premise of so-called ‘objective journalism’ like a violin. In reality, there are far more than Two Major Party sides to every story, and the job of journalism should begin – not end – after the views of National and Labour have been sought. By and large it has been the blogosphere that has taken up the evaluative task that the mainstream media has abandoned, or lacked the gumption to pursue.

In my view, those tasks of Evaluative Journalism are as essential and as difficult, as anything done in the name of Objective Journalism, which is often a mechanical procedure. And a parasitical one, as often as not – highly dependent on those on whom it feeds, and careful to avoid incurring the displeasure of its hosts. No, it does not mean that “anything goes” when it comes to the task of evaluation. The rules of fairness and accuracy still apply and if anything, are more to the fore. It is usually the “objective” journalism that tucks its half truths, deliberate exclusions and ideological premises carefully out of sight, before it comes to the table. By contrast on the blogosphere…you have to put the evidence on the page and make the process of evaluation as transparent as possible, if you’re going to win the readers’ trust. As David Foster Wallace once said, no writer today can any longer legitimately presume the audience-agreement that is really their rhetorical job to earn.

Like most “truths” these days, journalistic truths are now postmodern – and thus, as with many modern architects, it is to the benefit of journalists and readers alike if more of the journalistic plumbing is put on the outside of the building, for all to see. We shouldn’t try to live in denial about how we select and evaluate – or try to hoodwink the public that august organs such as the Herald do not bring their own ideological filters to bear as they package and present the news. Personally, I have a wary faith and optimism about the integrity of the Net. Because now more than ever before, readers are able to judge journalists by their works.

Footnote: I apologise for spending so much time on this subject. It is more important that last week, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Education Minister Hekia Parata both initially dodged fronting up to the media to face significant questioning about major goings on in their portfolios – even though Bennett could still find time on her schedule for breakfast TV, Regularly, the government is picking and choosing its patsy media messengers and actively dodging what little remains (usually in state media, such as RNZ) of serious scrutiny. Accountability is dying on the vine, and that really is outrageous. Probably, even John Armstrong would agree with me on that one.


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