What’s wrong with journalism?

Chris Masters has a largely valuable article complaining about the growth of ‘opinion’ journalism:

Get rid of the commentators. Not necessarily all of them, just the bloody great majority. The next time a reporter says they are sick of making all those phone calls and wish to settle into a regular opinion piece, let us agree to lead them into the snow…Columnists like to give the impression they are fearless, but few ever get into what I would call “useful trouble”. As Stuart Littlemore used to say, “there is no such thing as false opinion”. Opinion is far less costly to defend. The sound and fury is skirmish and point-scoring, making little real difference.

He praises narrative:

The journalist who develops as a confident storyteller undergoes a process of liberation. When you are interested in the whole you don’t so eagerly rely on an angle. Open-minded research propels us on a wild ride, which to me is where the job is at its most thrilling. Recognising nuances – integrating opposites – giving texture to the characters – surprising the reader. Good journalism is like good drama. It is life – and the more we allow ourselves to be alive to the intricacies of the yarn, the better the writer, the stronger the message and we would hope, public engagement with the story.

As a historian I read thousands of pages of 1930s newspapers. They outperform by far current newspapers in reporting some types of facts: in particular what people said in public, it’s easier to find out what was said at the 1931 NSW ALP conference than that of 2007. It is true that today the Internet partially fills this gap but not entirely. Where 1930s papers lag was in narrative, I can tell that Jock Garden and Albert Willis distrusted each other but not much more than this, who were the potential rebel MPs in Lang’s 1930-32 caucus? What did senior bureaucrats think about Lang’s industrial legislation etc. This is where political science is often weak. Yet sometimes there is more similarity between ‘opinion’ journalism and ‘narrative’ journalism than Masters admits. Journalists often struggle with the idea that ideology matters in politics, they often take as fact what is the current ideological consensus. Paul Kelly takes ideology serious but increasingly his biases are so overwhelming that he struggles to explain those that he disagrees with. They struggle to recognise that politics is a synthesis of self-interest and of ideology. Their other flaw is to think that human intent alone explains what happens in the world. It does explain some things: why did not Peter Costello not challenge Howard? Because he didn’t want to. Little more can be said on this. But why did the ACTU stick with the Accord despite Labor’s drift towards economic liberalism? Personalities were important but the logic of institutional structures (think Skocpol) and the logic of ideological systems (think Foucault) and the logic of capitalism (think Marx) explain what occurred.

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