Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Journalists then and now

It seems to be the season for journalism memoirs.

My old friend and former colleague Jon Morgan recently published Newspaper Man, a book covering a long career that culminated in a stellar turn as farming editor of the Dominion Post (a position that no longer exists, despite the paper’s wide rural distribution). Jon’s book initially had a very limited circulation list but I gather there’s a reprint on the way.

Now another old mate, Jim Tucker, former editor of the late, lamented Auckland Star and tutor to hundreds of journalism students, has weighed in with Flair and Loathing on the Front Page, Volume One of an intended three-volume memoir. (Only three, Jim? Surely you can do better than that.) Readers of this blog may have heard Jim interviewed by Kim Hill on her Playing Favourites segment last Saturday.

Both books are self-published and unlikely to be best sellers, but will be of interest to journalists and ex-journos of a certain age, along with the type of people who follow this blog and regret the passing of an era when journalism adhered to values and principles now too often considered a quaint hangover from what's patronisingly labelled "legacy" media.

Tucker and Morgan have both paid their dues, in American parlance. Their books capture the tone and ethos of a time when budding journalists entered the trade (as it was then commonly regarded) straight from school and learned on the job. They were trained to observe principles of fairness, thoroughness, accuracy and balance and if they fell short, were sharply pulled into line by bosses who today would almost certainly be fired for bullying. (Not all such bosses, incidentally, were male. Both Tucker and Morgan mention a legendary Taranaki Herald martinet named June Litman – Tucker in admiring terms, Morgan less so.)

Many became journalists for no better reason than that they were good at English in school, or at least better at English than any other subject (that was me), and thought journalism sounded more interesting than being a school teacher or bank teller, albeit not as well paid. They had no academic pretensions and wouldn’t have dreamed of inserting personal opinions into their work. That was strictly reserved for editorials.

The two books also capture a time when many reporters began their careers on provincial papers and even in branch offices, working in towns such as Hawera and Taumarunui. There was nothing remotely glamorous or exciting about reporting meetings of county councils or catchment boards, but that was what the job typically entailed, and it served the vital purpose of keeping communities informed on matters of local importance. Branch office reporters were expected to provide knowledgeable coverage of sporting fixtures too, since sport – and especially rugby – was a defining aspect of community identity.

No one had heard of Woodward and Bernstein then – and even if they had, no lowly reporter nurtured fantasies about bringing down governments or acting as an agent of political change. The days when aspiring journalists were taught that their mission was to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (a popular refrain among politically motivated journalism lecturers in a later era*) were yet to come.

The reminiscences of Tucker and Morgan also recall a time when newspaper newsrooms were, in some important respects, more diverse demographically than now. For one thing, there was a much wider age range. Ambitious young thrusters were counter-balanced by the influence of older, more mature heads. On the first papers I worked for, reporters’ ages ranged from teenage (I started at 17) to 60-plus. And while women were under-represented, it’s a myth that female journalists were confined to the ghetto of the women’s pages. Some occupied key news reporting roles or (as in the case of June Litman) worked on the "top table" or the sub-editors’ desk.

Reporters’ copy was subjected to unsparing critical scrutiny by sub-editors, most of them old hands, who checked for accuracy, clarity, balance and grammatical correctness – a vital form of quality control swept away in the 21st century in the fanciful expectation that reporters could edit themselves. Proof readers, the last line of defence against error, were declared superfluous too. We are now presented every day with abject evidence of how well that experiment turned out. (A small example from my local paper this morning: “edition” instead of “addition” in the first line of a news story. Oh, and "hair and hound" from Saturday's Dominion  Post.)

And here’s another thing. Many of the journalists I worked with during the first decades of my career came from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. Many grew up in state houses. They had limited educational qualifications (in some cases, none at all – not even School Certificate) and no academic aspirations. Indeed, they often took pride in journalism being described as a trade rather than a profession. 

It was the tail-end of the era of the self-educated, working-class intellectual, a good few of whom found their way into journalism. University degrees were rare and those who held them were viewed almost with suspicion. When I joined Wellington's Evening Post as a teenager in 1968, there were several dozen journalists in the newsroom and I can think of only one (Geoff Walker, who later became a leader of the anti-Springbok tour movement and a high-profile figure in publishing) who may have had letters after his name.

But from the 1970s onward, journalism training was progressively subjected to academic capture until eventually the traditional career path straight from school was cut off altogether. No one can guess how many potentially good journalists were put off because they didn’t fancy spending a year in the classroom, too often under tutors of poor quality who had little track record in journalism themselves.

If anything, the process known as credentials creep (i.e. the constant cranking up of the required qualifications) has become even more pronounced in recent years as vocationally-oriented one-year diploma courses are supplanted by full-blown degree courses with a more academic focus. Has there been a commensurate improvement in the quality of journalism? You be the judge. On matters of basic general knowledge and even in their command of the English language, many of today's reporters appear bone-ignorant.

By comparison with the past, and contrary to the prevailing fetish for diversity, today’s newsrooms (and I’m not talking only about newspapers) appear strikingly homogeneous, dominated as they are by journalists who are overwhelmingly youngish, university-educated and who come, I suspect, from predominantly middle-class backgrounds. Older journalists who brought balance, maturity and perspective to news coverage have been deliberately and methodically eased out. Old-school scepticism (another former colleague of mine, the late Frank Haden, reckoned journalists should “doubt everything with gusto”) has been replaced by bright-eyed idealism that is conveniently compatible with “progressive” politics.

This is not exclusively a New Zealand phenomenon, as American journalist Batya Ungar-Sargon makes clear in her recent book Bad News: How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy. Ungar-Sargon, the deputy opinion editor at Newsweek and a Marxist, writes: “The story of 20th century American journalism is essentially the story of a status revolution. Journalism used to be a blue collar trade; it was a working class job that you didn't go to college in order to learn how to do. You picked it up on the job, and it was considered a sort of low status job. And journalists very much saw themselves as being outside the system, fighting for the little guy. But then journalists started to increasingly go to universities and climbed up the status ladder. Essentially today's journalists have become part of the system. They are part of the American elite. Journalism is now produced for and by elites as opposed to a journalism once produced by and for the working class.” (You can hear Ungar-Sargon interviewed by RNZ’s Jesse Mulligan here, in a rare example of the state broadcaster giving air time to someone who is implicitly critical of its own unabashedly elitist culture.)

Not enough has been written about this transformation and its profound impact on how public opinion is shaped. The “woke” takeover of journalism, as Ungar-Sargon characterises it, permeates almost every aspect of news coverage and commentary, from what the media choose to cover (and just as crucially, what they decide to ignore) through to the way the news is presented and the editorial tone in which it’s reported, all of which tends to reinforce prevailing ideological orthodoxy.

But the picture is not entirely bleak. The mainstream media are still capable of presenting us with exemplary journalism that tackles big issues thoroughly, impartially and fairly. Christchurch Press reporter Philip Matthews’ examination last Saturday of the Three Waters project was a case in point. It was all the more impressive because I believe the natural inclination of the journalist concerned (who occasionally pays me the great compliment of sniping at me on Twitter) is to lean sharply to the left.

Such stories happen often enough to keep alive the hope that traditional journalism values are still honoured – at least some of the time – and even that some people in the media, realising how much they have alienated their core audience, may now be trying to engage reverse gear. But whether they happen often enough to reverse declining trust in journalism is another matter.

*The expression originated with a fictional character and was used chiefly for humorous effect, but bizarrely came to be regarded as a serious journalistic maxim.



Phil said...

I had a look at the article on Three Waters. Is it my imagination that it treads lightly on the role of the Labour Government in all of this.

Max Ritchie said...

It hardly mentions the Labour Government pushing this as hard as it can, led by an arrogant minister. This is an outrageous proposal. “Partnership” is a deliberate misinterpretation of a simple treaty which did no more than make people living in New Zealand British subjects, with the rights and obligations therein but no more. The treaty certainly did NOT give Maori tribes or people any more say in this country than anyone else.

Don Franks said...

I see some similarity with the development of trade union officialism as a jog. Previously virtually all paid union reps came from the shop floor, with little or no tertiary education. These days more and more union office jobs are filled by university graduates with no industrial experience. This professionalist trend hasn't prevented the union movement from steadily declining in size and social relevance.

Karl du Fresne said...

I'm guessing Don meant to write job, not jog, but the system quite properly prevents me from making changes to comments.

Odysseus said...

The universities have a lot to answer for. I had been hoping the absence of lucrative foreign students thanks to COVID would see a number fail. Fingers crossed.

Journalism without balance is propaganda and those who serve it up are mere mouthpieces lacking in self respect. We do not buy their product in our house.

Don Franks said...

Yes, I did intend to write "job" there. Thank goodness for proofreaders.

Eamon Sloan said...

A few random comments about old time journalists, occasionally referred to as newspaper men.

In my old home town an editor of not so many years ago had a few well-worn tricks up his sleeve. If he was short on letters to the editor he would write up his own opinions to fill the space. That was in the days of nom de plumes of course. A trick no doubt used in other places.

I recall a piece written up about Frank Haden. When asked about his political affiliations he replied that he was neither left nor right, he was just correct.

Tom Hunter said...

Then there was the interview several years ago with Obama security advisor Ben Rhodes in which he openly boasted of having manipulated the media to create an "echo-chamber" which would enable passage of the Iran nuclear deal, the JCPOA:

“In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters,” Samuels wrote.

“We created an echo chamber,” he quoted Rhodes as admitting. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

So boastful and contemptuous was Rhodes of a media that had salivated over Obama for years by then, that he said this:

“The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns.

They literally know nothing.”

It's a mark of the ideological and partisan mindset of most US reporters today that there was only mild kickback from the MSM about this interview. A handful grumbled and complained that they weren't as useless as Rhodes said but that was about it. Instead of rage at being so dismissed they simply carried straight on with bootlicking the Obama administration.

Andy Espersen said...

It’s really only the old printed media that is destroying itself – whose proud, old journalistic principles are followed no more.

Free journalism as such is still robust and thriving as witnessed by the multitude of blogs on the net – and in many printed weekly news publications (e.g. The Spectator, The Guardian, The NZ Listener).

These old, local (and regional) papers are now going broke – though our present government is unashamedly bribing them! These local publications will soon (I suggest) be replaced by daily independent local advertising papers that increasingly will contain elements of local (and eventually national) news reporting.

We already see this happening to a degree in the many weekly, purely advertising publications being distributed free in all New Zealand localities.

Anna Mouse said...

I watched over the weekend a crime series with Ron Iddles a retired Melbourne homocide detective. Ron is know as the Good Cop.

One interesting thing he stated in the show, as a detective in homocide he used the ABC's. That is A (assume nothing), B (believe nothing) and C (check everything). Ron Iddles would have made a great journalist like he was (apparently) a great detective.

What we have now in Journalism is what Denzel Washington described. It matters not whether it is the truth, just be first to print (or other).

IMO journalists of today scatter their 'truth' through their reports and this would explain why the latest Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer rating for entities sees NZ media at 41%, that is only 41% of NZ's population trust them. Furthermore according to Kiwiblog 23% say media is a unifying force in NZ and 55% a dividing one.

The really scary part for the industry (and us) a once so trusted profession is that 64% of our fine population say journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.

That is, they drop 'their truth' into what should be factual, balanced and opinion free reporting. No longer are the ABC's applied because assumption is absolute, they believe what they write and they check nothing.

Richard Arlidge said...

Sorry Karl, while I agree with the general sentiment of your column, I don't hold the same view as you about that Three Waters article you mention. Sure, it might have appeared to have given everyone a say and been 'balanced' to that extent, but it didn't get to the real grist of the issues and one comes away thinking, oh - it's not such a big deal, everyone's position seems to have some, if not equal merit. Like the whole campaign, much about fearmongering but little really on how this is going to make those service providers and governors 'actually' more accountable; how it's 'actually' going to create efficiencies - noting that our local entity is going to run from Hicks Bay down the East Coast to Wellington, jump the ditch to Marlborough and then out to the Chatham Islands; why and how Manu Whenua (MW) should have a co-governance say-so and where does that 'actually' fit with Treaty responsibilities and obligations; where does MW 'actually' justify and derive this interest in water treatment and reticulation - much less in stormwater catchment and sewerage; and, the devil in the detail, why MW should have the exclusive right to charge fees and how the financial modelling done to date that reputedly justifies this reform on a cost-savings basis (something that most of us naturally want to hear) can in anyway be deemed reliable without that cost input and just how much is it going to be? And nothing about how this is all likely to end up with water meters to every property and how for those home occupiers who rent, that this (certainly leastwise in the shorter term) will be another cost coming their way. (Ratepayers 'theoretically' will get some reduction in their rates, but if you think residential rents will fall, well I'd say that's wishful thinking). On reflection, with that all said (admittedly, not well and it's by no means exhaustive), do you still feel that that article was truly informative and should be held out as some beacon of hope in journalism? As I said at the outset, sorry, I don't feel the same way as it being a piece that should be exalted, and it struck me as nothing upsetting of DomPost's share of the Govt's PIJF.

Bill Moore said...

A perfect description of newsroom life in the '70s. Starting in a branch office, as I did along with so many of my colleagues, wasn't just good for the flow of news to small communities. It threw cadet reporters in at the deep end, forcing us to learn a lot in a hurry.
One optimistic note: having retired fairly recently after more than 40 years in journalism, I can confidently say that there are many talented, hard-working young reporters in newsrooms around the nation. What they lack is guidance from the experienced, and leadership from the principled. Let's not give up on them.

D'Esterre said...

Richard Arlidge: "...it didn't get to the real grist of the issues..."

I'd already read this article and I agree: it's a superficial look at a critical issue for us all.

In the first instance, what is being proposed is, in effect, theft by central government of ratepayer-owned assets. We lose control of them. Nothing asserted by government as to water quality and so on can justify that theft.

Secondly, iwi co-governance is a priori undemocratic. Even were the Treaty full of principles and talk of partnership, a polity cannot do this sort of thing and still call itself a representative democracy, as NZ imagines itself to be.

In addition, as those with previous local authority experience will know, bigger most certainly isn't better with regard to services of this sort. And these entities are huge by NZ standards. The people who are supposed to provide the service, and fix things when they go wrong, will be more remote and even less responsive than is currently the case.

I'm a Wellington ratepayer. WCC has made a pig's ear of managing water services here, including failure to overhaul critical infrastructure.

But it by no means follows that it should be able to dodge its responsibilities by handing over our assets to the government.

In my view, our Council should be obliged to make good its neglect of Wellington's water infrastructure. It needs to invest in this aspect, and set aside all the nice-to-haves until the essential stuff is done.

Karl du Fresne said...

To the reader who asked whether one of his comments had been deleted, I have no recollection of doing so and can't imagine why I would have. It's actually quite rare for me not to publish a comment and rarer still to remove one once it's been posted.

Tom Hunter said...

Thanks for that Karl. Must have been a slip on my part so here it is again, courtesy of a post I did at No Minister a few days before your post, The MSM through the ages:
It was as if the press in America, for all its vaunted independence, were a great colonial animal, an animal made up of countless clustered organisms responding to a single nervous system. In the late 1950’s (as in the late 1970’s) the animal seemed determined that in all matters of national importance the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail; and all information that muddied the tone and weakened the feeling should simply be thrown down the memory hole.

In a later period this impulse of the animal would take the form of blazing indignation about corruption, abuses of power, and even minor ethical lapses, among public officials; here, in April of 1959, it took the form of a blazing patriotic passion for the seven test pilots who had volunteered to go into space.

In either case, the animal’s fundamental concern remained the same: the public, the populace, the citizenry, must be provided with the correct feelings! One might regard this animal as the consummate hypocritical Victorian gent. Sentiments that one scarcely gives a second thought to in one’s private utterances are nevertheless insisted upon in all public utterances. (And this grave gent lives on in excellent health).

Plus an explicit example when none other than Chuck Yeager burst their bubble about the first astronauts were the finest pilots in America flying the most dangerous missions in its history by pointing out that a monkey was going to make the first space flights:
Fortunately for Yeager, the story didn’t blow up into anything. The press, the eternal Victorian Gent, just couldn’t deal with what he had said. The wire services wouldn’t touch the remark. It ran in one of the local newspapers, and that was that.