Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Howling at the moon

(This post is a one-off. It does not signify a reactivation of my blog.)

There’s a crisis in the news media and the media are blaming it on everyone except themselves. Culpability is being deflected elsewhere – mainly to the hapless Minister of Communications, Melissa Lee, and the big social media platforms that are accused of hoovering up advertising revenue that would otherwise go to traditional mainstream media companies.

But while it has been clear for a long time that Lee is out of her depth, she’s not responsible for the media’s collapse and it’s not exactly clear what her media tormentors expect her to do about it. Bail them out with government money, presumably. But the proposition that the government should prop up news media that are openly hostile to it makes about as much sense as Israel providing arms and ammunition to Hamas. In any case, why should the long-suffering taxpayer be made to pay for the media’s manifest failings?

And while it may be true that Facebook and Google have been piggybacking on the mainstream media (although I sometimes wonder whether the damage has been conveniently exaggerated), pointing the finger at them neatly sidesteps the uncomfortable issue of the media’s own contributory fault.

For anyone unable to join the dots, the publication last week of the fifth annual Trust in News survey should help. It showed that New Zealanders’ trust in the reporting of news has continued its headlong downward plunge – from 42 percent in 2023 to an even more dismal 33 percent this year. Significantly, this is a faster decline than recorded by similar surveys in other comparable countries. Even report co-author Merja Myllylahti said she was shocked by the results.

In 2020, the year the New Zealand survey began, 53 percent of respondents said they trusted the news “most of the time”. So there has been a cumulative fall since then of 20 percent, and the decline is accelerating. Even the Otago Daily Times, which emerged from the latest survey as the most trusted media outlet in the country, scored only five on a scale from 0 (“not at all trustworthy”) to 10 (“completely trustworthy”).

RNZ and TVNZ both fell short of the break-even point. As publicly owned news providers, RNZ and TVNZ have a special obligation to provide trustworthy (in other words fair, accurate and balanced) news and commentary, but they have failed themselves and us.

The latest survey, conducted by Horizon Research for the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), also revealed that more New Zealanders are actively avoiding the news. I’m one of them. I’ve been a news junkie all my adult life, but I haven’t watched a TV news bulletin since last December. And it seems I’m not alone; I exchanged emails yesterday with an old friend, another retired journalist, who announced that he was boycotting the news and thought there had been a subsequent lift in his mood.

The report accompanying the trust survey gives a rather large clue to why so many people have lost faith in the mainstream media. It noted that those who no longer trusted the news were concerned about its negativity and, perhaps more tellingly, by “what they perceive as political bias and opinion masquerading as news”.

Eighty-seven percent of those who didn’t trust the news said it was biased and unbalanced, 82 percent said news reflected the political leaning of newsrooms and 76 percent felt it was too opinionated. Moreover, 47 percent of respondents couldn’t be sure that the news media were free of political or government influence most of the time – a predictable legacy of the ill-conceived Public Interest Journalism Fund, which showered public money on journalism projects that satisfied ideological acceptability tests.

No surprises there. But are the media listening, or are they too self-absorbed – too busy weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as the Bible might put it – to see what’s obvious to virtually everyone else? The level of self-delusion is staggering.

One thing is inarguable: notwithstanding all the contempt being heaped on the Minister of Communications, she can’t be blamed for the collapse of trust in the media. That’s entirely the media’s own doing.

Neither can the problem be attributed to Facebook and Google. Even if the social media giants were made to pay in some way for the news they’re accused of currently pillaging free of charge, that wouldn’t solve the trust issue. So the media need to start rebuilding trust, as the authors of the Trust in News survey suggest. That is, if it’s not already too late. And perhaps the process of rebuilding trust could start by no longer angrily looking around for other people to blame for a media crisis that’s largely of the media’s own making.

Physician, heal thyself, as Shakespeare might have said. Problem is, the media appear to have no self-criticism mechanism – or if they have, it’s been out of use for so long that no one can find the switch to activate it.

Some high-profile casualties of the current media upheavals have plaintively and volubly appealed for public support on the basis that the media are essential to a functioning democracy. Doubtless that same argument is used to justify the fact that the threat of journalists’ job losses gets infinitely more media attention than, say, the closure of a meat processing plant or clothing factory. Journalists are supposedly different because of their noble calling. But arguments about the special place of the media hold true only as long as the media are fair, balanced and neutral in the way they treat the news.  Once they abandon that obligation, all bets are off – which is exactly what has led us to where we are now.

The truth is that the New Zealand mainstream media have been in self-destruct mode for years. Traditionally, the media’s legitimacy and moral authority rested on their role as a “broad church”, willing to report and reflect a wide array of news and opinion. To put it another way, the “old” media sought to reflect the diverse communities they served; a nation talking to itself, in the oft-quoted words of the playwright Arthur Miller.

The “broad church” model served the public and democracy well, but that changed with the ascendancy of a new generation of journalists, many with university degrees, who fatally saw themselves as being intellectually and culturally superior to the masses.

Rather than attempting to connect with the community at large, this new generation of journalists preferred to write about, and for, people with the same interests, values, tastes and ideological beliefs as themselves – an approach doomed to commercial failure, since it reached only a narrow demographic group.  The nexus with the broader community was severed and in the process, the mainstream media succeeded in delegitimising themselves.

All this coincided with the digital revolution and the resulting emergence of online platforms that gave people alternatives. Hence the continuing plunge in newspaper circulations and the shrinking audience for TV news.

It’s surely significant that the decline in trust has become sharper over the past few years. New Zealanders could be accused of being passive and even apathetic, but they are not entirely stupid. They observed that for six years, the media gave the Labour government a conspicuously easy ride, obligingly falling into line over crucial issues such as Covid (remember the media disdain for the anti-vaccine protesters at Parliament?), climate change, rampant crime, co-governance and the Treaty.

These were issues that provoked deep and growing unease and division. Yet a stranger to New Zealand, monitoring the media in the years 2020-2023, would have formed the impression the country was united in blissful accord behind Labour’s policies.

Jacinda Ardern was treated obsequiously and her ministers largely escaped critical scrutiny, other than in instances of behaviour so egregious it couldn’t be ignored (the names Kiri Allan and Michael Wood come to mind). Legitimate Opposition attacks on the government in Parliament went unreported and press statements from conservative lobby groups were routinely ignored. Media complicity was crucial in the advancing of a radical government agenda.

Compare that with the relentless barrage of anti-government rhetoric that has dominated news bulletins and newspaper headlines in the six months since the election as the media gorged on a diet of left-wing outrage over the coalition’s policies. It began almost the day after the election and it hasn’t abated since. Ministers are being subjected daily to a level of interrogation that their Labour predecessors encountered rarely, if ever. Regardless of one’s politics (and I’m not a supporter of the coalition), the contrast with the media’s pusillanimous, sycophantic approach under Labour is striking.

Unfortunately for the reputation of journalists, the public can weigh all this against the knowledge that people in the media are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Left. In the Worlds of Journalism study published by Massey University in October 2022, New Zealand journalists were asked to identify their political views. Of the 359 who completed the survey, roughly two-thirds identified as left-wing, 23 percent described themselves as centrist and only 12 per cent said they were right-wing.

Those figures don’t tell the whole story, however. An astonishing 15 percent of journalists described themselves as “hard left” and 6 percent as “extreme left”, although I’m not sure how they distinguished between the two. This was against an infinitesimal number – barely enough to register on the chart – who considered themselves “hard” or “extreme” right. The political imbalance was stark.

In a perfect world, this need not be an issue. Many, if not most, of the journalists I worked with over the course of a long career were left-wing in their politics. This becomes a problem only if journalists allow their personal views to influence (contaminate might be a better word) their work. Regrettably the evidence suggests overwhelmingly that today’s journalists do exactly that.

This is not only allowed but in many cases encouraged. Journalists reflect the ethos and culture of their workplace, and contemporary newsrooms more often than not are places of left-wing groupthink. Many journalists of the current generation have been taught that the purpose of journalism is to agitate for change. They have been conditioned to believe that editorial balance – the idea that there is more than one side to every story – is bogus, and that they should be free to decide which narratives are valid and deserve to be promoted. Theirs is the journalism of advocacy and activism.

This is especially problematical because the biases of journalists do not reflect the views of the populace at large. New Zealand is not a society that naturally leans sharply to the left. That’s clear from the last election result, and from the broad sweep of our political history.

When journalists are so obviously out of step with the society they purport to serve, it’s small wonder that people stop buying newspapers and watching the news. Readers, viewers and listeners naturally resent being lectured, talked down to and subjected to social engineering projects such as the renaming of cities and the arrogant imposition of a new hybrid language which the country didn’t vote for and only a minority supports.

It’s often said that the police operate with the consent of the public. The same is true, in a way, of the news media. And once public confidence has been lost, it can be very hard to win back. To quote an old Dutch saying, trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback. In other words, it takes a long time to build but can quickly evaporate.

To use a different analogy, the current relationship between the media and the public is like an unhappy marriage that has irretrievably broken down and one spouse has walked away, leaving the other wondering what went wrong and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the fault was not theirs, when clearly it was. In this case it’s the public that has moved on, leaving the media to howl at the moon.