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.


Bill Moore said...

That's the best summary I've seen of what's gone wrong. I'm a news junkie too, but I'm feeling increasingly frustrated by the surviving media and wondering if I too should abandon the news. I keep meeting people who say they've done it and feel much better as a result. I see the attraction, but it scares me. Is it too late to rebuild trust? All the old channels – including Radio NZ – are too tainted. This country needs a fresh service that delivers what I and all my colleagues in the 70s, 80s and 90s tried hard to provide, exactly as you set out: fair, accurate, balanced news coverage across a broad range of opinion, leaving comment to the editorial page, where it was clearly identified. It is heartbreaking to see how far our media have departed from that simple standard. Can anyone bring it back? It doesn't seem likely.

David McLoughlin said...

Welcome back, Karl. I do check several times a day hoping for your return. Please stay.

Trevs_Ebow said...

Karl... Will summed up. The NZ News Media have walked away from the public interest, the TV media in particular have disappeared up their own fundamental orifice.... Holding government to account is so important but so is holding all politicians, whether in power or aspiring, to account as well ... In a balanced and impartial way

Activism by definition cannot be reportage... It comes from a belief structure and those structures include alsorts of willful blindess and pure ideology

A dispersed journalism will arise and is arising...old structures fall and new modes/methods will fill the gap

Die MSM, Die


Anonymous said...

When Mike Hosking in a recent interview with Paddy Gower suggested that many of our media's problems could be due to its left-wing bias and its "go woke, go broke" mentality, Gower simply responded by saying "Get stuffed". Says it all really.

So great to see you back Karl. I have been wondering what your thoughts have been on the tumultuous events in our media these last few weeks. I hope that you decide to keep on contributing to the debate.

Jade Warrior

Phil said...

It has been a tumultuous few weeks for the media and I have been wondering what your thoughts are, Karl. Thank you for sharing and although you aren't back I hope you do share your viewpoints from time to time.

Tom Hunter said...

I'm sure you're aware of this recent article by a 25-year veteran of America's National Public Radio (NPR), Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust.

Astoundingly the new CEO of NPR has rejected all this and, judging from her X-Twitter history, she's going to double down on all things that are destroying them. As one commentator said of her rants, Normal human beings do not talk like this

However, the one I really enjoyed was an article published long ago in the Chicago Reader that puts the lie to Berliner's rosy history of NPR, How Do I Hate NPR? Let Me Count the Ways.

There's a lot of juicy goodness in there about their political partisanship in 1993, including a revealing truth, via his NPR-loving sister ("I’d rather get my news from people who think like me.”), that she was often mystified when the things NPR pushed so hard did not happen or just vanished (turned out to be wrong). The story about Bill Clinton's failed stimulus in 1992 is a great example where victory seemed certain because nothing was heard from the Republicans, except what NPR reporters claimed they were thinking and doing.

But I also appreciated this glimpse of the future:
One of the most telling moments of my ordeal-by-NPR came while Linda Wertheimer was interviewing a computer developer on what will happen when computers are linked into televisions—the so-called intelligent TV. He predicted the development of literally hundreds of new interactive television networks and services “that would give the individual TV viewer an incredible amount of power to program for their own tastes rather than have to rely on these programming guys.”

Replied a perturbed Wertheimer: “Is there any way we can dodge this bullet?”


Ken said...

Thanks Karl. Like others have said your blogs are missed just as with reporting like it used to be and should be done.
Your name and quality of your articles came up with one of my Uber passengers the other day who said much the same.
Best wishes Ken Maclaren

Tinman said...

Karl, damn it's good to read sensible comment again.

I don't want to "connect" with a news reporter, any news reporter. In fact I'd be happier and much more likely to read/listen to a news report if I didn't know the author.

The media certainly needs to change and regain the trust of the public. Maybe two things would help:

First the physical separation of opinion and news reporting. Editors would need to be bright enough to recognise both and ensure that separation.

The second measure, following on from the first, all news reports from local reporters should be anonymous. Reports sourced from other organisations may not be able to be anonymised.

This will automatically remove egos and move reporting towards honesty.

Paul Peters said...

I see Stuff will provide Newshub and TV news with programmes.That is a real coming together of the government's media opponents into one larger unit. Surely the increased bias likely to emerge on TV with Stuff's input will be obvious. However, those who believe balance plays into the hands of the ''fascists, racists etc'' will be delighted at the alliance and integration of the righteous and virtous media. Paul Peters

Trev1 said...

Come on Karl, you have to "reactivate" your blog (isn't that the word Tory Whanau uses for titivating Courtenay Place through her crazy Reading Deal?). There's too much going on. The kulturkampf is approaching peak insanity; the media's Gotterdammerung is manifest in the unholy union of Stuff and Newshub (who exactly is bankrolling Stuff, perhaps we could ask a journalist to find out?) What beast now slouches toward our living rooms to be born?

David George said...

Stuff has a trust level even worse than Newshub so its impossible to see how things will improve once they amalgamate.
Unless, contrary to ancient wisdom, two wrongs do make a right.

Anonymous said...

Karl, just write if you feel like it, and don't if you don't. No need to apply caveats. Clearly the urge strikes from to time and we'll be here to read and appreciate your efforts.

Anonymous said...

Great to see you back, Karl. I’ve genuinely missed reading your blog. Please reactivate!

Birdman said...

Thank you for the comeback post whether it be a one-off or not. You've been seriously missed.

What's happened recently with the MSM all seems to have been a "who would have thought" moment for them but funnily enough not for the rest of us. Will the individuals learn, I doubt it. They make themselves more irrelevant in not accepting the reality of change that has passed them by. Mike Hosking getting the childish "get stuffed" response from Paddy Gower really says it all when it comes to that lack of self-awareness.

It seems to me the MSM wanted to save the world from us but we never needing saving - "who would have thought".

David McLoughlin said...

"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."

So true. And yet the default position of the media seems to be that the Government should prop it up; witness the relentless hounding of the hapless Melissa Lee.

In all my lifetime, I have not seen a mainstream media so outraged at the democratic election of a government of any hue as we are seeing now. As a pack, they have campaigned against this Administration and attacked it from election night onwards. Even Muldoon's governments of 1978 and 1981 got a straight bat from the media despite being elected with well under half the vote under the old FPP system. Ditto the way the public service is leaking against this government, unprecedented.

The media and the public service seem determined this will be a one-term regime. They need to be careful. The media in the US are even more hysterically opposed to the buffoon Trump that all they seem to be achieving is ensure he is re-elected, and God help the world if they achieve that. Their constant attacks on every single thing this government does might have a Trump effect and get it re-elected.

Unlike some here, I have viewed Newshub's offerings over time as a pretty balanced and robust news service which I have watched more often than the staid but also fairly balanced One News (I like to swap between the two). Yes I know they take the same rigid line on the various Sacred Topics as all the rest, I am talking about their general news coverage of the non-Sacred. Given the extraordinary biases of Stuff, it will be interesting to watch what happens when 3 News at 6 becomes Stuff News.

Anonymous said...

+1 on keep writing when you feel like - your thoughts are valued

Natalie said...

Totally agree with you Karl. I stopped watching the news about 3 years ago as it was detremental to my sanity. It got to the point where just hearing the fawning by MSM over Jacinda made me want to throw the TV out the window.

"You reap what you sow" and they certainly have.

Lynn McConnell said...

Greetings Karl, your comments are right in so many points. I have long believed that many of the problems facing the media since the internet entered our lives have been self-inflicted. From the outset, the decision to offer news free was a wrong call, and highlighted the decision-making based on news people looking out, rather than experts looking in. Admittedly, it was all new and strategy experience was limited. But there was a feeling in the news industry that participants knew best. The blind adherence to market forces did not help and the manner of disposing of checks and balances in the system, most notably sub-editing strength, was a contributing factor. Debates with those who held the line of balance, both before and after publication, were one of the qualities that made journalism so satisfying. But investors, especially those faceless institutional groups, were also a factor. Their role in producing the situation of the moment should not be forgotten. Their focus on profit, rather than the more reasonable approach of family owners who spread their profits to balance good years against bad - a notion that seems a relic nowadays, had a big role to play. Journalistically, the policy of following 'personalities' rather than concentrating more on issues of the day was another factor. Journalism has never been a profit driver, and that is where the decline in advertising has contributed, especially to the fate of television news. The ability to fast forward through advertisements changed the ability of organisations to maximise their earnings, and coping with that is the problem networks now face. Streaming has the lion's share of the best programming and is not going to make the outcome any easier for those networks than it has been for newspapers.

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you, Lynn. Good to hear from a respected former colleague.

Ricardo said...

Karl, great to hear from you again. One question... what is your view on Stuff's move into linear news reporting at 6pm. Will we see the young "Red Guards" for the brave new world haranguing us live as well as in print? Some say if it lasts 6 months it will have done well.

Jordan Heathcote said...

I revel in the collapse of these institutions, I truly do.

Regime media and the 20th century mass media paradigm of top down talking heads is over. The 20th century consensus creating mechanism is long since dead and it has no chance of coming back. Adblocking all news sites gives me deep pleasure, as does dodging their paywalls. Yet in this deep schadenfreude, there are deeply troubling issues to consider.

Without a mass media enforcing a consensus politics, tribal identity and group politics will defeat 'broad church' consensus setting. The social contract is utterly shattered, with the young completely cut off from the economic ladder and having very little stake in the wider society. Brewing beneath the surface of the kvetching of regime media, the underbelly of New Zealand, amongst the poor, the provincial and those who feel excluded are undergoing radicalisation to all sorts of incoherent ideologies. A small manifestation of this is the growing distrust and disdain for the state and its law enforcement mechanisms, with three examples that come to mind. First, The death of Ruthless Empire at the hands of his carers, the refusal of the family or friends to speak to police and the inability to prosecute the case. Second, the folk hero bandit of Tom Phillips who has survived outside the reach of the regime's justice system. Third, the coalition of anti vax, maori identity, white identity and general radical sentiment at the parliamentary protests of 2022. Each of these examples, one from the underclass, one from the provinces and the other from the political radicals, represents a bubbling breakdown of state legitimacy and trust.

Considering this, and considering the attempt to insert a radical ideological agenda into the school curriculum as well as the emergence of the new catechism of Treaty Theology, the Jacinda Tyranny seems to represent a central government losing reach only to tighten its grasp. The consequences of this immense media trust, of tune out, turn off and turn away are yet to be felt.

David McLoughlin said...

...Stuff's move into linear news reporting at 6pm. Will we see the young "Red Guards" for the brave new world haranguing us live as well as in print?

I'm not sure that the activist journos you're referring to think much about what Stuff's owner dismissed as "the print product" some years back. I suspect they write almost solely for Stuff online and their Twitter audiences, and will be ecstatic at appearing on the 6pm news. The daily newspaper (well, The Ghost being the one I see the most) these days is just a haphazard pile of stories already published online and thrown onto pages as an afterthought.

It will be interesting to see how long they last on this 6pm slot on Three. And interesting to see how long the "print product" remains, too. I suspect the latter will only last as long as the income from the disappearing advertising they attract exceeds the cost of printing smaller and smaller daily print runs.

Vaughan said...

As former NZ journalist looking on via You Tube from Australia, I have been astounded at the disdain that the NZ political reporters on TV show to the PM, the Ministers and Government MPs.

By the way, how did the name of the country come to be lengthened or totally changed?

The world will soon confuse Aotearoa with Australia, Will you cut to the chase and change the All Blacks to All Green and Gold?

Just so you don't feel you're the only ones, we just escaped apartheid co-governance here by a last minute boost in awareness.

But there are some among us who have started calling Australian cities by names given to the areas when there were no cities.

Whatever the solution to the current media disaster, my former journalistic colleagues have switched off news, including from the USA--the most toxic, and we are all feeling just that little bit happier every day.

Anonymous said...

Great to see you back Karl. Please continue to post whenever you feel like it.

Doug Longmire said...

Belated comment from me:-
Thanks Karl. Your commentaries are just outstanding in clarity, depth and knowledge.

Paul Peters said...

Looking at Stuff-NZME-Herald coverage recently it seems to me a more united wall of ''let's bring the govt down'' is emerging .
This morning's O'Brien item of three ''former right wing ministers'' ( umm Finlayson, Henare right wing...really?) all agreeing the coalition is doomed seems an orchestrated outcome .
I guess there is a chunk of the population that read this without questioning it; it is what they want to happen .
Certainly various local govt and university circles (Vic and Otago this week) seem more determined than ever to continue their various missions for race- based wards and speech censorship than before the election, sensing it is only 30 months until they have power again ...and next time they will go harder.
Stuff and now the Merald increasingly playing their supportive roles.
-Paul P

Steve Plowman said...

Good to see you burst into print again Karl and hopefully you'll continue to share your views with such clarity and balance, as befits the "old" school of journalism - the one that was, in the most part, trusted by the populace. Many of the journalists of today seem to have adopted a role as activists and see their job not as reporting the news but in offering their personal opinion in order to advance their brave new Utopian vision of how things should be.

I've spoken to old journalist colleagues and many don't bother with Radio NZ or TVNZ News anymore either. They see them as being so lopsided and ideologically-driven as to not be worth their time. I feel the same.

I would agree that most journalists I've worked with are left leaning but I did not see any evidence of that colouring their objectivity in terms of reporting the news in the 50 years I spent in the media.

The media has, of course, been subject to government influence from both sides of the political divide through our history - the most glaring example of which was the media censorship imposed during the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. Right-wing media/barons dutifully kowtowed to the National government of the day to actively prevent the other side of that dispute being told. I always looked upon the media owners as being largely right-wing while their staff were largely left-wing but in the main editorials were balanced and so was the reporting.

Good to see our former resident cricket expert Lynn McConnell commenting above too.

Kind regards.


Paul Peters said...

Whether or not woke goes broke when you have a state fund helping seems immaterial to Stuff. Almost every day here in Taranaki there is a long article or column, or both, supporting Maori wards and everyone else racist etc...some emotive stuff ...former journos, ''law experts'' of the correct view and activists. No other view exists apparently despite there being ''law experts'' who could counter the stuff and do on online sites. Not msm.
The Herald this afternoon came out with a headline that started ''Voters ditch National (after budget)...umm it was a slight drop, Labour fell a little too and Act and NZ First were up a tad...the biased headline and bit thereafter was obvious...the whole thing was taken down and appeared a few hours later as National drops etc. Are we treated as fools? I know where the Herald's upper echelon and its minions stand. Stop pretending otherwise. -
Paul Peters