May 31st 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The Twilight of the Elites

EDITORIAL: The issues the Budget ignored

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Budget proves paralysis in family policy

Family Law Act: the damage continues

SUGAR: A return to feudal agriculture?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Tories favoured / West Europe model

How water rights can be eroded: lessons of the Barmah-Millewa Forest

ECONOMY: Where the Budget leaves us

HEALTH: Over-the-counter sale for morning after pill?

OBITUARY: Tom Perrott (1921-2003)

Why Washington is warming to India

President Vicente Fox and Mexico's demographic threat

TAIWAN: SARS response shows strength of democracy

Dollar drive 'dumbs down' the media

BOOKS: FORCED LABOR: What's Wrong with Balancing Work and Family?, Brian Robertson

BOOKS: Italian Travel Pack CD

Books promotion page

Dollar drive 'dumbs down' the media

by Tim Wallace

News Weekly, May 31, 2003
Working the late shift as a cadet reporter at The Canberra Times hardly ever meant big stories. It meant ringing cop shops, compiling the lotto results and the roster of suburban bin days. It meant stories about the weather. It also meant dealing with strays - members of the common public who had a story to tell, a cause to promote or an axe to grind.

When these people were too strange or complicated to palm on to a more senior reporter, they were put through to me. I heard some interesting stories but wrote up few. Mostly they were heartbreakers, about people of limited means caught in desperate situations, often of their own creation but deserving compassion nonetheless. Their cases were typically delicate and fraught with legal implications and ambiguities like mental illness or drug abuse. A media spotlight, even a low-watt one, would not have helped them in their predicament.

No issue

Just as I let down those with good stories but no issue to tell, I also dealt a few times with people who had a good issue but no story to tell.

The most exasperating experience I had was with a woman to whose cause I was entirely sympathetic. She, alas, could not accept that just because she had something to say she was intrinsically newsworthy.

Any suggestion otherwise, in fact, made her think I had it in for her, and had done so all along, leading her to lecture me on the sins of the media and my bias. I wanted to help her, but she was convinced I was a godless libertarian. She used the phrase 'you people in the media' a lot. I hung up the phone on her eventually, probably confirming in her mind the censorious nature of the profession she loathed.

I'm sure she was a kind-hearted, well-meaning, church-going woman, but when it came to dealing with the media she was, in considering me the enemy, her own worst enemy.


Critiques of the media, whether they be from the left or the right, share a common myopia.

The left supposes that the 'corporate media' feeds the populace a carefully filtered package of misinformation in the interests of the capitalist class.

The right frets about the leftist mindset of journalists, particularly those who work at the ABC or Fairfax. In either case the focus is on journalists as agents of bias, either collectively or as individuals.

Either perspective renders the great bulk of media product invisible on the critical radar. A newspaper columnist can loom as large as an aircraft carrier, but the culture and context in which the average journalist works, and the institutional biases with which he contends, is just so much white noise.

Regular readers may have noticed that my contributions to these pages have concentrated on media concentration, not because cross-ownership is the only thing in the media to get cross about, but because it offers a different perspective to the usual Sisyphean routine of scouring interview transcripts and political commentaries for evidence of bias in the way a question is phrased here or a term used there.

Does Radio National sometimes annoy me? You bet, but not nearly as much as the commercial alternatives. And I don't know how disturbed I can be by the ABC and SBS when I look at what passes for current affairs journalism on the other television networks.

'Lifestyle' journalism

How can I get annoyed about some things when there are so many other things to be angered by: the encroachment of boundaries between editorial and advertising by 'lifestyle' journalism; the nastiness of the new genre of TV game shows spawned by the worldwide success of The Weakest Link; the sexually evocative pop babes marketed to Saturday morning audiences of pre-pubescent video watchers; the proliferation of 'reality' programs that make entertainment out of behaviour of the lowest common denominator; the so-called current affairs programs insulting us with stories about the most economical dishwashing liquid or the nation's fattest cats; the women's magazines that still have Princess Diana on their covers.

No individual can be blamed for these trends. The culprit is the commercial imperative, the pressure to maximise audience and revenue.

It is one thing to offer a different perspective, it is another to provide perspective.

Ownership, while only part of the story, is the beginning - on bottom-line considerations do virtually all other media issues hang.

Picking over the transgressions of individuals is, on the other hand, at best a footnoting job. If not read in context, it provides a distorted sense of the workings of the whole, and from that, I suspect, can arise antipathy when friendly disagreement is all that is needed.

And as my own experience tells me, perceptions of bias usually have more to do with the bias of the perceiver than the perceived.

  • Tim Wallace

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