Last week I provided an argument about how our media are failing in the task of providing us with information so we can make informed decisions about the world.
I appended to this a list of the headlines from a Channel Nine evening new bulletin. It’s easy enough to laugh at that embarrassing list of non-news items, and news items badly reported, but we should remember that that particular news ‘product’ is aimed at an older and poorly educated demographic. I don’t believe there is any sense in which other news ‘products’ current available are any less lacking, it is simply that their failures are more easily overlooked.
For example there is what you might call the international economic press: The Economist and the Financial Times from Britain, The Wall Street Journal from the US, and, here, The Australian Financial Review. These are, obviously much more sophisticated ‘products’, but ultimately just as lacking, because, as I have argued in previous posts, when an ecological analysis is done on a global scale, the sums do not add up, and we are living well beyond our ecological means, however impeccable our credit rating may be.
The international economic press is group of media products (just imagine the inverted commas from now on) which has maintained its coherence into the present. It would be my argument, however, that now we are witnessing the falling together of many previously separate media spheres into the one type of ‘infotainment’.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s in Britain and my parents, being conservative and middle-class, read The Daily Mail. If they had belong to the middle classes a few rungs higher they would have read The Daily Telegraph and fewer rungs higher, The Times. If they had been lower middle class they would have read The Daily Express; if conservative or apolitical and working class they would have read The Sun or The Star. If they had been more left-wing inclined they would have read The Guardian, and if left-wing and working class, The Daily Mirror. In other words, then what newspaper you read was a function of your class and education.
In Australia I would like to say that the media landscape then was less elaborate because of a flatter social structure, but it was probably just due to a smaller newspaper industry, with the choice being a capital city newspaper in tabloid and one in long-base, or the rural press, until the birth of The Australian.
What we are seeing now is a collapsing of traditional media forms into the Internet. When the Internet was emerging newspapers and media outlets were caught in a bind: they were obliged to have an Internet presence, but struggled to make any money out of the Internet. This dilemma has persisted to the present day. It is noteworthy that it is really only the international financial press that has actually survived intact on the web because they are able to charge for their services as people rely on them to make financial and investment decisions.
What we have seen with the other media is that older readers have remained loyal to the printed word and TV, but this is not enough for newspapers and TV to maintain circulation/viewer figures. Younger and middle aged consumers have gone on to the Internet and compared the traditional sources with each other and found that in most cases these products were very much the same and contained very little real information. People have voted with their hip pockets and are showing a great reluctance to pay for something which they now see as having no value. There is no longer, it seems, any felt need to consume a particular media product in order to belong to a particular group.
And so it is that the media, newspapers, TV, radio are dumbing and dumbing down and becoming more and more sensational and more and more empty in their desperate quest for readers/viewers/listeners. And because most of these traditional media outlets were right-wing to begin with they have pursued ever more cretinous populist ways to maintain their figures. The blurring of a distinction between news reporting and opinion is the most obvious symptom of this.
(I sometimes wonder what happens when all the polite society conservatives open their dumbed-down Australians and see the stable of unlikable demagogues spouting forth—their pained patrician expressions must be a delight to observe).
So where are people going to get their quality information from?
Well, to return to the 1970s for a moment. While I leafing through The Daily Mail at home I was also watching the BBC TV News and the contrast was quite striking. The Daily Mail and the other members of the Tory press club were baying for the blood of the then Labour Government. This was a timid administration, trying to preserve a few social democratic shreds of dignity with the handicap of an IMF financial straitjacket, but it was portrayed by the press as a desperate gang of socialists intent on bringing Britain to its knees, much as the current Gillard government here is portrayed by the whole of media. However, then the BBC did a very good job of reporting the political news impartially. Their news was simply, ‘Today the Prime Minister announced this.... the Opposition said.... Professor So and So comments, “Well, of course, the Prime Minister is in a very tricky position, on the one hand....”’ and so on, so much so that my parents didn’t like watching it, saying ‘There’s too much of that horrible man Wilson/Callaghan on..’. And I remember that Independent Television News was similarly impartial.
[People will start commenting about the role of the BBC as a British propaganda tool in the 1930s onwards, Lord Reith &c... yes, I know, all I’m saying is that I remember it as doing a good job of providing information impartially in the 1970s. I can’t vouch for it since, nor can I vouch for ITN either.]
Clearly there have to be some media outlets who take it as their mission to provide information impartially. In the current Australian context this should the ABC, as unfortunately there is no private sector organisation in Australia like ITN to supply quality news to commercial television (the very idea). However, as we know the ABC has recently been following the same populist road to a road smash that the commercial media has been. (No, ABC, ‘The Opposition says..’ is not a good opening to a story, and no, you don’t have to feature global warming denialists to ‘maintain balance’).
So what will happen?
Firstly I think that the current miasma of media maundering will have the useful effect of sending several commercial media companies bankrupt in the medium term.
However, this dumbing down may in the short term have the effect of increasing support for the right in Australian politics (it may, for example bring down the Gillard Government), and, as the centre of Australia politics is already way to the right, this will be doubly disastrous. (I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Labor Government is in any way leftist, but given a choice of dark blue and light blue, you choose the light blue).
I also suspect it will have the effect of turning generations of people, people who have access to more information than anyone has ever dreamt of before, into infotainment zombies, unable to recognise information and use it for rational analysis. This would be a particular tragedy because the Internet is wonderful tool and can provide a lot of the information needed for a cogent analysis of the world at present. However, you have to know where to look, and you have to know what to ignore, and what you need to ignore is most of what passes for news and analysis.
This zombification would not consist so much of converting people to any particular cause, it would merely be by a process of inculcating the idea that all opinions are equally valid, that everything seen on TV or the Internet is equally valuable, or valueless. You could argue that this populist assault on, well, thought, is inculcating nihilism, which is the very opposite of what conservatism is supposed to stand for.
Next week: Government