The banality of bullshit

Yesterday I came across a fairly innocuous story about the seafood industry on AM.

It is headlined (on the website) and introduced thus.

Australia’s seafood capital under pressure from imports

TONY EASTLEY: Port Lincoln calls itself Australia’s seafood capital. On South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, it’s home to the nation’s largest commercial fishing fleet.

It’s a major exporter of both wild and aquaculture products, but it’s coming under increasing pressure from imports.

For instance, it’s reported that around half of the barramundi consumed in Australia comes from Asia. Barramundi is known by many around the world as Asian seabass, although its scientific common name is barramundi perch.

Then the actual story begins.

TIM JEANES: Sitting by a boat ramp next to the city’s maritime museum, one of Port Lincoln’s pioneer tuna fishermen Hagen Stehr looks out to the waters of Spencer Gulf and sees good times ahead thanks to China.


You might notice that contra to the introduction, Mr Stehr seems neither “under pressure”, nor concerned about imports. In fact, he seems very positive about the future of his industry. You may even notice that Port Lincoln’s Barramundi industry is much more impaired by the difficulties a tropical fish faces in the Southern Ocean than the spectre of imports.

In fact, the entire premise of the introduction is not supported, and indeed is only tangentially related to the actual report.

I don’t get why our media does this. I don’t know why casual dishonesty leaks through every aspect of what they do.

You might ask why this matters. Surely this is an innocuous and harmless topic, buried in a morning program, unlikely to influence anyone in service of any ideology or vested interest? After all Mr Stehr, the relevant vested interest here as the unidentified founder of Cleanseas, is not asking for protectionism here but a reduction of trade barriers.

So who decided that a “under pressure from imports” framing was called for, and why are we told, without any support at all, that this is the case?

It is the sheer lack of reasons to distort the story that makes it so disturbing. It’s dishonesty in service of no-one. It’s become such a routine part of the practice that one needs not a proprietor, some vested interests or ones own reputation as a player to spark it. You don’t even need the conceit of a clever “angle” to sex up a story to attract the shrinking pool of people who accept the bullshit. It’s just how things are done.

If we can’t trust them to cut back on the bullshit on even the most unimportant, innocuous topics, how can we ever hope to trust them on anything that really matters. We don’t have the energy to scour each line of an article to check whether the quote in the headline was actually said by anyone except the journalist. We don’t have time to check whether the accusation in a story has any actual evidence, or indeed an identified source. We don’t have time to see if the bold pronouncement of a headline is supported by anything in the article itself, as in this AFR (paywalled) article which bases its pronouncement of current fact on a future hypothetical by Trevor Cook at the end.

So people tune out.

It loses them respect, it poisons debate, and it is sending them bankrupt[1]. So why do they do it?

My only guess is that the banality of bullshit is so great that they know no other way.

[fn1] Except regrettably the ABC, who can maintain the iron tropes of inanity in perpetuity.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
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17 Responses to The banality of bullshit

  1. Mt Isa Miner says:

    I agree with you. The falseness of the media has seen my subscriptions to all (Australian, SMH, Econ, FR,) cancelled. I skim them on the net and bypass the paywall if interested enough.

    The corruption, because that is what it essentially is, concerns me on many levels. It has corrupted any chance of public discourse because so many of the public who rely on print and TV are both actively ill informed and also taught/modelled to think in an obfuscatory and illogical fashion. They lack the tools to understand the essentials a citizen must understand.

    The essential falsity is accepted and promulgated by the education system at all levels. Any attempt to cut to the truth is protrayed as harsh and judgmental and therefore offensive to the relativism of education values. Cloaking words in nonsense was what Orwell warned us about. Lies and nonsense to cloud the mind.

    I dispair of helping the teens in my neighbourhood read newsprint and magezines to inform them of what is going on the the world- only blogs seem to be able to be counted on to promote a view and counterview explicitly and honestly of the world. Maybe I’m just mourning for a world that has passed.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Great post Richard,

    I’d add just one thing. I don’t agree that this race to the bottom is harming the newspapers. What you are witnessing is the second and third generation affects of journalism being entertainment. Every journo knows this in their bones, and it takes the conscious effort of journalists not to fall into this. Most journeyman journos don’t make that effort. So they know that a ‘story’ has to have a story and it will rate higher if the story is immediately recognisable from a few words “imports threaten industry” will do it.

    So while I’m in sympathy with your indignation, I think it’s a tiny minority who have stopped buying papers on this account. Most have stopped because they are too busy and can pick up the news in the ether – on Facebook, Twitter and blogs.

    And I’ll quote myself from a thread which made bullshit studies respectable on this blog ;)

    At the time of the “cash for comment” scandal, I know various people usually older than me who said “now Alan Jones and John Laws are finished”. I never thought it would hurt their ratings. It didn’t. When I was a kid in grade 5 I used to listen to Garner Ted Armstrong an evangelist on the radio. I had been brought up by devout atheists and I didn’t really take in what I was being told as being true or false. I liked the cadence of speech, the compelling tone. People listen to talk-back radio or at least shock jocks like that. They don’t care if its true or not they are being entertained. But I expect that paradoxically, if things get said as obvious truisms on those shows, it produces subtle shifts in people’s views, in what is thinkable and sayable and what’s not. It becomes possible. I guess Goebbels knew this.

    • GrueBleen says:

      Garner Ted, eh ? Well, back when I was in Forms I and II (as years 7 and 8 were called then), I used to listen to Herbert W and his ‘Plain Truth About the World Tomorrow’. DGSS (Different Generations, Same Sh…).

      But then I also listened to Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America (same reason: cadence and tone), however I always believed that Alistair had at least some connection with intersubjective reality.

      And the point to this wave of nostalgia ? Have things really gotten any worse than they’ve always been ? I remember The Age (before Fairfax) in its very pro-Liberal Party days, I remember the Melbourne Truth … and others of the time.

      Have things really gotten any worse or do we just have slightly better reality filters now ?

  3. nottrampis says:


    let me give you the john dory as you appear to be CARPing around or at least FLOUNDERing.

    All fisherman are SOLE traders. They obviously make NET profits!

    The point you are trying to make is that people are swallowed HOOK, LINE and SINKER.

    now that is a ROD for your back!

  4. derrida derider says:

    “the iron tropes of inanity” – lovely. I’ll have to remember that phrase.

  5. Nicholas Gruen says:

    “Structural reforms [are] more important than ever for a strong and balanced economic recovery”

    OECD – the other day. Direct from the “then was the time for complacency” school of politics and rhetoric.

  6. conrad says:

    Its weird to bring up fishing as an example also — given the state of the world’s fisheries, I imagine the next time there will excess fish of this type will be about the time that humans disappear from the planet (and last time I checked Barramundi was also about $30 per kilo). It’s also not like people are going to want to eat Chinese fish either if they can afford something from slightly cleaner waters (especially Chinese people).

  7. TN says:

    Yes, a great post. I read it after flicking through the ‘quality papers’ and I probably saw half a dozen great sounding headlines is search of a robust underpinning.

  8. Pedro says:

    I agree with NG, there is no mens rea for the bullshit, it’s stupidity. “Someone’s talking about trade, hmmm, what do I know about that? Aha, exports and good and imports are bad!”

    Does a day go by without some stupid media story about the horrible effects of competition on businesses?

  9. Even “good” sources do this. Take the MIT Technology Review, usually well regarded.

    The headline:

    Meet the Man With A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming

    What the Man With The Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming actually says:

    “I’m not saying it will work, and I’m not saying we should do it.” But “it would be reckless not to begin serious research on it,” he adds. “The sooner we find out whether it works or not, the better.”

    So a more accurate headline would have been:

    Meet the Man Who Thinks We Ought To Do Some Serious Science And Canvass All The Options Without Necessarily Committing To Any Right Now Because We Currently Have No Firm Evidence

    Oh wait. That won’t get linkbait traffic from the intertwats.

    Anyway. Has been ever thus. Journalists misquote … subbies mislead.

  10. Paul frijters says:

    Nice example, Richard. I think Nick is right when he says the main reason for this is that media is entertainment. Why bother with unpleasant expensive-to-get truth when things feel so well? Another factor is the declining ability to get as revenue out of news, squeezing the budgets for reporters. Gossip and fantasy are cheap, and the people writing it are cheaper too.

  11. nottrampis says:

    you have made it to Around the Traps.

    if I can say in an immodestly way the premier look at the best blogs of the week.

    yes it is a blatant plug but David Glasner reads it!!!

  12. Steve 1 says:

    It is a problem!

  13. David Walker says:

    AM spectacularly buried the lead – which is that Port Lincoln is suffering from so much prosperity that people are losing the will to pick up the next dollar. From a resident at the bottom of the story:

    There’s just so much pressure. Every second place in Port Lincoln has a boat, a big four-wheel drive, they have a beautiful flash boat. And there’s just boats everywhere. So I’ve actually got to a stage where close to 70 years of age, I’m still fit and active, but I’ve lost the drive to go fishing. Half the time I wake up in the morning and think what’s, it’s not really worth it.

    We should all have such woes at 70.

    It’s unclear whether Tim Jeanes himself was confused about his story, or whether someone else worked hard to push it into the ABC current affairs template marked “the place is going to hell”. Either way, the result is bizarre.

    But not as bizarre as The Age’s story, which is essentially a page three yarn about an unsupported claim by one person about what she’d been told by someone else who might or might not have talked to someone who knew something.

    Or to look at it another way: Australia is suffering a shortage of fresh trouble, and it looms as a potential disaster for the national fretting industry, of which these stories are just one disturbing symptom.

    If this is true, then we can only hope, for the sake of a generation of journalists and academics and think-tank staff, that this is a mere cyclical downturn rather than a structural shift, and that our long national nightmare of good news will soon end.

    It’s either that, or the media will have to start covering indigenous issues.

  14. Tel says:

    Crap journalism, golly… dog bites man.

    I don’t get why our media does this. I don’t know why casual dishonesty leaks through every aspect of what they do.

    Rumour has it, that’s their job, but you can’t believe every rumour you hear.

  15. john r walker says:

    Its only a thought …. but would not be that surprised if it turned out that who ever edited the story , cut and pasted it together , did not actual read any of the main part of the text.

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