Gotcha Journalism as bullshit: Propaganda v anti-propaganda

[O]ne does not go about identifying the weaknesses of what another person says in order to prove that one is always right, but one seeks instead as far as possible to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating. Such an attitude seems essential to me for any understanding at all to come about. This is nothing more than an observation. It has nothing to do with an ‘appeal’ and nothing at all to do with ethics. Even immoral beings try to understand one another.

Hans Georg Gadamer

As I was driving to the airport on Thursday night I listened to this exquisitely ghastly specimen of the emptiness of modern political life. Patricia Karvelas is interviewing Assistant Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham. It’s a contest not a conversation – which is fairly par for the course.

But it’s an unusual kind of contest. Because Karvelas sees it as her role to disrupt the Assistant Minister in whatever way she can. Constant interruptions are par for the course too. She begins by asking him a question which, according to the rules of political combat the Minister can’t answer straightforwardly. In announcing some help for manufacturing industry in Geelong and elsewhere “Is the coalition just trying to sandbag” seats where it’s become now “desperately vulnerable”.

So here’s a situation where the Government spokesman has come on to talk about how good his policy is. You’d expect a hostile interview to be one in which the spokesperson’s case that it’s a good policy might be challenged. But instead, the interviewer takes the interview in directions that the spokesman, as a spokesman, is unable to discuss in any bona fide way without being seen by all and sundry (including the media) as doing his job badly.

So he begins his reply with “not at all”, and then tries to get back to why he’s there. He rattles off a few more talking points arguing his book – the government is trying “deliver the policies that Australia needs” and makes the very valid point that major Ford and Mitsubishi closures occurred under the previous Government so it’s a wider point than that. All fair enough – and utterly dull, predictable and uninformative. This is a conversation on auto-pilot.

Then he points to what he argues are good employment numbers, saying employment is the highest it’s ever been (in total numbers of employed that is). Now we’re having some kind of statement made on some of the merits of the situation. Some information – however tendentious is starting to leak through the talking points. The beginning of a discussion which might inform us and help us decide what we think? Not a bit of it.

Karvelas doesn’t challenge her interviewee’s facts or interpretation, or push the spokesperson towards a less partial position. She just starts arguing black against the spokesman’s white. He finds a way to quote the figures in as favourable light as possible and she then reels off a litany of ways in which they can be read unfavourably. She picks up some Opposition talking points that, at 800,000 people and 6.3% of the workforce, unemployment is “at crisis level isn’t it?”.

And on it goes. If you were hoping to learn anything other than the two sides equally misleading talking points, you’d be sadly disappointed. Over almost fifteen minutes the interview goes precisely nowhere as the journalist and the spokesperson go through their paces. This is just another artefact of our modern world of bullshit (in the technical sense that we understand it here at Club Pony). It presents a ritual of sense-making without any sense actually being made or even intended to be made. Here we have a simulacrum of an argument about the state of the world in which the two disputants disagree but they don’t disagree about anything other than the spin they will arbitrarily impose on the facts – according to the side of the debate they are already committed to – with the added rider that, in the case of the journalist it’s all in brackets. If a spokesman for another cause were on the show, she’d go and look up his opponents’ talking points and parrot them back at him.

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22 Responses to Gotcha Journalism as bullshit: Propaganda v anti-propaganda

  1. GrueBleen says:

    Oh for goodness sake, Nicholas, Patricia Karvelas has worked as a print journalist on the Australian since 2002 until recently. What do you expect from a Murdochian Koolaidist who is only on the ABC so it can claim some “balance’ ?

    Besides, what do you mean that the Mitsubishi and Ford closedowns are a “valid” point ? They are a correct point – ie yes, they really did happen – but a “valid’ point ? That can only be a “valid” point if you think it proves something argumentatively.

    And what ‘valid’ point could that possibly be ? That “both sides do it” ? Or that somehow a partial closure at Ford plus a final closure of a failed foreign manufacturer can be equated to the total closedown of motor vehicle manufacture ion Australia ? oh yes, they be commensurate happenings, wouldn’t they.

    And a $14 million ‘training’ facility to reverse all that and make Australia a manufacturing nation once again ? That doesn’t even count as peanut dust, much less as peanuts.

    • David Irving (no relation) says:

      Actually, Mitsubishi were clearly at the point of closing when I worked there in 2004. I wouldn’t be inclined to blame it on Howard, though – the twin straws were an eye-wateringly expensive SAP rollout, and head office’s insistence on us making cars no-one was going to buy.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        No-one to blame for Mitsubishi but Mitsubishi. Anyway, it was the smallest and therefore the highest cost producer, the logical first departure.

        • David Irving (no relation) says:

          Absolutely. Their build quality was sensational, but no-one in Australia wanted to buy a front wheel drive car with a nearly 4 litre motor.

  2. John Walker says:

    ” If a spokesman for another cause were on the show, she’d go and look up his opponents’ talking points and parrot them back at him.”

    That is, more and more, the problem: journalists are supposed to investigate stories, not just google up the opponents’ talking points.
    There are a lot less journalists and a lot less subeditors and backup staff these days and at same time there is the ever present 24/7 demand for filler; quality has to suffer, no?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, but I don’t think that’s the main problem. Karvelas could easily have discussed the points he made on their merits.

      • John Walker says:

        True but that would require more work than she is paid for.

      • John Walker says:

        I do agree with you, however the purpose of these things is for many, entertainment or something to pass the time while stuck in traffic .

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Yes, agreed. That’s the whole schtick. Am I the only one who finds people on auto-pilot more boring than people who are engaging with one another. It’s quite possible to engage in the subject you know. You can also pop in some of the Opposition’s talking points. No law against that. It’s how automatic and utterly content free the conversation is that I object to.

        • John Walker says:

          Sorry, by Yes! , I meant you are not the only one who is bored shitless by the schtick.

      • GrueBleen says:

        I’m sorry Nicholas, but what exactly were the “points he made” again ? “Both sides do it” and after automotive manufacturing is closed down “here’s $14 million to make Australia a manufacturing nation again” ?

        I think he got the response he deserved, in fact probably more than he deserved. Besides just how many different subjects do you expect Karvelas to “engage in” in several hours of drive-time five days a week. As John Walker said, after his fashion, that’s way more than her pay grade.

        You really do have difficulty communicating with the intellectual lower orders, don’t you. besides, after you’ve stated that the problem is “…how automatic and utterly content free the conversation is …” where do you go from there ? Do you really expect to be able to turn Drive-time into Background Briefing ?

        Just who, apart from yourself, do you think listens to Drive-time anyway ?

        • Tripitaka says:

          Yes, to most of what you say, and I’ve been wondering what the “opposition talking points” Nicolas would like PK as she is called by the RN regulars, to raise.

          There is a hilarious post over at that beacon of right wing ideas, Catalaxy, in which the prime libertarian economist tries like a limp lettuce leaf to argue with the conservatives and introduce some opposition talking points to the ME conversation.

          But perhaps Amanda Vanstone deserves a mention as someone who is just recently begun doing a better job of her role as the presenter of ‘Counterpoint’?

          I like her new schitk as a pore old lady who really wants to understand things and she uses her show lately to showcase how the years of her lack of intellectual curiosity have made her such a ‘leaner’ in terms of helping her ‘side’ understand the ‘opposition’ talking points.

          She has though refused to publish the comment I provided in response to her request for feedback last week and this week she did not ask for comments.

          I also note that the other bastion of right wing free thinking Online Opinion does little to advance the conversation or introduce any oppositional ideas to those of the regulars, such as Hasbeen. Sure Graham publishes articles from all ‘sides’ but the conversation is dominated and shut down by the Hasbeen’s that Graham lurves.

          Graham also has blocked my comments although he claims to be in favour of free speech. What a hypocrite but who is surprised.

        • GrueBleen says:

          Hmmm, ‘Tripitaka’ … now there’s a nom girded with sentimentality :-)

          I once encountered the idea that, to (more or less) quote “most (literary) criticism amounts to saying ‘If I’d have done it, I’d have done it different'”. And that strikes me as somewhat applicable to several of the whinges in this topic. Besides, if Drive-Time were ‘on manual (ie not “automatic”)’ and full of ‘content’ such that people really wanted to listen to it and take it in, then it would be a road hazard akin to use of a mobile phone while driving.

          So maybe Nicholas and Paul and John should be happy that it’s poor old “content free automaton”, Patricia Karvelas doing the show.

          I did look in on Catallaxy once or twice but I just couldn’t come at such automatic content free preaching as being worthy of any attention. I wot not of Online Opinion and after your fine analysis I’m happy for that state to continue indefinitely.

          As to good old Amanda, well it would be completely unexpected – at least to me – if she ever really emerged from her mobile hibernation and joined in a genuine human interchange – at least in one that wasn’t automatic and content free.

    • David Irving (no relation) says:

      I’ve heard Karvelis do exactly that on several occassions. Fran Kelly, amongst others, does it as well.

  3. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    yes, journalistic spin as a performance dance has crowded out more useful debate. I hoped the advent of The Guardian would change this.

    Apart from the issue of reduced advertising revenue squeezing journalistic quality (less money for more journos inevitably means less good journos), I have wondered whether there is something inevitable about political-news-as-entertainment when the population feels content. It’s easy to blame Murdoch for it, but why would a population demand anything but entertainment when they believe things are going well? Dogs getting excited about the excitement of other dogs.

  4. Hasbeen says:

    What on earth was your radio doing tuned to that station?

    You must be a left/green fool, or a masochist.

  5. Tripitaka says:

    “I hoped the advent of The Guardian would change this.”

    Paul was this hope you had just magical thinking or was there some sort of social or economic dynamic that supported this hope?

    and this is a bit confusing

    “I have wondered whether there is something inevitable about political-news-as-entertainment when the population feels content.”

    Have you done a study that tells you the population is content and that things are going well? What population have you tapped into that tells you that people think things are going well?

    Ask Hasbeen, he knows how badly things are going and how we so need to ban the burka and stop all that awful political correctness and feminism that ruins the lives of good men like him. :)

    • paul frijters says:

      plenty of studies on the contentment of Australians. Type in ‘life satisfaction in the HILDA’ and you will find a few. 20 years without a large recession helps.

      Hope came partially from wishful thinking, obviously! I hoped the advent of a competitor that seemed independent of the existing media empires would drive up the bar for all. Didn’t you have any hope?

      • Tripitaka says:

        I don’t understand what you mean by hope – not a rational thing to do is it? – but that is my problem.

        I am not disappointed by the contribution that the Guardian has made to the change in the current trends as I see them in the population that I am part of. There is a clear change for the better in the conversations that people are willing to have about what has gone wrong with our country and our children and despite the ‘life satisfaction’ ratings you are relying on, people know things are not going according to any plan that will work.

        And really, glib is all I can say about your evidence for this level of satisfaction in ‘the population’.

        You do know the problems with this type of ‘research’, surely?

        Did you miss the recent revelations about Jackie Lambie’ son and the ice epidemic? Not an epidemic but I know two women in my little town who have sons in much the same situation. So I think much of your argument that the population is so relaxed and comfortable they don’t want to read about what is really happening in politics, economics and what choices we really do have to make to prevent catastrophic climate change.

  6. paul walter says:

    It was easy to see red reading this because I think it is a foul and significant problem and part of the Great Dumbing Down. Nothing frustrates me more than trying to get a zero sum conversation and people only want to hide info or attack people rather than analyse and query, if necessary, ideas.

    What ever happened to good faith?

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