Cane toads and shockjocks

Nicholas Gruen’s post a couple of days ago on American RWDB shockjock Bill O’Reilly’s dummy spit has got me thinking.  Why haven’t local TV programmers inflicted similar current affairs “personality” commentators on Australian audiences?  After all, we’ve had their radio equivalents for years, with John Laws, Alan Jones, Stan Zemanek etc. Like Darwin residents before the recent arrival of cane toads, perhaps we should all just count our blessings while they last.

In the US, shockjockery like that of O’Reilly or Fox News commentators like Sean Hannity or Britt Hume is an established genre, and not only on the right.  Left-leaning shockjocks like Keith Olbermann are just as rabid and blatantly partisan.  Check out the video at left, where Olbermann fulminates in increasingly shrill terms about an admittedly cynical piece of overseas electioneering by President Bush.  Even if you agree (as I certainly do) that the Iraq invasion was both a stupid idea and appallingly executed, that doesn’t mean it’s self-evidently wrong for Bush to argue that a precipitate withdrawal now might well exacerbate the situation in the Middle East and the risk of terrorism at home. Indeed that’s exactly the position that both McCain and Clinton take.  Even Obama seems to be leaving himself a bit of wriggle room.

But that’s a digression from the point I was making.  Is there anything we can do to resist the arrival of TV shockjocks in Australia?  Of course there are some who see journalistic objectivity as a myth or a fraud anyway.  I disagree. Anything that exacerbates tribalism and intolerance is inimical to liberal democratic values, and doubly so when it’s driven by cynical commercialism.((Incidentally, one of the reasons I dislike Big Brother with such a passion, as well as its being complete crap, is that it promotes nakedly self-centred, dishonest, opportunistic, stab-in-the-back values as admirable to an impressionable audience for cynical ratings-boosting reasons. Hence charming innovations like revenge “hand grenades”, “snap evictions” etc. ~ KP))  

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Kim
Kim
13 years ago

Aside from the irrelevant digression into Big Brother slammin’, Ken, what evidence can you offer that there is any such “arrival” on the horizon for us to resist in Australia?

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

In the US, it’s almost entirely on cable news networks. We don’t have the population to justify those – the only one we’ve got, Sky, struggles to fill its airtime. It also relies on a degree of cultural polarisation that we don’t have here to anywhere near the same degree of intensity – one of the reasons why the “culture wars” here have really been just a stoush between elites.

If I were you, I’d stop worrying, Ken. Surely you’ve got your hands full with your BB hatin’? ;)

Btw, you seem to know a lot about how the show works for someone who doesn’t watch it!

gilmae
13 years ago

That Sky News struggles to fill it’s airtime makes it doubly curious – why are they buying A Current Affair and Today Tonight off the commercial networks when they could just as easily fill that airtime with cheap talk. With loud, know-nothing talking heads pontificating for a half-hour slot. If Blair, Bolt, Akerman, blogs and Margo Kingston have taught us anything, it is that opinion is so much cheaper and easier than news gathering.

But yeah, like Kim said, where’s the outrage in the Australian community to support it?

Richard Green
Richard Green
13 years ago

I agree with the idea that they are a product of niche programming, made available by large populations and cable news, so a program can afford to preach to a base rather than at least feigning objectivity.

But a second point in regards to free to air news is that the level of political coverage warrants only one journo. Those journos also base their trade on receiving “leaks” from self interested pollies. If someone becomes blatantly partisan, they don’t receive leaks from one side because there’s no point, and no leaks are forthcoming from the other because the strategists realise that the news is less credible to swinging voters from someone partisan, and their importance is magnified when compulsory voting nullifies mobilising the base.

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

That Sky News struggles to fill its airtime makes it doubly curious – why are they buying A Current Affair and Today Tonight off the commercial networks when they could just as easily fill that airtime with cheap talk. With loud, know-nothing talking heads pontificating for a half-hour slot.

Because of the niche they occupy in the market – biz, high scale audiences. Who aren’t interested in idiots bloviating.

The other point that could be made here is that the talkback shockjocks Antipodean style are dying, retiring and all losing ratings. That’s why Kevin07 was doing his “talk over the heads of the media” thing with Mel and Kochie not Laws and Jones. Much bigger reach – much more reach to swinging voters. That may be the future of political communication in Australia – rather than the outdated talkback format.

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

Anything that exacerbates tribalism and intolerance is inimical to liberal democratic values, and doubly so when its driven by cynical commercialism

Which media in Australia isn’t driven by commercialism? Public broadcasters such as SBS and the ABC either carry advertising, or play the ratings game to maximise the spinoff in online/shop sales, and to curry favour with their political masters in the funding game. Perhaps Ken could enlighten us as to where objectivity and quality in political broadcasting can be found in Australia?

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

85 million Americans or around 1/3 of the population, a pretty large niche.

Cable tv is much much cheaper in America than in Australia.

As I’m saying, it’s all about the market. I don’t buy the claim that media moguls preserved quality. They were just dinosaurs who didn’t get what were the new conditions for commercial success.

If they can accurately target a particular demographic keen for sensationalism rather than accurate information it could be very profitable.

That’s the Big Brother demographic! They’re not interested in Andrew Bolt ranting.

I dont really think Australias culture is all that different from the US (although we certainly lack the large number of religious fundies and large conservative rural population)

Go live there for six years, Ken. I did. You’ll notice a difference.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

Ken, you’re looking for a commercial explanation for a phenomenon that has more to do with political agency. US radio and television abounds with unabashed right-wing polemics because powerful interests dictate the agenda and pay for its dissemination. The real question is why rightwing conservatism is such a powerful organised force in the US in the first place. It’s no more remarkable that Australia lacks it than that Europe lacks it.

JC
JC
13 years ago

Ken P says:

I hope all you people who reckon its just a niche phenomenon that would never take off in Australia are right. However, although Fox News is a cable broadcaster it reaches 85 million Americans or around 1/3 of the population, a pretty large niche.

I agree, but I’m not sure who would carry it. The free to air private stations wouldn’t so I think and that means it has to come from cable. But who’s going to start a cable channel devoted to news in Australia only? We have parts of Sky but that’s meshed in with Sky news worldwide and Asian would fall asleep hearing Howard’s a rodent or Rudd’s a dick.

I’m not certain the economics are there, Ken. I’m sure Murdoch would have looked at it because quite frankly it would have been a boilerplate business plan that was used for Fox news. I don’t think the viewership is there otherwise Rupert would have tried it here in some way. Maybe I’m wrong and it would take off like a rocket, who knows, but Im pretty sure Rupert would have looked at it.

I know people don’t like hearing this but Murdoch’s Fox News gamble was one of the most spectacular successes in modern media history. Bush senior’s former chief of staff actually went to Murdoch with the idea of creating a right wing news channel. Murdoch bought into it and was able to segment what was thought to be an already overcrowded market. Media people thought he was crazy which is why that old loud mouth the former head of CNN hates Murdoch with a passion. Well I’d hate to think what multiple Fox News would be trading on now. Rupert had the patience to fund it as a losing proposition in the first 3 years or so.

Finally I don’t know why people get so worked about guys like O’Reilly, Oblermann etc. It’s entertainment people. It’s like WWF wrestling in a sort of way. They get paid huge bucks to spout crap out each night. I once read somewhere that O’ Reilly was getting 30 odd mill year or for contract life ….. whatever it is it’s huge money.

So next time you watch O’Reilly or the O man just remember he’s earning huge bucks to say things like that.

There is an ongoing suspicion that a right wing shock jock named Savage in California is actually a lefty because he’s been often funding left wing pols. Who knows, just enjoy the screaming and thats about it.

Or Take Ann Coutler. She was quite friendly with JFK junior and is often seen at lunch with lefties in NYC. It’s just entertainment and it sells.

JC
JC
13 years ago

US radio and television abounds with unabashed right-wing polemics because powerful interests dictate the agenda and pay for its dissemination.

The reason right wing radio abounds is that the American television media was essentially leftish to soft left until Murdoch came along and showed them that it wasn’t as overcrowded market as what conventional thinking said. It was overcrowded for the traditionalists those who were competing foe that crowd. However there was a large pool of viewers who wanted a right wing slant, so Murdoch had that side of the market all to himself.
Much earlier radio was used by the right wing because they found a big market for their brand that wasnt being satisfied too. Remember, ultimately you have to sell advertising dollars in that cutthroat market therefore every media point counts. So if you wanna make money in media you have offer people what you think they want or you go broke or get sold off like any other business.

At one time the US had a 50/50 deal going in that if a conservative opinion was broadcast an opposing opinion had to be offered as well. I cant remember but I think it was called the fairness test. That changed with deregulation and because radio was a much cheaper medium to experiment or buy right wing jocks appeared in that media segment first. I think Murdoch first tried television shock jockery in terms of just having one guy spout one-sided opinion.

I recall CNN used to carry a Saturday night program through the late 80s and 90s with three lefties and one conservative and that program went for years. They all used to yell at the conservative and make fun of him.

The real question is why rightwing conservatism is such a powerful organised force in the US in the first place.

Is it any more powerful than the other side? Last time I looked they didn’t hold the congress and the states are about even I think. And to be honest the left and soft left has a far bigger share in the big media markets. Local and syndicated free to air news etc. is still the most watched by far.

Its no more remarkable that Australia lacks it than that Europe lacks it.

You’re trying to explain the most complex nation of earth in a few sentences? Go to the big five cities and it’s immediate surrounds and they are a bigger version of Carlton or Balmain. It’s hard to find a right-winger in most of Manhattan! You may have an image that the US is the south when it’s really about 4 or 5 different cultures sort of.

Kim
Kim
13 years ago

Ken, I think, FWIW, that the ABC in particular has dumbed down its news content through a combination of funding cuts and obsession about “balance” and “objectivity”.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
13 years ago

Ken, thx for the post.

I agree. I even agree that George W Bush is about as bad as the US presidency has got – certainly in my lifetime – but I couldn’t take more than about two minutes of that Olbermann clip. What a pain in the arse!

At least to some extent it’s absence here is a cultural thing. I’m very pleased and proud to say that they sent the late and unlamented Stan Zemanek down to Melbourne from Sydney to try his nasty schtick, but genteel Melbourner couldn’t quite see what the point of all the ranting was. We have some poisonous radio personalities, but they’re not in Alan Jones’ or Zemanek’s class.

Stephen Lloyd
Stephen Lloyd
13 years ago

I am surprised noone has mentioned the advert running on SkyNooz advertising a new upcoming show.

It definately looks like a personality-based opinion show, though there are not many details. They guy on the ad is young(ish) and seems quite jovial, so I could be wrong, it may just be light entertainment.

conrad
conrad
13 years ago

I thought Alan Jones was on TV for a while — but he rated so poorly he got the axe quickly (or am I confusing him?)

wilful
wilful
13 years ago

Alan Jones was attempted at in some time in the 90s. Lasted a minute.

Derryn Hinch lasted quite a while.

Fleeced
13 years ago

Yeah, I remember the Alan Jones TV attempt… they tried doing “tv callback” which was kind of silly.

Personally, rants like the above video make be intuitively want to disagree with their point of view – can’t stand it. That said, I don’t see what the fuss is. Don’t like it, don’t watch it.

Patrick
Patrick
13 years ago

Ezra Klein catches your drift:


The problems for the media are structural…. [T]he shows are really run as a type of soap opera. Campaigns become ongoing stories with a cast of characters and a history that can be referred back to. That requires the daily construction of a story line. Characters need definition and catchphrases and frailties… clips that can be easily and endlessly replayed to remind viewers of what they’re watching and what happened in past episodes… the media hunger for out-of-character gaffes and missteps — those moments are crucial to the business model.
But politicians increasingly have alternatives…. And now the campaigns of Obama and McCain are broaching the idea of Lincoln-Douglas-style debates — a series of unmoderated debates that would leverage the public interest in the campaign to force the media to cover debates without imposing their own narrative or needs on the structure. It’s campaigning as politicians, rather than the media, would have it. Weird as it sounds, that might be better for the process. And, for the candidates, it certainly sounds like more fun.

Bill Posters
Bill Posters
13 years ago

Ken Parish:

I predict that an Australianexperiment with TV shockjockery isnt very far away.

It’s been tried (several times), it didn’t work.

<blockquote?Whether it works or not is another matter, and for some of the reasons other commenters have discussed.

It’s been tried (several times), it didn’t work.

But I wouldnt be at all surprised if it works well.

It’s been tried (several times), it didn’t work.

Hinch, Jones and Zemanek all gave TV demagoguery a go.

It didn’t work.

I don’t think Ken understands the media industry very well; in particular he seems to have confused the concepts of “reach” and “viewers”.

The US is a unique media market in many ways, not least because unlike pretty much anywhere else in the English-speaking world it does not import content, it exports it.

Many “lessons” from US TV don’t scale down to the Australian market.

GJ
GJ
13 years ago

#13 “You are trying to explain the most complex nation on earth in a few sentences” JC
Not sure about the ‘most’ but certainly complex! Having worked in New Orleans, Oakland, Ravenswood (West Virginia), and New York for a number of years I would agree. Unfortunately, however, many commentators tend to see the US in terms of red and blue – as if each of these colours reflect a homogeneous group. Far from the truth!!Even within States the cultural diversity is amazing cf New Orleans & Baton Rouge in Louisiana!! A range of centre left to centre right to right – without being too definitive – all within a small State.

However, notwithstanding the ‘geo-cultural’ spread, at the end of the day people listen to (or view) those who reflect their own particular view of the world. And that is not unique to the USA. Dissonance generates discomfort!!

Kim #1 & #14
I would be interested in “what evidence you can offer” re the ‘dumbing-down’ of the ABC news progams due to funding limitations and ‘balance’ requirements.
How did you define and measure this phenomenon?
Over what time period did you measure it?
How do you explain the causal relationship between the overall funding cuts to the ABC and your alleged quality loss in news programs.
How did you define ‘balance’?
How did you measure such balance?

People who live by the sword …