Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand
Edited by Emma Johnson, Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth and Barnaby Bennet (Freerange Press, $40)
Reviewed by Alison McCulloch
I finished reading Don’t Dream It’s Over not long after it came out last August. I even started writing a review, which took something of an ‘I’m sorry people, but it’s already over’ approach. I’ve been pretty negative about journalism as it’s practiced in the mainstream (or MSM, or corporate media or liberal media or whatever terminology you prefer) for quite some time (see for example Stop the Press), and I believe the current capitalist media model is destructive and can’t be reformed.
But then came the U.S. election campaign. If I’d been a media skeptic before that, by the time it was over, I was an absolute nonbeliever. Back in my more innocent trusting days, say eight months ago, I thought I could read between the lines of a news story, look past the ‘angle’ or ‘spin’ and, as if I had x-ray news vision, focus in on the raw facts, at least some of which were usually buried in there somewhere. Plus, I knew the codes and the rules about how the news sausage was made. Easy peasy.
At some point after Donald Trump won the Republican primary, I realised that was no longer the case. That I had no idea what the facts of the matter were, couldn’t read between the lines, and couldn’t find anyone in MSM asking and trying to answer the questions I wanted asked and answered.
At this point I ought to disabuse readers that mine was the standard liberal shock and outrage over the apparently Hitlerian Trump candidacy. It wasn’t. This crisis of confidence was not about Trump at all, but about what the mainstream media did — and continues to do — after apparently deciding that he could not, would not, must not be elected president.
Where, I kept wondering, was the skepticism over intelligence agency reports about alleged Russian meddling in the election (didn’t we learn anything about reliability of ‘the intelligence community’ from the Iraq invasion)? Where were all the stories delving into the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to rig its primary against Bernie Sanders? And what’s with this out-of-control use of “anonymous sources” of the kind we saw in that execrable Washington Post hit piece “Russian propaganda effort helped spread fake news during election, experts say”. I mention that article specifically because it turned out to be a godsend in alerting readers to a list of alternative media outlets (smeared in the piece as Russian propaganda sites) that were asking some the questions I was, like: Consortium News, Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Black Agenda Report, and more.
As well as alternative media sites, I found myself visiting a few mainstream conservative outlets in an effort to understand what was going on and whether or not there was another side to the ‘Trump Is the New Hitler, Russia is Existential Threat No. 1’ narrative. I was forced out of a bubble I confess I hadn’t quite realised I’d been in. A bubble the mainstream (“liberal”) media itself was in up to its neck, as became strikingly clear on November 8 when Trump won the presidency in the face of almost every prognostication that he could not, would not, must not.
Meanwhile, I kept trying to write a review of Don’t Dream It’s Over. I’d sit down, wake up the computer, take out my notes, crack open the book. Then I’d get up again, thinking: I’m too confused. I’m too angry. I have no idea what’s going on. Fast forward to last week, when one of the co-editors of the book sent me an email wondering, uh, where the heck was that review (not her words). So even though I’m still in a state of radical distrust, I’m going to stay in my chair long enough to write something about this book. And do excuse the long pre-amble, but it seemed only fair that I explain my tardiness, and make some of my biases clear at the outset.
DOWNFALL IS IMMINENT
Over the years, I’ve read more collections of articles about journalism than I care to count. They’re always very well-meaning but often suffer from the common problem of being written by journalists. This is a problem because, let’s face it, journalists are committed to the importance of journalists, so you wind up with pages and pages of self-serving commentary in which they tell us, in one way or another, that they are all that stands between us and barbarity, that without them the collapse of Western Civilisation is imminent and we’d better take the decline of their/our industry more seriously than we do.
It’s not like other industries and institutions that have gone to the wall in recent decades have the kind of direct access to megaphones that journalists have, and anyway who would read articles and books about the demise of the typewriter industry written by typewriter factory workers and salespeople. (But see Toby Morris’s delightful comic — the last chapter of the book — called “Last days at the typewriter factory.”) Sure, I know journalism is so much more important than typewriters (I guess) but I challenge anyone to plough through the 26 November 2016 “Open letter from NZME and Fairfax editors” to the Commerce Commission about the Stuff-ME merger with a straight face — if you can get past that ghastly stock photo, that is. The level of self-importance on display is quite without peer.
Contrast that with the many articles about the low turnout in last year’s local body elections, the ensuing discussion of voter apathy, and of what might be done to combat it. (See, for example, Clock Ticking on Lifting Voter Turnout; Voters Give 2016 Local Body Elections the Cold Shoulder; Local Election Voter Turnout Down Again; Another Poor Voter Turnout in Auckland Council Elections) You’ll find no mention in these pieces of all that “Fourth Estate’s crucial role in democracy” malarkey. Crucial when it suits them, “nothing to do with us” when it doesn’t. It’s always someone else’s fault: lazy voters, fake news, Russians, politicians, Facebook, Trade Me… Boring!
SORTING THROUGH THE RUBBLE
It’s not surprising, then, that there are hefty doses of ‘we’re crucial to democracy, this is a crisis’ represented in the 35 articles in Don’t Dream It’s Over — “If a strong, pluralistic journalist community cannot just survive, but thrive nor can the democracy many of us take for granted,” writes Brent Edwards. But there’s also quite a lot that pushes the discussion beyond received wisdom and blackmail. That was a pleasant surprise, and made me appreciate that apart from a few holdouts who think there was a golden age of journalism and that we can go back there, most journalists now accept it’s over, and the task at hand is sorting through the rubble to see if any of it is worth keeping.
And speaking of sorting through the rubble, one of the gems in this collection is Chris Barton’s account of his own career — and sacking — at The New Zealand Herald. Titled “Anatomy of a Redundancy: The suffocation of long-form journalism in New Zealand”, the piece does (understandably) include some of the ‘tearing of hair, rending of garments’ over the decline of the craft that I’ve lost sympathy for, but it’s also delightfully biting and, unusually for journalists writing about themselves, bloody honest. He names names (though not all of them: I want to know who “Madame Defarge” is!) and gives us rare insight into what life is now like inside the MSM machine. I say rare because another of the media’s galling hypocrisies is hardly ever applying to themselves the transparency they demand of everyone else.
I winced as Barton told of seeing his face in an ad on the cover of the Herald’s business section promoting its 2016 Canon Media Award winners. This was a year after the paper had axed his column, the very column it was plugging as a prize-winning NZH read. “Did they forget they’d fired me?” Barton writes.
I can’t do justice to this tale — worth the price of this book ($40) — which led Barton to the “unsettling conclusion”
that mainstream media, or at least those running the show, aren’t much interested in journalism. That under its corporate guise the media is more interested in other things — making money, providing entertainment, reaching a big audience, making money. That mainstream media doesn’t much care about speaking truth to power. That it doesn’t much care about democracy.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
Many of the 40-plus contributors to this volume are familiar names and as you’d expect with such a large and varied group of writers, the content is variable. In their introduction, the editors — Giovanni Tiso, Sarah Illingworth, Barnaby Bennett and Emma Johnson — say they see the book as a series of snapshots of where journalism is at, as well as “a map for the future”. They, too, appear to prefer sorting through the rubble and trying to build something new with it over spending more time lamenting some mythical past.
As a journalistic outsider these days, I learned a lot about what goes on inside 21st century media land, and about where it might (or might not) be headed. There’s a surprising amount of optimism in these pages, too, some of it even realistic.
In his essay “The Age of Threat”, Russell Brown points out that journalism now is “far more acute than it was when I started”. “Back then it was a low-threat environment. It didn’t have to think too much. Now, it has to think constantly about what it is, how it relates and what it contains. And there’s something exciting about that.” To the extent he’s talking about new models and outlets, I agree. There’s a lot out there now, and so what if we have to hunt around a bit to find it.
I also appreciated Alex Stone’s contribution, “Celebrating local papers”, in which he highlights the ability of community newspapers to reflect local moods and realities; to be more like vehicles for community conversation than for shock, horror, gotcha! For all the advantages of cutting MSM from your media diet, one big disadvantage is not being in on the national conversation, which is something MSM still largely sets — sadly. Stone offers up a nice little anecdote that illustrates just how distorted that conversation often is:
My wife Lesley recently marched in Auckland against the TPPA. She witnessed TV reporters scurrying along the edges of the crowd, actively selecting alternative activist-looking types for vox pops, and simply ignoring older professional people like her.
Because that’s how the news sausage is made. Upton Sinclair wrote about the same phenomenon in his classic 1919 critique of American journalism, The Brass Check:
If strikers are violent, they get on the wires, while if strikers are not violent, they stay off the wires; by which simple device it is brought about that nine-tenths of the telegraphic news you read about strikes is news of violence, and so in your brain channels is irrevocably graven the idea association: Strikes – violence! Violence – strikes!
The coverage might not be false, might not be fake, but it sure as hell won’t reflect the experience of most people at the march or on the picket line or, as Mihingarangi Forbes points out, at Waitangi on Waitangi Day.
‘NAPALM BOMBS, MOLOTOV COCKTAILS’
I was particularly interested to read Forbes’ essay, “Navigating the waters of Māori broadcasting”, because if there’s one area MSM has historically played a shameful role, it’s coverage of Māori. There are numerous examples making that case in Forbes’ essay, among them the so-called “terror raids” carried out by heavily armed masked police in Tūhoe territory in 2007, and the subsequent “one-sided and biased view of events” reported in mainstream (non-Māori) media.
Alongside the shock, horror reporting about “napalm bombs, Molotov cocktails” and “links with the Māori sovereignty movement” in The Dominion Post/Stuff, Forbes contrasts Te Karere’s coverage, which began like this: “Fear gripped the people of Ruatoki today.” Those people ultimately received an apology from the police, undoubtedly too little too late, but it was more than they got from the (Pākehā) media.
She writes, too, of how Māori media within TVNZ, where she worked, were “the poor cousins of the network” battling for crews and editors to tell Māori stories, a situation reflected throughout the industry. Her piece is important for its look at the part of the sausage factory that sees ‘bad news’ stories about Māori as especially newsworthy (there’s lots of research about that here), but also at the particular pressures Māori journalists face to try to correct that imbalance by in turn telling only positive stories.
‘TAME AND TEPID’
I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of David Bollier, described as “an American author, activist, blogger and independent scholar”, till I read this book. He appears in these pages “in conversation” with Joseph Cederwall, who’s part of the Freerange Cooperative and the Enspiral network, among other things. Bollier makes some great points about why broadcast media (and cable in the U.S.) are so “tame and tepid”, including that they never give a platform to alternative or radical ideas, choosing instead to focus solely on establishment views, a preference that is mandated by their dependence on other corporations for advertising money. (My husband, an American, often reminds me how remarkable it is that you almost never see Noam Chomsky, one of that country’s foremost public intellectuals, in the mainstream media.) For all their talk of democracy and debate, it’s extraordinary how narrow a range of voices the mainstream media lets in.
Bollier admits the media landscape is “a mess” and, channels my own radical doubt that “we don’t know whom to trust”:
I trust a lot of online participatory forums far more than I trust broadcast news, which is so full of lowest common denominator interpretation that it has no information value.
The idea of a commons-based media — not just online but broadcast — is a hopeful one, and though not much is clear about what this might be, the Bollier-Cederwall discussion puts the current media confusion in perspective, seeing it as a necessarily messy transition that’s bound to involve missteps and failures. I now use the Radio New Zealand News website as my go-to NZ news source — almost no clickbait and lots of actual information — but Bollier is probably right that public broadcasting as it’s currently structured is always going to be too tame. Speaking of the U.S. but applicable here, he points out that we (the people):
morally and legally own the airways for broadcasting, but we don’t control what content goes over them. That has all been ceded to broadcasting licensees — major corporations who are in alliance with government to keep journalism tame.
Among the journalists writing in this collection there are also some academic voices (I fear that change is not going to come from the academy) as well as activists and designers of various stripes. It was from architectural designer Sarosh Mulla’s quite fascinating piece, “Architecture of newsrooms: The digital world, space and the management of news”, that I learned that among the screens of news feeds in NZME’s flash new premises are displays of readership analytics “so that spikes in article views due to scandals on The Bachelor can be carefully scrutinized”. That made me sad, and long for the days of print when, beyond my buying the paper, no details of my reading habits were being beamed back to HQ. It also made me recommit to never clicking on the bait and always clicking on serious long form writing (even if I don’t plan to read it).
As a ‘series of snapshots,’ this is a fine if variable collection. As a road map for the future it’s necessarily, and quite enjoyably, all over the place. I attended journalism school in 1982 and went on to have various jobs in radio and newspapers. That was then, and this book convinced me that were I to try it now, I wouldn’t last five minutes.