I had some good conversations with journos at the press gallery drinks. We’re often critical of the media, and sometimes specific journos, and I don’t resile from that – criticism is criticism, it’s either well-founded or not and people are free to take it or leave it based on that. I’ll admit sometimes writers express themselves a bit strongly but these posts are usually bashed out in a few minutes, often early in the morning, so they sometimes lack subtlety. But it was good to have the opportunity to talk with journos about that and other issues. It’s nice to find that so many are regular readers. Even one who said he gets back at us for being rude about him a couple of times by not reading showed he had a remarkably detailed knowledge of what we are writing for a non-reader.
But the most interesting topic was the honeymoon. Whether they thought it was over or not (most thought it was had been squandered by Nat/ACT), journos were adamant that the honeymoon is with the public, not themselves. And you can see why they must think that if the myth of objective journalism is to be preserved – they’re merely transmitting information, informing the public of facts, they’re not political actors and, so, they can’t have the willful blindness that ‘honeymoon’ implies.
But the fact is it is in the media that the political discourse is framed and reproduced. The journos I talked to were willing to concede that but argued if they couldn’t produce work at odds with the public perception, the public would pull them into line with its thinking. OK, if we accept that, how do journos know what the public is thinking? Well, I was told, the journos talked to people at events like this (yeah, I’m not sure a couple of hundred drunk politicos and journos at an event at Parliament is really representative of the wider public, either) and they get emails and phone calls went they write something that’s a bit off. Hmm. Seems to me that the ‘feedback’ from the ‘public’ that the journos are getting is actually mostly from the political elite and a handful of cranks.
My instinct, too, would be that the political views from those sources don’t change over time, but journos’ interpretation of them might. Basically, there’s an echo chamber masked by a fiction of journalistic objectivity and public feedback. Look, we get over 200 comments a day every day from across the spectrum of political views but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are representative of the wider public’s opinion on anything – the sample is highly self-selecting and far too small. And most journos have far less ‘public’ feedback than we do.
The truth is this: the political class, of which the journos are one of the more powerful sections, creates the political discourse and transmits it to the wider public, not the other way around. Most members of the public are more or less passive recipients of this information. Some reflexively reject it, most automatically accept it. The media frames the debate and few of us look beyond, or are even aware of, that framing. This is, of course, accentuated when the media tells people what everyone else thinks (how many TV articles have you seen where the anchor asks the reporter ‘what will the public make of this latest development?’ and the reporter responds authoritatively on the public’s view, even though this very article is the first time most people are learning of the issue?).
I’m not saying the media is consciously engaged in these fictions. In fact, what surprised me was how unconscious it is. I’m just saying let’s stop pretending.
The other lesson from the press gallery drinks is one I’m surprised anyone had to learn since it’s rule #1 of politics: don’t come between journos and their booze. It’s like trying to take a cub away from a mother bear.