In which I get things some off my chest about relations between bloggers and journalists and the coverage of the Labour Party conference
There's a hokey old show tune from Oklahoma called The Farmer and the Cowman. It makes fun of the warring between the different groups settling the new territory and it came to mind when I was reading and thinking about the recent sniping between journalists and bloggers.
The media world this past decade feels like a new territory, with diminishing resources, more pressure to win audiences, the rise of 'free' content on the internet, and more voices competing for attention. Yet those exploring this new landscape, supposedly in the public interest, seem determined to tear each other down with an unthinking lack of respect, self-awareness and manners.
I've not been immune from the odd keyboard-blast. And some of the criticisms I'm about to make I'm sure will not go down well. But as per the rules here at Pundit, I try to play the ball not the man.
As one of the few folk in this country who are paid full-time as a journalist but have also invested my own time and money into blogging, I'm tired of those on both sides of the debate seem to shoot first and ask questions later. I'm tired of how little bloggers know about journalism and vice versa. And I'm tired of the silly commentary that's produced as a result.
The demands of work have left little time for blogging or reading blogs recently. But I read Bryce Edward's latest Politics Daily with some dismay.
It seems the criticism of John Armstrong's work at APEC in Vladivostock and his retort in September, followed by the coverage of the Labour Party conference and the Cunliffe affair is still prompting otherwise sensible people to say preposterous things.
The first point I'd make is that good and intelligent people can hold preposterous views. That's human nature and we could all be a little forgiving of it, given that there's certain to be someone, somewhere who holds our own views to be preposterous.
The second is that this is a debate being had by a small group of people (mostly online) in a small country and so should be kept in perspective.
Where do I come from on this? I sympathise with some of Armstrong's frustration. The New Zealand blogosphere is often distinguised by its bitchiness and disrespect. Armstrong has been a loyal and distinguished servant of journalism for decades and deserves to be viewed in that context.
He described bloggers as parasitical -- hardly a controversial statement. Much blogging is a direct reaction to media stories. Even more posts are contributions to broader debates that stem back to news coverage. Yes, there's always been an parasitical element in the way some media outlets take stories from others and there are bloggers who occasionally break news. But to pretend that blogging is not a broadly parasitical activity is just silly.
On the other hand, it was unfortunate he kicked off at two people I respect - Gordon Campbell, one of the best journalists of his generation, and political scientist Bryce Edwards. They too deserve to be seen in a wider context. His language veered into exactly the "cheap shot" territory he was criticising the blogs for entering. And there are plenty of others blogging in this country more worthy of his barbs.
Armstrong wasn't alone. I've been in debates with Larry Williams on ZB about Keith Ng's story on the privacy breaches at Work & Income. Williams argued that Ng and his sources must have been looking for trouble, when in fact Ng is one of the few bloggers who breaks news and avoids rants. He too deserves to be taken seriously.
And this is where we see otherwise intelligent people getting preposterous
In Edwards' aggregation and the linked-to posts, there's the implication of a battle between the MSM and blogs, or more particularly between the press gallery and political blogs. As someone who contributes to both, there's no contest. Blogs remain the preserve of the few; journalism, despite its shrinking audience, is consumed by many, many more. Whilst blogs have an influence beyond their size and bloggers and their posts are sometimes picked up by other media, bloggers need to accept we work in the margins.
So what about the arguments in these posts?
Trotter, an experienced political analyst who writes from an ideological position, rails against coverage of the Labour conference, as many have in the past few weeks. But the complaints still sound disingenuous to me. As best as I can see, Cunliffe got played, out-manouvered. He had ambitions to challenge for the leadership come February. Rather than waiting like a turkey for Christmas, those opposed to him pre-empted the challenge. When Cunliffe was unwilling to say he'd back his leader in a vote in three months' time, it became a story.
Those backing Cunliffe -- rather than accepting that Shearer's backers did what any political activists would do and that the media followed a perfectly legitimate story (ie Cunliffe's unwillingness to back his leader without question) -- have argued that it's outrageous to expect Cunliffe to say how he'd vote in a secret ballot three months away. It's not. If any politician with open leadership ambitions fails to back his or her leader, it's news. End of. None of the people making that case are so naive as to actually believe it. Presumably they're just stung.
Has the backstory been adequately reported - by journalists or bloggers? No. Many have theories as to who played Cunliffe and what machinations played out, but little has been clearly reported and substantiated.
And yes, I was surprised by much of the coverage of the conference. As I blogged here, I thought Shearer's speech very ordinary and was surprised so many were so positive.
But I don't see conspiracies behind every tree, either. Different journalists have different views from mine, choose different angles and hear from different sources. That doesn't mean they intend to "mislead" the public, as Trotter suggests. No journalist willfully ignores the story. Trotter clearly believes they failed to get to the heart of the matter -- and is unhappy that his man lost. That's fair comment, but to turn that into some larger media failing is to add one and one together and get four.
Trotter rightly says that blogs are typically "a second opinion" for those who seek them. But he then equates blogging with news-gathering, which is comparing, well, farmers with cowboys. It's a rare day that bloggers partake in "the gathering and distribution of news"; they are voices of opinion, analysis and, too often, rant.
Few bloggers attempt to find facts, remove their personal opinions from the story, seek balance and make contact with numerous sources before writing. Most blogs are happily biased. Most journalists do their best to remove as much bias as possible. They're different; farmers and cowboys.
Trotter goes on to make numerous assertions about journalism, and for all his political expertise, I'm left wondering how long it's been since he was in a newsroom.
Trotter says the MSM are showing "alarm" at the rise of blogs. As evidence he offers a discussion on The Nation and "repeated attacks" on bloggers by senior press gallery journalists. He doesn't give any examples of those repeated attacks.
I'd agree that journalists need not fear bloggers, but then I don't know any who do. Beyond that single TV3 panel, Trotter fails to say who these alarmed and "patch-protecting" journalists are (except that there are "so many"). Perhaps he could give some examples.
He notes that the press gallery often hunt as a pack. He's critical of this and I'd agree it creates some problems. But it pre-dates the internet age and sometimes it's the relentless pressure from that pack which breaks a story wide open.
He reckons editors demand the same-old, same-old. Not in my experience. Editors don't like the competition to get a story that isn't in their line-up and may demand a matcher, but they're much more excited by something fresh and breaking.
Such as? Well, a Grant Robertson-led coup plot, for example. Trotter says:
"... it was supporters of Grant Robertson, not Mr Cunliffe, who had been gauging the level of support for a leadership spill in the weeks leading up to the Conference."
He says such reports have been appearing on blogs but not in the MSM. If Robertson has been doing numbers, then it's undoubtedly a failure by the MSM. That's a big story. So where's the evidence? Because have no doubt, if anyone can back up Trotter's claims, the MSM would be all over it. And of course if Trotter can back up that claim, he should.
As it stands, that's exactly this sort of un-sourced commentary that angers REDLOGIX over at The Standard. By his/her standards Trotter should have to reveal all his sources, put any interviews online and give Robertson a right of reply.
While the concern I'm sure is genuine, the suggestions make no sense. Contrary to the goal, REDLOGIX's list of requirements would shut down open debate, take resources from news-gathering and achieve nothing.
While anonymity should only be granted by journalists in exceptional circumstances, to forbid it would be to shut down debate and limit transparency. Politicians just wouldn't leak.
- All interviews must be on-the-record. Almost all are. But should a journalist be banned from following a lead gained in more casual conversation?
- All interviews, it's suggested, should be online. Which would mean newsrooms having to hire transcribers rather than more journalists.
- All reportage must be fact-checked. If only. The last fact-checkers were being laid off from the Heald when I began there 12 years ago. The few US media who still employ them are the exception. But does that mean they never err? No. Is it reasonable to expect journalists to check their own facts? usually, although a lack of resources and time creates limitations. Are stories still checked? Yes, subs, editors and producers all have such a role.
- All professional and personal relationships must be declared. In which we move from ignorance to plain silliness. Conflicts of interest should be declared. But every relationship? How far does that go? Is it just for the gallery or for bloggers and those of us outside Wellington who cover politics? Is it family relationships, whether they've played rugby together or does the odd drink count? Should I declare that I once helped Grant Robertson pull a drunk guy out of an NZUSA conference? That Metiria Turei and Gerry Brownlee have both yelled at me? Should Trotter declare every politician he's ever met? And would REDLOGIX him/herself adhere to that?
- No journalist should be able to spend more than six years or 33% of their career in the gallery. Apart from the obvious nonsense of not being able to know how long a young reporter's career will be, why show such little respect for experience and wisdom? It's silliness piled on silliness.
Of course Trotter and REDLOGIX have every right to critique the media. Just as Armstrong and Williams have the right to be suspicious of bloggers. But it's frustrating when cowboys damn farmers and vice versa with little expertise and less understanding of what those farmers are trying to do. It seems that too often everyone's just looking for a fight.
Both have failings, but neither should be condemned. Journalists shouldn't expect a free ride of course, but it's a tough business and it's getting tougher. Blogging too is finding its feet and exploring its potential. So misguided criticism from either side seems unhelpful. But let's be honest, it's most often bloggers complaining about the 'MSM', usually with little insight or understanding. So given what following we do have online, why don't we do a little less demonising and a little more thinking.
In the show the cowboys and farmers stick to their entrenched positions and break into a fight, little appreciating all they have in common. But in the end there's a recognition that they're "brothers" in their endeavour and a great line from Aunt Eller:
"I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, but I'll be danged if I ain't just as good."
Wisdom for us all.