The Twitter wars: Mainstream media v fifth estate

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(Screenshot via ABC / Facebook)

Some journalists have launched a defence of mainstream reporters suggesting that social media criticism of journalists is coming from a "Trumpian" perspective. This view has also been expressed in a recent column by ABC talking head, Michael Rowland.

In the ABC piece, Rowland lamented that he – and other reporters – have been on the receiving end of some insulting and even abusive tweets.

Now, journalism isn't exactly the profession for shrinking violets. If you cover the brutal game of politics you have to be particularly robust, but the level of muck being hurled around on Twitter at the moment would test the toughest of souls.

Personally speaking, I have noticed a huge increase in abuse and petty name-calling since the Federal Election campaign began. The free character references I've received have often been quite inventive.

He wasn’t the only member of the journalistic elite to give voice to such views. Academic and Nine commentator (she’s published in what we used to know as the Fairfax mastheads) Jenna Price went into bat to defend Patricia Karvelas, who also copped some flack over an incident on Insiders the previous weekend:

'Social media has become an incubator for hatred of journalists, led by President Donald Trump after learning from the best, the troll armies of President Rodrigo Duterte, says senior research fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, Julie Posetti.'

Chris Uhlmann takes his complaint against the cultural Marxists a step further. He claims we are worse than the far-right. His former ABC colleague, Leigh Sales, has also publicly attacked what she calls “far left bias” against the ABC in general and her program in particular.

This is a misleading claim that attempts to delegitimise progressive critiques of the mainstream news media by lumping all critics of journalism into one ideological pigeon hole.

How would Leigh Sales – or Chris Uhlmann for that matter – identify someone as “far left”? Would it be from a position of nuanced reading or understanding or, more likely, their own stereotyped views?

However, what was really annoying was this tweet from Miriam Cosic who has been a journo for a while and who also makes much of her postgraduate qualifications in philosophy:

This is intellectually lazy. There is a world of difference between a progressive left critique of journalism and the news media and Donald Trump’s fascistic demonisation of journalism he doesn’t like.

Chomsky, not Trumpski

There are two distinct political positions on media criticism, and it is wrong to conflate them.

One is certainly a neo-fascist view that has been thoroughly discredited but that is espoused by Trump and his supporters and originated with the Nazi regime’s propaganda trope of the Lügenpresse or “lying media”.

The other is diametrically opposed to this and, as a form of shorthand, let's call this the "Chomskyian" view. The Chomskyian view is based on a long history of progressive, left-wing and anti-capitalist critiques of the news media and it is summarised rather well in Chomsky and Herman’s classic phrase about the “manufacture” of consent.

In 1988, Chomsky and Herman described the media in capitalist society as a propaganda machine — they were right then and the same holds true today:

The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfil this role requires systematic propaganda.

The problem for the establishment and its media allies is that the machine is breaking down and they’re fresh out of spare parts.

There are important differences between a Trumpian view of “fake news” and a more sophisticated analysis of journalism and the news media that situates the whole “fake news” discussion into an historical and theoretical context known as the political economy of communication.

Katharine Murphy’s pamphlet, 'On Disruption', in which she defends the News Establishment’s approach to the disruption caused by social media, raises the important question of the relationship between a media ecology that has begun a descent into what she accurately describes as ‘a febrile, superficial, shouty, shallow, pugnacious cacophony of content, where sensation regularly trumps insight’, and the demagoguery of Trump and his European imitators.

Murphy asks, rhetorically:

‘Did we, the disrupted media, somehow create Donald Trump? Did we enable him?’ 

However, she struggles to provide a coherent answer. The collapse of the old certainties in the news media and the failure of the News Establishment to effectively reflect on its mistakes certainly gave strength to the Trumpian view that the news media is the "enemy of the people".

Let’s be clear: this is a talking point of the Alt-Right and its enablers. It is not a view shared by progressive critics of the mainstream media.

A direct attack on democracy and active citizenship

There is nothing wrong with journalists defending themselves on Twitter, but the common tactic from the News Establishment has been to shy away from directly responding to serious critics and, instead, to focus on the minority of idiots who make vile threats. Not that threats of violence, racist, sexist or homophobic abuse against reporters should ever be tolerated, of course.

We’re constantly told by the very same mainstream media figures that engagement is the new normal. The problem is the mainstream media wants engagement on its terms. Engagement for them means we take out subscriptions and become unpaid sources for them or allow them to scour material from our social media feeds to pad out otherwise thin reporting.

What the News Establishment definitely doesn’t want is an active fifth estate undermining its authority or its cosy relationship with the rich and powerful. The pushback against their serious critics on Twitter may reveal the truly anti-democratic nature of their thinking.

Maybe Bevan was joking, but this tweet is telling:

Twitter provides a platform for what we might call "monitorial citizenship" — that is, the ability for ordinary people to talk directly to the powerful.

This is upsetting for the News Establishment because, for the past 200 years or so, they have been the principal gatekeepers — in a privileged position of mediating between the rulers and the ruled.

They were treated to a rare glimpse inside the halls of power – the first Press Gallery was established in the Palace of Westminster in 1803 – and in return, they were expected to massage the more brutal pronouncements of the powerful and provide for the “manufacture of consent”. The mainstream media has played a supporting role ever since; agreeing to keep some secrets to protect the state and legitimising the consolidation of the two-party system.

It was his observation of the Westminster Gallery that prompted this acerbic jab from Oscar Wilde:

"Journalism has carried its authority to the grossest and most brutal extreme. As a natural consequence, it has begun to create a spirit of revolt. People are amused by it, or disgusted by it... But it is no longer the real force it was. It is not seriously treated."

Until recently, mainstream media accounts of political machinations were not open to direct challenge. The public had to pretty much accept as gospel whatever the journalists wrote.

Now that has changed and no amount of whining from the News Establishment is going to put that genie back in its box.

The monitorial citizen in a democracy is described by Michael Schudson as a person outside the dominant political structure, who feels a responsibility to monitor what powerful institutions do and to get involved when they feel power is being abused.

Schudson is no “post-Christian” leftist. He is a respected, bespectacled professor and himself aligned with the most News Establishment New York establishment, Columbia School of Journalism. Yet he is able to see what many of our own – vastly anti-intellectual in outlook – news media refuse to see.

The power of the News Establishment is waning; monitorial citizens are taking to social media to clapback at the mistakes, misjudgements and misleading inferences that mainstream reporters make routinely.

The inestimable Mr Denmore summed it up nicely on his blog, The Failed Estate, in a piece called All media is social’:

The public isn’t stupid. Much of the criticism they are expressing on social media about journalists reflects a sense of frustration that the issues they are their families care deeply about (like climate change or stagnant incomes or our treatment of refugees) are not advancing.


You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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