17 June 2012

Shoe leather fetish

This piece of fluff is designed to make journalists feel good and important, which is why so many of them tweeted and retweeted it. Apart from the feel-good aspect it doesn't really work for the same two reasons that any piece of journalism fails: it lacks perspective and it has no powers of observation.

It is wrong on almost every level. First is the straw man that new media such as Twitter and blogs don't do journalism but that newspapers do.

The mainstream media decided, for whatever reason, that the biggest story this year is what one backbencher allegedly did with a work credit card back in 2005. I dare any editor to produce any evidence whatsoever that the public is clamouring for more and more details - the more prurient the better - on Craig Thomson's activities. Nonetheless, that's their story and by heavens aren't they sticking to it, sticking to it like oh never mind.

None of McKenzie-Murray's idealised journalists are doing a fraction of the work that Peter Wicks and his small team are doing. What's worse is that there is a kind of embarrassment on the part of the so-called professional journalists that there is more to the story than they had managed to uncover. Walking from the press gallery to a press conference and back again might satisfy McKenzie-Murray's definition of "shoe leather" expended, but it isn't good enough.

How much "shoe leather" was expended by Channel 9 in getting an interview with that prostitute? Is that team more likely, or less, to be recognised by their fellow journalists than Peter Wicks?

Like any industry sliding into redundancy, it's silly to claim that the problem is that the workers aren't working hard enough. The problem with Australian professional journalism (and I mean that strictly in the sense of getting paid for what they do) is that they are working on the same things. The idea that the two most scrutinised politicians in the country in the country right now are a former Liberal backbencher and a former Labor backbencher (neither of them ever ministers) is an absolute joke. You don't understand politics if you believe that, so therefore we can conclude that almost all editors and political journalists do not understand politics. Perhaps that's why McKenzie-Murray doesn't praise journalistic brains, or their ability to explain complex situations simply - just the donkey-work of "shoe leather endeavour".

As to Watergate, it's getting a little old. Imagine if every doctor who botched treating a patient could simply invoke Christiaan Barnard, implying that they were in that league simply by doing the same job, and leave it at that. Keep in mind that Mark Felt approached Woodward and that much of the work done by him and Bernstein was basically transcribing what Felt had said. Nice work if you can get it.

Imagine if burglars were caught red-handed in John Curtin House (Labor's headquarters in Canberra) or Robert Menzies House (the Liberal Party's equivalent). It would be covered the following day as follows by any press gallery journalist you care to name:
A group of burglars wearing business suits were arrested last night at [building name], the head office of the [relevant] Party.

The Party's [Federal Director], [name], expressed his disappointment at the burglary and hinted that it was not a standard property crime.

A senior official in [the other party] said that it was "preposterous" that anyonre in their party would be involved. "Ha ha, you're just being paranoid!".

"I'm not here to discuss burglaries", said [the leader of the other party]. "I mean, that's a state issue".

And there the story would rest, unless a blogger followed it up, whereupon the media would refuse to follow up and admit their errors.

Anyhow, back to McKenzie-Murray:
For the other side, much of our political reportage is dross, the web versions of our major newspapers are disheartening and publishers seem increasingly confused or cynical in their response to a haemorrhaging model.
Is it really too much to ask for a de-drossing? I'll take my chances with Schumpeterian creative destruction any day, but increasingly I think supposedly experienced journalists who become editors are the problem rather than the solution. It would only take a few to wake up to themselves to turn things around, but failing that let's have dotcom startups moving into Holt Street and displacing, say, Greg Sheridan. It will be less of a tragedy than anyone might imagine, and therefore more of an indictment of the politico-media complex and its impact on our democracy.
The public goodwill that newspapers have developed - and the imprimatur they confer to their journalists - has allowed for an access to public figures and institutions as yet unavailable to our notional "citizen journalist".
If you want to find out what is going on, how we are actually governed, the last place you would go is to Parliament. The idea that a press secretary is all-knowing, or even capable of being a human search-engine, is both an assumption that underpins the way modern journalism works and an absolute furphy.
You'll find the same skills and institutional support were vital in making sense of the Wikileaks cables. That's why Julian Assange gave them to four reputable newspapers - The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and The Guardian - well before their public release, so trained journalists could corroborate and contextualise them for their readers.
Those "trained journalists" have barely scratched the surface. It was Assange who did those outlets a favour by according them a relevance they simply didn't have. Proof of this lies in an account by the then-editor of the NYT, Bill Keller, who wrote an astonishingly petty piece about dealing with the man who made his career. No wonder Mark Felt avoided the NYT if clowns like Keller were working there.
People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook.

- US President Richard Nixon addressing newspaper editors, 17 November 1973
If Bill Keller had been at that function he would have declared those words good enough to dump any Watergate investigation his paper would have done, and distinguished himself with a bitchy piece on Felt as post-facto justification. When Martin McKenzie-Murray goes on about his US-based studies and tries to extrapolate them to Australia, Bill Keller is the epitome of the wise and good editor that the shoe-leather fetishist could want. Keller recently embarrassed himself by comparing Facebook to Murdoch's hacks.
One of the curious demarcations in the culture wars is that between "mainstream journalists" and independent writers. The line is most hurriedly and observably drawn on Twitter, where bloggers and journalists boorishly defend their turf. Not all, mind you. Many writers and journalists realise it's an increasingly fatuous distinction.
It's what's called a straw man, Martin.
High-end journalism is being eroded the world over, and the democratisation of micro-publishing isn't an antidote.
No-one said it was. But when you acknowledge the role of subject-matter experts and people with perspectives that the media cannot hope to capture, there's little to be lost that should really be missed.
David Simon, a former Baltimore newspaperman and creator of the television series The Wire, testified at a Senate hearing into the future of journalism. He said: "You do not, in my city, run into bloggers or so-called citizen journalists at City Hall or in the courthouse hallways or at the bars where police officers gather. You don't see them consistently nurturing and then pressing others."
Well, of course not. There is nothing, nothing to be gained by hanging out at City Hall. Nothing to be gained by joining a press gallery, or even following a politician around a shopping centre or some other public event. That's not where news is. Everyone who says otherwise, or invokes bullshit like "newspaper traditions", is mistaken. No-one wants to pay for that crap, and everyone who has spent their working lives honing those unnecessary skills is facing a bleak future.
We live in a country beguiled by possessive apostrophes whose blogs are given to repetition and apoplexy.
You won't see my dinkus atop this blog, Martin, and unlike some "professional journalists" I could name I actually know how to use an apostrophe properly (name me a professional journalist reporting/commentating on politics who uses apostrophes possessively less than I do). That leaves "repetition and apoplexy", and good luck in your endeavours to establish that the media is free of those qualities.
Perhaps, if newspapers continue to be squeezed and liquidated, we'll all be unveiling Captain Emads and AWB scandals in our spare time, but I doubt it.
"Captain Emad" has left the country. It ill almost certainly be a "stringer", a person whose business model is closer to that of a blogger than a journalist, who tracks him down, rather than a journalist who only knows less about Australian immigration law and practice than Scott Morrison does.

As for AWB, plenty of journalists had plenty of opportunities to look into the role of government in that debacle. Plenty of them could and did call up John Howard, Alexander Downer and Mark Vaile to get a quote, but none have really drilled those guys on (to employ a Watergate-ism) what they knew and when they knew it. None of them asked Kevin Rudd, who built his profile on AWB, to look into the archives. Mind you, Woodward and Bernstein didn't interview Nixon, either.

Martin McKenzie-Murray regards "good journalism" as though it's something of which he has experience and familiarity. He's patronising and dismissive about journalism outside media organisations, especially when it's those people who are carrying the can right now. His attitude toward "good journalism" should be more like that of Gandhi's attitude toward "Western civilisation" - a good idea to be worked on and not clouded by false dichotomies, pulled punches on your colleagues, and other examples of dishonest thinking. I can only assume that he fetishises shoe leather so much because he has gotten used to the taste, what with his foot being squarely in his mouth.


  1. Yet another good'un, Andrew.

    In fact our print Journalists seem to be doing the opposite of investigation; For instance, I note that the likes of Katherine Murphy seem to be missing now that facts (eg the "Jacksonville" revelations and the latest news on the Slipper case) are getting in the way of juicy gossip.

  2. Thanks again Andrew.

    The MSM are fast becoming the pravda of the south, only reporting the news as dictator abbott sees it for the very fear that when he rises to the top job they will never ever get a juicy story.

    Thank heavens for your good self and the likes of Peter Wicks for having the integrity and courage to tell the truth.Journalism is now the prevail of a handfull of bloggers, the MSM simply repeat opinions.

  3. I get what David Simon is talking about there. Health of political institutions like local council meetings is helped considerably by constant scrutiny. The knowledge that there's always a journo in the gallery waiting to hear any whiff of corruption or scandal prevents councils from becoming corrupted, to a certain extent. Or at least it makes corruption more difficult. This service to democracy has been carried out in a non-profit-making capacity by newspapers for centuries. If there are no newspapers, some other regulatory instrument would have to employ someone to sit there and do the same thing - and pay them enough so that they wouldn't also be corruptible. Or it just wouldn't happen, and corruption would creep on.

    None of the above is in disagreement with the thrust of your piece, though, Andrew. Just pointing out that journalism's function is not just to find news, but in some ways to prevent news from happening, in the sense that its presence as a threat prevents scandals and keeps social institutions healthy. Could bloggers do the same? Yes, but not to the same extent.

    1. Good point m0nty, but I disagree with your final sentence.

  4. 'Why Abbott and the clowns who consider themselves Coalition Strategists (and who, alas, are thus considered by others) are stuck in defence is unclear.'

    In Ted Lapkin's last post at the drum he said: 'This will be my last Drum column for the foreseeable future. I've been asked to re-join the federal Coalition staff as an advisor, and I've responded in the affirmative.' - http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2877276.html

    Any one familiar with Ted Lapkin's class act head kicker cries victim hood style can see the witless version in the Abbott performance.

    The invisible hand - From what I've read of capitalist origins it wasn't always about flat out greed. The invisible hand was social conscience in taking responsibility for unforeseen bad outcomes.

    What is the LNP about these days other than hate and fear?