22 July 2016

Yesterday's social media today

So she was considering, in her own mind (as well as she could, for the hot day made her feel very sleepy and stupid), whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

I'm grateful to Katharine Murphy for drawing this to my attention, I suppose; but it is rather more your standard press gallery output and less an exemplar of what it might be, which is what I had hoped and suspect she might have hoped, too. Let's not dismiss it out of hand. Bear with me as I pop the bonnet and take it apart, then consider what sort of reporting an event like this might give rise to, from journalists and media companies that knew what they were about and had some conception of customer value.
The Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen has threatened to vote against Coalition superannuation changes, immediately threatening one of the Turnbull government’s key policies two days after his ministry was formed.

Christensen took to his Facebook page to state categorically: “I hate it when government fiddles with super” and described it as “Labor-style policy”.

“It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money,” Christensen writes. “We in government need to remember that. If the government’s superannuation policy does not change, I will be crossing the floor and voting against these measures.”
OK, I read Christensen's Facebook page in the original, and it says a lot about him as a politician. Basically, George has stamped his foot and delivered an ultimatum, which was probably meant to sound like strong and principled leadership. Canberra deal-makers hate ultimatums and the drama queens who deliver them. Coalition MPs returned by the barest of margins will not thank one of his party's whips for rocking an overloaded boat in this fashion.

That said, there are four issues here.

First, superannuation. It's important, and the details have ramifications that go far beyond Canberra, far beyond this term of Parliament, and we really should pay attention to the details. Any details about what this carry-on might mean, Katharine?
The Coalition policy places a $500,000 lifetime cap on after-tax superannuation contributions backdated to 2007, increases the concessional tax rate on asset earnings from 0% to 15% for people aged 56-65 in the “transition to retirement” and taxes accounts over $1.6m at 15%.
Pretty thin, that. What's really needed here is some context as to what that means. This is not a new debate, and by now specialist writers should have opinions about what might happen if the relevant regulations are changed, versus what might happen if the government's policies are enacted. But for two years a decade ago, every government since 1980 has had to bargain its policies through a Senate it did not control (and in 2010-13, a House with a majority of non-government members too); it is probably more useful to talk about the likelihood of some sort of compromise being enacted, and what that may or may not mean.

Christensen has concocted a sob-story whereby I as a taxpayer will have to subsidise (that is, with MY money) a couple sitting on more than $3m of super. It isn't as convincing as either of them might hope. Just because a politician says he is the defender of the people's money it doesn't mean that he can be taken at his word. Just because a journalist has a quote it doesn't mean they have a story.

Has superannuation policy really reached a state of perfection that is worth bringing down a government to preserve? Is this or any other policy at the mercy of his emotions ("I hate it")? If you couch Christensen's antics position in terms of policy, and leave others to do the horserace crap, you potentially bring an angle that informs debate within Canberra and beyond. You also run the very grave risk of establishing a value proposition for media consumers that is described by Ezra Klein in, uh, this piece.

You could make a case that here's a generalist journo trying to make a fist of a complex issue, but that might have been good enough way back when a quick summary was good enough for the likes of you. These days, there are plenty of superannuation wonks. Some of them can write and not all are hopelessly conflicted. Those people have more credibility than workaday hacks trying to be all things to everyone, and the only traditional media outlets with a future will be those who can tap into real expertise when required.

Second, there's the issue of the budget. Superannuation is taxed lightly in comparison to other reservoirs of money, and any government committed to balancing the budget had to revisit this issue. It makes no sense to complain long and loud about BUDGET BLACK HOLE EMERGENCY DEFICIT SHOCK (as Christensen did) and then complain about specific action to that end (as Christensen did).

Again, this is part of the policy context in which this government operates, and which therefore Murphy, Chan and their press gallery colleagues must also operate, and report on. Nowhere in that piece is there anything about that. No questions to Christensen about the relatively light tax treatment of super over many years - including when Labor was in government - and no questions about what he suggests might be taxed instead.

Third, Christensen isn't a conservative in any real sense. Before the last election he was endorsing far-right groups who would shun Muslims, who were ambivalent at best about anti-Muslim violence. Real conservatives have nothing to do with that garbage, as Ted Cruz demonstrated. Hanson didn't run a candidate against Christensen at the last election: she didn't need to. Now Christensen and Hanson are as one on superannuation too:
... senator-elect Pauline Hanson has indicated she believes superannuation should be “left alone” ...
... and Christensen's Facebook page is full of endorsements of whatever she might say about anything. Why doesn't he stop pretending he's a legitimate member of the Coalition and piss off to the PHONies? Is he playing a longer game like Bernardi, waiting to drop off the Coalition once he has sucked it dry?

The novelist Evelyn Waugh once wrote of one of his contemporaries: "To see Stephen Spender fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee". There's a certain element of that in knowing George Christensen, and many others no better than him, holds your retirement income and mine and the fate of the government in his hands. Murphy's fascination is understandable, but misplaced. There less drama than you might imagine in a man who talks big but tends not to follow through.

Lastly, there's the angle that Murphy takes on all this - the same angle every other press gallery herd animal took - on the horserace. The barely returned Turnbull government and the potential disruption to its agenda, etc. I suspect this is the bit that's meant to take my interest.

Um, probably. It's just beside the point. Politicians make deals and break them and carry on - mostly over nothing of enduring significance - all the time. Despite press gallery lore, that's not really where the most interesting story is. The herd are all over that horserace stuff. The story is in what those deals are over, and how the outcomes affect us in ways we may or may not expect.

Christensen isn't going to turn government over to Bill Shorten, not over superannuation or anything else. He's seen how conservatives treat Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott, or the Job of Sippy Downs, Peter Slipper; neither Christensen nor anyone in this government wants that sort of calumny for the rest of his days and yea unto the seventh generation. The idea that conservatives cross the floor without penalty is palpably false. It's a historical artefact that was binned by John Howard. If your twenty years of observing politics up close has taught you anything, that's one of the lessons you should have learned.

If it were no big deal that conservative MPs cross the floor, why even write a story about it?

Cory Bernardi has been threatening to leave the Liberal Party for a decade. Like most people (and many dogs, and even some bits of furniture), Bernardi is much smarter than Christensen. If the SA Liberals punted Bernardi he has a much more solid political base to survive and almost certainly get re-elected to form an enduring presence in Australian politics - but still he waits, and waits, and knows any time he wants to stir the pot the entire press gallery as one will run around with their hair on fire. If the LNPQ punted Christensen he'd be finished, flat out making it onto Mackay Council.

Christensen has his Facebook page: if Murphy Chan thinks the best use of her traditional media platform is to make more from a gobbet of social media than it can possibly bear, then she is selling that platform short. She's not alone in this belief, and strangely many journalists take comfort from following this trend: whether it's an overpaid presenter on live TV cutting to a smartphone, or radio personalities taking to podcasts to complain about Twitter, nothing diminishes traditional media faster than the impression that they are nothing but relays for where the action really is, on social media. If the traditional media becomes yesterday's social media today, it's finished.

This government is less precarious than the one of 2010-13, which Murphy and most of the press gallery reported from up close. The idea that the government might collapse at any minute got very damn boring after months and years where plenty else was happening. It crowded out reporting of actual policy developments every bit as significant as the superannuation reforms under discussion here, developments that could make useful stories today or tomorrow given the right writers. Clearly, the lessons of the abysmal reporting from that time have not been learned.

A focus on policy removes perceptions of journalistic bias: can a policy opposed by the Labor party really be a "Labor-style policy" (even if a politician declares it so)? Leaving policy out of your coverage puts it at the mercy of a bunch of personalities that are far less compelling than beleaguered media outlets might hope.

As a political correspondent, Murphy Chan should know Christensen isn't much of a superannuation wonk, and isn't much of a politician either; she would serve her readers better by saying so and pointing out why. In terms of this event and where the news value is, the fate of the nation's retirement incomes far outweighs the outbursts of another mediocre Jack-in-office. Journalistic inertia in only being able to cover complex stories in tiresome ways that obscure their lasting significance is to be pitied (to be fair, Murphy's this piece was one of the better examples of a doomed genre). We still need more and better information on how we are governed than the press gallery can provide.

Update 27/7: It was remiss of me to overlook the fact this article, while referred to me by Katharine Murphy, was in fact written by Gabrielle Chan. The necessary changes have been made above.

My original point stands about the research: reading a Facebook page and taking a gibbering dupe at the words fed to him is not a vindication of journalism but a failure of it. The paragraph on superannuation should have been the core of this story, not a side-effect; we will be enjoying/suffering the results of this for years, and it is only fair for journalists observing from up close to tell us what's going on.

A NewsCorp veteran, Chan tends to give politicians the benefit of the doubt and believes she has done journalism by quoting them directly and taking them at their word. Her journalism from beyond Canberra is far better than that from within; she should do more of the former and let it inform any political reporting she may turn her hand to. Murphy was wrong to consider this piece anything more than your standard all-sizzle-no-sausage journalism content.

07 July 2016

Taking the cake

In 2013 I was so convinced that Tony Abbott would screw up so badly that he wouldn't become Prime Minister at all. How I laughed at the polls. How I jeered at the press gallery groupthink that sought to convert that pig's ear of a man into a silk purse of a PM. I still remember how it felt, to be proven so wrong, so irrefutably, so publicly.

That's why I have some sympathy for political journalists who did in 2016 what I'd done in 2013: ignored the polls, ignored people with less exposure to traditional and social media than me (that is, pretty much everyone) who actually engaged with political issues and personalities from first principles, and insisted on having access to some secret cache of political knowledge inaccessible to mere mortals.

Some, but not much - most political journalists are simply reeling forward, claiming that a campaign which had them fooled and gibbering with excitement had somehow become 'lacklustre', assuming that their credibility remains intact. These people might think they're getting on with it, but they are trashing their credibility and that of their employers.

It was strange to see, of all people, Matthew Knott start to realise that he and his compadres had done the country a disservice simply by doing what they'd always done:
Those political reporters not too hubristic to engage in self doubt are asking: did we get it wrong? Did we, as a collective, miss the story?
Yes, you did. That subclause "as a collective" is the operative one here, because that stampede always leads the press gallery into bad and dumb stories, and always convinces them that if they all do it then it must somehow be less wrong.

Pretty much all political journalists in 2016 were covering the parliament of 2010-13. They should have told us what we could expect from such a parliament, which is the kind of parliament we are heading into now.

In 2010-13, the then government was spending so much time with crossbenchers in both houses that it didn't have time to coddle journalists, to drop self-serving little tidbits in their laps; they had a lot to do and focused on the doing, assuming (wrongly) that tough and clever journalists could work it out for themselves. It turns out that journalism doesn't cope well with nuance and compromise; most jobs involving nuance and compromise take place well away from journalists. The then opposition spent no time with crossbenchers but spent all the time coddling journalists, to the point where the journalists all said the government was hopeless while the opposition was the Best Opposition Evah.

Again, the "as a collective" was the problem. Nobody considered the well-flagged possibility that Tony Abbott might be a bull in the china shop of government, and not in a good way. He got fairer media headwinds before coming to government than John Howard had in 1995-96, and he still blew it. The press gallery were of one mind that Gillard and Rudd could do nothing right, and that Abbott could do nothing wrong. When Abbott screwed up the press gallery played it down, or made things up for 'balance', but the reality was irreconcilable with their Best Opposition Evah narrative. Today, the actual result of the election is irreconcilable with a tangle of narratives: that Turnbull is cruising to victory while Shorten is battling to hold his job, that everybody's home and hosed in Canberra under the second term of the Turnbull government and it's your shout mate.
The consensus, speaking to colleagues in the Canberra press gallery, is a reluctant yes.
Why even ask them? Does journalism exist for its own sake?
Some insist they got it spot on.
Fuck all of those people. All of them. Any responsible organisation confronted with egregious professional failure by their staff would make them show cause why they should not be dismissed.

Imagine if AFL journalists insisted at this stage of the season that Carlton, Collingwood, and Essendon were the teams to beat this year because they had been back in the day, and the journos couldn't imagine how things might change. Imagine the currency traders who went long on sterling before Brexit. This is the degree of professional failure involved with dickheads who misreported the national mood a week before an election, and who insisted their failure not be called out. Something beyond mere dismissal is warranted here: chucking them into the most algae-infested bit of Lake Burley Griffin, for a start.
But many admit they expected a more decisive Coalition victory than occurred.
Or not occurred, as the case may be.
And they concede this influenced the way the media covered the campaign.
Every time a journalist lapses into the passive voice they are up to no good, and here's yet another example. 'They' (journalists who cover politics) concede that 'the way the media covered the campaign' was somehow affected by their herd mentality and how it differed from the clear pattern indicating the election could go either way. This might be someone's idea of a big concession: it isn't mine.
This election campaign rained polls. Week after week, media outlets published national polls showing a 50-50 tie or at best a 51-49 Coalition lead.

The results barely shifted from week one to eight. Yet, as the campaign progressed, a view solidified that the Coalition was on track for a relatively comfortable victory.
So "a view solidified", "on track", "relatively comfortable victory" - what weasel words, what worthless piffle that all is. The solidification of pure wind was bad enough - but the fact that it was so all-pervasive is just so stupid, and unforgivably so among people their defenders still insist are competitive, diverse, and intelligent people. The numbing collective aspect is what's so stupid, and Knott is trying to use it to hide what's wrong with political reporting and build a future for it.

Go back to that quote from Knott above - a quote that is not intended to make him look foolish, but which would have succeeded had that intention been there. Let's take out that indictment of a last sentence and run the sentence before it into the one that followed:
The results barely shifted from week one to eight ... Yet the Coalition suffered a sizeable swing against it on election night and is struggling to hit the 76 seats needed to govern in its own right.
It follows that consistent polls indicated a hung parliament, and this is exactly the result that was foretold. That "yet" is jarring - it shows that the jibber-jabber of campaign commentary had absolutely no effect on the result at all. It shows that the media would have been better served simply by printing poll results and filling pages/airwaves with almost anything but the hectares of blather chuntered forth by Knott and his disgraced colleagues.
"The commentariat fell into a bubble and were reflecting what each other thought.

"A narrative caught hold and everyone started reporting it."

With hindsight, there's much to support this.
There was much to support that conclusion at the time, but the only support available to journalists was in delusion, and in reporting the wrong stories. Knott was too haughty to realise it, too wrapped up in his and others' bullshit and lacking the tools and wit to snap out of a collective delusion that impeded understanding.

Knott began his career covering inside-media gossip for Crikey. A young fogey, Knott disdained social media (despite Crikey being more like a blog than established traditional media) and Fairfax decided that personalities and gossip provided the necessary depth of skills to cover federal politics in all its complexities. Despite being one of over two hundred press gallery journalists, there was no way Knott had any sort of ability to work things out from first principles and chart his own course through the nation's public life. Those who wrangle journos for a living from the major parties were dead right in assuming Knott could be stuffed with junk food and shuffled off to picfacs and would love every minute of it, offering nary a challenge to the desired narrative nor any departure from the collective.
Several ideas took hold quickly in the gallery's collective brain. That Australians don't kick out a first term government (despite this happening recently at a state level). And that Malcolm Turnbull's personal popularity was a decisive advantage against the less prime ministerial Shorten.

During the campaign, several events became seen as "turning points" for the Coalition despite the polls never really budging. Labor's admission it would increase the budget deficit over the next four years was one. So was the UK's departure from the European Union.
It's one thing for some to hold to conventional wisdom. But for all of them, without exception, to stick to an opinion that could be trumpeted but not justified can barely be believed, let alone respected.
Many had picked up a "vibe" in the community that voters were disappointed in Turnbull, but not sufficiently angry to remove him. There was also the confidence exuded by Turnbull and his advisers.

Many of us even convinced ourselves that the low-energy, small-target campaign was a clever way of "boring" voters into backing the Coalition.

"You got the impression they were confident and confident for a reason," former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes says of the coverage. "There was very little scepticism of what was behind that".
Very little scepticism by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted experts in the hall of mirrors that is politics.

Confident Labor - delusional. All journos agreed.

Confident Libs - confident for a reason. Again, all journos agreed (baa!).

Who's best place to judge why these people have failed? Why, the noddies themselves. They'd know. You can trust them - well, our hero does.
But if the media were wrong they were hardly alone. Two days before election day the bookmakers - often hailed as more accurate than pollsters ...
Often hailed by whom - hardbitten, can't-fool-me journalists, trusted etc ... you can see where this is going. First you fool people, then you snuggle down with those you've fooled so that you can be wrong together. The difference is that bookmakers incur real and direct penalties for getting their odds wrong - not so journalists.
So, as Insiders host Barrie Cassidy asked, were journalists shown to be "gullible"? Or were they being lied to?
False dichotomy there. Being lied to is a given in politics. If you're experienced and credible, you can pick your way through the lies and show us what's going on. If you're not, then you're no better than Knott and his arse-covering mates. Right toward the end, and doubtless under duress, Knott dove into social media:
In preparing this piece, I asked readers on Twitter and on Facebook for their views of the coverage.

Some dominant criticisms emerged ...
And excellent criticisms they were, too good for our protagonist it seems. Most journalists use social media to follow other journalists, and get all upset when randoms barge into their carefully curated circle-jerks; I imagine Knott's is no better, but he has blocked me. I have given deeper thought to political journalism than he has; Knott wakes up every day and does the same thing over and over, waiting for drops or chewing over press releases, assuming that he's vindicated by following the herd. Knott flinches before criticism and can't evaluate it, spluttering instead from the ill-considered perspective that only journalists can judge journalists:
Journalists may quibble with some points.
If the campaign is light on policy, blame the politicians' and not us.
No. Politicians bear their own penalties from a disengaged electorate, penalties no journalist bears (not even those made redundant, and too few of those come from the press gallery/campaign trail). Political campaign staffers know what journos like: they like it lite, brite and trite. In my previous post I gave two solid examples of political journalism from the small beer and weak tea that was this campaign. Journos and editors are responsible for what journos write/say. If you'd been right, you'd want credit; you aren't, so cop this.
Others might argue that, despite what readers say they want to read, many more will click on a story about a "fake" tradie than a plan to save the Murray Darling Basin.
The declining fortunes of the media demonstrate that they have no clue what people do or don't want to read. That fatuous and ill-considered quote assumes erroneously that any piece on a substantive policy issue is as good as any other, and that a piece that is both badly written and badly received should discourage any attempt at better journalism.
Still, that doesn't mean those in the media shouldn't listen - and reflect.
It does, if you're simply going to dismiss some very good feedback out of hand, or cast those pearls before the swine of the campaign bus/press gallery.

Six years ago, Greg Jericho expressed frustration that he couldn't find any reporting on disability policy because the press gallery were busy making the very mistakes to which Knott referred and tried so feebly to dismiss. Journos at the time were less dismissive than Knott and some expressed a wish to do better. Millions of news cycles later we know that none did, of course. Knott could have studied that and become a better journalist. As Margaret Simons didn't say, but I will: Matthew Knott has much to be humble about, with no inclination or ability to lift his game.

James Jeffrey doesn't pretend to be anything but a writer of colour pieces. Unlike the more precious and dismissive Knott or Annabel Crabb, he doesn't claim his gentle vignettes have a serious journalistic purpose, and he gets upset when others think they should. This is fair enough (and this writer may well have taken easy shots in the past at pieces of this sort), but the bit where his piece doesn't quite work is the bit where his larky tone turns to snark:
For some, I suspect it stems from the disappointment that the paper isn’t, say, wall to wall Paul Kelly — an understandable disappointment. But Kelly isn’t stingy with his words and there’s plenty to go around.

Following my latest “And this passes for journalism?”, I’ll confess to feeling a bit fed up. I thanked my commenter for checking in, but suggested such a comment was a bit like going to a cake shop and getting grumpy because you can’t get a steak.
Kelly mightn't be stingy with words, but since about the mid-'90s he has sacrificed quality for quantity. And this leaves lighter pieces bearing more weight than they were designed for, like ivy straining to hold together a crumbling wall. Or, to return to Jeffrey's analogy, if someone's sold you disappointing steak after disappointing steak, they can never appreciate cakes for what they are.
I’m still in love with the idea of a newspaper being a banquet with plenty of courses. Hard news, breaking news, solid analysis — all of that is important. But it’s not the only reason readers turn up.
For a start, I only read that story because Jeffrey's employer placed it outside their firewall. Like a potplant outside a toilet block, it leavens the overall effect but does not make me any more likely to go in.

Jeffrey might be holding up his side of things with his personable arrangements of bons mots, but his assumptions about the heavier lifting done by others simply do not hold. If you're an urban denizen, as Jeffrey is, where are you most likely to find a delicious cake: in some hole-in-the-wall patisserie, or in some tacky run-down supermarket full of verbose but customer-unfriendly staff and a reputation for crap steak?

Knott's attempt to raise journalistic failure and then dismiss it without proper examination calls to mind the heartfelt but ultimately misdirected lamentations for journalism by Paul Barry earlier this year, and by Jonathan Holmes late last year in The Age. We live in an information age, and information providers should be making out like bandits. Limiting yourself to mere journalism seems to be its own reward. Yes, proper information costs money, but if you don't take a chance on it then you can never make money anyway. Those who are neither informative nor engaging while taking up space once occupied by those committed to being both waste everyone's time and resources. We needed to be told the truth about how we are being governed, and (at a time of election) what other options we have. At a time where the election was so boring that doing some policy-based research actually made the coverage less boring, rather than more so as Knott and his dull-witted herd did, the fortunes of our struggling media could have turned around. A bit of independent thought might have snapped Knott and some others out of the mass exercise of professional self-harm he and his colleagues perpetrated upon us all. It would have helped us form better judgments about how we are governed (and on what Knott and Jeffrey report), because that matters more than the combined delusions of journalists.

Update 8/7: Different/better takes on Knott from:

03 July 2016

Leaving us hanging

Before I start, let me apologise to regular readers for the long delay in posting at a time when you'd expect me to post often and much. I feel like I've said everything that needs to be said about the horrible vacuity of campaign-trail journalism, while the big media organisations keep pumping out the same old crap. Those who think I've said too much already can agree that I gave those drongoes trashing once-proud media outlets more than enough rope.

1972 was clearly a big year for campaign-trail journalism. Whitlam's launch of that year set the template for every campaign launch since: the upbeat speech, the balloons, the camera shots of young hopefuls and elder statesmen. Tony Wright and Dennis Shanahan [writes for NewsCorp, find it yourself] both wrote jaded gobbets about how lame it all was - but if those guys' decades of experience means anything, they had no right to expect any better. The US election of that year yielded The Boys on the Bus by Tim Crouse and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail by Hunter S. Thompson, and every single word written or spoken by every campaign-trail journalist has been a warmed-over take-out from either/both of those seminal texts.

They spent three years wishing they were on the campaign trail, and now they're here they are bored and tired - and nobody cares that they're bored and tired, because politics rendered in a boring way isn't intended to arouse sympathy or any other sort of engagement:

(c) Guardian Australia

Campaign trail journalism had to reach a point of cultural exhaustion at some point, and here we are. All those photo-ops and proto-announcements counted for nothing. When you're engaged in non-work, you can't expect sympathy from those who get tired from working real jobs. The press gallery sat around for three years watching their drinking buddies mess about with policy proposals that had real-world impacts on the lives of their readers/ listeners/ viewers.

They couldn't craft the words and images that could describe what was going on, and how it affects us; easier to comment on pretend-elections and gossip, and the dummies in the editorial suite had no better sense for news than theirs. Popular disengagement is political failure, and it's a failure of journalism too. Both have far-reaching impacts on politics and media which can't be imagined, let alone managed, by those who run either type of organisation. Now they wonder why there's disengagement, and you still can't tell them: the old traditions of campaigning have worn so thin, and campaign-trail journalism goes into the skip along with all the other how-to-votes and hopes and dreams.

What's clearly failed here isn't just campaign-trail journalism. It's the idea that you can only report on federal politics from Canberra, or by flying in clueless pinheads from Sydney like Simon Benson or Peter Hartcher, while cutting out local journalists. Everyone talks about Xenophon in South Australia, but once you get past Sydney/Melbourne condescension to that state the only actual Croweaters the press gallery talks to are other journalists, or Christopher Pyne and Penny Wong - and Xenophon seems to be a reaction to the problems those two caused or failed to solve. Rob Oakeshott explained how Fairfax's centralised ad-buying undermined local editorial in the Port Macquarie News. Sydney/Melbourne media could cover from the suburbs of those cities but not from regional Queensland, or hardscrabble Tasmania - even Windsor vs Joyce in New England was assumed to be a toss-up when it wasn't, because the desire to pose for 'balance' outweighed any genuine journalistic instinct to report the story.

Nobody votes on a national basis. It's why those who complained Tony Abbott or Kevin Rudd were "elected Prime Minister" are talking nonsense. It's why journalists relying on "national polls" add nothing to anyone's understanding: if you can't explain which seats go this way or that and why, you can't explain the result; you can only suck air through clenched teeth and go "ooh, it's close!", and there's no future or value in that. Polls showing minor inflections may nonetheless be valuable for pollsters - but it is poor fare for journalists, and irrelevant pap for readers/ listeners/ viewers/ voters.

Let's remember clearly how the media reacted to developments in this campaign:
  • When Turnbull threatened a double dissolution election over workplace relations, the press gallery all agreed (thanks for the link @boozebum) it was a masterstroke in wedging Labor, unprepared and with a lacklustre leader.
  • Traditional media all agreed that 'Mediscare' was a scare campaign, but seemed to take recent Coalition campaigns against carbon pricing or the Budget deficit at face value.
  • In the last week of the campaign, traditional media were all agreed the Coalition would be returned with a slender majority. When Bill Shorten told Leigh Sales that he hadn't given up, Sales laughed in his face.
  • The same people who believed Turnbull ran a disciplined, on-message campaign now accuse him of being 'lacklustre', a term fed to them by Abbott and Credlin, and which shows they have no ability to assess or qualify lines they receive - so, what they pass on isn't valuable.
You've failed at journalism when you look at something up close for a long time and you can't tell us what's going on. When that thing is an election campaign, where we have to decide how our nation is to be governed and by whom, the stakes go far beyond newsroom japes.

A centralised campaign seeks only the information it wants, and its judgment about what it wants is rubbish. Traditional media insistence that its judgments match voter needs are demonstrably false. No appeal to their good sense or better nature is possible.

We've talked for a long time about the declining social bases of the major parties, and the fact that voters are increasingly rewarding people for trying to work out different options that the major parties dare not attempt. Only corporate donors expect whole-cloth solutions from political parties, which is why major parties pleading for first preferences in both houses sound like they're peddling an agenda other than that of the voters. Minor parties need not seek out traditional media to be electable (except for Pauline Hanson, that unflushable turd and wholly-owned subsidiary of Channel 7), and in return traditional media are constantly surprised by each new wave of minor-party politicians.

Major parties value those who'll toe the line over those who can think on their feet. The Liberal injunction "Stick to the plan" (when there was no plan to stick to) seemed targeted to party members rather than a democratic polity at large. Minors and independents get by on their wits, which the drones from the majors interpret as being all flash and no substance. Cathy McGowan danced around Sophie Mirabella, who couldn't get out of her own way again. Alex Bhatal, Jason Ball and Carl Katter ran rings around David Feeney and Kelly O'Dwyer, and it will be interesting to see what (if?) the latter two learn from the experience. Journalists can't cover three-way splits or post-electoral compromise. Journalism is reductive, and is better at explaining clear differences rather than the messy compromises at the heart of parliamentary democracy. We're going to have more hung parliaments (oh yes we are), so traditional press gallery journalism of facile thrills'n'spills simply won't be able to cope.

The traditional media have lost credibility as their news judgment has departed from what people seem to be seeking in politics. It was not this gaffe or that scare campaign that turned the election - such an analysis assumes the traditional media has more readers/ listeners/ viewers than they have, and that their coverage is taken more seriously than it is. Insiders showed a ten-minute montage of dreck footage, and none of the bastards who followed had the decency to apologise and/or resign. Those who don't understand the result can't explain it.

The fact that they can't explain them further devalues traditional media as trusted, experienced sources of political information. This in turn opens more scope for minor parties and devalues poor muppets like Josh Frydenberg, who would be nothing at all without major parties and traditional media, who then seem to spray themselves with voter-repellent when they breathlessly announce "stay tuned for our exclusive interview", and so it goes down the plughole. In this article Brigid Delaney mocks Liberals who actually believed what they read/ heard/ saw in the media, who relied on insider tips fed to them by Liberals, and who then had the journos eat their hors d'oeuvres, and so on in a self-referential loop that both journalists and politicians wrongly assume will keep them all busy.

I've talked about the death spiral of traditional media and major parties for a decade (apologies again for being so light-on over the past few weeks, I've been busy), but never has it been more obvious than in this campaign. By 2019 there will be fewer journalists employed by traditional media overall, though the press gallery may remain a bloated herd. It's amazing to think that editors and news directors will again send impressionable journalists out to do warmed-over Crouse/Thompson from a school in Cairns, a hospital in Perth, a highway easement in Westensinny, etc. ...

Surely not all political journalism in this campaign was crap?

Mostly it was. Only two exceptions of quality journalism applied to public policy come to mind from this election campaign:
Now that Lenore Taylor has moved to an editorial role, Tingle is the best and most consistently journalist in the press gallery by a very long way. Price is not even in the press gallery; she's a columnist and academic, and seemingly by accident she's done some journalism when all other alternatives were exhausted. Unlike 1972, campaign-trail journalists have the ability to research and knock up stories from buses or layovers or wherever else that are every bit as good as those two above.

If the press gallery and the campaign trail produced consistently good journalism, it might be worthwhile - but it doesn't, and it isn't. Journos often moan that I don't call out positive examples: but when I do it only emphasises what dreadful garbage they have flung at us over the past eight weeks, and for years and years before that.