Keeping The Story Straight: But if a conflict arose between the mainstream media's version of events and the version presented by the citizen journalists of the blogosphere - what then? Even more alarming - what if the bloggers' version proved to be the more believable?
SOMEWHERE THERE’S GOT TO BE a focus-group report. Nothing else adequately explains the current behaviour of the “mainstream media” (MSM). Somewhere, somehow, someone has been incautious enough to ask a representative sample of MSM readers, listeners and viewers how often they visit, and what sort of credence they give to, the blogs. Their answers appear to have shocked some journalists into full-scale retaliation.
My guess is that the consumers of news and opinion are not abandoning the MSM altogether – not yet. Most probably it’s still just a case of people turning to the blogosphere for a second opinion. The big problems will only arise when the stories people read on the blogs begin to sharply contradict stories being printed in the newspapers and broadcast over radio and television. That’s when the MSM should really begin to worry.
But if the note of alarm that has crept into the MSM’s coverage of blogs – especially political blogs – over the past few weeks is anything to go by, some of that worrying has already begun. The final edition of The Nation, broadcast on TV3 last weekend, warned ominously of the potentially destabilising political influence of the left-leaning blog The Standard. Senior Parliamentary Press Gallery journalists have launched repeated attacks against “anonymous bloggers” with many eagerly accusing their blogs of playing a sinister role in David Cunliffe’s alleged “attempted leadership coup” at the Labour Party’s Annual Conference.
The tone of these attacks leaves little doubt that not only do these political journalists consider bloggers to be unwelcome and illegitimate contributors to the nation’s political discourse, but that nothing would make them happier than to see them tightly regulated and controlled. It’s an attitude that should send a shiver down every New Zealander’s spine. A genuine “Fourth Estate” would welcome the democratisation of the gathering and distribution of news which the Internet has made possible. That so many MSM journalists have greeted the competitive spur of the blogosphere with a mixture of self-serving patch-protection and outright authoritarianism is cause for considerable concern.
It also casts much of their recent reporting of political news in a new and worrying light. If the truth is indeed out there, then presumably it’s as readily accessible to bloggers as it is to members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery? If both are present at the same event, then their reports should be (making obvious allowance for nuance and emphasis) at least broadly similar? But what if they are not similar? What if the MSM’s coverage of Event X is radically at odds with both the experience of participants and the reportage of bloggers? Wouldn’t that raise some extremely disturbing questions about the credibility and trustworthiness of MSM journalism?
The recent Labour Party conference demonstrated in the most dramatic fashion the MSM’s capacity to misrepresent and mislead the NZ public. The political journalists covering the conference were either collaborators with, or the dupes of, a faction of the Labour Party Caucus which, fearing the consequences of radical changes to the party’s constitution, manufactured a leadership challenge to Opposition Leader, David Shearer, by his front-bench colleague, David Cunliffe.
That the rule changes endorsed by the rank-and-file offered Mr Cunliffe a route to the leadership of the party which allowed him to by-pass his Caucus enemies was obvious to anyone familiar with the agreed reforms. Quite legitimately (if somewhat maladroitly) the MP for New Lynn declined to rule-out taking advantage of these new constitutional opportunities at some point in the future. To translate this sequence of events into a full-scale leadership challenge, as TV3’s Patrick Gower did, lacked even the slightest evidential foundation. It did not prevent him, however, from telling Mr Shearer that Mr Cunliffe was “coming for you” and demanding to know what he was going to do about it.
The peculiar political-economy of news reporting from the Parliamentary Press Gallery ensured that Mr Gower’s conspiracy theory became the core of the MSM’s reporting. Effective Gallery reporting is based on easy access to the principal political newsmakers of both the Government and the Opposition. Once it becomes clear that those principals have agreed upon an interpretation of events it is extremely hazardous for any political journalist to offer an alternative view. It would risk not only an immediate denial of access to the principal players, but also the wrath of one’s editor. Any narrative at odds with the main media outlets’ agreed version of events has the potential to make the perpetrator appear both eccentric and/or ill-informed. These are not epithets with which most MSM editors feel comfortable. Multiple interpretations of the same event might also encourage the public to question the competence of the MSM’s journalistic staff. Much safer all round if the coverage remains consistent across all media.
But consistent is not the same as accurate. What happened at the Labour Party Conference, far from being an attempted leadership coup, bore all the signs of a pre-emptive strike against the man most likely to front a successful leadership challenge under the new rules. Political journalists who rejected the principal players version of events, could have spoken to conference delegates who witnessed incidents strongly suggestive of the attacks on Mr Cunliffe being carefully orchestrated well in advance of the actions which ostensibly provoked them. Persistent questioning would also have uncovered evidence that 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. No hint of these alternative narratives appeared anywhere in the MSM.
They have, however, been appearing in both the postings and commentary threads of the political blogs. Is this the real explanation for the sudden spate of attacks on the anonymity of these citizen-journalists? Has a focus group warned the MSM that the stories it declines to tell – and which are now turning up in blogs – are being believed? Are more and more of the MSM’s readers, listeners and viewers coming to the conclusion that the Fourth Estate, far from speaking truth to power, has become its willing stenographer?
If this is true, then the decision by so many active participants in the blogosphere to remain anonymous or write under a pseudonym becomes entirely reasonable. Any system powerful and mendacious enough to suborn the one institution specifically charged with exposing its malfeasance is probably not the sort of system to be openly challenged or taunted by vulnerable individuals using their real names.
The day focus groups and their deliberations cease to be confidential is the day bloggers will gladly abandon their pseudonyms and the current “pandemic of anonymity” will be ended.
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.