Amero-Australian journalist James Morrow published an article in the WSJ on Monday 25 July. It was a reasonable – and reasonably entertaining – piece on the nonsense that is Australian Covid repression. But when James turned to the reasons for this intellectual, policy and moral failure, his article was dominated by one giant, reflective absence. Media.
We expect our politicians to be dumb narcissists who clamber for power and influence. We expect our bureaucrats to be craven sycophants who do everything they can to obfuscate and avoid accountability. This is business as usual. Admittedly, they are the worst bunch of my 50-plus years. But that doesn’t explain the spectacular events of the past 18 months.
What we didn’t expect was that the media would channel the interests of the establishment, and that most of them would become PR hacks for an illegitimate policy. It is this collapse of media insight, intelligence and integrity that distinguishes this political failure from previous ones.
It is not that the media suddenly isn’t doing its job. It hasn’t for years. It is that journalists have, through ignorance, misrepresentation and obfuscation become spruikers for bad science and bad policy. For a policy narrative that attacks the rights and interests of media consumers. You know, the people they pretend to care about.
I’m not picking on James himself. I’ve known him for several years and enjoy his company, and he has been vigorous in attacking lockdown mania. But if you ask why Covid repression has happened, discounting media failure is just disingenuous. Even if you do have to keep a job at News Ltd.
Why this time around so different for the media? There are several reasons, none flattering to individual journalists and commentators, nor to corporate media entities.
The first is that most contemporary reporters and commentators just aren’t very bright. Many, particularly in broadcasting, are better suited to working as spokesmodels on an afternoon game show than presenting or commenting on policy. Former Obama Adviser Ben Rhodes’ comment on Washington reporters comes to mind. Even if they are bright, there are vanishingly few who have the analytic, technical or quantitative competence to investigate and take a position on their own (honourable contrary mention: Adam Creighton).
Journalists often get the technical aspects of their stories wrong – if you know something about a topic, the reporting is at best half-right or outright wrong. But then you forget, move on to the next story on an unfamiliar topic, and you give it credibility. Everyone isn’t just conservative on what they know about; they think journalists are idiots on what they know about too.
This lack of intellectual power leads to credulity, passivity and lack of confidence in investigating whether technical statements have data that support them. If you are unsure of your intellect, it is always safer to trust in institutions and credentials than rely on yourself.
In Covid19 world, by March-April 2020 it was clear from the data that the extent of the panic was unjustified. People didn’t understand the difference between infection and case fatality rates. Serious epidemiologists made strong cases for restraint. At this time only Creighton, and to a lesser extent Morrow and Terry McCrann, took these ideas forward.
Journalists blindly quoted modelling studies with absurd assumptions and equally absurd projections. When the Doherty Institute released its Covid model in April 2020, any inquisitive person could have worked out that one key data input was egregiously overstated. This led to the Federal Government using absurd ICU utilisation estimates. But no-one other than this author seemed to be bothered, until the media picked it up in September.
And in a true failure of journalistic curiosity, the NSW Health Department still allows threshold PCR testing cycles of 40-45 when it has been known since May 2020 that more than 35 creates false positives and overstated cases.
Questions on these issues from our journalists to health bureaucrats? Nil. Instead, News Ltd’s in-house bombastic bogan, Andrew Clennell, harangues the NSW Premier for not locking down more rigorously. Comparative lockdown performance data? Not mentioned. Peer-reviewed papers on mask efficacy? Ignored. Iceland locking down again although it is at 90% of eligible people vaccinated? Overlooked because it goes against the narrative. The list is long, and damning.
It’s more than smarts, inquisitiveness and intellectual confidence at issue. Unfortunately, we have to resort to pop psych concepts to understand the people in the news media. Their whole industry revolves around viewership and readership, around pandering to the tastes of others and playing on their emotional biases. Failure is standing alone in truth, without fans. Media attracts those who run on external rather than internal validation, who focus on social approval and social proof, and it contains more than a normal number of attention-seeking narcissists. And the urge for attention is a huge handbrake on saying something that might risk your audience, or the gig that creates one for you.
As a result what you see is continual herding towards whatever journos identify as the conventional wisdom of the cognitive elite. Both reporters and opinionistas seem desperate to signal to the world that they “are one of the smart ones”. It’s a sad scrabble to be in the high school popular group.
But it’s worse than that. Journalists were once separate from the ruling class of politicians, bureaucrats and corporate cronies. Over the past 30 years we have seen a complete merging of those classes into a group with common culture, common presumptions and a common need to distinguish themselves from the audience they mislead. That merging isn’t just social. It’s also occupational, sexual, and financial.
Journalists slide from being political advisers, to reporters, to government relations and PR hacks, and back. They also slide between the sheets of many of those they report on. Big name reporters get in on investments with political and business figures. Anyone remember Ray Martin and Trevor Kennedy (Packer executive) owning shares in the very dodgy Offset Alpine Printing with Rene Rivkin, Graham Richardson, Rodney Adler and Eddie Obeid? And that was in the 1990s. There’s journalistic independence for you.
But most journalists are the poorer cousins of the ruling class – just orbiting serfs in clothes and shoes they can’t afford, hoping for some crumbs. It means that they have real status anxiety and look to distinguish themselves from the mug media consumer, much as political hacks do. This partially explains the obvious media disdain for Deplorables, DelCons and Quiet Australians, a disdain which ordinary people return in kind.
All this makes it much easier for journalists to support policy that treats ordinary people as dumb cattle. Like Sydney’s Nine News doxxing 24 July Freedom March protesters, encouraging employers to fire them, and applauding the moral failure of informers.
Lastly, we have to address corporate directive. It is clear from US, Australian and UK behaviours that News Ltd has an editorial line that sets reporting and commentary limits, not merely on US election matters, but on Covid relative risk, data quality, repression measures, vaccines and similar (see update). For people desperate for a role in front an audience, the threat of losing their fix is a strong one. Fox News’ summary sacking of Lou Dobbs sent a strong message that talking heads must obey. Nine-Fairfax also has a clear line. Sadly, the ABC doesn’t need one because its personnel apply lockstep self-censorship.
As a result, the current PR push from government and corporate media on vaccines and Covid age-related risk is so coordinated as to be an embarrassment. Ordinary people see through it in an instant.
And let’s put the If it bleeds, it leads excuse to bed. Lying bureaucrats and conniving politicians ruining people’s lives has as much news value as the fear porn delivered for the past 18 months. It is not an explanation for aberrant and immoral media behaviour.
For better or worse, politicians are always gonna politic. Bureaucrats are gonna bureaucrat. The media’s supposed to be there to put limits on them. But now they’re on the same side, and they’re too stupid to realise that they’re the bad guys.
Enemy of the people indeed.
[UPDATE] And now we see News Ltd outlet the Daily Telegraph pulling an Alan Jones article over criticism of lockdowns in NSW. Did I mention a News Ltd editorial directive? Alan Jones isn’t my cup of tea, but this is ridiculous.