Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on journalism, and John Armstrong

September 17th, 2012

Watching a round of hair pulling and name-calling between journalists is rarely a rewarding sight, so I apologise in advance to anyone of a nervous or irritable disposition for this morning’s column. Allegedly, I have been unfair and mean to John Armstrong of the NZ Herald, who spent an entire column on Saturday denigrating me and Otago University academic Bryce Edwards (who provides the Herald’s regular summary of political coverage) for our supposed sins against him, the press gallery, and the entire journalism profession.

Is this kind of attack ignorable? Not really. Even though I can’t help feeling that I was merely the pretext, and Edwards the real target of Armstrong’s injured pride. (One of Edwards’ alleged “echo chamber” crimes is that he has occasionally recommended my work.) In addition, Armstrong’s Herald colleague Fran O’Sullivan has been taking a few potshots at Edwards of late on Facebook. The goal appears to be to shore up the old regime and drum any trace of liberal thought out of the new Herald altogether. The money shot in Armstrong’s column comes here:

The rapidly growing influence of Edwards’ blog was initially down to its being an exhaustive wrap-up of all of the day’s political news. It is now starting to develop a much more political dynamic that is unlikely to please National.

Unlikely to please National? Off with his head. For the record, the column of mine that triggered Armstrong’s outburst was this one. In it, I contrasted the quality of the Canadian press analysis of APEC with what was emanating from the NZ journalists on tour with the NZ delegation. I thought NZ readers were being poorly served and explained in some detail the dimensions lacking from the NZ coverage. Armstrong doesn’t really engage with the points I made. Instead, he scoffs at any attempt to put the emergent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact at, or near, the forefront of this year’s APEC gathering in Vladivostok as being (a) journalistically inappropriate and (b) the product of my own and Bryce Edwards’ alleged ideological bias.

That’s a shame, and a good example of the crap journalism I was criticising. And not only because the Guardian, and the Globe and Mail, and that well known left wing organ the Wall Street Journal all saw the TPP as an active and relevant backdrop to the APEC proceedings in Vladivostok. Being on the ground at APEC, I would have thought, provided a golden opportunity to explore the region’s sensitivities about the TPP’s role as a security device to rein in China, as much as a trade pact. Or to investigate – for instance – how Japan’s actual (as opposed to its immediately election-driven) position might pan out next year with respect to the two competing trade options that were being touted behind the scenes at APEC. Namely, the China-led tripartite pact with South Korea, and the US-led TPP. To both camps, as I said in my column, Japan is the main prize. Does Japan, as some in the Canadian media seem to think, regard those options as either/or? Or does it think it can continue to play footsy with both sides throughout 2013? Just wondering, as a reader. BTW, only in New Zealand would a journalistic interest in the TPP and its implications, be treated as a sign of lefty bias.

All that aside….given a media industry starved of resources, you’d have hoped that having a team on the ground in Vladivostok would have yielded better analyses than what we got. It is at this point that Armstrong’s complaints become weirdly fascinating. According to him, I just don’t understand how hard it is to go to a big event overseas and keep up with the play, and file stories on the run. (In fact, I did that while covering South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, and the US election campaign in 2004. They were no picnics either, but totally exhilarating.) Allow me to repeat the poignant details of Armstrong’s Lament:

Few media representatives travelling with John Key would have got more than four or five hours’ sleep each night – probably less – because of the Prime Minister’s schedule, which ran from 6am (earlier if a flight was involved) until well into the evening. Days were spent clambering on and off buses in 35C heat and 100 per cent humidity.

Time has to be found within that schedule to write news stories and other articles – but not just for the following day’s newspaper. News organisations’ websites have to be fed – especially if there is “breaking” news. Deadlines in Asia are punishing, as countries such as Japan are three hours behind New Zealand, meaning deadlines are effectively even tighter. Then there is the no small matter of filing stories back home. Equipment breaks down, mobile phones that are supposed to be in harmony with Japan’s system turn out not to be.

To which I’d say: put a cork in the self pity and the passive aggression, feller. You were on an employer-paid trip to Russia and beyond, one that offered remarkable access to the deeds and intentions of some of the most powerful people on the planet – and you’re complaining about it, and whining about the workload? And offering the humidity up as an excuse? Here’s a positive suggestion. Next time, do some homework before the APEC conference. That way, you’ll have a basis for understanding what is unfolding before your eyes, or behind the arras. It will be an adrenaline rush, and you’ll thank your lucky stars for being so privileged, just to be there.

Between the lines in Armstrong’s column, a morality play is being presented. It is a pageant in which he, the humble scribe from the mainstream media, is heroically doing the hard yards under deadline and dutifully observing the rules of good journalism – while Bryce Edwards and I are being cast as the Flash Harrys from the blogosphere who allegedly (a) reek of bias (b) feed parasitically on the fruits of his honest graft and (c) pay scant heed to the facts and to the truth. What a pair of arrant bounders we are!

Variants on this fantasy are routinely peddled in the mainstream media and the fantasy is worth de-constructing. For one thing, truth was being herded into the boneyard by the mainstream media long before the blogosphere was ever invented. Let’s also look at a few details here. Was Armstrong really the driven scribe shuttling from one APEC-driven, equipment plagued, hot and humid deadline after another, in faithful service to the folks back home? If so, who was the John Armstrong who wrote this travel piece drivel from APEC about old Vladivostok?

The faded, but quaint, charm of Vladivostok is a relief to the eyes after the cheap, sterile, modern architecture of Russky Island…Vladivostok’s two new suspension bridges dominate the city’s skyline to its detriment. Just how much traffic they will carry is a moot point after delegates start leaving today… etc etc etc.

Secondly, Bryce Edwards and I allegedly rely on ideological bias? Well, there’s nothing in our analyses that remotely equates with the lazy personal abuse and dog whistling that Armstrong indulges in with such irresponsible abandon: “Greens propagandist” (allegedly, me) “ former Alliance staffer” (Edwards) “two old-style Aro Valley socialists” (allegedly, Edwards and me) and so on…all this, while trying to lay claim to the moral high ground. Supposedly, we’re parasites to boot. That’s really rich – coming from a mainstream media that is dependent for about 95% of its political content on recycled press releases, self interested tip offs from politicians and feeds from prime ministerial press conferences – the attendance at which Armstrong touchingly depicts as being a hallmark of real journalism. Believe me, it isn’t.

Let me just say that, beyond the name-calling, there are two substantive issues involved here. One, it has been true for years that the only ideology in media circles that gets called as such is on the left. Right wing propagandists are taken as the sensible norm by the corporate media. That ethical blind spot is now coming under scrutiny on the Net, and the journalists involved clearly don’t like it. To repeat: the name calling and the charges of ideological bias against Bryce Edwards and me are coming from journalists whose own ideological foundations and job performance are now (thanks to the rise of citizen journalism) being held up to public scrutiny for the first time.

This trend towards political transparency is an entirely welcome development. As a reader, I want to know (or want to be able to quickly discern) where the writer is coming from. That’s why I think its great that Armstrong wrote that line about Edwards being ‘unlikely to please’ National – because it means that if the Herald does move to drop Edwards’ column sometime in future, the reason will be crystal clear to its readers. The readers would regard it (accurately) as Old Granny Herald sucking up to its boy, National.

In sum, the days of journalism are over when only one truth could possibly be entertained by a Rational Gentleman of Commerce, as defined in say, the pages of the Economist or the columns of Fran O’Sullivan. The gallery pack consensus has broken down, and a multiplicity of viewpoints are now contesting the political discourse. Obviously, that’s a good thing. The difference now – for both the mainstream media and the blogosphere – is that if you screw up, or fall short, or have a bad morning, informed readers will be all over you like a rash. Again, that’s good for the readers, even if it takes some established journalists out of their comfort zone. As this evolution is taking place, Armstrong has been left behind in trying to paint the blogosphere as parasitic on the honest toil of the mainstream media – as if the mainstream media has never used the blogosphere for insights, information and story leads. In fact, the relationship is not parasitic, but symbiotic. Get used to it.

Finally – one should ask – how did the POV of the press gallery elite become so de-legitimised? The answer isn’t just a technological one, and attributable to the rise of the Internet. A more important reason is that over the past 30 years, the old tenets and work practices of ‘objective’ journalism have failed the public. (This 2003 essay by Brent Cunningham in the Columbia Journalism Review entitled “Re-Thinking Objectivity” is still highly relevant to this argument.) The problem being, politicians and their spinmeisters have learned how to play the lazy ‘two sides to every story’ premise of so-called ‘objective journalism’ like a violin. In reality, there are far more than Two Major Party sides to every story, and the job of journalism should begin – not end – after the views of National and Labour have been sought. By and large it has been the blogosphere that has taken up the evaluative task that the mainstream media has abandoned, or lacked the gumption to pursue.

In my view, those tasks of Evaluative Journalism are as essential and as difficult, as anything done in the name of Objective Journalism, which is often a mechanical procedure. And a parasitical one, as often as not – highly dependent on those on whom it feeds, and careful to avoid incurring the displeasure of its hosts. No, it does not mean that “anything goes” when it comes to the task of evaluation. The rules of fairness and accuracy still apply and if anything, are more to the fore. It is usually the “objective” journalism that tucks its half truths, deliberate exclusions and ideological premises carefully out of sight, before it comes to the table. By contrast on the blogosphere…you have to put the evidence on the page and make the process of evaluation as transparent as possible, if you’re going to win the readers’ trust. As David Foster Wallace once said, no writer today can any longer legitimately presume the audience-agreement that is really their rhetorical job to earn.

Like most “truths” these days, journalistic truths are now postmodern – and thus, as with many modern architects, it is to the benefit of journalists and readers alike if more of the journalistic plumbing is put on the outside of the building, for all to see. We shouldn’t try to live in denial about how we select and evaluate – or try to hoodwink the public that august organs such as the Herald do not bring their own ideological filters to bear as they package and present the news. Personally, I have a wary faith and optimism about the integrity of the Net. Because now more than ever before, readers are able to judge journalists by their works.

Footnote: I apologise for spending so much time on this subject. It is more important that last week, Social Development Minister Paula Bennett and Education Minister Hekia Parata both initially dodged fronting up to the media to face significant questioning about major goings on in their portfolios – even though Bennett could still find time on her schedule for breakfast TV, Regularly, the government is picking and choosing its patsy media messengers and actively dodging what little remains (usually in state media, such as RNZ) of serious scrutiny. Accountability is dying on the vine, and that really is outrageous. Probably, even John Armstrong would agree with me on that one.


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    1. 34 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on journalism, and John Armstrong”

    2. By Ben on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Don’t apologise, it’s a completely justifiable (and accurate) response.
      Though one does look forward to the bits on Parata and Bennett that I presume you’re in the process of writing.

    3. By Isabel on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Fully support your comments on NZ journalism Gordon. Lately I’ve felt like my brain shrank and my depth of knowldege of world affairs decreased drastically since moving back to NZ from overseas (from Australia) and following mainstream media here. I won’t subscribe to NZ herald due to its lack of substance. I read scoop because it has the best coverage of NZ politics & pacific affairs by far.

    4. By Dan on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      The comments on John Armstrong’s piece are hilarious. I think he’ll need a hug and a cup of tea after reading them. If he bothers.

    5. By Maria on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Excellent article, thanks for fighting for ethical journalism and readers with brains!

    6. By lyndon on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Bryce Edward, true to form, summarises:

    7. By donna on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Sadly for John Armstrong, he has sounded like a cheerleader for ACT and National for the last 4 years and even the Herald’s readers don’t seem to be buying it any more. I don’t usually bother to read his columns and assumed – stupidly it transpires – that the headline griping about bloggers not letting facts get in the way refered to armchair pundits who shall remain nameless.
      Armstrong and his ilk deserve to be taken to task for their coverage of APEC. For those of us who have been reading this crap for what seems like a lifetime now, the coverage was the same breathless, unquestioning, shallow stuff they’ve been churning out forever.
      Commentators including Scoop who are starting to question this have a valid point. Grumbling that this questioning is unlikely to please National simply reinforces why we need to be very protective of our independent media.

    8. By Wayne on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      But Gordon, Surely,you are not denying you rely on your ideological persuasion? You are always going to present the left wing view, but of course anyone coming to your site knows where you stand. So I don’t really expect you to ever see merit in the TPP, (and the Canadianns generally are hardly at the forefront of free trade enthusiasts). But New Zealand typically is and at least you should ask why that is so. We are a more internationally engaged economy than Canada, which is intimately connected to the US economy, almost seeing it as a domestic market. So the TPP is not just some right wing objective, it is more about our overall economic position, which is understood by both Labour and National – for instance would Labour turn its back on TPP?

    9. By ScoopEditor on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Wayne, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘ideological persuasion’–are you inferring that Gordon relies on his past experience and beliefs to inform his analysis of evidence and research? Well…yes, that tends to be how forming opinions works. No journalist–no human–is unbiased. I think it’s disingenuous, however, to claim that he is just ‘always presenting the left-wing view’, as though that’s a homogeneous and purely reactionary mass. If reactionary leftism were all that was at work here, Gordon’s column could’ve just read “well Armstrong’s a filthy capitalist!!1!” A lot of people–especially long-term experienced journalists–do tend to form opinions based on, you know, evidence, rather than just spouting half-churned propaganda from an ideological camp they appear to fall into. Perhaps he doesn’t see merit in the TPP based on his research of it…? Crazy thoughts.

      Moreover, Labour’s support for TPP (since they entered it in 2005) does not mean it constitutes a left-wing position. Labour are hardly a bastion of the Left in Parliament these days; that position falls more to the Greens (who have spoken out against the TPP) and Mana, if anyone, and even they are unable to represent more radical progressive elements.

    10. By Michael Stevens on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Thank you for that excellent piece of researched and well-thought out journalism!

    11. By Paul on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Great response Gordon, keep up the excellent well researched work. You really make the mainstream media look like a bunch of lazy hacks.

    12. By Pedant on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Is “ignorable” a word? And more importantly, can you make an elegant sentence employing it?

    13. By lyndon on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      “Unsupported pedantry is doubly ignorable.”

      Yes. Yes, I think you can.

    14. By Wayne on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Of course I expect that Gordon will have his views formed on his experience and beliefs. And, yes I do say that means he will ignore evidence on free trade agreements. I have yet to read of a New Zealand left winger who supports any real life free trade agreements of the last thirty years. And none from the left has ever said they were mistaken on CER or the China FTA, even though the evidence clearly demonstrates their advantages for New Zealand. It is not as if a selective view is taken, “well this agreement is good, but this one is not”.

      For the difference read Pundit, where there is an actual weighing of the merits on a particular issue, and where outcomes are not always predictable – or for that matter Bowalley Road.

    15. By Rosalea on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Just some stuff from the horses’ mouths about TPP and APEC, easily found on that bloomin’ bane of journalists’ lives, the Internet:

      An August 16th Congressional Research Service report/preview of APEC stated: “A major backdrop for the meeting will be the status of the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations and the potential implications for APEC’s future; all of the TPP-negotiating nations are APEC members.”

      At a Washington, DC, State Department Foreign Press Center background briefing on August 29th, a senior official from the Office of the USTR said: “… there’s a really good synergy between the TPP negotiations and APEC. The key difference is APEC is about voluntary or nonbinding commitments, and the TPP is a trade
      negotiation looking at binding commitments. But as I said, there’s a real synergy between the two, because many of the issues that APEC has first addressed, such as supply chains, are issues now that are being addressed in a binding fashion in the TPP. So as [Senior State Department Official] said, we really see APEC as an incubator. And given all the business input and participation in APEC, we think we’re at a good – we’re in a very unique position in APEC to start work in a nonbinding basis on key issues facing the region in the economic realm.”

      So it appears that TPP was important even if it was addressed only at the ministerial, not the leadership, level.

    16. By Pedant on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      +1 lyndon.

      Beautifully crafted.

    17. By michael on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Aro Valley?

      Now that’s funny. In the case of Bryce Edwards, doesn’t John mean North East Valley?

      Or maybe he’s moved to Kaikorai Valley now. Out here in Lyall Bay, I have lost touch with where the hotbed of southern socialism resides.

      On a more serious note, it is hilarious watching three journalists scrabbling around for authenticity. Who is the real journalist? Now that is the great post-modern conundrum.

      Alastair and John, you seem certain that others are just pretenders. Bryce, well, now you hedge your bets and ultimately make the call that Alastair and John are actually, well, really great. The echo chamber rings true down there in the Burns Building …

      Actually, the argument appears to be more about who is “more left” or “more right”. Get real, boys. My Dad, he thinks you are all lefties. He prefers Michael Laws and Bob Jones when he wants to read about the real New Zealand order.

      Now why don’t you all stop scrapping and get on with the news.

    18. By Chris Trotter on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      For your information, Wayne, I supported the signing of the Chinese FTA in The Independent Business Weekly – much to the consternation and personally expressed approval of the then Prime Minister, Helen Clark.

      And to you, Gordon, thank you. Your magisterial deconstruction of Mr Armstrong’s silliness is far superior to anything I could have written in your own or Bryce’s defence.

      That was my intention, but now, thanks to this superb posting, I am convinced that further venting on this subject on Bowalley Road would merely repeat what has been said here – although not nearly half so well.

    19. By John Monro on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Thanks Gordon, a splendid critique of the failure of the mainstream media to consider any alternative to the status quo, to another way of looking at things – of which there are literally millions. Even as the status quo fails, there is an overriding refusal to engage in meaningful argument to discover an alternative – John Key is taking this refusal to engage to its absurd extremes. I will be posting a link to this article on my most regularly visited web page, Medialens, as the editors and contributors to that site will appreciate your thoughtful article, a powerful and well argued indictment of the MSM and the failure of journalism.

    20. By Peter Thompson on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Very interesting discussion. I’m generally a bit sceptical about the quality of journalism in the blogosphere, but I’m far less forgiving of ostensibly professional reporters who are far better paid and resourced but are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the limitations of their own practices.

    21. By Liisa on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      Interesting piece thanks.
      Still waiting for someone (anyone) to point out TPP benefits to NZ citizens… Even some of the negotiators are unconvinced. Def. under-reported considering potential impact.
      One small but important point: RNZ is public media, rather than “state”, which implies a quite different editorial agenda- to the detriment of the point you are making I think.

    22. By The Red Banner on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      I may be biased but I find your articles Gordon to be balanced on the basis of what information is available. The internet is undoubtedly valuble as not only does it allow greater expression, but also freely, robbing the corporates of their profits to great chagrin. That the dominant media is controled by the economically dominant class is of no surprise. This cultural hegemony has a history as long as class warefare.
      However the ideas of the left are growing in power as the economy and govt continue to fail the workers, the ones’ that are actually working in 35c heat with only a few hours sleep, just to pay the morgage.
      As the ideology of the right becomes further alianated from the actual reality encountered by the masses, old, new and revised ideas fill the void. Just last weekend I sold 80 copies of “the communist manifesto”.
      This threatens the entrenched order.
      In such times reaction flares, and even those who diverge moderately from accepted “common sense” are branded as ideologically driven, purveyors of politics.

    23. By John Monro on Sep 17, 2012 | Reply

      PS. As the matter has been raised – the China Free Trade Deal. This was an appalling ethical failure, tying this country in this formal way with a totalitarian power about which we know, and can predict, nothing. We might debatably have gained some short-term economic benefit, but we sold our political and cultural soul to do so. The repayment comes later, and the signs are there for those who wish to see (probably not journalists in the MSM, though!!)

    24. By Terry on Sep 18, 2012 | Reply

      Keep up the great work, Gordon. You are one of the few journalists in this country who I now take seriously. I long ago gave up on television news, and have practically abandoned the MSM – including the ODT which merely reprints garbage from the Herald or otherwise offers the anodyne, the superficial, and the meretricious.

    25. By alex on Sep 18, 2012 | Reply

      This has got to be one of the most remarkably lucid, incisive and brilliant comebacks in history. Deserves as wide an audience as Armstrong gets with his idiotic column.

    26. By Julz on Sep 18, 2012 | Reply

      Such great writing and expose of Armstrong’s agenda. You are so right – views from the ‘right’ are ‘common sense’ – anything else is ‘ideologically driven’ – there is is no such thing as a ‘view from nowhere’ Armstrong exposes his with his writing …and so do the rest of us.

    27. By Ianmac on Sep 18, 2012 | Reply

      You have said it all and said it in charming prose Gordon. Great.

    28. By Ken Martin on Sep 19, 2012 | Reply

      Great article. I particularly liked the point about good journalism starting after spiels from the two major parties. I view Labour as National-lite. Watch out if the likes of David Parker regain the treasury benches. That will make Roger Douglas look left wing. As an aside, I stopped reading Fran O’Sullivan’s screeds years ago, when she put the boot into Jim Anderton when he was grieving. Nasty.

    29. By Rob on Sep 19, 2012 | Reply

      Excellent response
      It’s a pity Armstrong isn’t able to see through his self
      I guess when you are from the ruling class it
      just isn’t so obvious

    30. By Roy on Sep 20, 2012 | Reply

      I just went and read Armstrong’s huffy column. What a joke. Gordon, you should offer him some cheese to go with that whine.

    31. By Keri Brown on Sep 22, 2012 | Reply

      Great article, what is it with the NZ Herald? Bryce is one of their columnists? That cracks me up ‘won’t please National’. So is the goal for ‘real journalists’ to please the govt? I’ve seen John Armstrong quote his sidekick David Farrar several times.

    32. By Todd on Mar 26, 2013 | Reply

      Great article.

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