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More Than Meets The Eye: The Media and Politics

After a long hiatus, I am back to contribute once more to this fine site. I trust you all have been as well as can be expected given the ongoing trash fire that is 2020. This post will be a little more abstract and methodological than my usual posts, and I hope you will indulge me this time before I return to standard political analysis in future posts.

((The) Past is) Prologue: The Media as Historians

Many on this site are rightly fiercely critical of the actions of politicians. They are self-serving, corrupt hypocrites who care nothing for government or governance. This is all true. However, something occurred to me recently while reading through the Roman Historian Tacitus and doing my usual analysis. There is much more going on in what Tacitus describes than he actually writes. The author assumes the audience knows the procedural details of government and so makes limited comment on these procedures. This relates to how the media reports modern politics in the following way: they do not report the full picture either.

Indeed, the version of politics that the media presents is so oversimplified and omits so much of the detail as to border on the comical. It is necessary for consumers of media to be able to analyse what they read, not merely for bias cough Murdoch cough cough but to get at what is actually going on. The media are historians of contemporary events. The media of today becomes the archive of the future, so the decisions that the media makes have lasting consequences.

A Hypothetical Case in Point

Consider the following made-up News headline:

Brandis Passes 18C Reforms

Ok who is Brandis? What is his role? How were these reforms passed? What is 18C? What were these ‘reforms’? How did people react? etc

These questions are just the first ones that come to mind on initially reading that headline. The point of this hypothetical is to say that there is far more to this situation than is contained in that headline. Now you might ask whether headlines are meant to contain the detail. While the answer is no, it is not as though the details are present in the articles either.

More than Meets the Eye: What the Media Does Not Say

The case I want to consider is that of Scott Morrison, the current Lodge Occupant. I have been viciously critical of this man on this site, and that is not going to stop. The purpose of this piece is to request consideration of the broader context. I am not defending this pseudo-religious conman who personifies the phrase ‘style over substance’. This is rather a request to all of Mr. Morrison’s detractors, myself included, to consider all that the media does not say about the job of being Prime Minister. Like Tacitus reporting on Roman governance, there is far more going on than the media reports. This is a curiosity in light of the access that the media has to these people.

The point of all of this is to say that, like any leader, Morrison has one of the toughest jobs imaginable. Furthermore, the media does not report the details. Whether this is for nefarious reasons (the ABC or the Murdoch media does not want to make the LNP look bad) or some other reason, the media presents a skewed version of the political reality.

A quick international example: some leftie commentators accused President Bush 43 of spending one-third of his term in office on vacation. This sounds very damning until you consider the fact that the President is always ‘on-call’ lest anything should require their attention. This is the very definition of the term ‘working holiday’. Now, unlike Morrison and his decision to, borrowing from Friendlyjordies, f*ck off to Hawaii, Bush was, ya know, in the same hemisphere (and indeed country) during his ‘working holiday’ and was constantly on-call. But Bush’s detractors often left that crucial fact out because it did not fit the narrative.

What Do We Do? What Are We to Do?

I want to quickly clarify the comment I made above about the media being historians of events. They are the primary sources of events, the most contemporary with the events they describe. It is up to us, as political observers and commentators, to be the secondary sources. It is our job to analyse, unscramble and assess the reports of the primary sources and try to fill in the details not present in the articles for whatever reason.

As an example of what I mean, consider the following brief passage from the Roman Historian Cassius Dio

And wishing in some way to bring Gaius and Lucius to their senses still more sharply, he [Augustus] bestowed upon Tiberius the tribunician power [important civil political power] for five years, and assigned to him Armenia [a military command]

The framing of this incident is fascinating. The honours granted to Tiberius are not to honour him, but to chastise Gaius and Lucius. This framing diminishes Tiberius’ clear role as second to Augustus in the state. It is through the work of secondary scholars that we have identified this issue in Dio’s account and put forward a more accurate version of events. Tiberius did indeed receive the powers Dio mentions, but to clarify and put beyond doubt his role as Augustus’ colleague and successor. Would Gaius and Lucius have noticed that Tiberius had been advanced ahead of them and been perturbed? Perhaps, but this was not Augustus’ intention.

Conclusion: The Usefulness of the Media

For all their flaws, the media does serve a purpose: they are the primary sources with access to the politicians. The media reports their actual words, and while the media does spin the facts, the ability of intelligent people to see the spin, bias and other shtfckery is our power. The media provides the primary evidence, on which we use our analytical scalpel to get at a far closer approximation to the truth than these propagandists will ever proffer.

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8 comments

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  1. Andrew Smith

    Interesting comment: ‘It is necessary for consumers of media to be able to analyse what they read, not merely for bias cough Murdoch cough cough but to get at what is actually going on.’

    One would argue that you also need to know, or try infer, what is NOT being presented via media vs. false binary of the preferred policy choice against a (preferably) weaker choice allowing indirect consensus to allow or preclude a policy.

    How often is this seen with Australia’s appalling recent record on fossil fuels (inc. standards), carbon emissions, urban design, transport and sensible environmental regulation while catering to fossil fuel, related corporate entities and US influenced think tanks?

    Too easy in Australia when our overly cosy government and media need only suggest or dog whistle increased costs, prices or taxes to preclude/wedge any good policy action and/or pull out the race card on refugees, immigrants (more temporary churnover) and population growth (due to the former) as causes of environmental degradation; Australians are not made repsonsible for anything?

    On the latter elements, even Bob Brown, one can only understand him via a nativist conservative prism since he admired Menzies and considered joining the Libs in younger day, has been banging on about this (Oct ’19 TC and TheOz…) citing the flawed and inflated UNPD global ‘population growth’ data (like Bob Carr and Dick Smith patrons of SPA, friendly with Murdoch too?).

    This could be to deflect from Green’s (whiff of fossil fuels influence?) stymying of Labour govt. attempts to legislate on carbon emissions, little or anything on fuel standards (Oz uses the filthiest RON92, Greens friends were unware….), unfit for purpose vehicle types e.g. roads flooded with SUVs, lack of public transport investment etc.

    Australian media’ biggest battle, although counter intuitive, is both encouraging apathy and disengagement in the elctorate but when push comes to shove impossible to motivate citizens in acting on behalf of society; like the libertarians hiding behind claims of ‘freedom and liberty’ to promote the economy over the health of society.

  2. Harry Lime

    One needs to be invested in the machinations of politics to winkle out what is really going on beneath all the gloss and horseshit that we are constantly assailed with.No one I know has even heard about the AIMN or similar publications,let alone read them,we are in a small minority.In other words,most people are not interested and basically take the views of the bullshit they are fed by the likes of Murdoch’s increasingly strident trash,because they are financially going backwards (News Ltd.),despite government largesse.Us Aussies are still apathetic,that’s why we end up with utterly corrupt arseholes running the country at the behest of the vested interests that control them.
    The Liar from the Shire is the most contemptible grub to have ever got his fat arse in the driver’s seat.So far.What’s going to change it?

  3. wam

    To reach their political audience the top technique is the editor’s use of the header. The billboards reinforce the lies about labor, the front pages are negative to labor or positive to the LNP, story headers follow the same pattern even if the story is different because readers skip through the paper rarely stopping and reading or, even rarer, thinking.
    I am still a reader at coffee on facebook etc but no longer a buyer

  4. DrakeN

    Yes, wam, those billboards outside the newsagents’ probably have a greater effect on the public’s opinions than the newpaers themselves.
    It would be interesting to have some in-depth research conducted into the phenomenon.

  5. David Stakes

    Yes I am still at a loss, as to how to get people to be more critical thinkers. Government of the day is cutting that University course. I try and distribute as widely as I can to my social circle. Regardless of being labeled a Lefty Marxist whatever. Some have said they dont want it in their feed. So their in lies the problem, ignorance is bliss.

  6. Andrew J. Smith

    The hidden curriculum….. when society lacks BS radar, short of time and is constantly hit by the same (policy) themes being reinforced by media.

    Written before how Victoria (think NSW similar) had a strong emphasis upon explicit (not embedded or implicit) teaching and learning of critical literacy through late ’70s HSC English Expression, in parallel with General Studies replacing religion featuring mostly environmental science on pollution, urban design, solar, ozone etc. and seguing with the chemistry syllabus (also featured ozone, pollution etc.); appears to have been ‘disappeared’?

    Now, according to the powers that be at LNP and IPA, it’s all about more religion, less focus upon analytical skills and promotion of climate science denialism.

    Several, or maybe ten years ago The University of Sydney did media research, to find that 60%+ content was of PR/media release origins, effectively becoming sponsored corporate (inc. sport) and/or political content; the same content bieng used to influence not just what voters think (short term) on an issue but how they think (long term) on more general themes.

    Quite tricky of NewsCorp and others demanding Facebook/Google pay for ‘journalisim’ round news content which is in fact just cheap PR promoting the LNP, IPA etc..

    Meanwhile the LNP (and corporate ‘dark money’) are becoming dependent during campaigns upon Facebook/Google paid advertising and especially people ‘sharing’ with friends, the new ‘word of mouth’ (objective of advertising as it is the most used/trusted and powerful way of learning).

    For all the faults of the digital platforms we have the NewsCorp, 7 and 9Fairfax, along with IPA, ASPI, CIS, and donors from minerals/energy, FIRE etc. owning and dictating to our government as to what policies will become enacted, for their own benefit and especially to preserve future income streams and value.

    On the human or societal ‘software’ side it is not unlike Turkey (which is on par with Australia, Hungary etc. on media) whereby media supports the govt. and the state in influencing society.

    Decades ago in Turkey, when a new civilian (but former General) President ruled after some years of dictatorship ‘Francoisation’ was adopted: quite fascist and close to industrialists, focus upon need for religious practice and investment, patriarchal and authoritarian, corrupt, militaristic, paranoid about media and centre through left while encouraging more sport or football….. to take young minds off serious issues…..

  7. John Lord

    An interesting article that will influence my own writing in 2021.Thanks. John Lord

  8. Barnacle Bill

    All true Dr Tim, “the media presents .. so oversimplified”
    What else to expect from simpletons?
    Like you I like to go to the source for facts.

    For example, if I want to know how the Pfizer vaccine is travelling (it was my preferred option) I check the CDC VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Events) Database, eg https://wonder.cdc.gov/controller/datarequest/D8;jsessionid=F6EF4C35C67C7E8035930B15C556
    This is the only way to stay on top of the false narrative the MSM pumps out like bilge water.
    DYOR*

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