Subtitle: An open letter to the Journalists of Fairfax, News Ltd, the ABC, SBS et.al
I just watched the full press conference in which the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, stood in front of a room of journalists fielding questions on that awful, nasty and misogynist campaign directed against her.
Complicit in this campaign was News Limited and the more rabid parts of the online community, notably the campaign led by the despicable Larry Pickering.
Towards the end of the interview, Gillard provided an incredibly insightful view on the role of social media in the political process, the declining influence of traditional media and how everyone is struggling with the sheer abundance of information.
She criticised the media for adopting conspiracy theories from the “lunar right” and described the “tea party effect” in which absurd conspiracy theories become fact.
While everyone is still focussed on “that affair”, I believe Julia Gillard delivered a perceptive critique of the current state of affairs: traditional media is “dying”; people are being walled off into epistemic bubbles; conspiracy theories dominate our politics.
She also stated she believed there would be a “flight” to quality journalism – all of which I agree with.
However, her words have prompted me to think more on the issue especially since I’m a blogger – someone who is part of the “social media” landscape.
Firstly, I have nothing but respect for the craft of journalism: I believe that it is vital to a functioning democracy. I believe we need a quality press, but that there is also room for Twitter, blogs and YouTube for sharing information, discussion and analysis.
Social media is an electronic commons, and from that much good and some less good will flow.
I appreciate that many in the mainstream press have nothing but contempt for those of us operating in social media: not merely because some of “us” seem to be extreme, but also because quite frankly we are competitors. Some believe we merely “steal” their content, and devalue it by circulating it across the internet. All of this is true, and yet not true as well.
The second thing I would say is that even though “social media” is being criticised, recall the rumors were mainstreamed by the daily papers of News Limited – the Australian division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation.
My point is this: you can’t blame the medium, whether that be social media or the traditional press.
The real problem is the politics and ideology that underpin the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories and paranoid fantasies.
It’s not merely a case of the messenger bringing unwanted news: it is the people sending the messenger deliberately crafting a falsehood to be delivered.
This is why my criticism directed at News Corporation (and yes the ABC and Fairfax as well) can be quite sharp.
I would much rather the media help inform citizens on issues of critical importance – for example global warming. Instead, it often promotes climate change deniers.
I want both News Limited and Fairfax to be profitable businesses; I want the full spectrum of political views – both left and right – to challenge my views, not merely reaffirm them.
Personally, I thrive on debate and the clash of ideas.
But I want to trust the traditional media outlets.
But how can I?
How can I when I open up the pages of The Herald Sun and see Andrew Bolt is dismissing the threat of climate change year, after year, unchallenged?
Or when I see Glenn Beck sprouting conspiracy theories to millions thanks to Fox?
What should I make of The Australian’s “War on science”?
This blog was born out of frustration by an avid consumer of all forms of media: I wish to understand the world around me, to seek out facts and to be challenged.
But what would “traditional media” like me to do with my frustration?
Write a letter to the editor?
“Dear Chris Mitchell, would it be possible to print the truth about climate change? Sincerely Mike”
“Dear Andrew Bolt, could you please stop circulating untruths about the science of global warming and cease attacking Tim Flannery?”
“Dear Rupert Murdoch, as a father I am concerned for the future of my child – could you perhaps stop your media empire from promoting climate change denial – and help inform the public – rather than your misinformation leading us to disaster?”
How far do you think such missives would go?
The climate change issue has pointed to a massive, systemic failure on the part of media and politicians.
I implore, I urge, I insist – rather than be defensive I would ask “traditional media” players – owners and journalists – to acknowledge their failure and the loss of public trust.
My writing efforts were born out of frustration: rather be a passive consumer I decided to add my voice to the debate.
And I have reached tens of thousands of people around the world.
I have seen my posts taken up in discussion forums in the US, Israel, Russia, Brazil and nearly every nation in Europe. I have been astonished to see them debated, dismissed and praised. My posts are Tweeted and posted on Facebook.
It amazes me that my words are out there, read by virtual strangers.
Many write to say how “moved” they were by a piece.
Scientists have emailed their thanks to me for “standing up” to the denial machine.
And I’ve done it all from a laptop, perched upon my lap as I sit drinking coffee on a coach.
The start-up costs for Watching the Deniers were nothing.
But the writing?
The time spent thinking about what to say, the editing and the reviewing of content all without assistance?
Sitting behind this blog are hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours in which into I have poured my soul. This has been given willingly by someone wanting to help educate and make a difference.
And this is something I feel traditional media still fails to grasp: there are many fine writers and commentators operating independent blogs. People who take their craft seriously, who have something to say and can often say it better than the mainstream press.
Because we are free; we can speak with a forthrightness that would cause many an in-house legal counsel to shiver.
Even so – as a I blogger I recognise I can be part of the problem: this is why I make every possible effort to provide sources that back the claims I make.
Which is why with my recent pieces on someone like Dr. David Evans I have striven to provide links to sources, the materials themselves and context. I’m in the process of having these claims reviewed by scholars and experts who will confirm, refute or help shape my understanding.
Because I am an amateur, one still very much learning.
I also recognise the limits of what a blog like WtD can be: it is not a newspaper.
It is a place for me to speak my mind, to comment, critique and share with a community. I have made good friends through blogging; I have received feedback from scientists and activists around the world; when in error, people point this out and I acknowledge and correct.
I try to bring to the craft of writing the integrity, honesty and hard work I believe it deserves.
Many of us do.
Thus I would say to journalists and “official” members of the fourth estate: we are not enemies.
We have far more in common than you realise.
Do not take our sometimes harsh critique for contempt: yes, we can be your sharpest critics.
But like the theatre critic who writes a scathing review of a poorly performed play, it is born of a deep love and appreciation of the art.
We see the potential of the media; we appreciate its power to both inspire and educate.
You are failing because you thought we – citizens, not consumers – wanted to be entertained by scandals, failed Hollywood marriages and tales of cute puppies once lost, now found.
We want you to reclaim your heritage: that of our voice and our champion.
We want you to speak honestly, and not be the mouthpiece of ideologues nor endlessly recycle press releases from corporations and politicians.
We demand that you report fairly, fearlessly and honestly.
But we expect you to be an appropriate filter: to protect us from those that would deceive, and not report their falsehoods and make them part of mainstream discourse.
It is an enormous responsibility we give to you, yet it appears to be one that cannot be managed alone.
The health of our democracy so very much depends upon you: reclaim your heritage and true role.
Then – maybe then – you will regain our trust.