I wish I’d made a retirement plan, for the conquest of my industry is close. And, yes, we in the traditional media can certainly blame faster technology, diminishing revenues and—far less credibly—the slowing minds of consumers for this imminent death. But, geez, at some point, we gotta take a look at ourselves. Certainly, we must do this before anybody else scans us too closely and concludes that the only way out of the electronic hell we have made is our professional euthanasia.
Of course, I secretly suspect—as do all humans—that I am the clean exception to the filthy rule. I truly believe that independent local outlets like this one, or this one or this one, provide much-needed reply to questions posed but so rarely explored by corporate press. I will even recommend your financial support of non-mainstream media organisations. Still. After last week’s display of Australian media hubris, I’m inclined to say, “throw this dirty Helen baby out with all the tainted bathwater!”
Two incidents last week prompted me to develop some self-harming policy proposals I could offer to the state. When the women’s website Mamamia and radio station ABC Melbourne managed to outrun both good manners and good sense, I thought about deposing all media workers who are white, over forty and/or find themselves in the highest twenty percent of income distribution. Possibly any individual who has publicly written or uttered the phrases “start the conversation” or “political correctness gone mad!” or “I’m entitled to my opinion”.
If you are employed to have an opinion, you might want to think about not also being an arsehole.
The sense of “entitlement” to opinion, or to “free speech”, is something I particularly want to problematise after a week in which the journalist Mia Freedman felt at ease in declaring one of her interview subjects “super morbidly obese” and humourist Red Symons thought to ask his colleague Beverly Wang, a broadcaster, with Taiwanese heritage, “are you yellow?”
Look. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a bit of a free speech extremist who scorns our national tradition of quarantining vice. I do not think views should be quashed, websites filtered or art declared unsafe; nor do I believe that publicly shaming individuals who hold views, or manners, I find repugnant achieves anything but the opportunity for others to uphold “free speech” arguments with which I largely agree. This is not to “shame” Symons or Freedman, but it is to answer the popular defence that they are as “entitled” to an opinion—or, in Symons’ case, entitled to a comic style that predates Kevin Bloody Wilson—as anybody else.
Yes, opinions are a right. They are, like arseholes, a virtual human certainty. Have one and use it to emit all the dreadful fumes you wish. But if you are employed to have an opinion, you might want to think about not also being an arsehole.
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If you are a media worker, you are, in fact, trained not to be an arsehole. Or, at least, you were. These days, kids who work in media are instructed to churn out profitable content, with ethics, or even legal responsibility, covered in barely seen pages of the company intranet. I have been myself treated to a few corporate editorial policy tutorials in recent years, and I can tell you that they are a point-and-click exercise in obfuscating bullshit. You’re expected to read a digital form as long, often as impenetrable, as the Apple Terms of Service in no time flat. This covers the employer’s obligation to train its employees. It, of course, does not actually train its employees.
A striking individual opinion or style not only stands out in a media landscape cluttered with unsurprising opinions and styles, it is a whole lot more cost-effective to produce.
Freedman and Symons, however, joined the media class ‘round the same time I did. They would know very well that their special entitlement to an opinion also comes with special responsibility. Of course, they may have forgotten or may even be excused, just a little, for forgetting their commitment to their hundreds-of-thousands of consumers. When no one much else in media seems to give a toss about engaging with a mass audience within the parameters of mass acceptability—come on, don’t tell me that calling a fat person or an Asian person names is broadly acceptable—why should they?
The “brave” individual opinion has been elevated in the past decade, along with the idea of the exceptional individual. This is not, as most things are not, simply the result of a moral shortcoming. It is produced by market forces. A striking individual opinion or style not only stands out in a media landscape cluttered with unsurprising opinions and styles, it is a whole lot more cost-effective to produce. There is no financial reason to pay for a journalist’s investigative labour when you can hire a “big” personality. Perhaps one who can be occasionally relied upon to make many in a particular category feel small.
These are the conditions that give us a Freedman or a Symons snafu. These are the terms in which the “moving personal narrative” replaces the factual feature, the celebrity sorrow stands in-in for the mass experience, the hardship of the well-to-do feminist is seen as that of everywoman. This is a time where a well-remunerated right-wing commentator can declare, on the front page of dozens of newspapers and digital properties, that he is being “silenced” and actually be believed.
Of course, there’s a lot less scrutiny in an era of push-button publishing. But, we must never confuse everyday speech with the professional sort.
Again, I have no wish to personally malign Symons or Freedman, however unpleasant I found their recent eruptions. First, and less crucially, I have worked with them both, and they’re not demons. Second, this sort of censure does nothing at all to remind both consumers and producers of media of an important truth: it’s not personal.
When Mia or Red speak to us, they are not doing so as individuals. When an outlet’s content has been prepared—live or leaked screw-ups are a different matter—it is subject to scrutiny. Of course, there’s a lot less scrutiny in an era of push-button publishing. But, we must never confuse everyday speech with the professional sort. I mean, my goodness. Especially when it’s been pre-recorded.
Andrew Bolt is not an everyday guy subject to the same frustrations faced by a white blue-collar bloke. Clementine Ford is not one of the girls whose brutal and systematised experience of harassment (vile as it is) can be meaningfully compared to your own. Chris Kenny is not a Schmo without a voice and worn down by life. Even dirty baby Helen Razer doesn’t know your pain.
When we claim that we are “relatable” or that our experience of anxiety, oppression or job dissatisfaction is comparable with your own, don’t believe us. When we apologise for our individual flaws, do not forget that what we are truly apologising for is a media business that elevates the importance of our opinions beyond reason.
When we report on ourselves, demand that we look back to the world. And if you’re tempted to feel bad for us, don’t. We got ourselves into this mess of individualism. Perhaps your open contempt for it can help bring us out.