The Mainstream Media and Politics
((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, buzz 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.