Friday, 11 March 2016

Are journalists civil servants?

Every time I read a piece of investigative journalism, the only questions I have are never answered: why is this story being told? How did these events come to the attention of the journalist? For some reason, this is rarely in the story.

I am, of course, referring to the mainstream media. For reasons that will hopefully become clear, I don’t think that term fits. In fact, it’s purposefully misleading and doesn't accurately reflect the position of media in modern society. So let’s use the term official journalism instead. The question is: what does it mean for journalism to be official?

If journalism is actually a branch of the government, we know exactly how that would work. Speaking from experience, a “journalist” is a sanctioned writer. A member of the union of other such writers. In a democratic society, the official journalist is assigned the vital duty of informing the public. Therefore, not just anyone can tell the public what the prime minister says. No, it takes a “journalist.”

Most people know New Zealand has a civil service. It is a recognised and legitimate group of people conducting the difficult and frustrating process of statecraft. Official journalism must exist outside the government proper – as a Ministry of Journalism, perhaps – where it would be just as potent, permanent and unaccountable as the rest of the civil service.

The way I see it, journalists are definitely part of the larger eco-system of permanent government power. Though not quite part of the civil service, it would be better described as the “extended civil service.” It is extended because it comprises not only formal government employees but also all those who consider themselves public servants, including professors, NGO workers, transnationals etc. All of whom maintain the coherency of the state, and all of whom are above politics and entirely unelected.

By far the largest portion of a citizen’s political education is undertaken by the press as a sort of school for grown-ups. And, of course, power in democracies belongs to those who manage public opinion. This theory isn’t mine – it was first stated by Walter Lippmann in 1922.

The key to the premise of official journalism is that three words are synonymous: responsibility, influence and power. A newspaper is responsible because, if it makes mistakes, it can cause tremendous suffering. It is influential because its contents affect the lives of many people. And it is powerful because there is no useful understanding of the word “power” which does not correspond with responsibility and influence. After all, power is the ability to change the world and make a difference. Remind me again why people want to be journalists? Exactly.

If journalism is official, what does that mean for the rest of government? In connecting power with influence and responsibility, for instance, how much power does John Key have? While Mr Key has a bit more power over his wider government than does the president of the United States, he is not as powerful as many people think. New Zealand’s 'leader' is presented with policies and carefully written decisions to ensure the correct outcome. He cannot even write his own speeches. If Mr Key came to his staff with a fresh policy, their first thought might be to send him for an MRI.

The larger National Party has a smidgen more power than the prime minister. And, with the inertia of tradition, the party always wants to connect everything it does with the person of John Key. No one in Wellington actually believes this but no one has the energy to contradict it, either. It's just one of those things. Anyway. I digress. Back to journalists.

While I’m in the process of discarding well-known words, I should probably get rid of “newspaper” too. It doesn’t paint the object with the correct colour. What we’re talking about is a product that not only sorts truth from lies but also has the power to make things exist or not exist.

The product of journalism is highly influential, on a par with scientific academic journals. So while the Journal of Climate Change might be the “blue journal,” and the Journal of Military Studies would be the “red journal,” every scientist’s goal, for example, is to make it into the “grey journal.” Any scientist would trade a publication in their field’s journal for a write-up in the official press in a heartbeat. Of course, scientists can’t submit straight to the grey journal. You have to know someone who knows someone. The request will travel through five or ten ordinary people, with no particular expertise (perhaps a bachelor of science) who managed to be assigned to the “science beat.”

Through this process, a handful of basically uneducated journalists essentially controls science. It's a bit concerning that these people could easily have dispatched climate change – rightly or wrongly – to the intellectual dustbin alongside the philosopher’s stone. And what if those journalists make a mistake? As part of the extended civil service, who would have the power to catch them?

And this is only in science. Pick up any article about the Syrian civil war. Nowhere in the story will you read that the reporter is one of the most powerful people in that country. Not only is policy informed by journalism, the reader has no alternative to learning about the conflict aside from personally stepping into the desert. This is considerable power.

Reporters often change the outcome of wars simply by writing about them – I’d call this “quantum journalism” but there’s already too many new names in this article. None of this explains how the grey journal was created, however.

A common complaint about media is its insistence on mixing the serious with the trivial. What people are noticing is an atavism of sensationalist “yellow journalism” of the early 20th century, fossilised for eternity. At some point during the past 100 years, yellow turned to grey. I think I know when this happened.

The transition from yellow to grey journalism occurred in the years surrounding World War II. Where yellow journalism used its considerable political power to aid a variety of private interests, which were largely unconnected to the interests of the State, grey journalism is a result of wartime propaganda. Grey journalism overcame yellow by learning its Hegelian manners, and now it serves and upholds the state primarily.

Its practitioners still insist on calling it "responsible journalism" or "objective journalism." But it remains true that the capture of journalism by the state was a direct continuation of what the mendacious James P Warburg called “psychological warfare” during the war. It worked so well powerful people decided to keep it churning once the guns stopped firing.

According to Mr Warburg’s 1946 book Unwritten Treaty, psychological warfare provides “the maintenance of home morale; the maintenance of the confidence of the peoples of friendly or allied nations; and win the sympathy of the peoples of neutral countries." In this way, thoughts, perspectives and facts which favour, justify or defend a system of government are championed, and those which oppose it are expunged.

Think about how journalists describe their primary role as “speaking truth to power.” Most would interpret this as journalists being a bulwark against government corruption. But understand the default assumption here. If one “speaks truth to power,” then one implicitly accepts the legitimacy of that power structure. No journalist questions whether New Zealand needs a parliament or democracy. So by accepting the default, a journalist is maintaining the State simply by doing their job.

We should ask whether grey journalism is more powerful than yellow. One way to measure this would be to gauge the social attitudes toward reporters in the two eras. A quick study shows that journalists were “weasels” when yellow was king. Yet today the presence of a respected journalist at a cocktail party is a feather in the host’s cap. So “more powerful” is about right.

Another way to ask this question is: What would be the minimal set of changes needed to make grey journalism unquestionably official? We would need to make it an elite division of the permanent government – only more elite. The Ministry of Journalism will have three branches: training, reporting/investigation and editorial. Since this clearly qualifies as official, would such a journalist’s job be different in the ministry? It's hard to see how it would be.

After all, we usually think of “independent journalism” as a result of freedom of speech. But perhaps it’s easier to see it as just another form of civil service protection. It would be ludicrous for other government divisions to tell this ministry what to write, or how to write it. It would be like the Beehive showing the High Court how to prosecute.

New Zealand already has something like a Ministry of Journalism. It’s called TVNZ. There isn't much difference between is the job of a TVNZ reporter from the job of an NBR reporter. Each has the same ethos of public service, the same protection from political interference, both are nonpartisan and both serve only the state. If you believe in the Hegelian apolitical civil-service state, you believe in official journalism.

Moreover, the Ministry of Journalism is one of the most powerful departments in the civil-service state. A journalist can attack anyone and no one can attack them – except a judge, and then only in a limited set of ways following approved procedures, aka “laws,” which journalists often have heavy influence in designing.

I used to think I was getting an accurate picture of reality from media because all the stories are written by people. Their names are right there at the top: “Steven,” “Jacqueline,” “Andrew.” Do I know these people? Do I trust them? Do I have any reason to believe they are doing anything but feeding me garbage? Why should I? What do I know about the news company? How does it select its employees? How and why does it punish or reward them? Do I have any damned idea? If not, why do I trust its views on anything?

If you don't believe in grey journalism, you believe in nothing. You’re probably a nihilist. Have another look at the Syrian story. Does this “Syria” on the page have any resemblance to reality? Is there even a country called “Syria”? Once you reject grey journalism, you can reject anything. Your paranoia becomes infinite. I suspect Nietzsche didn’t believe in grey journalism either, although my dates are a little fuzzy.

Losing your faith in official journalism is an awfully large intellectual step. Similar to giving up a religion. It creates an enormous set of questions which you thought were answered, and now suddenly are questions again. And it's very easy to get those questions wrong.

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