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The Fourth Estate revived

Feb 06 2017 09:20
Mandi Smallhorne*

A CHILL rustled through the media in Washington a week ago as headlines blared the suspicion that the new White House mandarins were “icing out” CNN – they would not answer CNN's questions at press briefings and they weren’t sending people to appear on CNN.

This is exactly what Nic Dawes warned US media about in the Columbia Journalism Review less than a fortnight after the November election (Dawes is an ex Mail & Guardian editor, now working in India). Get used to it, he said: this administration is not going to give you the access and privileges you’ve been accustomed to.

And that may be a blessing in disguise: “Losing this kind of access isn’t all bad. It reminds you that your job is to hold power to account, rather than to join its club. Outsider status can be bracing.”

Holding power to account takes a lot more work than going to press briefings and sticking mics into the faces of the head honchos. You need to treat the people in power more like an organised crime gang you’re investigating – you wouldn’t believe a word of the propaganda rolled out at a Mafia press briefing, would you?

“Me and la moglie, the wife, y’know, we’re always there for the Saturday morning soup kitchen, it’s close to our hearts, capisce?” No, you wouldn’t be arsed – you’d be too busy talking to Meatball Frankie in a back alley, getting the gen from an aggrieved insider.

Whether those in power are smooth talkers, rough diamonds or (Trevor Noah’s term) butterscotch frogs, if you’re going to hold powerful people to account – in government and business – you’d be wiser not to believe everything they say.

(Hey, especially this lot in the White House now. Did you know that before Trump took on White House Counsellor Kellyanne Conway, she was a ‘pundit’ who ran a polling business? Her punditry included a fair amount of dissing Trump. On CNN in February last year she said: “…[Trump] says he's for the little guy, but he's actually built a lot of his businesses on the backs of the little guy and […] The little guys have suffered.” And he’s a liar, “…just saying things that aren't true and getting people to believe it and getting 20,000 people at a rally today to just lap it up as if it's true,” she said, again on CNN, in April. And much more. Talk about liars … why would we believe anything she says now? And in heaven’s name, what is she modelling to her four children?)

New ways of looking at familiar terrain

I think that one benefit of this little excursion into the Twilight Zone by the USA could be a revival of journalism, an arrest in the decline of quality journalism, sharpening skills, demanding new ways of looking at familiar terrain and innovative thinking.

I see Politico said much the same just before the inauguration: “Instead of relying exclusively on the traditional skills of political reporting, the carriers of press cards ought to start thinking of covering Trump’s Washington like a war zone, where conflict follows conflict, where the fog prevents the collection of reliable information directly from the combatants, where the assignment is a matter of life or death.” Prescient!

Journalism’s value, as the American Press Institute points out, “flows from its purpose, to provide people with verified information they can use to make better decisions, and its practices, the most important of which is a systematic process – a discipline of verification – that journalists use to find not just the facts, but also the 'truth about the facts'."

I see an increased demand for actual journalism among at least some readers – clickbait is fine for when you’re bored and blasé, but when you’re troubled and anxious, you want some assurance of quality, some guarantee that what you’re reading has its roots in reality.

So much hasn’t. An example: a recent article on Medium was headlined “Meat the Cause of the Drought”. Of course this is an unscientific statement, and the article made unfounded claims, as a well-known water scientist pointed out. This drought was caused by a complex bundle of factors, including an El Niño more powerful than any seen in half a century, compounded by climate change, with an impact worsened by some policy and practice factors in this country.

I have some sympathy for the author’s cause, but this article was advocacy, not journalism. We need to be able to distinguish clearly between different kinds of writing and broadcasting. I think the lines are about to be drawn pretty sharply.

Real, evidence-based journalism that disinters abuses of power by the powerful (examples: Marikana, ‘Oilgate’, West Coast dune mining) is valuable and useful to all of us. Carefully gathered and meticulously verified journalism gives us a firm base from which to call governments to account on how they are spending our money and stewarding our resources, and call corporates to account on their actions – environmental journalism around prospecting and mining rights in precious water catchments, for example; municipal journalism on poor service by councillors (who are well paid by us); profiteering cartels uncovered in the business press; as well as the usual political reporting.

Trump and his like are doing us a favour by requiring that journalism become a calling again, and fulfil its precious role in democracy. I think that people will show they are prepared to pay for quality journalism; one way or another, a funding model will emerge.

* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  opinion
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