Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Journalism

Watch out Mr Rudd

rudd_bbqWhile the polls show that the public still strongly supports Rudd & Labor, it’s worth noting that a number of political journalists have begun to write very critical pieces of Rudd recently.

The past week brings hard hitting pieces by Paul Kelly Michelle Grattan, Laurie Oaks, Glen Milne (admittedly not a big surprise), Annabel Crabb, and Michael Sutchbury. I’ve left off the usual critics, but it seems pretty fair to say Rudd is fairly on the nose with the media as a class. Decisions like parallel imports on books are watched closely and personally (this is a class that reads a lot -ie likes cheap books- and has no time for protectionism), and I’ve heard a number of journalists say they just don’t like Kevin Rudd as a person. While most people don’t vote based on how Kelly & Grattan et all see things, editors and other journalists do take their cues from them. The press, especially up in the gallary at parliament house is a veritable pack, with no one keen to find themselves at odds with their colleagues on what the story of the day is, or who to focus on.

It might be a good idea for Rudd’s advisors to book a big Christmas function for the journo’s at Kirribilli, ply them with plenty of good grog, and try and get personally back on side with them. Most of our journalistic class will probably (in line with the public) vote for Rudd’s re-election next year, but he’s going to have a much harder and more stressful year if he loses a grasp on this group. It won’t be like the scorned lover treatment Keating got when he fell out with the press from 1994 onwards, but it could cost a seat or two, and damage his overall standing (which he needs to appear strong in the region when pushing his APc and the like). Time to fire up the barbie Kev.

Twitter as a failed (but useful) experiment

Like a lot of political junkies, I’ve been giving twitter a go, to see it’s use for political information/discussion. I’ve liked much of it, as a time-wasting tool, it is a great resource, and whilst it wasn’t a twitter revolution in Iran, the service surely had some significant effect (real or imagined it’s largely the same thing in such situations). I’ve also found it fun and exciting to be on the feed of some important people, esp journo’s who blog and so therefore usually have too many good links they want to share, or those which just have a quick wit (such as @annabelcrabb).

That said, I have to say I think the medium is an essential failure as a next-gen social media tool. Blogging and facebook clearly have their niches, and serve a lot of people, replicating what we do normally (read articles on paper/gossip with friends in cafes) but quicker and easier via our computers/phones. Both work well for political followers, but twitter seems to be half of one, half of the other, without ever making a whole. The tiny size of each tweet means that it is not quite a blog post, at an infuriatingly short 140 characters. But equally, twitter doesn’t have the mass publishing of blogging, in that unless I know to add you, I won’t ever see your tweets (or will only see 1-2 in a torrent of mass messages, but more on that later). And unlike a bookmarks where I can visit occasionally and quickly get to know what your site is about/like, tweets are too small to be useful as coding devices for working out if someone is worth paying attention to. A few good lines and you add them. And all of a sudden you are following 200+ people and your main page is filled with around 20 messages, each with a small picture, popping up constantly on all sorts of different topics and issues, none quite perhaps what you wanted to read/hear about today. So whilst political/fashion/sport blogs generally stay on fashion, tweeters like to casually range, though only a few bring anything worthwhile to fields outside their main area.

Then there is the problem of following everyone who is talking about a particular topic. Unlike blogs/newspapers and the power of google searches, it is rather hard to find where exactly everyone is talking about a particular issue, due to a lack of clear organisation for what is the right #hashtag to join. During the Iranian uprising a lot of people tweeted that certain #hashtags were being watched by the Iranian intelligence services, sending people scrambling for thousands of different #tags. Now whether they really were being watched or not, it certainly disrupted the service. Even without such nefariousness, it’s hard to find a good channel of commentators as anyone can jump on. Other mass channels such as the “#GoodNight” channel make even less sense as a channel. No one would sensibly want to read such a channel, but it’s common use means it ends up in the top 10 channels almost every night.

Which brings me to my final problem, the sheer amount of people on twitter makes the service rather useless. If you are an Australian political junkie, it’s been a lot of fun recently to watch #qt, the channel for question time in the Australian parliament. Only with the recognition that politicians were joining in, what was a small thing for journalists and those of us who actually enjoy watching question time, has become just another channel for those with an axe to grind or a desire for attention. End result, it feels like you are just being shouted at, and only catching glimpses of the people you want, or able to check about half the links you might like to.

Though Australian tweeters problems are nothing compared to when you watch US events live in twitter. Right now, the US house of congress is about to vote on Obama’s health care bill, and everyone is tweeting on #hcr along with #tcot #pelosibill, #killbill and others. But on #HCR, I’m im refreshing about once a minute with between 200-2000 tweets a minute appearing. These include personal messages “is watching the debate with fascination” or “to my congressman Rep. blah blah – please vote for this bill” “rumor going around 35 dems voting against the bill”
etc etc. Actually finding what is happening in terms of if they are voting yet, how the voting is going, or what the major players think is simply impossible amongst all this noise.

Instead I find myself even more reliant on a good journalist, on location to give me at least some idea of how it is trending, even if they’re sometimes using rumors, they are likely to come back to it and update, and I can easily check if such changes have occurred, or cross reference against a few others I also trust. So i’ve switched to sites like TPM, The Daily Dish and NYTimes and Instapundit.

My guess is that twitter will continue to live as a social media tool, but it’s role will be less vaulted as a home for political junkies than as a stream to dip in and out, or as a side bar for people to comment or to post quick stuff not worthy of a full blog post ala on The Punch or for sporting events where it will be a fun way to follow sporting events or ultra localised events ala #tinpotcountyfair.

Twitter was certainly a useful experiment, and I expect more rather than less people to be updating via phones or pc’s their immediate thoughts/rumors on events. But it probably won’t be presented on just one site or in the cluttered torrent of tweets format that you currently see on twitter. What it most needs is a way to be filtered, sorted and organised, such as upcoming services like Geon. Then it will become a truely powerful tool. Though again, the experience for me really just proves the worth of a good journalist.
And now I’m off to post this blog, and trying and drum up traffic for it on twitter. If you’re interested or disagree, you can follow me here (@AndrewOssieCarr) and tell me why you disagree.

Obama’s hidden healthcare weapon

While we’re all still waiting for the definitive campaign strategy books on the Obama 2008 campaign to be written (I’m looking at you David Plouffe), one thing is patently clear: Obama won because he mobilised people to assist his campaign in a way never before seen in America. Instead of just asking volunteers to grab a phone call and begin calling, he had a motto of ‘Respect, Empower, Include’. Volunteers were instead asked to go find 5 more people who would also join. Those who managed this were made team leaders, with similar opportunities for advancement for those new members in a similar fashion. People were given increasingly harder tasks to see if they could deliver, and then were rewarded with being team leaders. Neighbourhood teams were set up across the country, each invited to build their own networks. This process continued for months and months, before any phone calls were made, emails sent or doors knocked. That could come later, and did, delivering perfectly on election day.
Why am I recounting this history? Because, a lot of the self-obsessed media have forgotten about Obama’s Organizing For America organisation. The media like to imagine that their shows as the only forum for real political discussion(far more real in their eyes than even the legislative chambers), with polls simply rating how the people react to various lines or positions. But Obama’s still organising, even with the power of the Presidency in his hands.

On the 20th of October, Organising for America set out to make 100’000 calls to members of congress to encourage them to support health care reform. That was passed easily. So they set it for 200’000. Again too easy. From Obamas facebook this morning:

obama_facebook_small Barack Obama Yesterday’s numbers are in. The final tally was not just 200,000 calls placed or pledged — it was 315,023. You’ve taken America one giant, irreversible step closer to passing health reform. Thank you.

Just imagine trying to field all that as a staffer in some Republican Senators office! (or wavering Democrat) While many Republican’s took comfort in the anger expressed at the town halls in August, it’s clear those events, (including members of the public bringing guns to public meetings, and numerous comparisons of Obama to Hitler), along with the Presidents speech to Congress, began to turn people towards supporting healthcare.


While Republicans raged, Obama’s network kept organising, holding functions, parties, door knocking, and continually organizing and seeking to expand. To Respect, Empower and Include their neighbors, friends and colleagues in the wider movement. Obama has already gotten closer than FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter & Clinton to delivering Universal healthcare reform in the US. The Democrats policy has many flaws that would make it almost unacceptable to many in other western first world countries, but for America it’s still a big and important step. His big speech was important, as was his deliberate outreach to Congress, and decision to let it choose its path (rather than draw up the policy in private inside the White House as Hillary did in 1994). But when Health Care reform passes, a large part of the credit will have to go to the 2 million active volunteers (& 13 million supporters) who signed up to help elect Obama’s, and now are invested in his success.

It’s not just about having a flashy website, its about getting people involved any way possible. The internet just helps break the hold talking heads have on politics. As I discussed a few weeks ago, if people feel invested in your success, they will work harder and longer, than any bribe or pork barrel could possibly compel. And if Republicans think this network will have dissipated by 2012, or let them waltz into the White House on the back of public anger over SOCIALISM! they have a great big surprise coming. It’s going to be fun to watch, and a very important lesson for all future political strategists, not just in the USA and countries with voluntary voting, but also Australia.

Quote of the day

Few would expect the Coalition to win the next election. But its chances would be maximised by some straight-forward what-to-do and what-not-to-do missives – along the following lines.Don’t be outflanked by Rudd on social and security issues. The Liberal and National parties have always had a large share of voters who are moral conservatives and/or true believers in national security

– From Gerard Henderson

Apparently having a secure nation is now a contentious issue. Not the methods or resources devoted to it, but turns out only conservatives believe in security. The rest of us are just begging to be invaded I guess. Or perhaps lazily ambivalent, Kevin Rudd & Labor ‘agnostic on security’. Well it’s not a great election slogan…

This in a column which spends a page arguing Turnbull & co should simply abstain from ever voting in the chamber (because people hate knowing what their representatives think or having them actually representing their views in the chamber…), has a very lazy crack at the ABC for liberal bias (ie not even presenting evidence, just suggesting people go and read two interviews) and wisdom such as above gem.

Fairfax has many issues that are curtailing its sales, but I’d wager one key would be the quality of its opinion pages which are in serious need of reform. Of their political writers (a shrinking population given the outsourcing of many columns to wanna-be-but-never-will-be-wits) only their journalists of Hartcher and Crabb provide any interesting commentary. The three conservative ideologues of Henderson, Devine and Sheenan are utterly predictable and avoidable. I enjoy reading good conservative pieces, but in the SMH the quality is pitiful. Fire the lot and hire some young conservative turks to write for the SMH. Find a blogger or someone wanting to break into the industry and they will do it for peanuts.

Pun-ishing the Media

It’s a favourite past-time of bloggers to attack the media. Like a rich kid on daddy’s trust fund, the origin of our wealth and entertainment is also the first target when our bottles run dry. But I wonder how many are bloggers because like me, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make it as a Journalist. So, in a slight change of pace, three cheers for all the journalists out there. From the local city press to the major metropolitan papers and gargantuan TV news programs. Journalists are regularly rated on surveys as being as trustworthy as politicians or used car salesmen. Yet, few of us pause before we take as gospel their reporting when it suits our political and social indulgences and prejudices.

Although this temporary good cheer may just be a cunning excuse to justify posting this punishingly awesome effort from todays The Australian:

COMPOSER George Frideric Handel was a binge eater and problem drinker whose gargantuan appetites resulted in lead poisoning that eventually killed him, according to a study.

By the time of his death 250 years ago this month, aged 74, the composer of Messiah had for 20 years been fighting severe health problems, including blindness, gout, bouts of paralysis and confused speech.

According to David Hunter, music librarian at the University of Texas and author of more than 60 articles on Handel, these ailments were all linked to lead poisoning brought on by his notoriously heavy consumption of rich foods and alcohol.

Through the looking glass

One of the most vexing questions in all philosophy and social sciences is how language interacts with, shapes and perhaps even creates our observations of the world before us. As Berkely, Kant and others noted, we can never know the thing in itself. We only know our experiences of the world, and as they change, so does the way we view the world.
Usually however, we can be pretty sure that the words in our head correspond to reality, at least allowing us to navigate our way around and survive. If I tell you to get out of the water to avoid a shark, your views about them or even lack of any knowledge of what a “shark” is, wont actually prevent you seeing the moving beast or having it take a bite out of you. We might not know whats really there, but only the (engangered) skeptic would doubt there really is a shark there.

But what if I started calling all fish as “sharks”. You’d be hopping in and out of the water every few minutes, and end up probably ignoring my claims if not wanting to throw me to the “sharks”. Hence our desire to be as specific as possible in our labeling, our survival depends upon it. This applies equally to human constructs. You can’t touch, taste, see, smell, hear or feel a Nation-State, but you can still be significantly harmed by it. Hence our need for accurate reporting. Unfortunately the Internets latest rising star in Political Journalism Politico seems to be betraying that duty. Take this headline post:

Class Warfare returns to Washington

President Barack Obama has spent months recasting Democratic goals on climate change and health care reform from liberal-leaning moral imperatives to hard-core economic necessities.
But when it comes to paying for them, Obama’s creative juices seemed to run dry as he turned Thursday to his party’s most predictable revenue enhancer: taxing the wealthy.
The result: an instant revival of an old and predictable Washington debate.
“This budget makes clear that the era of Big Government is back, and Democrats want you to pay for it,” said House Republican leader John A. Boehner.
And right on cue, Obama defended his $1.3 trillion in tax hikes over 10 years with a little class warfare.
“I know that this will not always sit well with the special interests and their lobbyists here in Washington, who think our budget and tax system is just fine as it is. No wonder — it works for them,” the president said. “I work for the American people, and I’m determined to bring the change that the people voted for last November.”

There is however absolutely nothing in Obama’s actions that could even uncharitably be classified as Class Warfare. Whilst we use the term “war” far too often (war on terror, war on drugs, war on poverty etc) the idea of class warfare has specific meanings from the Communist and Socialist take on the importance of class in shaping the substructure of society. To undertake class warfare you have to actually believe in an idea of not just clashing classes, but that its a zero-sum fight between two rival sides. Obama’s plan on the other hand offers tax cuts to 95% of Americans and a decision to let the Bush tax cuts lapse in 2013. All for the purpose of trying to create a system of universal health care, and drastically reduce a $1.75 Trillion dollar deficit. All at a time where the income inequality gap has dramatically widened and middle class wages virtually stagnated over the last three decades.

Unless there are two classes, the top 5% and the entire rest of the American population, and that 5% finds ideas like deficit reduction and health care a smear on its values, then this is not by any means class warfare.

So what is to explain such a approach to writing the story. We could simply put this down to biased journalism. The writer may be a Republican or fiscal conservative and hence wanting to cast the Presidents actions in a negative light, as the House Republican leader John Boehner does in the article. But there’s a better explanation at work: A journalists reliance on cliches to explain the world before them.

Internet political journalism is tough. There’s thousands of competitors (like this blog) who happily do it for free, and typically they have been frozen out by the Mainstream cable and newspaper organisations, or by political administrations who are yet to warm to the un-tamable world of the internet. Like all journalists they probably need to write a half dozen articles a day, if not before lunchtime. And so they cut corners in taking the time to describe the world before them, and rely on clichés to quickly pump out articles, but in this case it serves only to distort and obscure the world before us.

Politico was a great resource during the election, and Ben Smiths Blog on the site, is great for keeping up with the days events and current distractions of Washingtons political class. But as a source of journalism, the site itself is descending into cliches that are distorting the world they are claiming to bring us unfiltered and clear observations of. It’s difficult enough to know what’s actually happening without accepting second rate efforts by others. At least with bias you can correct for the writers (conscious or unconscious) distortion of whats happening; with those claiming to be offering objective journalism, its just unacceptable.