Jay Rosen, Engagement and News: Turning Parliament into a Cooking Show

EDIT 22/02/12: Annabel Crabb has a new show on the ABC: Kitchen Cabinet. Blurb from the show’s ‘About’ page:

A half-hour entertainment series that serves up a delectable combination of political discussion and good food. Each week one of Australia’s most respected political commentators – Annabel Crabb – takes a plate and leads us into the homes and hearts of some of our most notable and engaging politicians. She sits down and talks food, recipes and carbon tax with MPs from both sides of the fence.

Food and politics are never separated for long. The best plots are hatched over lunch. The best stories are told over dinner. In Canberra, dinner bookings are an anthropological study in themselves. If you go for a walk around Manuka or Kingston during a sitting week, you see a graphic illustration of the capital’s power shifts. Why is that minister sharing noodles with that factional opponent? What is that disenfranchised bunch of back benchers plotting? And the best way to get to know a politician is to break bread with one.

Kitchen Cabinet will deliver a refreshing human touch, as we watch our politicians drop their guard and go about their daily life at home.

I transcribed part of a panel discussion from last year’s #NewsNews event at the Melbourne Writers Festival primarily for the students in my online news classes. The panel was titled Outsiders and involved Belinda Hawkins, Greg Jericho and Jay Rosen. I took an interest in the panel when following the hastag for the #NewNews event and noted much tweeting and retweeting when Belinda Hawkins joked that to get people to engage with political journalism parliament should be turned into a cooking show. I downloaded all tweets with the #newnews hashtag using The Archivist software. It allowed me to figure out precisely what was tweeted and when, then track down the panel name and eventually the video of he panel. The video of the panel is here. Below is the transcript of the relevant sections of the panel. It begins with a section from Rosen about how his keynote to the panel, which he had made publicly available before delivering it, has been critiqued by a working political journalist (I think this is the critique Rosen is referencing). It is this comment that is later referred back to when an audience member asks the panel about engagement. It is worth reading both sections to get a proper sense of Rosen’s example (at the end of the transcription below) from This American Life.

Video Time: 30:13 -35:08

Jay Rosen

In this piece, and it’s kind of a long analysis from someone who does political journalism, and he makes the point that you make, he says “Look… what lots of these academics don’t understand…” And I knew it was going to be good when someone starts lecturing me about journalism, this is going to be good… “is that the market for political journalism is actually very small. It’s a small number of people, often you hear this phrase ‘political junkies’…” You know, ‘For all those political junkies out there’ who sort of really, really care about politics. You could never really build a business on it, because it is such a tiny percentage, and most people, you know the larger percentage of the public, is, you know, watching other spectacles, is interested in entertainment, whatever… umm, and when you realise that you’re reporting for this small group of people who are intensely interested, then what the insiders are doing to manoeuvre and manipulate this larger body of people is actually what these political junkies want to know about.”

And so he’s saying is that ‘people like Rosen don’t understand how political journalism works because they think the entire public is like hanging on our every word, when actually we’re just addressing this…’ ok? He has a very elaborate defence, even though, yes, much of the time it is a bunch of crap… I think this is really interesting, because it goes back to like classic debates in the 1920s about the nature of the democratic public. I think there is a tension when we come upon a tension like this when we come across two different ways of perceiving this.

One is to say, basically, he’s right. Most people don’t care. They’ve got lives to lead and they’ve got other things to do and basically the best they’re going to do is pay attention a little bit for the vote. Yeah, they’re going to be shaped by advertising and stereotypes, but that’s just the nature of the world and we have to be mature and admit it. Right… And then we can found our ideas about politics and journalism on an honest assessment of them. So that’s one point of view.

Then the other point of view is.. Well, wait a second; in a democracy the only legitimate basis for government is the consent for the government and if you are actually saying that people can’t actually know enough to give their consent, then what you are really saying is that we don’t have a democracy, we have a kind of aristocracy which has the appearance of the consent from the governed is there, but actually most people are just manipulated masses.

So this journalist says “No, is true that it’s hard to get people engaged in politics. It’s true that there’s many competing interests, it’s true that we have to be realistic and modest in our expectations we also have to continually try to interest the broader public in what matters to them. If you work in politics, if you work in journalism and you don’t think that’s important anymore, because really it’s a small group of people who are interested in politics, then you’re in the wrong business… Ok? And I tend to come from the second perspective and a lot of people in political journalism really take the first perspective, which is why they’re always telling me you don’t understand how it works.

Video time: 46:44

Question from Audience

I just had a question about what Jay was talking about before, about how it is too difficult to get… to engage people, umm… I wanted the panel’s thoughts on how you actually… ‘cause, in a sense, we’re all here today, because we’re actually, you know, on a Saturday morning talking [Jay Rosen starts nodding] about media and politics and [inaudible, ‘blogging issues’?]… the people who are living in middle… middle Australia , I’m not sure how interested they’d be, so how do we reach out to the people…

Belinda Hawkins

[Interrupting] I know the answer… I’m telling you I have the answer [Rosen looks very sceptical, Greg Jericho is amused] In television you’ll gauge whether people are watching you or not by ratings. Stories about certain topics do not rate, we know they do not rate, we run them, we look at them, we go into them because there is a wider purpose at the ABC than just thinking about ratings, um…

The story on Four Corners about abuse of animals in abattoirs in Indonesia did not rate, there was a huge turn off factor, and yet it generated an enormous amount of discussion and it was invaluable because of that.
Stories on Australian Story that I do about politicians, we know.. we go into it… except for the one about Julia Gillard before she was Prime Minister, every story I’ve done on politicians didn’t particularly rate… Politics is a turn off. So what do you do to fix that?

You turn parliament house into a cooking program. [audience laughter] MasterChef… [audience laughter] MasterChef is destroying current affairs on a nightly [inaudible] on the ABC. Everything needs to be couched in terms of a cooking program… and there’s no reason why parliament couldn’t be done that way [audience laughter]
No but seriously what do you… [gesturing]

Jay Rosen

I think that this is a really really hard problem for the reasons that you just heard articulated and I go back and forth on it. This American Life is probably the best radio program in the United States by the brilliant Iva Glass is a story-telling program and lots of times the show will be about… people have bizarre relationships with their mothers… people that cross cultures. It’ll be people… This American Life is about stories of real people. But every once and a while they’ll do something completely different than that and their most famous recent program, actually its older that than that it is three years old now, which was The Giant Pool of Money. Which was a one hour documentary on the [inaudible, ‘bank crisis’?].

It started when Ira Glass, who’s the host, kept hearing these stories in the news about sub-prime mortgages and the collapse of banks and they didn’t know what was going on and they were befuddled like any other citizen would be, because they’re not economics correspondents and so they decided to try and explain – what was happening and why we had this crisis that ultimately cost the treasury hundreds of billions of dollars – to themselves. And their one hour documentary, The Giant Pool of Money, is overwhelmingly, by a factor of ten to one, the most downloaded program they’ve ever done and it’s about the intricacies of the mortgage market. So when you come upon things like that, it makes me think, ‘Well there is a way to engage a larger audience, you just have to help them understand and that that’s actually harder than reporting the news, because that’s what that program was, ‘We’re going to help you understand this really complex, strange, bizarre event that cost you hundreds of billions of dollars, right… And the key to the program was that the people making it began in the same position as the overwhelmed ignorant public and they travelled to competence [inaudible, ‘by observation’?] and looking back to where they were when they started, and how they achieved mastery, they told the story so others could have mastery as well. So sometimes I think that if sometimes we had journalism like that we could expand the circle.

This passage from unknowing to knowing (and the affective character of the non-formal knowledges produced) is best captured in the ‘how to’ or ‘instructionable’ style of article. My current work is begins to develop an archaeology of ‘how to’ articles. Why are there not far more socio-political ‘how to’ articles? ‘Pol Inst’ anyone?