What is Journalism, Tom Switzer?

Tom Switzer has a go at Jason Wilson over whether or not there is a left-leaning bias in professional journalism in Australia.

Tom Switzer used to be the editor of opinion at the Australian newspaper, which perhaps provides a reason for his confusion over what journalism actually is. It is comical even to me that I would have the audacity to correct such an obvious error made by an ex-editor of a national Australian newspaper and now academic fellow at a prestigious university research centre. For starters, ‘opinion’, op-eds or whatever, is not journalism. The basic function of journalism is to report on newsworthy events before, after or while they are happening. Journalism does absolutely nothing else. All the other crap that the media industries pump out under the heading of ‘news’ is an unfortunate side-effect of the newspaper industry, and then 24-hour cable news networks, having to fill the ‘news hole’ in between the advertisements in their publications and broadcasts. (See the opening chapters of Boorstin’s classic text The Image on ‘pseudo-events’.) If newspapers contained only actual news then they would only be a dozen pages or so, published every few days.

It is obvious from Switzer’s piece on the Institute of Public Affairs website that he does not make this distinction. This is telling of the utter poverty of actual journalism in Australia. Someone who should know the difference between actual journalism and other types of media that engage with newsworthy events, but elides such a difference, is unfortunate. A good example is this observation from Switzer:

“The ABC has jettisoned all semblance of impartiality on the issue; its journalists, with rare exceptions, now campaign with a constant stream of scare stories. (Within two weeks recently, the otherwise excellent Lateline broadcast the doom-and-gloom scenarios of Bob Brown, Tim Flannery and Clive Hamilton, whereas in the past two years only one sceptic has been a studio guest – Ian Plimer, in May – and his scholarship was subjected to highly unbalanced, even contemptuous, scrutiny in a news segment just before he himself was interviewed.)”

Are a current affairs style TV shows ‘journalism’? What news is being distributed through these shows? There is no ‘news’ per se on current affairs style televsion shows. They are like magazines compared to a newspaper. Journalism can be practised through such TV shows, of course, but that is not what we normally expect of it. Switzer then goes on to make the disclaimer about how he is not suggesting ‘there is [a left] cabal in newsrooms’; of course he is not, because he is not talking about ‘newsrooms’.

What is actually at stake in these debates is a continuation of the culture wars. The debate is over the character of ‘debate’ itself played out in these magazine-style TV shows (or magazine-style newspapers in Switzer’s case). Conservatives are attempting to argue that the journalism profession itself is at stake; journalism has nothing to do with presenting ‘debate’. Hearing Tim Flannery or Clive Hamilton talk abvout the environment is not a newsworthy event. It is a product of the unfortunate desparation of media organisations to produce coverage of ‘issues’, not ‘news’. Hence, Jason Wilson’s observation that John Howard bipassed the entire ‘debate machine’ in the media for the direct conduit of talkback radio. The reporting on the PM talking about ‘issues’ is a newsworthy event. Conservatives want to be able to force the ‘conversation’ about ‘issues’ back into the terrain where reportage is without mediation. See how there is a slight of hand here?

Hopefully, with all the pay-wall shenanigans happening at the moment, we can go back to a (perhaps idealised) time of real news instead of this posing punditry.

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