Posts Tagged ‘Media Criticism’

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The illusion of the reasonable centre

4 February 2013

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment. Read the rest of this entry ?

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2012: The year the world snoozed

31 December 2012

The Guardian described 2006 as “The year the world woke up” to climate change. If that’s the case then I guess 2007 was the year we rolled over and went back to sleep. Our alarm clock has continued to ring ever more loudly and clearly, but we just keep on hitting the snooze button – if we even hear the alarm at all. The events of 2012 have continued the pattern, both in Australia and around the world.

January

A diverse group of organizations warned there is a “carbon bubble” in global financial markets. Yawn… oh look, Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open!

February

Mining magnate and climate change denier Gina Rinehart tried to take over an Australian newspaper chain. Business news is so dreary… wow, congratulations to Queen Elizabeth II for reaching her Diamond Jubilee!

Australian ex-PM Kevin Rudd attempted to regain the top job and lock in a meaningless greenhouse gas emissions target. Hey, someone leaked a video of him saying the F-word!

March

Greenpeace exposed Australia’s plans to multiply its already-world-beating coal exports on a scale dwarfing its emissions at home, to which the government responded by passionately defending the industry. Soporific stuff… look, Clive Palmer is fighting with his soccer team!

Australia introduced a tax on coal mining profits that failed to raise any revenue. How dull… whoa, Sachin Tendulkar scored his 100th international century in cricket! Read the rest of this entry ?

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Politics isn’t bad; it’s the reporting

19 July 2012

As people in other parts of the world fight for the right to vote, too many Australian voters dismiss politics as boring, unimportant, even irrelevant. 15% of Australians believe “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s not politics that is the problem; it’s the way it’s reported.

I don’t believe in such a thing as a “national spirit”, but there does appear to be some truth to the idea that Australians tend to be apathetic. There are probably multiple reasons for our apathy. Perhaps our economic fortunes have made us complacent. I suspect the Liberal Party may be deliberately trying to trash the reputation of politics to win support for reducing the size of government. But I think the most fundamental reason voters believe politics is irrelevant, unimportant, and boring is because political reporting focuses on the aspects that really are irrelevant, unimportant, and (while often superficially attention-grabbing) unable to hold long-term interest.

Politics is reported as though it were a sport or a reality show. Lazily, formulaically, brainlessly, journalists slot every event into a narrative which says one party or person is going up or down in popularity. It’s a “bad week” for some political party or leader; there’s a “good poll” for another; someone is “ahead” in the race; someone is “behind” in the game. The Prime Minister’s latest speech appeared “Prime Ministerial” (whatever that means), but in yesterday’s speech she appeared “weak”, and another speech she will make tomorrow will be a pivotal event because she will “assert her authority”.

The headline political events are not policies but parliamentary stunts, leadership spills and plots, and scandals about individual MPs. For example, on 30 May, the House of Representatives passed legislation to create a Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Also, in an unrelated and unimportant procedural vote, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott realized he was on the same side as an MP whose vote he considers illegitimate, and ran for the door. The latter event became the day’s major political story. Read the rest of this entry ?