A DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Sometimes I feel that I’ve lost the plot as I increasingly find myself at odds with where society is going. For instance, I rarely watch the programs that are served up on commercial television. Much of what is on “the box” is mind-numbing and/or unnecessarily sensational and I don’t find it entertaining.
Nightly current affairs programs used to be a no-nonsense world with broadcast journalists and reporters fearlessly tackling the serious issues of the day. Nowadays, these programs and their “news” presenters offer trivial stories about weight loss, toddler tantrums and back cures. No wonder Gerald Stone observed in his book, Who Killed Channel 9?, that commercial TV is pitching to the lowest common denominator.
Commenting on the “dumbing down” of the Channel 9 program, A Current Affair, Stone wrote:
Here was a program that once prided itself on a nightly menu filled with hard-hitting interviews, sensational crime investigations and the inside dope on the latest titillating celebrity scandal. More and more it had begun to dwell on diet fads and shopping tips, topped up with melodramatic ambushes of small-time con men, or the inevitable tear-jerkers about battling families who can’t pay the rent.
In fairness, I must acknowledge the media’s claim that they simply produce what viewers and readers want. As a society, we would rather hear about the sordid private lives of celebrities than have a serious debate about the long-term benefits of public policy. So, just as we get the politicians we deserve, we also get the media we deserve.
As citizens, we are complicit with falling standards and they have certainly plummeted. It still staggers me that the reality TV show, Big Brother, was a ratings winner, even though it demeaned contestants, promoted bullying and encouraged sexual behaviour and nudity. Big Brother was vulgar and the antics of its participants eroded the distinction between public and private.
Another reality TV show, The Apprentice, paved the way for Donald Trump to become the 45th president of the US. The show made a hero of Trump in the eyes of the show’s followers and this die-hard fan base supported him in his bid for the presidency. Even so, millions of gullible viewers were unaware that the show’s producers heavily edited the program to portray Trump as a successful, credible and coherent businessman.
Rather than aspiring to educate viewers, the reality television genre emphasises personal conflict and dramatic tension. The media’s appetite for never-ending drama and outrageous arguments finds a natural home in reality television. Media executives like these programs as they are cheap to make (few paid actors) and rate well with viewers. Nonetheless, many find them objectionable, dishonest and trashy.
According to Australian academic, Dr Soseh Yekanians, Aussies have wholeheartedly embraced reality television. In an article that Dr Yekanians penned for The Conversation, she wrote that Australians have an unhealthy appetite for watching people on reality shows psychologically tear one another apart. She cited the following three examples to anchor her assertion.
- On Channel Ten’s, The Bachelor, two contestants’ merciless name-calling and bullying behaviour became so vicious that they were dubbed the “mean girls”.
- On Channel Seven’s, My Kitchen Rules, the slurs by two competitors, which included likening one contestant to a “blowfish gasping for air”, eventually led to Seven asking them to leave the show.
- On Channel Nine’s, The Block, two contestants walked off the show after being heavily criticised by the judges. One of the contestants claimed that the feedback “just became pure insults”.
Clearly, reality television gains ratings by deliberately pitting contestants against one another. As noted by Dr Yekanians, “there is little real about this form of TV, which is heavily scripted and showcases stereotyped characters”.
Regrettably, standards of taste and decency remain in decline as the quality of television programs continues to deteriorate. We seem to have become conditioned to a diet of explicit sex, coarse language and graphic violence with such content now considered the norm. Tabloid television has modelled itself on its close kin, the tabloid press.
Tabloid journalists – the tawdry cousins of broadcast journalists – are known for sensationalism in reporting. Sex, scandals and beat-ups are the order of the day. Journalists must fill column space for their editors by “finding” stories. Many embrace the mantra: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” in order to whip readers into a frenzy, and this was the case regarding Donald Trump’s playbook of deceits.
We should look harshly on the media ecosystem that amplified Trump’s lies. The former president rode to power thanks, in part, to support from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. While in office, Trump was aided and abetted by Fox and other right-wing US media in spreading false claims. Following his electoral defeat, the rioters who stormed the Capital building were “egged on by these US publishers” according to a Sydney Morning Herald editorial.
But as pointed out in an article published in The Atlantic in November 2018, it was not just right-wing media that promulgated Trumps lies. Mainstream journalists were also accused of becoming “complicit in spreading the president’s falsehoods and conspiracy theories”. The article was published under the deadline – Trump’s Lies Are a Virus, and News Organizations Are the Host – and went on to say that:
The traditional news media are thoroughly infected by the Trump virus. It is not only spreading the disease of the president’s lies, but also suffering from a demise in public trust – at least among one half of the electorate.
[Please allow me to insert a parenthetical note here. Shortly after the outbreak of COVID-19, the WHO accused the media of spreading its own virus. The WHO warned that humanity was not just fighting a viral pandemic but also a highly contagious “infodemic” transmitted by the media. As I opined in a previous post, the media’s penchant for sensationalism throughout the pandemic has resulted in inaccurate news dissemination including the reporting of unscientific cures and unverified medicines.]
There are, of course, many fine and ethical journalists who work outside of the irreverent tabloid world. These individuals fulfil a vital role in society. A true democracy requires the active participation of an informed public, which is only possible if citizens have unfettered access to information. Ironically, the phone hacking scandal in Britain only came to public attention due to the free press.
In response to the scandal, The Telegraph in London published the following editorial.
This newspaper cares passionately about maintaining the highest standards of journalism. We believe that journalism, when practised properly, protects the public from abuses of power by exposing those who are guilty of dishonesty, corruption or injustice. Journalism that harms the innocent – by telling lies or spreading falsehoods about them, or by unjustifiably invading their privacy – does the exact opposite of what good journalism aims to achieve.
Hear, hear! Unfortunately, not all journalists and/or media outlets ascribe to this level of professionalism. And that’s not just my opinion – many mainstream journalists also lament falling standards of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. One senior Australian journalist put it this way:
I’ve spent my working life as a journalist …. But now, reading the newspapers and watching the news, I can’t help but wonder if this is a craft that is not only losing its centre of corporate gravity and support, but also some fundamental sense of its mission and responsibility … the major market tabloids … are the dominant organs of news in all our capital cities. They cry wolf, they cry terror, they fan the flames of disquiet and distrust. Because fear sells.
In his 2011 book, Sideshow: dumbing down democracy, former Australian federal government minister, Lindsay Tanner, was withering in his critique of the media. He cited a number of examples where the media created unnecessary panic including the Global Financial Crisis, the Year 2K computer bug and the swine flu epidemic. The media reporting of these events produced a public response out of proportion to the threat.
The power of the media comes from its ability to influence and shape the perception of the public. We look to the media to tell us what is happening in the world as we don’t have the time or skills to sift through vast amounts of information ourselves. The media sets the news agenda and political tone and this informs our decision-making as citizens.
The free press plays a vital role in society and can serve citizens by exposing wrongdoings and informing debates. Still, it is disappointing to note that some sections of the media do not operate to the highest ethical standards. No wonder that in Australia – and other parts of the world – journalists are among the least trusted professionals.
Strange how the media can scrutinise the behaviour of others but is incapable of serious self-examination.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer