Narcissus, Grog’s Gamut and a self-obsessed media

5 October 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

In Ancient Greek mythology, Narcissus fell in love with his own image, cast in the silk waters of a pond he’d stopped at to quench his thirst. Becoming obsessed with the beauty of his reflection, he was unable to leave it, eventually wilting away, until death.  

The news media is a lot like our dear Narcissus. Here’s why. 

Last month, Jay Rosen, from New York University, appeared on ABC’s Lateline to discuss 21st century news reportage.

 Australia was in the midst of a bizarre election campaign, and Rosen had been invited on to the program to talk about the pros and cons of an increasingly common style of political journalism that he likens to a ‘horse race’.

By fixating on end results — the winners and losers of election campaigns, the triumphs and tragedies of political manoeuvrings — and indeed on its own involvement in these things, Rosen argues that the media falls short of shining the spotlight on the stuff that actually matters (such as the roots and or implications of policy).

If he’s right, and the great Fourth Estate has taken a bit of dive to the bottom, then it’s their own fault. It is more apparent than ever, that the media industry (including journalists), has fallen victim to a Narcissus-like self-obsession. And if it is going to avoid butchering itself even further, it’s going to have to first learn to ditch the mirror.

Jay Rosen might just have hit on this in a telling exchange with Lateline presenter Leigh Sales, where he momentarily became the interviewer.

‘I’m told that you actually have a program here on Sunday morning called the Insiders?’ he asked. 

‘We do,’ she replied, sounding a little hesitant.

‘Is that true?’ he shot back with bemusement.

‘We do,’ she replied again, sounding even more hesitant.

‘And the “insiders” are the journalists!?’ said Rosen.

‘That is right,’ said Sales. 

‘Remarkable!’ beamed Rosen.

Obviously keen to avoid Rosen bagging out one of the ABC’s staple political programs, Sales changed the subject. 

Although Jay Rosen might have missed the irony of engaging in a long Lateline discussion with a fellow journalist about the state of modern journalism, his puzzlement at the format of Insiders points to an interesting truth. 

The media has become increasingly interested in just one thing: itself.

On September 12, for instance, Prime Minister Gillard appeared on Insiders to go tête-à-tête with Barrie Cassidy, for the first time since the 17-day post-election ‘limbo’ had come to an end.

Cassidy kicked things off with some fairly savvy — and tough — policy-related questions. But soon enough, the interview took a turn, and escalated into an astonishing six-question excursion on media-politics relations.

Cassidy asked Gillard about Bob Brown’s claims that News Ltd had been inherently biased, that it had ‘stepped out of its role as the ‘Fourth Estate’, and that it had it tried to determine parliamentary numbers — which was probably true.

He also wanted to know if Gillard thought the media’s involvement in the campaign had affected the outcome, and wanted answers on how the media could expect to be dealt with under her new leadership. On, and on, it went.

To her credit, Gillard did a fine job of playing down the significance Cassidy was implying the media has in the political process.

‘I think that there are times when media personalities actually think that they are involved in the political process rather than commentating on the political process,’ said Gillard, adding, ‘I’ve been known to joke that Sky TV is endlessly journalists interviewing journalists… [and that] politicians are no longer required.’    

This self-obsession is also showing signs of paranoia.

As major media organisations continue to increase their integration with social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blog posts, they also seem increasingly uneasy about its potential as a double-edged sword. 

While the mass media has largely championed social media as a way of further engaging public discourse, and even contributing to the democratic process (oh the vanity!), things get interesting when the opinions within these platforms threaten the integrity and perhaps hegemony of professional journalists. 

And when that happens, you can bet your bollocks to a barn dance that the affected organisations will come out swinging.

The Australian’s James Massola, for instance, wrote a piece revealing the true ‘identity’ of the previously anonymous political blogger, ‘Grog’s Gamut’. Thanks to Massola, we now know that the author of the blog is public servant, Greg Jericho.

Jericho’s blog has received a deal of attention recently (including from ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott) for his stern criticisms of the mass media’s coverage of the election campaign, including a condemnation of journalists for ‘not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.’

James Massola and The Australian, however, clearly felt threatened by the momentum the blog has gained online, and the prominent position Jericho’s views have taken in the media-politics forum. 

Massola argues that it’s in the public’s interest to know who is behind these media slayings, and to be informed about the potential conflict of interest in Jericho writing such a blog.

‘The prolific blogger shows a strong preference for the ALP, despite the Public Service code of conduct stating that “the APS is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner”,’ wrote Massola.

Massola questions if Jericho’s blog posts are ‘appropriate’ given the nature of his job, and also asks Jericho whether now, with his cover blown, he will ‘change his approach’.

Let’s remember that Jericho is a private blogger, meaning he does not write on behalf of any organization, institution or political party. He has declared the activity merely a hobby, which he tends to ‘after dinner’.

Perhaps Massola should remember that professional journalists are people too. And no matter how ‘professional’ —which is meant to be synonymous with ‘objective’ — their work is, they are likely to still (privately) have a political persuasion. 

So is James Massola’s article really rooted in the public interest? Probably not. ‘Public interest’ might be an ambiguous term, but it is also one that the media routinely uses as a guise when drifting into petty or distasteful waters.

Über-protectionism is a common symptom of the mass media’s narcissism, and his piece looks suspiciously like a bid to discredit a ‘non-professional’ writer’s integrity, and therefore prove they we really can only truly rely on the mass media (and not ‘novice’ bloggers) to tell us how things are (or might be).    

The real problem here is that for too long the media has been dragging its feet, stuck in its own self-importance as the gatekeeper of, and only real source for, reliable, ‘objective’ and (or) factual information.

While doing so though, it has failed to see that everybody else (i.e. the public) has simply since caught up. Journalism is currently dying – not because of the internet, or cable television (etc blah blah), but because its self-indulgent, narcissistic nature has become redundant. Modern media consumers are too savvy for the smokes-and-mirror charades of the past.

These days we have thousands of bloggers, tweeters and others, all punching out their own weekly, if not daily accounts of whatever their niche field (or interest) is. And while many of these are as self-adulating and self-promoting as anything put out there by the mainstream media, they also come from real people with real experiences, diverse backgrounds, and few agendas other than their own views.   

The media industry ought to stop gazing at its own reflection — and admiring how wonderfully important it is — and just get on with the job.

The opportunities for quality and important pieces of journalism, that really do serve public interest, are no fewer now than they were back in the golden days of liquid-lunch reportage and Watergate.

But if the industry is going to save itself from the same ominous fate as our dear Narcissus, it’ll have to learn to first drop the mirror. Journalists have to stop talking to journalists and the media has to stop talking about itself.

Narcissistic journalism is, to quote the Tony Abbott spin machine, ‘dead, buried and cremated’. The fat, however, is not necessarily in the fire.  

P.S. The irony that this very article is in fact a piece of journalism about journalism has not escaped me.

I can be heckled as a hypocrite on Twitter @lukeslocal

Luke S. H Raggatt is recent La Trobe Journalism graduate who has just commenced a Masters of International Relations.