I am Canadian. I like my coffee hot and my beer cold. I like my chips smothered in cheese-kurds and gravy, and my steak seared and bloody. I like my hockey to be dramatic and exciting, and my news, to paraphrase Jonathan Holmes’ anonymous journalist-interviewee in a recent ABC ‘The Drum’ article, ‘boring as mud’.
News is news. Facts are facts. Just the facts, ma’am; report the facts properly and the story tells itself. PBS news-anchor Jim Lehrer’s commandments regarding journalism might seem a bit naive in a modern context, but let us not forget that it was not Woodward and Bernstein who fathered the present news industry in America, rather Australia’s own Rupert Murdoch, who realised that exporting this country’s ‘bread-and-circuses’ culture to the US would likely prove a commercially successful venture.
We report. You decide. We might repeat Barack Obama’s middle name three-hundred times an evening during an election year, and insist upon giving air-time to some of the nuttiest right-wingers the world has ever seen, but we’re just telling you what your fellow Americans think. You can make up your own mind. Can’t you?
Americans love sensationalism — but that sensationalism previously only extended to celebrity, or ridiculous notions peddled by check-out stand tabloids such as the National Enquirer. They sell the Enquirer in Canada, but everyone there takes it as-it-is: a humour publication. Frighteningly, many Americans take it seriously — as seriously as they take tabloid-television programs such as TMZ (which admittedly does get it right on the rare occasion, but I digress.) It took Australian ingenuity to extend that sensationalism to what used to be the boring, drab 6-o’clock news. Flashy graphics, dramatic music, flamboyant commentators — all of these things combined give you the macabre circus of the mundane that is Fox News.
Back to Australia. When I first emigrated, one of the first things I noticed was how ingrained into Australian culture betting and barracking is. It’s everywhere — not just in sport, but it extends to religion, political persuasion, fashion, music… You name it, there’s always a side. Everybody seems to have an opinion (which is healthy) but mostly a steadfast one (which is not!) Governments hold power based on the tiniest ‘swings’ in voter preference regarding issues specially chosen by political pundits to polarise the populace as much as possible, because the opinions within that populace hardly ever change at all. Red or blue? Which is your colour? Red or blue? Red? Can I change your mind? I didn’t think so. Red ’til your dead, right? That’s what I thought.
The media here has recognised this too, and exploits it with zeal. ‘You work and pay taxes, so why should you pay for those lousy dole-bludgers?’ ‘You poor battlers on disability have a hard time; shouldn’t the government give you more?’ Of course both of these arguments have their merits, but you never see them on the same page, because that would be a balanced argument that would leave the reader neither happy to be validated, nor angry to be invalidated for their position.
As a Canadian, I’ve grown up with, and demand balance. If I read an article in one newspaper which shows an obvious bias, even if it’s a bias I agree with I will still seek out a counter-argument in another publication (or, if it’s a good Canadian publication, I’ll just need to turn the page.) Thankfully, it is rare, even in modern times, for a Canadian newspaper to advocate that people vote for a particular politician or party — typically, they will give space to the various political persuasions to make their cases in the editorial pages, and themselves talk only about the electoral process, or about the election campaign as a whole.
Curiously, I’ve just realised they also typically don’t use quotes from politicians editorialisations for headlines. Fancy that.
Of course, we all know that’s not the way things are done here in Australia. Fairfax has identified a market demographic, and caters to it. Murdoch’s papers have their demographic, and cater to those readers. Even the ABC has a demographic it bends over backwards to please to ensure they come back and visit Aunty a bit more often — hopefully every 24 hours. However, it’s one thing to appeal to a demographic in style, but a whole other kettle of fish to appeal to it in substance — in Canada, the first is practiced; in Australia, seemingly the second.
Five years on in my residence here, unabbreviated ‘WTF’s still frequently escape my lips when I read the ‘news’, or watch ‘current affairs’ programming. As Holmes’ anonymous journalist said, the news is just not entertaining if you don’t provoke emotion in your audience, and the depths that reporters will plumb, and the heights of bias that they will scale in order to achieve that appear to be endless in either direction. Nobody appears to be immune to it — journalists seem to have realised that, rather than simply be easily-forgettable ‘reporters’, they can supply ‘analysis’ and ‘commentary’ and get their own fifteen minutes of micro-celebrity. Why not? Their opinion is as good as any — better, because they know the story. Why bother going through all the detail of explaining why something is bad when they can just tell you it’s bad? You trust them, right?
Obviously, I don’t agree with this idea in the least. Remember, I’m a Canadian, and I like my news boring as mud. Facts are facts, and commentary is commentary, meant for sites such as this — not on the 6 o’clock news, and not on the front page. Give me the facts as concisely as you can compile them in a way that I can understand and process them adequately enough to sufficiently formulate my own understanding and opinion of the situation — THAT is the essence of good journalism. If you can give me the ability to grasp the complexities of the most complex topics of the day, then you’ve done your job and are to be commended — but only then.
If the choice, metaphorically speaking, in how I learn about current events is either boring old bread, or flashy circuses, I’ll take the bread. You can keep your death-defying high-wire acts to yourself.
And, if I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.