Saturday, October 09, 2004

Losing the media war

If by some miracle I cared enough about the Labor party to offer them some free advice, and by some even larger miracle Labor cared enough about me to listen to me, I would point out that suffering a sufficient number of tactical defeats is evidence that there's something wrong with your core strategy.

What has been the Labor party's core strategy for the past, oh, three elections? To try to outscramble the Liberal party in making the biggest lurch to the right. Labor relies on appeasing its left-wing support with lip service while it scrabbles for populist messages it hopes will carve away some of the Liberal support from the center and right. The result has been that Labor has put out a wounderous series of mixed and incoherent messages. One example is the asylum seeker controversy last year, where Labor simultaneously attacked the Coalition for its shoddy treatment of people who made it to our shores, and lambasted them for not doing enough on border protection to prevent them from arriving in the first place.

Clearly Labor can make one or the other criticism, but not both. And this is just one example of a general malaise infecting Labor's approach. Starved of sufficient left-wing support to be a truly left party, Labor constantly embraces the straddle -- only to find that they end up coming off as a cheap watercolor imitation of the Liberal party.

Why is this happening? Is it the will of the people? Are Australians just, by their character, inherently conservative such that the left-leaning party will never win? Does the future herald twenty years of the Coalition colluding with a vitalized Family First to instigate supreme theocratic control over the land?

Well, no. The answer is as simple as looking at the media. Notice how the media has been rather right wing lately?

There's an absolute onslaught of right-wing press. Nobody could claim the Murdoch media gave balanced coverage of the recent election. Although we haven't quite gone down the US path of having overtly partisan media such as Murdoch's "Fox News Channel", the right wing orthodoxy is no less relentless here for being largely unstated and uncommented on.

Look what's happening. The right frames the debate on every issue. Just one example: when Premier Carr introduced his new stamp duty increase, Nine News that day referred to it as Carr's multimillion dollar "tax grab." Think about that word, "grab". What are synonyms for "grab"? Snatch, shanghai, commandeer, expropriate.... Sounds almost like stealing!

This language is far from objective, fair and balanced. Yet the commercial media gets a free pass on its bias while the government funded ABC, even at its very worst only blandly liberal and usually fastidiously centrist, has the fine toothcomb pulled over it. The right has been remarkably successful, not only in skewing the coverage of day to day issues, but of revising the very language stories are covered in, so that the use of loaded terms like "Tax Grab" and "Tax Relief" forces the correct conclusion long before the story is even written or the issues debated.

This observation is hardly original to me. Orwell understood it. George Lakoff has been writing about it in the US. But progressives appear to have fallen asleep while the right has been mobilizing. Progressives are, quite simply, losing the media war. And that means we are losing the culture war. What need to happen from here?

America shows us the way. Their culture war is already far more advanced than here. Their small-l liberals have learned to fight back with their own partisan media and think-tanks. MediaMatters.org combs coverage for anti-liberal bias, and Moveon.Org fights a proxy advertising war on behalf of the Democrats. George Soros bankrolls progressive institutions, and the partisan press like "The Nation" and "The Prospect" articulate progressive positions.

Progressives aren't supposed to like partisanship. We're supposed to like pluralism and balance and objectivity and intellectual honesty, and not demean ourselves to the level of the Ann Coulters and Michael Moores, who we deride equally as ideological partisans.

We're the Sensible Liberal of Tom Tomorrow cartoon fame. We politely articulate our Sensible, Nuanced, Concilitary positions, given due weight and deference to both sides. But we don't notice that one side is politely playing by Queensbury rules while the other side is wailing into the opposition with iron bars and fence palings they've brought out from out the bottom of the ring.

To rise above the fray in this situation is to embrace unilateral disarmament.

Does that mean, to counter the bias of the right, we have to act like Ann Coulter? Perish the thought. We can still keep our core values and provide honest reporting and commentary. But what we do need to do is wear our values on our sleeves, and not suppress and hide them in a forlorn attempt to appear "objective" or "netural."

We are entering the age of partisanship. And we should be prepared to fight on this new ground. In this new world, "objective" reporting will still exist. But, orbiting around it, will be the watchdogs of left and right partisan commentators, calling the media on its missteps and fighting it out with each other to frame the debate.

Margo Kingston, author of "Not Happy John", articulated her desire to create an Australian Moveon.org should Howard win the current election. Honestly, I don't think she has the ticker, connections or frankly the judgement to do that. But an Australian Moveon.org and and Australian MediaMatters.org have nonetheless got to be a number one priority. Hey, I'm just Some Guy With a Website, but hell, I'd volunteer to work with such an organisation.