Sideshow: The Dumbing Down of Democracy

By Peter West

Lindsay Tanner’s new book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy has a lot to say about how the media are dumbing down public life in Australia. I’ll make a few quick points.

The media reduce issues so that they fit a simple frame. Often it’s good guys versus bad guys. Thus as someone who has spoken on men’s issues,I was either made part of the nasty backlash against feminism or I would have journalists trying to make me say that feminism had gone too far and it was time to fight back. Lindsay Tanner himself has been cast as a Young Turk who is attacking the current leader of the Labor Party. Why bother to read his book when you already know what to say about him? Too often, journalists are not reporting news. They are reproducing a pattern that they recognise (p.64).

Many journalists and ‘shock jocks’ of the radio waves simply feed people’s prejudices back to them. Thus the media create their own villains (p. 66). The media attack, distort, impugn and defame (p.15). There is no respect for anyone’s privacy or human decency.

Once a story has been successful, it’s repeated. In Online Opinion some time ago I told the story of the Western Sydney bully who fought back. The footage was shown around the world. This week it appeared again on a newspaper’s website, with some supposed new twist. A bit like a family who was given a ham for Christmas and the family has to endure twenty dinner recipes, all dressing up the ham. The commercial current affairs shows feature almost no politics. Far from the sensible interviews shown in the 1980s they are now recycling endless variations on the same themes. The tenant from hell, a new wonder bra, teenage gangs (p.68). All of these pander to the prejudices of a middle-class Anglo audience safe in their nice brick homes.

News broadcasts have less and less on sensible politics. Instead we get some sensationalism: a murder has been committed in Bundywallop, or police are condemning people who speed in cars.(Would anyone expect them to tell drivers to drive faster?) A few weeks ago one of the Sydney commercial stations had as its headline a couple of working-class women who were angry with some mother who might have done harm to her child. Not once, but three or four nights in a row.

Politicians meet the challenge by putting on little circuses. Tony Abbott visits an underpants factory. Julia Gillard visits a flood zone. These visits are treated as serious by the commercial channels because it’s more visual than a talking head. Nobody ever challenges the politicians in serious debate, bar in a couple of shows on ABC or SBS.

Politicians reduce their whole message to a short slogan. Stop the boats. No great big new tax. What next? Eat yourbreakfast? Instead of fighting the dumbing-down, politicians embrace it.

The cult of celebrity dominates everything. Increasingly, the commercial channels look like trashy American magazines telling us Zac and Jen have split up; or Mary and Kate might be secret lovers. Anything about so-called ‘celebrities’ is news.

The media is increasingly about journalists and what they think. Flick through the pages of any newspaper and you will see liberal use of I, me and my and sometimes us and our. TV travel shows show us the ‘celebrity’ journalists sitting in a spa or walking along a road. This is supposed to be informative. How strange that the female journalists seem to spend most of their time in a rather too small halter top or bikini! And the men seem to take their shirts off a lot. Journalists have their own books reviewed favorably, in too many cases. But then TV stars plug their shows, musicians plug their new CDs. It’s all about me, me me!

Press releases dictate what news we hear. Queensland University of Technology’s survey found in 2001 that 47 per cent of stories were triggered by press releases and public relations initiatives (p.87). Packages of information are simply reproduced by lazy journalists who are pressured into impossible deadlines. The late, unlamented NSW Labor Government had armies of public relations operatives, all pushing positive spin into the media. Thus we got endless announcements: new trains being ordered, new train lines being planned, the opening of new sections of road, and so on. Meanwhile State schools were being run down and roads decaying. The media said little about running down the State’s infrastructure until the government was on its last legs.

Australian news ‘shows’ are following U.S. and U.K. trends. A Harvard study found that since 1980, the percentage of news with no public policy content has risen from 30 percent to almost 50 per cent. Or as, Julianne Schulz observed in the U.K., “entertainment values have swamped public life” (p. 15). A former TV anchor in the U.S. Robert MacNeil, said:

The idea is to keep everything brief, not to strain the attention of anyone but instead to provoke constant stimulation through variety, novelty, action and movement…[assuming] that bite-size is best, that complexity must be avoided, that nuances are dispensable, that qualifications impede the simple message…(p. 56)

There is much more to this book. It has been a great eye- opener and stimulus for thought.

Having said that, the book raises many questions.

What has Tanner done to improve things? He was part of the Rudd-Gillard Governments. How much did these governments make the media more intelligent? Lately, stupid, screaming, loud advertisements seem to infest almost any program. Advertisements for gambling infest sporting programs, and the action taken against them has been minimal. Little if anything has been done to cut down on fast food advertisements in the afternoons and early evenings, when kids are watching in large numbers. The number of advertisements needs to be monitored. It seems to me that guidelines are being exceeded. Media moguls tell us all what to do, too much of the time.

ABC radio and TV provide some small respite from all this. Yet they are not safe from infection. ABC showed repeated advertisements for a series on The Kennedys, which was trashy and offered few new insights. ABC FM Classic is being slowly pushed down market. It was once the preserve of classical music. Now jazz, rock, folk, and any old stuff is being served up, doubtless to increase ratings.

SBS has been dumbed down for some time, as I wrote in an earlier article in Online Opinion. Cooking shows are cheap, and they have multiplied without cease. SBS can’t resist the allure of sensationalism. At its best it provides great shows and some intellectual content. But the advertising that crept in during the Howard era is being allowed to increase. The long-term trend is downwards.

In sum, Tanner’s book is excellent reading. It’s just a pity he couldn’t do more to lessen the evils he describes.