The Limits Of Journalism



DAMN AND BLAST HILLARY CLINTON! Not just because she lost – exposing in the process the appalling political judgement of the Democratic Party. And not just because her failure has saddled the world with President Trump for at least four years. Those sins, on their own, more than merit political damnation. But there is another sin for which I would like to see Clinton blasted. The sin of exposing the vacuity of contemporary journalism and the powerlessness of the mainstream media. Because, to be perfectly honest, Clinton’s failure is my failure too.

The story has its beginnings in the Watergate Scandal. I was just 18 when Nixon was driven from the White House by what everybody said was the investigative journalism of, among others, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and The Washington Post. For one brief shining moment journalists were hailed as heroes and journalism was portrayed as a force so powerful that not even the office of the President of the United States could prevail against it.

Forty years on, however, it is clear that Nixon’s fall owed as much to the deliberate and secretive manipulation of the news media as it did to the efforts of the courageous journalists, Woodward and Bernstein. After all, the latter’s’ key informant, the infamous “Deep Throat”, turned out to be no less a buttress of the American “Deep State” than Mark Felt, the Associate Director of the FBI.

In the movie, All the President’s Men, Deep Throat is portrayed as a reluctant but principled whistleblower from the dark heart of the Washington bureaucracy. A more probable explanation, however, is that Felt represented a Deep State faction determined to drive the mentally unstable Nixon out of the Oval Office. In 2016, it is equally probable that a highly-motivated Deep State faction, this time based in the FBI’s New York Field Office, used the news media to prevent Hillary Clinton from re-entering the White House as President.

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That the news media can be so easily manipulated by forces it only vaguely perceives and understands is a bitter pill to swallow. But it is far from being the most unpalatable of the home truths which Trump’s election served up.

Since Watergate, the journalistic profession has gradually taken upon itself the role of pontificator-in-chief. Rather than allow the facts to speak for themselves, journalists have felt it necessary to explain to their readers, in great detail, what the facts mean and how they should respond to them. Never was this journalistic pontification and “guidance” more in evidence than in the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election. In the eyes of America’s leading journalists, the Republican Party candidate, Donald Trump, represented nothing less than an existential threat to the core values of America. A vote for Trump was, therefore, a vote against the United States.

Did the American people listen? Nope. Nearly half of them were so moved by the journalists’ apocalyptic warnings about the republic that they stayed at home. And in just enough of the “battleground” states, more Americans voted for Trump than against him. The serried ranks of media pontificators notwithstanding, the people made up their own minds.

What the news media was able to do (and, arguably, all it should ever attempt to do) was display both Clinton and Trump to the American electorate. Reports of their speeches, coverage of their rallies, the live broadcast of three independently organised candidates’ debates: the American people read, listened and watched; and, interpreting the information according to their own needs and beliefs, reached their own decisions.

In doing so – and in a way utterly at odds with the instructions imparted to them by the pontificators-in-chief – the American people delivered an important lesson about both the purposes and the limits of journalism.

When the eighteenth century parliamentarian, Edmund Burke, gestured towards the journalists observing the House of Commons from the reporters gallery and described them as “ a fourth estate, more important far than they all”, he was not being complimentary. He was merely recognising in the printing press – and in those who fed it – a power to make visible to multitudes what had hitherto been witnessed by only a tiny minority of the population. It is in making the whole nation witnesses to the actions of their rulers that confers heroism upon journalism.

It is not the business of journalists to tell their readers, listeners and viewers what to think; but to place before them any and every matter that a free people might reasonably be expected to have an interest in thinking about.


  1. “It is not the business of journalists to tell their readers, listeners and viewers what to think; but to place before them any and every matter that a free people might reasonably be expected to have an interest in thinking about.”

    There should be a duty on journalists, to inform more widely and in sufficient detail about facts, and not just present “news” that they deem “worthy” to present to people, who they might reasonably expect to be interested in thinking about.

    Click bait comes to mind, popular for some, or many, and in ever higher demand, hardly stuff that should be falling into newsworthy or even quality news.

    And pontificators there are, why did you not name some of the ones so busy misinforming and lecturing us here in NZ, dear Chris?

    Or do you dread having to explain yourself to them, when you are back on TV and radio shows?

  2. Yes- Bring back Lord Reith.

    The rot set in in the 80s when commercialism took its grip on the news media, and spread the lie that impartiality is impossible anyway – that listeners and viewers like having their thoughts guided by various journalists of all colours (except that they all tend to favour the commercial perspective..)

    With our media now owned and controlled by marketers (even State-owned TVNZ is run by a man from the bloody marketing industry) there is little hope for a return to the kind of media you correctly say we need, Chris. Thank you for a good analysis.

  3. The MSM gaveTrump ‘oxygen’ by reporting and highlighting his outrageous statements.

    The MSM treated it all as a joke. Unfortunately, the Working Class, the new Precariat, and Middle America didn’t see it that way. There was nothing remotely funny at having their jobs and factories outsourced/exported to Third World and Developing nations, and then buying back the same goods they once made.

    So what was a joke to the MSM and the commentariate turned out to be a very serioius message for Trump’s audience.

    Whether intentional or not, he played the MSM and it won him the Oval Office.

    Now we just have to survive the next four years and hope his anti-climate-change ignorance doesn’t impact too harshly on our planet.

    • Two things I know Trump to be good at, filling out forms and promoting his own name. Haven’t looked at the numbers but he didn’t spend a dime on paid tv advertising. It was genius if you ask me, like a Pacaso kind of genius

      • As I’ve mentioned before on TDB, If National wants to win in 2017, they must continue their strategy of making the election a Presidential style contest between Key and Little. If we want National to lose, we must give Key as little oxygen as possible, and focus our commentary on the policy vision we want to see replace National’s neo-liberal and neo-con gimp-of-the-USA policy, as well as the strengths of a diverse coalition over a FPP-style one party majority (with a few klingons). Attacking Key is fighting the tar baby, whereas fact-based criticisms of National’s performance in government, and that of its ministers, might actually land some blows.

    • Iain, ok, you’re a Trumpista. We get that. I’m not sure why you’re still defending that odious little man, the fascist now sits in the White House.

      If you’re white, male, and privileged, you have the luxury of having him speak for you. That is, if narrative is sexist, racist, homophobic, and a white supremacist.

      Congrats, mister. That’s your man sitting in the Oval Office.

      • So you don’t think the blacks, hispanics and women that voted for Trump might find your characterisation of them a little off target?

    • “MSM is dead”

      That is if we let it die, or let it deteriorate, as it has the latter over recent years or even a couple of decades now.

      Fake news is REAL, it is at times a problem in the mostly commercially run and dominated MSM, it is not becoming a much greater problem in so-called alternative and social “media”, of which you appear to be a fan.

      That was a rather good discussion I heard this morning on RNZ, still at least a remnant of public broadcasting that we all own and have some expectations in.

      The law of the jungle is about to take over, unless we bring back some standards and responsibilities for all that spread “media”, “news” and “information” in general.

      • “…it is not becoming a much greater problem in so-called alternative and social “media”, of which you appear to be a fan.”

        FFS: “IT IS NOW becoming a much greater problem in so-called alternative and social media…” was meant to say.

      • Let the law of the jungle take over. The MSM shredded any last vestige of credibility in this election

        I would also defund RNZ. I don’t see any public value to this biased low quality radio station.

        I don’t see why I should be forced to pay for a political propaganda channel

        • “I don’t see why I should be forced to pay for a political propaganda channel”

          This claim is routinely lobbed at RadioNZ, always without evidence. If your comment was true Andy, RadioNZ would *never* allow National party shills like Matthew Hooten to give their talking points on a regular basis. Where was the “propaganda” in the RadioNZ coverage of the recent earthquakes?

        • The worst political propaganda channel is represented by you and your poorly qualified comments made here, Andy Dandy.

  4. Is there any point in discussing a hypothetical world in which journalists with integrity report facts and provide meaningful commentary?

    In the real world the mainstream media is owned and operated by global corporations or their agents with the expressed intention of telling the masses what to think, who to vote for, what to wear, what to eat, where to go, and how to live. Any journalist who does not promulgate bullshit is soon finds himself/herself unemployed.

    Chris, you can harp on about Clinton and Trump for the next 3 months and nothing is going to change -other than for everything that matters to be made worse by the globalized corporate system: that is 100% certain.

    The system is rotten to the core, and it will al end very badly quite soon via poisoning of the environment at the local level and overheating at the planetary level.

    The people who are running the show have no intention of doing anything whatsoever to prevent collapse -financial, energetic or environmental- and will continue with policies focused on more of the same until they lose control.

  5. “The Democratic Party’s strategic symphony, portraying Trump as a “clear and present danger” to the constitutional liberties of the American people, will build relentlessly to a crushing crescendo.

    With CNN’s scientific poll of debate-watcher’s declaring Clinton the winner of the second presidential face-off by a margin of 23 percentage points (Clinton: 57 percent – Trump: 34 percent) Hillary’s victory march just got a whole lot louder.”

    Your main mistake…apart from being blinded by the magical science of polls, was not understanding just how crappy life is for many Americans. Sure, you’ve probably read some good criticism of policy, and maybe watched a few Michael Moore documentaries. But like many in the media, and many middle class Lefties or Progressives, I think you have failed to really empathise with these victims of neo liberal Capitalism.
    The idea that ‘Manufacturing Consent’ was bullet proof and would last forever, and that voters would continue to vote against their own best interests in favour of neo liberalism and free market fantasies was deeply flawed.

    Now we can all sit back and wait for the fascist crap to hit the fan when Donny Tiny Hands supporters realise they have been duped…

  6. Maybe the true little point is lost in the glare of the questionable big one.

    We already knew that the people are pretty much always wrong. Now we know the media – taken in their entirety – pretty much are too.

    No deep conspiracies, more a series of opportunistic or unfortunate happenstance, good-bad luck, a dogged and rapacious Right-wing press playing to a willful gallery, a troubled section of the population in difficult economic times and a leavening of stupid choices led to this outcome.

    Sure, Trump spoke to a section of the white working class, who otherwise might have voted for Clinton and he had the wit to see which of his pronouncements resonated. His very vulgarity and ignorant, off the wall, post-fact invective confirmed his legitimacy, not because of deep design, just dumb luck in a change-mooded election. A better candidate from the Right might have done just as well.

    To suggest that Donald somehow engineered the whole thing reminds me of his business “success,” where narcissism and brand-building are interchangeable and indistinguishable. Great planning, or just the way things work out? The latter, for mine.

    Hillary had been the anointed one for sixteen years, it was just too late for her. The greater factor in her loss was not white workers, it was often the very rainbow Obama coalition which did not turn out in the key States in the predicted numbers. And the DNC didn’t see it coming. In the end, it was their insularity and their lack of flexibility in candidate selection that cost the election, journalists merely failed to note the problem as for the most part they were living in the same bubble as the politicians. (Including the Right, by the way. Their guy just happened to win.) And yet even that isn’t really true. Who could overlook the endless complaints, not least from those overreaching journalists, that Hillary was not an inspiring candidate. They just thought Trump was worse and said so.

    Journalists may or may not have overreached, but they were not guilty of poisoning the electorate. A different politician, and a different strategy could well have prevailed.

    A journalist working in the right environment can have amplifying impact, but against the tide, just another foolish King Canute. The question is: can journalists contribute to a change of atmosphere. Who would doubt that, for good or ill, but how much is the unknown. And it is still unknown. What seems clear is that the complacent and compliant scribes of New Zealand, when theirs are the only voices heard throughout the land, contribute to the maintainence of the status

  7. The best thing to come out of the US election is the bright shining light on how moribund and complicit the legacy media is.

    I even heard Russel Brown on Nine to Noon today doing a piece on “fake news” where he said there was nothing of importance in the Wikileaks releases. I mean WTF?

    In fact RNZ is just a constant stream of the same dross we get from Corporate American Media.

    I won’t hold my breath on any mainstream media looking into #pizzagate – if even to totally discredit it. There are issues that warrant a sober investigation – but through ignoring it they actually fuel the fire of the so called conspiracy.

    • I just found out what pizza gate is – if the mainstream media aren’t even mentioning it, it makes you wonder who is involved. Seriously.

      • Same thing with the UK – parliamentary pizza-dough enquiry is now into its 4th chair…

        Look at what happened to Simon Danczuk when he doubled down on pursuing justice for the victims.

  8. Chris, that is a major departure from conventional left wing politics, who are strong believers in advocacy journalism.
    You are veering from the mainstream, in thinking that people should think for themselves. As progressives, people need to be lead to our way of thinking: advocacy journalism.

  9. The “normalisation” of President Elect Trump, conducted by the mainstream media, as if all he said was just “a joke”, and as if him hiring a shock jock “strategist” from Breitbart is now a completely “normal” act to accept:

    We are back to dirty politics, and Slater did just recently “contribute” again, by “raising awareness” about an islamic preacher, who was presented and quoted somewhat out of context.

    The MSM seems to have no issues with such associations.

    Gradually, what was once considered unjournalistic, inappropriate, becomes the new normal, once again.

    Mr Key shows the way here, in a more “harmless way”, when compared with Trump, but being just as dishonest, and Trump will get away with his rants and Twitter rages, what bizarre new times we have.

  10. Very good Post @ Chris Trotter. The entire thing is a bit of a complex machine really isn’t it?
    Any democratic system’s problem, as I see it, is its politicians.

    One the one hand? There are the needs of The People. Specifically, the needs of the most at risk.
    On the other hand, there is the need to have commerce and industry which can be translated into one word. Capitalism. Dreaded capitalism. Capitalism deploys the logic of cancer. Unstoppable growth. And capitalistic growth is, by its very definition, doomed to try to be a monopoly organisation and what do they do to reach that particular valhalla? They do anything they can.
    Their first port of call is our politicians offices. Lobbyists go a-calling on the greedy and the weak minded. If they’re not careful, the well intended ones get buried by their traitorous colleagues. And so on and so on.
    NZ 1984 saw Capitalism successfully convince our politicians to sell off our tax paid for stuff and things for their profit and our loss ( Telecom is a good example of that but there are many, many more examples of that. )
    Once capitalist lobbyists convinced our government to abandon being the balance post between the needs of the most at risk many and the lust to be dominant seeping out of capitalism we were done in and that’s when the decline in independent journalism began and now journalism is just tits, arse and bloodstains.
    The very moment our politicians stopped doing their jobs for us? They, (journalists ) became them (capitalist ) by proxy and journalism was pocketed by the Corporates.
    If we want to see journalism come alive again we must deal to our politicians first.
    But wait? Who are the ‘ We’ ?
    I’m watching on as trump surprises people daily. I’m a bit intrigued to be honest.
    What if we, for just a moment, ponder on how trump might be, in fact, a very cunning fellow with a profound cleverness.
    Ever heard of the judas goat?
    In this case, maybe, just maybe, trump is leading the Idiocrat’s into a new kind of way of doing things? The old way was fucked. And getting more fucked daily. Are we really believing trump is ignorant about global warming for example? My arse he is.
    He also knows that to get the ‘merica !Boo Yeah types to keep clinton ( Never met a war she didn’t like ) out of the White House and away from The Big Red Button he needed to engage the red neck majority. And he bloody well did!
    Also, check out this woman. Dr Helen Caldicott. Exceptional female human.
    Listen to what she says about jonky and trump etc. These, are fascinating times.

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