I wasn’t going to write about Michelle Grattan’s departure from The Age. Cyber feelings were unusually wired, and I happen to write for her old ‘paper. Best to stay out of the fray, I thought. Don’t get zapped.
But the media was on my mind. I’d written a strange and jagged analysis of our fourth estate this week—jammed with invective and frustration—while Grattan’s ghost had appeared unnamed in previous columns and blog posts of mine. What did all this mean?
On Grattan there was a discernible split of sentiment on Twitter: fond remembrances and warm tributes from colleagues; contemptuous jeers from a younger generation of activists, bloggers, wonks and news junkies.
Before I look at these sentiments, it’s worth pointing out that Twitter’s a shonky barometer of public sentiment. Estimates suggest 1.8 to 2 million active Australian accounts—impressive, but not representative. What’s more, my feed—and probably yours—is overwhelmingly stuffed with journos, academics, writers, pollies and staffers. As per every other aspect of life, the distortions, rehearsed responses, and bien-pensant of tribalism abounds.
We all know this.
Which is why Peter Brent’s tweet interested me. Today he wrote: “Much bagging of ‘MSM’ by countless self-appointed online critics in essence boils down to: does journo writes nice things about Julia?”
I think there’s truth to this, borne of my 18 months or so playing in, and learning from, this vulgar neurosis. But what does this have to do with Michelle Grattan? Well, the tweeted criticism of her often used this acronym, citing Grattan as a powerful emblem of its flaws, its pathologies, its institutionalised myopia.
I have duelling opinions on the “MSM”—many of them critical, and I’ll riff honestly on them shortly—but I also have some thoughts on the casual use of that acronym. This shorthand can’t meaningfully signify a landscape that’s home to Four Corners and ABC24; Ross Gittins and Michael Stuchtbury; Laura Tingle and Andrew Bolt. Often it’s used as a pejorative by the spectacularly embittered.
But I also say to Brent—though I’m sure he’s aware of this—that amongst some adopters of this acronym there’s also a sophisticated frustration, and that frustration is often constructively transposed into structural analyses of the media.
And so we arrive at the lady of the moment. Michelle Grattan, doyen of the press gallery.
For the years I lived in Canberra, Grattan’s slot on Radio National’s Breakfast was a focal point of muted rage and boredom. Each morning another solemn and perfunctory reiteration of “he said, she said”. Each morning a cursory mud-map of the banal agitations on the Hill. Each morning more dreary calculus of “X was leaked, which makes Y look bad.” It was often obvious, often useless and always colourless. There was no wit, no daring, no depth. No eloquence. Worse, there was no sense that anyone outside our invented capital should give a fuck. Grattan’s spot gave the impression of losing the forest for the ring-barked trees, analysis hermetically sealed off from The People that this whole game is ostensibly about.
But for me, the gravest sin was that it was dull. This isn’t a superficial concern. My boredom won’t be undone with gossip or innuendo. I don’t need hyper-articulate, gin-soaked raconteurs to liven things up. I don’t need the jangled rhythms of a gonzo freak. Rather, my boredom might be staved off with substantive and curious examinations of policy. I want things ripened with illumination, humour and eloquence. I want things to be conjoined thoughtfully to all of the people lucky enough not to live in Canberra. A dependence on “the drip” or on polls might provide objective copy, but it can quickly become a substitute for meaning, muscularity, discernment and flair.
Now let me complicate things.
First, Grattan’s sobriety is impressive. Her copy was shorn of hyperbole, soldered by corroboration. While I think higher things were ignored in place of a particular form of diligence, the unfashionable devotion was impressive. As Grattan’s stature grew, and she was no longer dependent upon the drip, she did not transmogrify into an ego-beast, a purveyor of cheap thoughts and activism. Her sobriety remained.
But that’s just half the story. Grattan never leveraged her stature into things of interest, pieces that might endure. Grattan’s name may echo, but few of her pieces of the last few years will. I agree here with Andrew Elder, even though I felt his piece ungenerous, snide, top-heavy.
Second, and more generally, there are plenty of “mainstream” journalists doing terrific work, whether it be economic analysis, investigations or intelligent sports. It’s an unexciting observation, but it’s important to underscore the uselessness of the acronym “MSM” if your media criticism is comprised solely of its flippant use.
Final complication: sometimes buried amongst the petty plotting, the planted stories and strategic leaks are the outlines of a genuinely Big Story—Labor’s leadership vote last February, for instance, that was initially dismissed by some bloggers and independent journalists as a beat-up. It’s a big ask—and much more complicated than we think—to demand journalists ignore the things that might presage a major story.
All of which is preface to this useless platitude: sometimes our frustrations with journalists are sound, sometimes they’re not. And sometimes they’re in between.
So these are some of the complications, some of the mitigating factors. Some of them, anyway.
A useful example of the contingencies and priorities that shape journalism comes, I think, in the story of Watergate. I’ve banged on about those two chaps before and, yes, it borders on obsession. Filter my words as you see fit.
But I have a theory that the success of Woodward and Bernstein—and I’ve said this before—resulted from them being young. From being outsiders. They weren’t senior enough to wander in the slipstream, which at the time was the campaign buses of the Presidential candidates. That’s where conventional wisdom decided where The Story was, but really it was at home, right under their noses in Washington DC. Woodward and Bernstein, relegated to junior desks, saw things from a very different angle, they privileged very different things. As for Woodward the elder statesman, well… [paywall].
Maybe—and it’s just a loose hunch—maybe something similar can apply to Obeid’s long and odious influence in NSW. A thought, and only that.
I’m currently working on a very long bit of journalism. A book on a murder, its thick, concentric ripples of grief and how they intersect with police, lawyers, psychiatrists and prison officers. The whole point, as I see it, is to examine institutions—their biases, their preferences—and how they make, shape and intersect with individuals.
There’s no narrative here. No cute way of tying things together. There’s just life. There’s just the work of meeting strangers and listening to them, and examining how they fit in the constellation of the justice system. It’s heavy work, but it’s satisfying.
In Grattan’s Radio National spot, I didn’t recognise the same work of tying the life of a political or government institution to the lives of voters. I didn’t see much analysis of how government departments work, or don’t work. I didn’t detect any sense of the absurd that comes from examining these things, in all of their inglorious complications and ironies. No sense of humour, no sense of wonder, no sense of the ridiculous. There was little bathos, but pathos was impossible. Instead, there were portentous accounts of individual ambition and “optics”—most of it rendered irrelevant by bloodlessness.
So, as George Megalogenis once said, over to you…