Market research vs news

The ABC has been exhaustively criticised in The Australian for failing to “reflect the mainstream”, both in staff culture and broadcast content. This implies that journalists should be demographically average, and that news and opinion should be shaped by statistics about what the public already knows and believes, rather than considerations like accuracy, rigour, importance or morality. That’s market research, not news.

Genetically engineering the media

Tim Groseclose, author of “Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind”, offers a solution of sorts to what we are frequently told in The Australian’s opinion pages is a problem with ABC bias.

In an interview on the Freakonomics website, Groseclose ascribes such bias to “something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to pursue careers like journalism”. He adds that a media proprietor can “counteract this by trying to hire more conservatives, but he will have a hard time trying to find conservatives who want to be journalists. He’ll either have to pay conservative journalists more or be willing to hire conservative journalists who are not as good at reporting as liberal journalists”. A kind of genetic engineering, if you will.

So the ABC could solve its “problem”, as The Australian presumably has already, by raising costs or lowering standards. I prefer the problem to the solution.

Guilt by association, once removed

Brenton Minge (The Australian, Letters, 24/12) attempts guilt by association, once removed, outlandishly dismissing the ABC’s broadcast partner Al Jazeera as “Osama bin Laden’s broadcaster of choice”. Minge should try not to be put off by its scary Arabic name, as Al Jazeera is in fact a highly esteemed broadcaster whose reputation is growing rapidly, in the words of Hilary Clinton, “because it’s real news…instead of a million commercials and…arguments between talking heads…which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners”. We would know a great deal less about the Arab Spring without Al Jazeera and the ABC’s partnership with it.

Market research vs science

Christopher Pearson (“Climate lunacy rules at Aunty”, The Australian, 22/12) ascribes three great historical evils to a lack of faith in God: Nazism, Soviet Communism and belief in global warming. Seriously.

Be that as it may, Pearson observes that “popular support for measures supposed to combat global warming has waned” but that “journalists and public intellectuals who embraced the cause…haven’t seen the need to express any reservation”. For this he offers two explanations: they fear “professional embarrassment”, or they have “surrendered themselves to a cult”.

But Pearson has overlooked a third possibility: perhaps they form their opinions on matters of science by listening to scientists rather than opinion polls.

Eyebrow test

Nick Cater (“Our cash pays for the ABC’s comment”, The Australian, 22/12) coins the term “Ultimo Spring” to describe what we are told is a spontaneous “public uprising” against the tyranny of left-wing slant at the ABC, albeit mostly confined to The Australian’s opinion pages, which Cater edits.

We learn of an insidious form of this oppression imposed by the angle of a presenter’s eyebrow, which conveys imbalance even when “the transcript offers no evidence of bias”. Cater insists that the ABC alone must pass this “eyebrow test”, because some “paying customers” prefer them horizontal.

But I also contribute to commercial media advertising revenue every time I pass through a checkout, and I can’t change that even by voting. I therefore demand that all the Australian’s journalists keep their eyebrows directly above their eyes at all times.

Henningham misrepresented

The IPA’s Andrew McIntyre (“For normal viewing lean left”, The Australian, 20/12) resorts to cherry-picking and misrepresentation to confabulate hard evidence of ABC left-wing bias.

He cites the thirty-year old Dix Report, which refers only to the “range of viewpoints”, not any particular bias. He similarly misrepresents Professor John Henningham’s studies, which show an unsurprising progressive leaning amongst journalists as a whole. McIntyre cunningly implies that this referred to the ABC in particular by interspersing his own comments about the ABC amongst Henningham’s findings. Henningham did find a perception of ABC bias among journalists, but other studies of actual published bias, which McIntyre prefers to ignore, do not find any.

McIntyre lists half a dozen conservative pet issues that the ABC does not treat as he would like, daring them to cover “mainstream ideas”. I have some (unbiased) news for him: the economic libertarian ideas of the IPA are not mainstream in Australia.

Knee-slappingly hilarious

So, The Australian, let’s get this straight: when scientist Robyn Williams somewhat melodramatically refers to paedophilia as a measure of his frustration with anti-science, this is a grave affront, but when puff-piece writer James Delingpole (“Where free speech is dead as the dodo”, 21/12) does precisely the same thing in the name of precisely the same anti-science, this is knee-slappingly hilarious and any criticism of it is an assault on free speech. Just so we’re clear.

Sideshow

Maurice Newman (“ABC clique in control of climate”, The Australian, 18/12), falls prey to the fallacy of the middle by concluding that simply because a contrary position regarding climate science exists in any form, it warrants equal consideration by the ABC or any other media.

His assertion that “[g]lobal warming is today more about politics than it is about science” is only true in the political realm. There is a minor scientific controversy about the extent of AGW, which the ABC accurately reports. Also duly noted by the ABC is the attendant political controversy, a nonsensical sideshow which is inimical to science, fomented largely through astroturfing by non-scientific groups. Conservatives like Newman mistakenly perceive AGW as a left-wing phenomenon, the idea of which ipso facto must be opposed, and duly join the meaningless fray. Some on the Left make the converse error, with equal irrelevancy to AGW and how it should be reported.

Newman undermines his own argument by quoting the requirements of the ABC’s editorial policies that “no significant strand or belief is…disproportionately represented” and for “a balance that follows the weight of evidence”. Neither the ABC nor any other responsible media is obliged to grant the anti-AGW publicity machine the exposure it demands, rather than that which it deserves.

Howard couldn’t find it either

Grant King (“ABC bias is hard to see from within the organisation”, The Australian,  Letters, 17/12) is wrong to suggest that it is only internal investigations which have failed to find bias at the ABC. For example, Gans and Leigh (2007) analysed multiple news services over several years, finding only very slight bias on ABC TV – toward the Coalition.

More tellingly, even the Howard Government’s Mansfield review could find no such bias. Of course, this did not budge their preconception that it existed, nor prevent them from breaking an election promise with vengeful cuts and disastrous interference. Like those letter-writers and columnists in The Australian that are “generally agreed” with King, they did not let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Astroturfing hypocrisy

It is apparent to many readers that The Australian bolsters its own ideological narratives by selecting letters for publication almost entirely supporting its editorial line, even resorting to putting some letter-writers on high rotation. This creates a false impression of grass-roots support, and is an example of what is known as astroturfing.

Given that recent spampaigns included alleged bias at the ABC, academic freedom issues at Sydney University and free speech concerns around anti-discrimination law, this shows jaw-dropping hypocrisy.