Is the media in Australia suffering from groupthink?
Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 14, 2008
By Ad astra
‘Groupthink’ is described by Irving Janis as “A mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
Recurrent themes in the Australian media suggest that groupthink is alive and well among political journalists. Here are some examples.
‘Narrative’ has become a buzz word. When Glen Milne first used the word some time ago on Insiders, he seemed very pleased that he’d discovered a fashionable new word he could use. Now many columnists accuse the Government of not having, or not stating a narrative or story that portrays its plans and aspirations. No one has defined what such a ‘narrative’ should look like, or what it might contain. The plans and fiscal policies detailed in the recent budget seemingly do not count as ‘narrative’ although they describe short, medium and long terms plans and how they are to be processed and funded. What the columnists have in mind is a mystery, but they enjoy using the word in a pseudo-authoritative way. Perhaps one day mere mortals will discover their meaning, if indeed they have any common understanding of the word. Is the widespread use of ‘narrative’ a manifestation of groupthink?
Another idea that has gained currency is that Kevin Rudd and his Government manifest “more symbolism than substance”. This has been purveyed by the Opposition and has been taken up by many journalists. Where is the supporting evidence? There has been symbolism, important symbolism, for example in signing Kyoto and saying ‘Sorry’, but that has been accompanied by substance in the form of numerous announcements and parliamentary bills, so much so that the Opposition is protesting that there are too many bills to pass in the time provided. It’s hard to see how it can be argued that there is little substance, yet complain in this way. So is it media groupthink that perpetuates what appears to be a myth? Is it a handy catchphrase without much substance itself?
A related term is ‘stunt’. The Opposition has often accused Kevin Rudd and his Government of stunts. The term is now frequently used in the media. Alexander Downer proclaimed the call for an Asia Pacific Community a stunt, although in the same breath, he said it was a good idea. Already this is being echoed in the media. Greg Sheridan uses the less offensive term ‘half-baked’ to describe this and other recent foreign policy initiatives. ‘Policy on the run’ is a similar phrase used by politicians, now the stock in trade of almost every journalist.
Possum Comitatus points out the frequency with which ‘political crisis’ is used in political commentaries. ‘Crisis’ means ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger’, ‘a turning point that defines recovery or death’. ‘Disaster’ is a commonly used alternative. But why not use ‘problem’, ‘predicament’, ‘difficulty’ ‘dilemma’ or ‘quandary’? Not dramatic enough, I expect. Groupthink demands no deviation from a common position, but a more extreme manifestation of it is acceptable. Columnists do not enjoy being outdone, so exaggerated language is the norm.
‘Honeymoon’ is another word that flows from many a columnist. Dennis Shanahan looks longingly for its disappearance in almost every column he writes. He has many fellow-travellers. They believe that newly-elected governments enjoy a period when the members of the public have honeymooners’ stardust in their eyes and can see no fault, but that disenchantment soon sets in and appeal fades. This distorts the metaphor. How many honeymoons quickly deteriorate into disillusionment? Some do, but most settle into a comfortable relationship that lasts for years, sometimes a lifetime. After only six months, do they expect a surge of those who voted Labor to believe they’ve made a terrible mistake and reflect their disillusionment starkly in the opinion polls? That hasn’t happened; few marriages evolve that way. So why do so many journalists persist with the concept of a ‘honeymoon’? Is this another example of groupthink?
‘Control freak’ is a term used to describe Kevin Rudd. Andrew Bolt labours this term incessantly. ‘Kevin24/7’ is an accompanying term used to describe a manic approach to work. These terms have been picked up by many journalists and joined to stories of overworking the public service, undervaluing their advice, and exercising power plays over them. No doubt there is some truth in this, but the manner in which these sentiments have been slavishly replicated by many journalists suggest groupthink is operating.
The appraisal by journalists of the performance of Government members in parliament seems too to be another example of groupthink. Peter Costello was classed by many commentators as ‘a stellar performer’ in Parliament. They saw his sarcastic, voluble, and at times raucous utterances that ridiculed the Opposition as humorous and politically telling, performances that many ordinary citizens found repugnant. The new Government is said to be unable to match him. Groupthink has many columnists now riding along with this, asserting that the Government is not ‘cutting through’.
Journalistic responses to the June 3 Newspoll provide another example of groupthink. Although the two party preferred figures were the same as in the two previous polls, much more was made by Dennis Shanahan of changes in the preferred PM and satisfaction/dissatisfaction figures. Several columnists, and radio and TV news bulletins picked up on this aspect, hardly mentioning the static 2PP figures.
Thanks to groupthink, the ‘can you guarantee’ syndrome has taken hold. Tony Jones is the master of this approach, which seeks to corner politicians into saying something most sensibly refuse to do. There are few iron-clad guarantees in politics, yet although Tony knows this he persists ad nauseam hoping the interviewee will break. Kerry O’Brien, Laurie Oakes and John Faine too are connoisseurs of this technique.
Media groupthink now seems to be moving towards belittling Kevin Rudd and his Government, reinforcing the approach of the Opposition. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the ‘tall poppy syndrome’; Kevin Rudd has had it so good for so long, it’s time to cut him and his Government down to size. Journalist after journalist now insist ‘the wheels are falling off’. What value do they see in demeaning a Government that has two and a half years to run, elected convincingly by the people just six-months ago? What value is it to the Australian public to thwart the Government’s agenda? Do they do this because groupthink is inherently unthinking?
The ‘news’ for newspapers, TV and radio furnished by ‘video news release suppliers’, a phenomenon labelled ‘churnalism’, sounds like marketed groupthink. Rather than passing from journalist to journalist, material passes pre-packaged with little journalistic input.
Possum Comitatus points to groupthink when he describes a “…world of the Opinionatas – a sort of deafening echo chamber of electoral ignorance and lemming like commentary.” We saw a classic example of that recently over the subsidy to Toyota to build a hybrid car. A piece in The Age was changed in a matter of hours to bring it into line with a contrary piece that appeared in The Australian which confidently asserted that the car would have been built without a subsidy. Now of course The Australian has recanted this in a page four ‘correction’.
Groupthink is usually seen in cohesive groups. It could be argued that members of the media, and in particular the Press Gallery, do not constitute a cohesive group, as they come from a variety of media outlets. Yet they work together, they read or watch each other’s work, they appear together on programs such as Insiders and Meet the Press, and they socialize together. Few of them seem to be willing to be the ‘odd man out’. Even journalists that are generally considered fair-minded are sometimes induced to join the pack on contentious issues. Very few are willing to express a view that differs substantially from the mainstream. David Marr, George Megalogenus, Brian Toohey and Laura Tingle are examples of such fiercely independent journalists that spring to mind. Most of the rest prefer to fall in with the crowd.
The result is media of indifferent quality, which generally follows the leader in promulgating facts that are often inaccurate or distorted, embraces fashionable concepts and buzz words, and indulges in ‘copy-cat’ commentary that does little to inform or enlighten. Perhaps the only reassuring aspect of this lamentable state of affairs is that so many of the voting public let most media offerings pass harmlessly over their heads.
Many in the media abuse the power inherent in the journalistic pen. Where have objective, informed, balanced reporting and commenting gone? Often the two are confused as journalists seek to promulgate their views rather than the facts. It’s a pity that the small coterie of good quality journalists is diluted by such a motley collection of writers of indifferent, and in many instances, low standard. Groupthink seems to be the genesis of much of the pathology they exhibit.
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