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Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 19, 2008

By Changa’s Boots

One concept that’s been picked up by US left of centre bloggers in the last little while is the Overton Window. I want to talk about it on the Possum Box because I think we can use it to think about the strategies of some of Australia’s right wing attack bloggers and columnists.

Ever since it was raised in a post on Daily Kos (which in turn was picking up on a post from a Libertarian think-tank) it’s been provoking discussion among the netroots. The basic proposition on Kos was this: while the Democrats are still playing to the essentially 1990s strategy of triangulation for the centre, Republicans and their fellow-travellers are constantly working to shift that centre by articulating extreme views that expand and change the limits of political acceptability.

Kos puts it like this:  “[The GOP] know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.” Except, as some of Kos’s correspondents point out, the GOP don’t even need to take any heat – that’s what Fox News, shock jocks, and wingnut bloggers are for. It’s a no-risk, all benefits strategy for all concerned – not least because radical positions for the “opinion leaders” of the right can be career-building, and can help to nurture a niche (albeit crackpot) audience.  It’s a long-term strategy for committed political actors who are not seeking election, wherein the electorally focused GOP become beneficiaries/patsies of their more extended, focussed policy advocacy. (Obviously, the strategy depends on policy advocacy working on the GOP, too.)

The strategy is named for one Joseph Overton, who was vice president of a conservative think-tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He was quite systematic in setting it out – his primary concern was education policy (taking down public schools and arguing for home schooling yada yada yada), but he rightly thought it was applicable to a range of issues. The continuum on which you can place any particular policy proposal, according to Overton, goes a little something like this:

* Unthinkable

* Radical

* Acceptable

* Sensible

* Popular

* Policy

By shouting long and hard enough on behalf of radical proposals, you can alter their position in the public mind. Even by proposing unacceptable proposals persistently enough, you can make slightly less extreme proposals seem moderate by comparison. Intuitively it makes sense, and it’s a useful explanatory device for the shrillness of much of the discourse in the right-wing blogosphere in the US. Voila: the culture wars in a nutshell.

How does it apply in Australia? Well, our right-wing think-tanks may be slower of wit and less weighty in terms of policy development than their US colleagues, but who needs them when you can work the Overton window in the Murdoch papers and the blogosphere? Let’s take the Bolt/Blair/Albrechtsen axis, for example. On issues like the stolen generations, climate change, feminism and the “war on terror” they articulate positions that are pretty far removed from mainstream opinion (if election results and polling are any indication). But their rhetorical style and the prominent platforms they enjoy mean that they can run lines that make slightly less OTT positions from the Liberals seem like the soul of reason.

In a variation on the Overton, they also work hard at simplifying complex debates and shift the ground in a debate. “Name just ten”, “global cooling?” and “Rudd is spin not substance” are lines they all run in various forms that aren’t just out-there death-beastery, but active distortions of the topics under discussion. They also selectively misrepresent whole categories of their opponents – academics, artists, bureaucrats, the “guilt industry”, Greens, Left-wing journalists, NGOs – by presenting radical positions taken by misguided individuals as the norm, or taking isolated remarks out of context and treating them as the core of the opposing argument.

The aim is not really to win any substantive policy debate (think of Blair’s blogging style, and you’ll realize it’s simply not geared for that purpose). Rather, the focus is smearing and discrediting opponents, throwing doubt on established premises in policy debates, shifting the goalposts through simplification, and most importantly of all, keeping the conservative base on-message. Want some examples? How about Blair’s concerted attacks on Tim Flannery? What about the daily red herrings of Bolt and Blair on climate change? Witness Bolt’s constant, simplistic demand that opponents produce people who were stolen “because they were black”. And then there’s Blair’s deployment of groupthink to whip up the “winged monkeys” into regular attacks across the blogosphere, often on bloggers who have not sought any kind of engagement with him.

The beauty of this kind of advocacy is that the columnists themselves never have to fight an election, and aren’t accountable to anyone except their employer. The consistency of their lines of attack suggests that, if there isn’t actual orchestration going on between them, their common master certainly approves of and values their lock-stepped views. Win, lose or draw for the Liberals, they can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be righties on big soap-boxes spruiking for them, and furthering their own careers in the process.

If all this is true, what should the left do?

For the Rudd government, the advice on this basis of the right’s Overton strategy would be: be bold. Seek not the centre, because it isn’t a stable target any more. Spend some political capital in an effort to seize the agenda, and benefit by isolating these people. Make the culture wars no longer worth fighting by depriving them of relevance. Do not fight on their chosen ground.

For the rest of us, perhaps the best strategy is to ignore them. Bullying tactics aside (naming anonymous bloggers, trying to make trouble for people at work, or directing the monkeys at people struggling with drug addiction), it’s all sticks and stones. I really enjoy reading blogs like The Blairboltwatch Project, but I wonder whether it institutionalizes Blair and Bolt as blogospheric voices, and risks misrepresenting their Overton-ing for serious invitations to debate. And I’m sure all of Planet Janet’s Christmases came at once when Paul Keating had a shot at her in the Oz recently. Maybe we all need to get better at practicing an aikido debating style: jump out of the maddies’ way when they attack and watch them go arse up on the other side of the room.

Seriously, though, the lesson here might be not only that we can’t win back the right-wing base through reasoned discussion, but that some right-wing commentators just aren’t seeking debate in good faith, and are just running lines in the hope that less extreme (but no less sympathetic) positions are adopted. Which side of politics heeds them probably doesn’t matter too much to them at the end of the day, but continuing apparent relevance does. The proper response is not to pander to a shifting centre, but to inspire it with good policy, clever advocacy and straight talking.

Changa’s Boots can be contacted at:

changa IatI hushmail dots com

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Posted in blogging, media | 77 Comments »

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.

Ad astra can be contacted at:

ad dots astra5 IatI bigpond dots com

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Posted in media | 42 Comments »