The Sizzle and the Sausage

Is the public debate underpinned by quality journalism or is it dumbing down?

In the course of a discussion of a related matter a retired public servant commented to me:

              ‘Communications/Public Relations people are, in my view, overvalued in the public service. They wield a huge amount of power - and are very generously paid. They constantly seek “status” and have achieved great success in this respect (no doubt through using their PR “skills”).

              ‘It used to astound us what the PR people got away with. They could do no wrong. Even in those days, they were (increasingly) controlling information flows to the public - and all media requests. Managers (particularly middle-mangers like me) found themselves becoming increasingly powerless and frustrated. The PR people were quick to jump on us if we spoke to the media or any outsiders, without involving PR.

              ‘At one stage, we had two PR people working full-time in our tiny division. Neither was competent to write press releases about the higher-level policy stuff we were putting out. What they wrote was often rubbish (i.e. incorrect/misleading/superficial) with the key messages that we wanted to get across being omitted - but I always had a fight on my hands to get them to rewrite the stuff. Talk about ‘dumbing things down’: it was worse than that.’

No doubt the PR community would argue that middle-level managers cannot be trusted in public, although that suggests media training, not overriding and suppression. It is true that experts often have to struggle to get the nuances of their subject across. But that is no reason to abandon the effort. Those working in communications need to be on tap not on top – just like experts.

Although I have not worked in the public service in the way my friend has, what is described resonates with me in other venues. For instance, I frequently read published handouts from universities extolling some research project. No doubt the researchers cringe at the superficiality (except for the unspoken last paragraph that they need more funding).

PR people are usually ex-journalists; journalism is beset by the same problems. Indeed there are business journalists I do not bother to read. To put it more positively, some I do.

Like Brian Fallow, who writes for the New Zealand Herald. What distinguishes him from many of his colleagues is that he has the time – he writes one column a week – to prepare himself with a lot of background reading and consultation, and he is not beholden to any pressure group. He is also usually accurate. He knows that his quality gives him an informed readership. 

In contrast, when I was writing economics columns for The Listener it also commissioned feature articles on the economy. Economists would often stop me on the street complaining about their errors (much more rarely they would say the same about my columns). I would explain I had nothing to do with the feature; that it was supervised by editors and subeditors who were not sensitive to or competent about the issues the complainants identified.

As an aside, I have recently been rereading Jane Austen. It would be unreasonable to expect journalists to write with her fluency, style and wit but I am struck that she navigates the distinction between income and wealth with a precision which business journalists frequently do not.

Unfortunately, poor business writing sets a low standard for the rest of the commentariat, many of whom are even more into the clickbait game of an hysterical headline. This is not peculiar to economics. I am not a medical expert; I do teach health economics and have published in the area – and I consult experts. But I think I can identify healthcare quackery; much journalism does not seem to be able to, although the use of ‘may’ and ‘could’ in the promises of efficacy of new spectacular treatments perhaps indicate the writers are not without shame. (Those writing the clickbait are less so.) As in economics, one comes across too many articles written by inexperts who have not grasped the central issues. On the other hand there are sometimes exceptions. For a forensic demonstration of some of the stupidity on cancer commentary read Jeremy Rose here. Sadly not enough of the media watch Radio New Zealand’s excellent Mediawatch program.

So we are slipping into a world dominated by communications sizzle rather than any sausage. The obvious example is Donald Trump’s tweets which well illustrate the points made above. No matter how much you rant against him he is not an outlier; he is in the extremity of an uncomfortable continuum,. I am particularly struck by his lack of memory; we are the same – how many times each week does one see the promise of a cure for cancer?

What is sobering is that the US has some very fine journalism enriched by the resources to do a story properly and with a sceptical deference to the critics. But their best efforts seem not to have restrained Trump. It is almost as if America consists of two peoples talking different languages.

I do not think New Zealand has quite got to that stage but it is drifting that way. Consider the strange story of Rachel Stewart, a New Zealand Herald. columnist who tweeted in August 2018 ‘I’m confident that John Wilson [who had just resigned as chairman of Fonterra for health reasons] is in fine fettle and his “health scare” was an excuse to slip quietly out the back door of Fonterra. Can anyone prove me wrong?’

John Wilson did, by dying a month ago. A normal human being would be mortified by making such a mistake, ashamed to have so misled her readers and embarrassed to have added to the family distress. Stewart’s response was Trumpian. ‘Turns out John wasn’t in fine fettle’ – but neither was Fonterra at the time. Before his deification gathers full steam, who do I make an unreserved apology to?’ She remains ungraciously on the Herald’s books, despite not knowing the elementary journalistic ethic that she should apologise to her readers and Wilson’s family.

Or consider the bizarre National Party advertisement, about the government’s housing policy being all sizzle. It was sizzle itself. My point is not that the government’s housing policy is a lot of sausage; a careful review is at least a column in length based on a lot of reading and consultation. But did anyone making the advert notice the irony of a sizzling accusation of someone else’s sizzling?

Recall the prime minister who was persuaded by his PR team to make an ass of himself by announcing the government would halve unemployment although – as OIA requests revealed – there was not a single paper discussing whether this was feasible or how it could be done. The PM’s tenure was short, but no doubt his communications advisers went onto stellar careers.

PR is not policy even if it can be used to avoid having one. A clever press release may delay the real story, often making the outcome worse. There are still those who, unlike Trump, do not forget when the true story turns up.

There are some good journalists and, no doubt, there are some first class communications advisers. But both groups are working in an environment undermining their profession’s standards.