It is common enough knowledge that most television news readers are too stupid to spell their own name. The pretence has long dropped that these plastic-faced suits are actually journalists rather than trained monkeys reciting what they see off the teleprompter before them. Is it not curious then that we give any regard whatsoever to what they say? Is it not a peculiar piece of social conditioning that the sight of a statesmen-like male and an attractive female behind a news desk acts as such a powerful signifier (to borrow a term from semiotics)? Why is it that information received in this manner is somehow ‘the news’ and not merely gossip, opinion or propaganda?
If a person walks into a shop they may ask the sales assistant’s opinion on a certain product. How is this information processed? Is it not with a due sense of caution and scepticism? With the exception perhaps of the most apathetic, the sales assistant will endorse all the store’s products with particular emphasis on the most expensive items. They have an agenda. It is in their interest to present the products in a positive light. As consumers, we are sensitive to this fact and interpret the information accordingly. How much more does this apply to a car salesperson or a real estate agent? With large commissions on the line we know ‘the news’ presented comes from a source with an agenda.
The news readers we see on television also have an agenda. It is in their interest to communicate the information presented for them as though it were complete, accurate, unbiased and the full story. They are paid huge wages not to think but to parrot. Channel Ten’s Sandra Sully and Seven’s Chris Bath ‘earn’ a quarter of a million dollars per year for their robotic soliloquies. Typical of the gender wage bias, Nine’s Mark Ferguson earns twice as much with Seven’s Ian Ross earning double again (i.e a million dollars a year to read the teleprompter and then symbolically shuffle some papers as the camera fades out). These wages are clearly not for the job they do but rather the image they provide. Ian Ross, so it would seem, more than anyone in Australia holds all the signifiers to project wisdom, truthfulness and impartiality. More than anyone else, what he says will be believed, will be ‘the news.’
So why do we believe anything the news readers say? We know they have been, and still are, nothing more than the chosen mouthpiece of men like Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, Kerry Packer and, the emperor, Rupert Murdoch (according to Michael Wolf, ‘the man to blame for the idiotic hodgepodge we call a modern media company’). We know they will reduce complex politics of the day to ten second sound bites. We know for every second of interview footage included, hours have been edited out. We know as the news reader rattles on about royal visits, fun runs and pregnant/anorexic/married/divorced celebrities that entire wars are going unreported. And yet, can we reasonably expect anything more?
In the strictest sense of the word, no person and certainly no news team can be unbiased. The human adult brain comes fully equipped with cultural, social, ethnic and religious prejudice. We all live our lives by certain maxims and view our world through various epistemological prisms. Throw into that mix our learned priorities and developed preferences and it becomes rather irrational to claim neutrality or impartiality in any grand narrative sense. And this is presuming the news reader (or whoever it may be) even seeks to be those things. If we consider also that every major television network has enormous business and political agendas and that some people will purposely set out to deceive, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe anything at all.
John Lennon famously sang, ‘I’m sick and tired of hearing things from uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypo-critics. All I want is the truth.’ Centuries earlier Pontius Pilate, while deciding what to do with a troublesome carpenter, openly mused, ‘what is truth?’ Perhaps the X Files was wrong, the truth isn’t out there. Perhaps we need accept that all news is biased in one way or another and it is up to us to play the game of the free market and find the truth we like best. I’m not at all suggesting that truth does not exist as a philosophical category. That is a debate for another day. When it comes to ‘the news’, however, where a television network decides not only how to present information but what information to present, the concept of truth, even of facts, becomes subjective and relativised.
Canadian Journalist Alexandra Kitty perhaps felt she was opening our eyes to a shocking truth in 2005 when she released ‘Don’t Believe It!: How Lies Become the News,’ and the companion book to the documentary, ‘Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.’ If we are honest though, she is only stating what deep down we already know. The left-wing of politics decry the audacity of Fox News’ sloganeering boast, ‘fair and balanced.’ If you are someone who agrees with the general political stance of Fox News, however, is this not true? As Shakespeare’s troubled prince of Denmark once quipped, ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
Are there any objective ways to measure the quality of news? Well yes (to a degree at least). Could ‘the news’ in Australia be improved? Absolutely! Be that as it may, we do not live in North Korea with only state approved media available to us. We live in a democracy and, particularly through the internet, we have access to a wealth of information, views and opinions. We are free to seek out the blogs, op-eds, commentators and contrarians which appeal to us. We are well able to source out ‘the news’ which fits best into our worldview.
Why do we treat news readers as impartial sources of information? It is a willing suspension of disbelief. We like to pretend they are.