In a news week chock full of the Orange God King’s batwinged MAGA monkeys sweeping down from blood red skies full of robot dinosaurs to snatch away the results of the US election, the ABC quietly tweaked two small editorial guidelines. In the first instance, Mark Maley, the ABC’s manager of editorial policy, having banned the use of the word ‘insurrection’ to describe the massive and deadly insurrection of January 6, conceded couple of days later that maybe there was something to this insurrection thing.
Perhaps it was the memo signed by the US Joints Chiefs of Staff that described the Trump family’s attempted coup and storming of the Capitol as “violence, sedition and insurrection”.
So ABC reporters were now free to report that some peeps thought there was a bit of insurrection getting about. But only so long as they balanced this dangerous outbreak of truthiness with appropriate counterclaims from the insurrection lobby that everything was very cool and very legal and not even a little bit seditious.
At the same time as deranged mobs of QAnon jihadists were beating a cop to death with flagpoles and a fire extinguisher, Craig Kelly, failed furniture wholesaler and the Liberal Party’s in-house juju shaman, was all over the Book of Face talking up the internet’s latest bullshit COVID cures and conspiracies.
Kelly didn’t quite get all the way to penis leaches, ear-candling and aromatherapy enemas as alternatives to a national vaccination program, but then again it’s only January.
The ABC, meanwhile, described Kelly’s unhinged nuttery as promoting “unofficial information”.
After the Commonwealth CMO more accurately described the failed furniture importer’s immunological douche-waffling as reckless, irresponsible, misleading and dangerous, the national broadcaster finally refashioned Kelly as a supplier of “misleading coronavirus information”.
The problem of course, is the use of the word “information”. And, to be honest, “misleading.”
What Kelly was publishing wasn’t “information”. It was the informational equivalent of dropping a burning bag full of explosive dog turds into the public discourse. And it wasn’t just misleading. It was a straight up lie – treacherous and potentially lethal, were it have any effect on either government policy or individual decision-making.
People like Kelly, acting either in bad faith or simply from life-threatening stupidity, do play one useful role. They remind those us in the media that two of our core organising principles—truth and balance—do not just exist in tension with each other. Increasingly they are mutually exclusive.
It’s a big prob, mates.
The idea that being ‘fair and balanced’ means getting all sides of a story, ignores the fact that sometimes there aren’t two or more sides. Sometimes, there is simply The Story, and there are those whose interests are served not simply by denying The Story, but by negating it, entirely.
Climate change is the obvious example. What scientific conflict exists over anthropomorphic climate change is a matter of reasoned argument within an accepted reality. We’re all going to die if we don’t get this right - but we can disagree in good faith over whether we’re more likely to die screaming in a mega-fire, or thrashing about in the floodwaters of our rapidly rising oceans. (Just as we can disagree over the best balance of technology, taxation and legislation to speed up our response).
What we can’t disagree over is whether it’s actually happening, because that will totes kill us all.
And yet, the conventional model of a ‘fair and balanced’ reporting requires media outlets like the ABC to support the pretence of there being legitimate disagreement where none exists.
The preferencing of balance over truth eventually ends in blood and horror, as it did in Washington last week, and as it will in thousands of soiled ICU beds across that country today, tomorrow and well into the foreseeable future of the pandemic.
COVID-19, even more so than the mass hysteria of the Deplorable Coup, exposes the vulnerability of the human mind, both individually and collectively, to wilful self-harm.
On November 14 for instance, a South Dakota nurse, Jodi Doering, penned a viral Twitter thread about her experience treating COVID patients who insisted the virus was a hoax. “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real,’” she told CNN, “and when they should be FaceTiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred.”
Even the evidence of their disintegrating bodies, crawling with the virus, hacked up in explosive eruptions of infected lung tissue, was not enough to shake their belief that the virus was a hoax because their Orange God King told them so.
This video report on the crowd who stormed the US capitol last week is instructive, because those speaking to camera all have the same vacant yet intense stare of the fantastically deranged. They have stepped through a portal into a different reality. They exist in another world.
The broken model of a failing content business isn’t the only sorrow in the world, of course. It took a long time to get here, and the paths were many.
But the democratic experiment cannot work without an agreement on a base reality, the stewardship of which we can then disagree about. Those wild-eyed Trumpanistas, working themselves into a killing rage in that video, the dying men and women spitting hatred, blood and mucous at their medical carers in the ICU, that could be all of our future, all of the time
And one way we get there faster is by professional journalists pretending that the lies they’re reporting are just one side of an argument.