Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.
Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2011.
We have just witnessed the most abysmal reporting of a Federal Budget by a vast proportion of the Australian media.
There were, as always, high quality journalists doing high quality work; but much of the reporting in the newspapers, TV and radio, was so far removed from the reality of the budget (and the mostly favourable view of the economic analysts) that you may have wondered if those journalists, and the media outlets for which they work, were stationed on one of the four planets (Venus, Jupiter, Mercury or Mars) that were aligned in orbit around the Sun.
Every measured analysis of the budget found that it was very sensible and highly restrained, but there was nothing sensible or restrained in the sensationalised media reporting of it.
As for the media fascination and sheer delight over Wayne Swan's breaking of the glass, you would have been forgiven for believing that the Australian media was reporting on a traditional Jewish wedding (see reference here).
The sideshow is indeed alive and well, and coming to a venue near you, cue "Being for the benefit of Mr Kite" YouTube link: here.
The media loves to continually set 'tests' for politicians to pass; how well did the media perform in its reporting of the budget?
The journalist's test: Jim Lehrer, December 4, 2009.
Highly respected US journalist and broadcaster, Jim Lehrer, detailed his guidelines for what he called MacNeil/Lehrer journalism.
You can see him present them on this YouTube link: here.
This is the transcript:
"People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism. Well, yes there are, and here they are:
* Do nothing I cannot defend.
* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.
* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
* Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.
* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.
* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.
* And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.
The grade for the budget reporting for most of the Australian media, according to these criteria, was poor.
In fact, the grade for most of the reporting from too many members of the media on all issues, according to these criteria, is poor.
The President's test: John F. Kennedy April 20, 1961.
On the 20th of April 1961, President John F. Kennedy said in an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:
"The President of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors of great newspapers such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective."
Placing this quote into the current Australian context, it would read:
"The Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and all politicians of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors, news directors, news producers, and other members of the print, radio, television and on-line media of great media outlets such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective."
How did the media coverage of the budget score according to these criteria?
On "present the facts" - poor. On "present them with candour" - poor. On "present them in perspective" - poor.
The public reaction to the budget.
The basic thrust of much of the reporting on the budget was that it would destroy your life, as you now know it. Is it any wonder then, considering how hostile the coverage was, that the public reaction to it was so lukewarm?
If you provide enough misinformation to people (especially when it is cloaked in the respectability of journalistic research) they will only believe what they have been told, irrespective of what is true.
As Socrates explained in his defence at his trial on trumped up charges of "corrupting the youth and impiety" in 399 BC:
"How you have felt, O men of Athens, at hearing the speeches of my accusers, I cannot tell; but I know their persuasive words almost made me forget who I was - such was the effect of them; and yet they have hardly spoken a word of truth."
Newspoll's survey of 1201 people conducted from May 13 to 15, found in response to the question:
"Do you believe the budget will be good or bad for the Australian economy?"
37 per cent thought that it was good, 32 per cent thought that it was bad - a 5 per cent net positive.
Compare this with the results from the last Howard Government budget in 2007, when the media coverage was almost universally glowing and, in many cases, fawning.
In response to the same question, Newspoll found:
60 per cent thought it was good, 12 per cent thought it was bad - a 48 per cent net positive.
While some may argue that the public's lukewarm reaction to this year's budget is just a reflection of a government 'on the nose', one which was trailing the Opposition 53 per cent to 47 per cent on Newspoll's two party preferred estimate (last poll prior to the budget); remember the Howard Government was in a much worse position, trailing the ALP Opposition by 57 per cent to 43 per cent on Newspoll's two party preferred estimate (last poll prior to the 2007 budget).
Others may argue that the last Howard Government budget was a brilliant one and that is why it rated so highly with the public. But the reality was that many economists were critical of its expansionary nature at a time of strong growth in what was seen to be a profligate vote buying exercise. An analysis that was subsequently proven to be correct.
No, it was the media coverage that played a significant role in the public's response to this year's budget, as it did in 2007.
As good as it gets: Edward R. Murrow, March 9, 1954.
Edward R. Murrow is highly regarded as one of the best journalists and broadcasters of all time.
Watch this famous broadcast of him on his television program "See It Now" when he took to task Senator Joseph McCarthy and his hysterical fear campaign and "witch hunts" for communist infiltrators in the US.
YouTube link: here.
This is as good as it gets from a journalist.
What we saw in much of the coverage of the budget was about as bad as it gets.
Good night and good luck.