Dec 04 2010

A couple of years ago I watched a preview screening of “State of Play” with a fellow journalism lecturer who taught print media. Towards the end of the movie, my colleague was almost in tears. Her melancholy mood was not the result of being forced to watch Russell Crowe try to act. It came from the film’s credits, rolling over giant printing presses putting the newspaper to bed. Not so long ago, print journalists had to complete their stories in the evening, for the subeditors to lay out with photos and headlines overnight, before the paper was printed in the early hours of the morning. Online media and the 24-hour news cycle mean that those days are gone forever. As my colleague pointed out, she and I (as a radio lecturer) were teaching dying mediums.

If the events of late November and early December are anything to go by, journalism – or at least what journalism used to be – will also be a distant memory. I hate resorting to whatever words young people deem to be cool these days but I will raid their vocabulary for the two words I feel most adequately describe the reaction of the media to the actions of whistleblowing site Wikileaks. Epic fail.

One of the few bright spots in media coverage of the leaks was the Guardian, Roy Gleenslade arguing that “journalists who oppose WikiLeaks are opposed to journalism” and “deny their own trade – disclosure”. The Atlantic called the attacks on Mr Assange shameful. Others were just as erudite in expressing their sheer disgust at the behaviour of the press, such as Antony Lowenstein whose analysis of “cablegate” asked why presenters on the Australian public broadcaster were acting as mouthpieces for the US state department.

When a Canadian professor joked that Wikileaks founder and Australian citizen Julian Assange should be assassinated, the asinine response from the CBC anchor was a warning that the comments were “pretty harsh”, instead of asking, for example, whether the good professor thought killing him would stop Wikileaks & solve the problems faced by US diplomacy. At least the professor tried to qualify the statement by saying it was a joke – the Washington Times, incredibly, ran an opinion piece that seriously called for Mr Assange’s killing. University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti, herself no stranger to the inability of old media to cope with the new, reflected on Twitter that it marked an “extraordinary period of upheaval (and unhinging) in media history”.

Time magazine asked Mr Assange how he morally justified the leak of US diplomatic cables – imagine, a media outlet asking whether the world needed transparency! I wondered if their reporter kept a straight face during the interview. The normally respected Christian Science Monitor asked what Julian Assange wanted and was the subject of reader scorn when its editor dismissed the information revealed in the cables as insignificant, while simultaneously condemning the actions of Wikileaks as profound far-reaching.

By and large mainstream media missed the point. Why not ask why Wikileaks is doing what journalists are supposed to be doing? Or why US military and government security is so flawed? Or where the diplomacy of the world’s last remaining superpower went so wrong that its diplomats were asked to spy on members of the United Nations? (And while Sarah Palin blamed Obama for Wikileaks not a single journalist thought to ask, who do we blame for Sarah Palin?)

I think it is a combination of both jealousy on behalf of some media outlets that others were chosen to work with Wikileaks with early access to the cables, and severe cutbacks and changes to the way the media operates resulting in the rise of more sensationalized and light-hearted news in an attempt to stem falling audience numbers. When the quality of the coverage is this dire, is it any wonder that reader and listener numbers are haemorrhaging, and audiences baulk at paying for content?