Sunday, December 16, 2012

Remember Smith’s Weekly? (I don’t): the lesson for “player journalism”

While I endorse much of what Drag0nista says in this blog post, I disagree with one piece of her argument: that the player journalist looks like a recent development.

Somewhere in this book-burdened household, in which nearly two dozen shelves groan and the books that don’t fit sit on stacks on floors or tables, there is a book called “Remember Smith’s Weekly?” It’s a chronicle of the rise and fall of a patriotic tabloid of mid-20th century Australia.

Among other things, it’s a rag that helped establish the Packer dynasty. But that’s not germane to this argument.

The chronicler in “Remember Smith’s Weekly” recounted its role as a player tabloid in a much more racist pre-war Australia, campaigning against Jews. I recall a cartoon whose captions read:

“May I remove my bicycle before we burn the shop, father?”

“No, son! We must be honest!”

…which was a typical racist “Jews as insurance fraudsters”

The historian telling the tale, one G Blackie of whom I know little, considered the anti-Jew campaigning of Smith’s Weekly to be important in its downfall: its attitudes were hateful during the lead-up to World War II, and during the War.

But it retained some shred of integrity: when the horror of the Holocaust emerged, Smith’s Weekly retracted.

That retraction put the magazine on the skids, and in 1950, it closed.

Pre-war, Smith’s – like many organs today – was a player. Its favoured venue was the immigration debate, its obsession “keep out Jews”. And its lessons are drear.

If you admit error, you alienate readers, and die.

What does this tell us about today’s “player journalists”? – the ones who believe their commentary agendas are right in spite of any evidence that they’re wrong?

Their bosses have learned Smith’s lesson. Never stop, never pull back, never retreat a step. If you do, the readers that believed you last week will hate you, and leave.

The problem for publishing, an activity distinct from journalism, is this: when you’re constantly acting like a complete idiot in public, your responses to a reader exodus are limited.

Look back at Smith’s: one part of its readership started drifting away when they resented its attitudes; the rest drifted away when it admitted to undeniable facts.

And now look at the vice that Fairfax and News have devised for themselves: on the one hand, readers departing because they resent the denial of facts; on the other, the inevitable loss of readers when facts will no longer be denied.

It’s a vice unique to the “player”. If you merely write facts, you won’t be burned this way. It’s when you decide that you no longer want the world of reality-based constructs, but want to – as a journalist – create your own reality, that the bill arrives, and you find that you can’t pay it.

Remember Smith’s Weekly?

The only way a journalist can RISK becoming a "player" is to know that ALL his/her facts are right. Because the player-proved-wrong is merely a dupe of others.

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