Sunday, February 03, 2013

To John Birmingham: A ‘bottom feeder of the Web’ responds

“Rather than bitching and moaning about the bottom feeders on the web stealing all our best stuff we should seriously think about stealing theirs. Or, here’s a radical suggestion, even paying them for it”,  writes John Birmingham.

I might take exception to being included among his hyperbolic “bottom feeders” tag, since I have certain bits of expertise beyond being an efficient word-assembly machine, but I’m familiar with Birmo’s diction, so I'm not actually offended.

Instead, I’ll give him four reasons why his suggestion won’t go anywhere.

1.    Publishers don’t want to pay

Well, you might argue that there isn’t the money around for such things.

But a publisher torn between a decent analysis of a difficult technical subject and a three-day Canberra correspondent wet-dream over a poll that’s within the margin of error and, oh, a good analysis of technical data? The poll wins.

Actually, your editor probably can’t even put an accurate value on technical expertise, in an editorial sense. He or she lives in a world where photography is being outsourced to your readers – “join the community! Send us your pics for free!”

The editors can just about grasp that a high-profile economist or demographer is worth money, but why pay (say) $100 an hour for someone who understands the NBN when you can get forty-seven opinions for free? When it takes five minutes of a journalist's time to play the fake-balance game on topics they know little about?

2.    Media don’t want to listen

The best way to publicise a half-truth about technology is to give some kind of exclusive to a mainstream newspaper. I still have traumatic memories of trying to explain to one of Australia’s most respected business columnists that light and electricity do not interfere with each other – and failing entirely.

If anyone on the Sydney Morning Herald’s business or sports desks – and anyone at all over at the Australian Financial Review – had cared about facts at the appropriate time, the FirePower scandal would never have happened. It’s like that, really: once your colleagues are convinced they have the inside information, telling them they might be wrong is a waste of time.

Even easily discoverable facts - such as "no, cybercrime is not a bigger business than drugs" - is ignored in favour of a quote. "Is what he said true?" an outsider might ask. "Not my position to judge", the journalist responds, "It's true that he said it."

3.    Why would an expert want a public mauling?

Imagine, Birmo, that I’m an expert – I mean a deep, serious expert who has put years into a subject – on something like telecommunications technology or climate change. Now, ask me to drop myself into a contentious debate, for (frankly) low pay.

Do you remember a couple of Southern Cross University scientists that took measurements of fugitive emissions from coal seam gas facilities? Let me remind you. Dr Damien Maher and Dr Isaac Santos measured fugitive emissions around coal seam gas facilities in Queensland, and put that data in front of a government inquiry (the submission is here as a pdf:

They caught merry hell for it – from Martin Ferguson (who isn’t a scientist), from industry lobbies (whose objectivity has to be questioned), and even from the Australian Science Media Centre.

And that’s not to mention what happens to an expert if the foam-flecked screaming morons of the far right decide to form an attack pack to bring someone down. Some people seem resilient to this – Tim Flannery for example – but how many experts on any topic want threats and insults?

4.    Who's the expert anyhow?

See, there are plenty of people who pick over this stuff out there on the Web. There is also a near-infinite number of fools, fruits, quacks and crackpots.

The Sydney Morning Herald is currently promoting a "documentary" from 9-11 "truthers". If I took an expert in turd-dropping to the editor who picked that one, and my expert dropped a turd in the editor's coffee-cup, the editor would probably still have trouble recognising the expert's credentials. There would at least be a demand that someone call Ian Plimer to get a dissenting point of view.

I love the idea of introducing facts to the debate, John. Really, I do. You go and convince your editors that they need facts, and I'll happily point you to people who understand them. Sadly, I don't think it's going to happen.


Unknown said...

Hi Richard,
From a lesser mortal your post would come across as cynical but you have provided a clear and concise summation of today's media and societal shortcomings.
Great read! Thanks to JB for leading #The10000 here.

Michael barnes said...

But it would be a better world if what JB proposed would happen.