The US election proved how meek Australian media is (also: Scott Morrison is a bit of a dodgy dude)

As a marathon week of intense misery for Donald Trump and the inner-circle of his crime family, his real family, kept getting more and more enjoyable to watch, CNN spat hot fire. The type of fire Australian media never spits.

It was a prolonged period of the purest schadenfreude imaginable, a global piss-up, a music festival playing only the sweetest song. CNN did not handle this historic election in the way Senate estimates committees expect the ABC to handle our domestic issues. There was no, “Our next guest is someone who thinks Donald Trump is behaving normally, and all of this is good, actually.” 

For this last week at the very least, CNN (and others of course) decided the actual real truth was a higher calling than the appearance of impartiality. 

We all knew Trump’s reign would end in a parking lot adjacent to an adult bookstore. In the broader, grander history of appropriate things, this is perhaps the most. Historians will debate the Four Seasons Landscaping Putsch for centuries to come. There was simply no point pretending all of this wasn’t extremely dumb.

Throughout its coverage, CNN anchor Jake Tapper grew more and more visibly sick of Trump’s bullshit. And he wanted America, and the world, to know it. He described Eric Trump and Donny Jr. as the President’s “unhinged spawn”. Co-anchor Anderson Cooper said Trump was an “obese turtle flailing in the hot sun.” 

It was refreshing in its grasp on reality, on the Zeitgeist, and, crucially, all of it was true – if not literally then certainly metaphorically, certainly in spirit.

CNN provided context. The events unfolding that week did not exist in an amnesiac vacuum of neutrality. CNN joined the dots for an audience of many millions. 

Australian media, as a general rule, does not enjoy joining the dots. 

In Australia, the many instances of corruption committed by the Scott Morrison Government exist in isolation, in an absurd memory-vortex, held at arm’s length from all the other dodgy stuff by a veil of ideology on one end of the spectrum and the spectre of budget cuts on the other. 

The Sports Rorts Saga – colour-coded breadcrumbs scattered across our marginal electorate’s shooting clubs and community swimming pools. The $30million West Sydney Airport Heist. Granting Foxtel $30 million to not cover women’s sport. Basically everything Angus Taylor touches. There are too many incidents of brazen, harebrained scheming to list here, and there’ll be more by the time you’ve read this anyway, so why bother? 

The point – the entire point – is the pattern. A pattern very few seem to want to mention out loud.

Australia has great reporters and great investigators who are time and time again nailing these isolated stories, and are then time and time again let down by their editors and mastheads and front pages. (Before I’m driven out of town, yes, there are definitely exceptions! But they only prove the rule because they should not be exceptions.)

In Australia, these almost-identical instances of corruption, committed by the same Government and the same people within, are coincidences. 

On Australian news, the Government’s reluctance to establish a corruption commission is unrelated to all its corruption. 

That seems odd! Right?! Given all the evidence. 

In my opinion, and in the opinion of many fairly reasonable Australians, the Federal Government does not want corruption investigations because of all of its corruption.  

Scott Morrison, quite clearly, is a bit of a dodgy dude.

YOU CAN SAY THAT! You just can. You’re allowed to have opinions in the media, and this is a perfectly valid one for an outlet to hold. You’re allowed to comment and provide analysis. Andrew Bolt does it all the time, except he’s wrong constantly, and racist.

Why is factually incorrect, racism-adjacent commentary more common and prominent across this landscape than my perfectly reasonable, evidence-driven assessment that Scott Morrison is pretty dodge? It’s just about doing these jobs better. 

At the very least, aren’t we meant to get all our reasonable opinions reflected back at us? We are bombarded with more unhinged, factually incorrect takes – from “Lockdown won’t work” to “Let’s just let the old people die” to “Bec Judd says we should rise up and reclaim the streets from El Dictatoro” – than my perfectly valid assessment that Scomo is at least a little bit sus. 

American media is more diverse than Australia’s Murdoch-tentacled sinking ship. In the USA, Murdoch has Fox News and the New York Post as his flying monkeys, but nothing else super important. Here he has everything, basically, when you consider the impact his deathcult monolith has on the rest of the ecosystem. The USA certainly has worse media outlets – a bunch of them – but it also has many that are better than our best. 

Cooper was justifiably savage as the totally-not-illegal “illegal” votes were added to the tally, magically cast on the same pieces of paper that “legally” elected Republican Senators. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this from the President of the United States, and I think it’s sad and truly pathetic,” he said. 

Donald Trump’s behaviour was sad and pathetic. Koshie wouldn’t have said this if Scomo was acting sad and pathetic – or, you know, a bit dodgy. Would anyone? HAS anyone?

CNN, reading the room, something we are not good at here, did not situate itself above an unwashed audience. It did not accuse ordinary people relieved coronavirus might now be taken a bit seriously of having “Stockholm Syndrome”. It felt, and lived, this historic moment alongside ordinary, relieved human beings. 

This is CNN’s Van Jones. Watch this clip please. 

This is the other crucial side of the equation: this isn’t only about doing these important jobs properly. It’s also about being decent, rounded, whole, responsible people. Media has a tangible impact on the real world, so why is so much of it either ambivalent to that fact, or actively trying to make it worse?

Our most prominent media voices are uniformly contrarian assholes and shitty people. 

The last time I remember Australia’s on-air talent getting this emotional was when Kerri-Anne Kennerley was upset she was being called racist. For all the racist things she said. 

In this genuinely historic, calamitous moment, CNN was not even slightly concerned with besuited counterarguments – that Donald Trump’s behaviour was in fact fantastic – because that’s just not true. Of course that isn’t true. 

Why would you do things like put climate denialists on Q&A to square an imaginary ledger? Why would you put Pauline Hanson on breakfast TV, resurrecting a dangerous criminal racist with a battler redemption arc? Why, through nine long months of lockdown, were we bombarded with opinions from sociopathic economists that have now definitively been proven incorrect? 

What were we hoping to achieve with all that?!?!?! 

Is this what Scott Morrison actually means when he says the ABC should be “impartial” after they do something cool like running that Four Corners story about how creepy prominent “traditional values” guys in the Government secretly are?

For all the failed institutions of a largely dysfunctional nation, America’s best media is still better than ours. They have spines. They have a long, proud history of standing up to negligent, criminal Presidents and acting in the public interest. Not always, and not often – and definitely not when there’s bipartisan bombs to be dropped in the Middle East – but still far more often and effectively than we do on balance. 

There are valid concerns about how Bob Woodward conducted himself this year, but he now has two Presidents notched into his belt. Catch up, Bernstein! Our TV couldn’t even nail the follow-up to Scomo’s stupid chickens story. 

***

Anyway, to the main point. 

During the election, CNN did something else Australian media would never dare do. At 2am on Saturday morning Melbourne time, CNN anchors looked down the camera, peered into the souls of the soulless, and told Fox News directly – without pulling a single punch – that, at this volatile moment, it had a very real responsibility to do its fucking job properly.

(Like I said, there was a real party vibe and I didn’t feel like going to bed.)

CNN dared Fox News to do its REAL job properly. To just this once, when it really matters, not act as the propaganda arm of the Republican Party. CNN told Rupert Murdoch directly: “Not now. This is too important. You’ve lost today. Go save some face.”

And Rupert Murdoch did just that. He reigned it in, a little, not because he values American democracy, but because he is superhumanly self-interested. He doesn’t like backing losers. It’s a bad look. A chink in the armour. 

Australian journalists, for the most part, acutely aware that one day they will probably need to work for a Murdoch publication, do not say the things CNN said that night. But they should, because they are as true here as they are over there. If not more true. 

It’s all but impossible to imagine an Australian anchor choosing not to run the puff piece on Scott Morrison’s Bunnings season pass and instead staring down the camera and saying something along the lines of: “The Coalition’s NBN plan was an obvious ideological, technological, financial hot mess from the moment it was announced. They hoodwinked a nation. And we, the media, dropped the ball catastrophically by presenting both options as having equal merit. Balance! We did not do our research properly. Now our internet is significantly worse than it could have been. Than it should have been.” 

Add it to the list. Climate change. Asylum seekers. Scomo’s dodgy shit. We have extremely stupid public discussions about all of these things, largely because the Coalition wants us to. And the media, as a homogeneous whole – which admittedly does not have a centralised organising committee – has not yet worked out how to push back on this effectively. Or, worse, decided it is advantageous not to. After all, there’s always the easy option: the frictionless bothsidesism preferred by that one pretty dodgy dude in particular.

On the NBN, the original plan was world class. The alternative involved laying more than 300,000kms of new copper – an expensive antiquated technology, which we are now, only a few years later, already replacing. On climate change, one side is factually correct, the other is not. On the Morrison Government’s shady shit, it either exists, or it doesn’t, and it clearly does. 

Australian media is obsessed with faux neutrality, with the appearance of impartiality, to the point that it distorts the actual truth. To suggest that Donald Trump and Tim Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon and Christian Porter might not be dickheads – in equal measure as suggesting they might be dickheads – distorts the truth that they are, in fact, dickheads.  

In the same way people in Melbourne this week are realising they’d forgotten what a genuinely good mood felt like, we should use the US election fog-piercer to de-acclimate ourselves from inadequate press at home. It’s not like this everywhere else, and it wasn’t always like this here. This only feels normal in Australia because it is now normal. It doesn’t need to be. 

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By David Milner


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