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The Sad Passing of the News

At first I thought weeping after the PBS News Hour was just a response to American editorial manipulation. Then I realised my tears were also about the absence of decent analysis in Australian news reportage. Fancy weeping over the decline of Australian journalism; I may be less jaded than I thought.

Even though one might expect that ‘news’ will definitely be a casualty in any ‘post-truth’ world, the stark realisation of depthlessness in the local product - brought on by exposure to, ironically perhaps, American television journalism - was nonetheless traumatic. I initially thought the declaration of post-truth was very premature and most likely a media beat up in response to the arrival of Donald Trump; now I think we may have reached an epistemological ‘tipping point’.

In a market driven world, declining demand for any commodity translates into less production and less consumption. Compound that with decreasing attention spans and less reading and you have prima facie evidence for a big cultural shift. I hate to admit it, but the Marxists were half right when they identified ‘post-modernism’ as an evil slide into total superficiality. The half right component concerns the decline of in depth analysis and the sad passing of the news in most of the world. My concern in this blog is to draw attention to one core process: the progressive loss of ‘institutional memory’.

After the retirement of Alan Ramsey from the Australian Fairfax Press in December 2008, I had realised that there would be far less in depth analysis to be found in my favourite newspaper (The Sydney Morning Herald), but it has taken a now regular dose of the best of American journalism to make the reality sink home. The regular discussions between David Brooks, Mark Shields and Judy Woodruff are a reminder of what we are missing in Australia: civilised, intelligent discussion and debate among older people with long memories. These journalists now seem like intellectual giants in comparison with most of their Australian peers (such as we are allowed to see and hear); and they are definitely more sophisticated.

We are in Australia in grave danger of succumbing to what Laura Tingle has identified as loss of institutional memory resulting in ‘political amnesia’ (see ‘Political Amnesia: How we Forgot to Govern’, Quarterly Essay, Issue 60, 2015) – a malady that will, it needs to be recognised, affect every part of Australian social culture and cultural analysis. Tingle’s focus is on the Australian public service, politics and journalism, but the point can be easily generalised. It is not only public service departments that suffer ‘dumbing down’ by staff rotation, multi-tasking, insecurity of tenure, falling demand for historical analysis that can be critical, and ‘economic rationalism’ as the ultimate benchmark. Most other discipline based parts of society are forced to play along too – think of education, religion, sport, science, art; even economics, business and the law are transforming towards greater depthlessness. The one thing that is anathema in all these different cultures is personally held memory that extends for decades and that can be critical. One could go on to talk about leadership that has become over-dependent on rhetoric etc., etc.

In short, however, as critical thought in politics, journalism, in academe, in new media, and in daily conversation, falls increasingly victim to the demanding immediacy of celebrity, novelty and consumption - as demanded by a 24/7 news cycle and a culture of success at any cost – a cultural tipping point is occurring. Indeed, as we speak, the need for memories of past events more general than is slowly receding into the mists of the past. What we most need is an increasing appetite for critical thought and extended analysis. Whether this be historical, cross-cultural, or scientific, the point is that we need an antidote to a cultural malaise that is becoming ‘normal’.

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