elections nz

Political Commentary is Just What You Suspected, Mostly Crap

In the last few days of New Zealand’s election campaign, a political commentator lets us in on an industry secret.
September 18, 2017, 2:45am
The author (second from right) with the Prime Minister and other political commentators during the 2017 Newshub Leaders Debate.

A version of this article originally appeared in Don't Dream It's Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by Freerange Press.

The practice of political commentary is, on nearly every level, kind of bullshit. It elevates an impossible ideal—neutral discussion—even as it provides cover for partisan opinions and reduces politics to something resembling a game: political reporters 'chase yarns'; politicians are 'insiders'; 'the voters' are whatever prejudice the commentator feels like broadcasting; and the point is to 'win'. Political commentators who appear on political talk shows are often party proxies, often with personal and business interests which rely on privileged access to media platforms. In nearly every case the conversations they lead focus on who is up and who is down. 'The fascination comes in watching how politicians play the game,' wrote leading journalist John Armstrong in his final column for the New Zealand Herald, "sometimes the tactics are mind-blowing in their sheer audacity and inventiveness."

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Armstrong, a journalist who covered eight prime ministers in his career as the Herald's chief political commentator, admits without irony or intention that the profession is bunk. Political commentary is primarily concerned with the manipulation of power, not its forms or uses. The profession aspires to holding power to account—and we grant it extraordinary privileges for doing so—but it seems more fashionable to whisper sweet encouragement to power.

This is sometimes blamed on the form. Broadcast media is time-poor, meaning producers prefer packaged commentators with pithy soundbites at the ready; revenue for print media is collapsing, meaning editors prefer their commentators to focus on the dramatic elements of politics in an effort to remain competitive in the attention economy. But this seems more like an excuse than an explanation.

American media critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen calls it the cult of the savvy. The savvy commentator is shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, and unsentimental: he or she can spin a good yarn; is close to or is an insider; has an intuitive feel for what the voters think; and knows who is winning. In political commentary, Rosen argues, "it's better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilised, sincere, thoughtful or humane".

What distinguishes political commentators from voters is the contrived authority a media platform confers.

For savvy commentary to work, it must position the commentator—who cannot be an elected politician—as uniquely insightful or somehow above politics, because what distinguishes political commentators from voters is the contrived authority a media platform confers. "This is part of what's so insidious about press savviness,' writes Rosen, 'it tries to hog political realism to itself." This is not hypothetical. Although savvy political commentary does not generate the political weather—social forces do—it does influence the climate in which political information is received and understood. Take the idea of 'electability', something that is unthinkable without the savvy political commentators who impose meaning on it.

According to many political commentators, the defining moment of the 2011 New Zealand election campaign came during the Press debate, a town hall debate the Christchurch paper streamed to a modest audience of 25,000. "Yet the historical memory now commonly associated with the event did not come from actual viewings of the debate," writes political academic Corin Higgs in Kicking The Tyres: The New Zealand General Election and Electoral Referendum of 2011, "but from post-debate analysis conducted in the media. Many pundits in the days following determined that Key's theatrical demand that Goff 'show me the money' was the defining moment of the campaign." In other words, political commentators help shape our interpretation of events we were not even witnesses to, and that creates a new political reality. In many respects this is classic savvy: it privileges the dramatic over the discursive and it assumes knowledge of how the public reacted. Political commentators know what you are thinking before you do, or something like that.

The media does not simply report on politics, it is deeply involved in how political narratives are produced and presented.

But why does it matter? The flagship political shows no longer enjoy prime-time spots on television and the landmark broadsheets can only watch as their readership collapses. Political commentary, including of the savvy kind, will exhaust itself in time. This might well be true, but it ignores how the media is another branch of government—and the least democratic one. The media does not simply report on politics, it is deeply involved in how political narratives are produced and presented. In 2012 Gawker revealed how, in exchange for exclusive access to an important speech Hillary Clinton would deliver to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic's political editor Marc Ambinder agreed to describe the speech as 'muscular' and explain how the seating arrangement is 'not a coincidence' and 'meant to convey something.' Ambinder also agreed to not say he was 'blackmailed'.

Yet this kind of transactional politics is not confined to the United States. In his explosive book, Dirty Politics, journalist Nicky Hager argued that "news organisations, in exchange for easy stories, co-operate in a government's PR plans." In the book Hager revealed the government's two-track strategy, an approach to political messaging where the government would leak sensitive or embarrassing information to friendly bloggers, like when cabinet minister Judith Collins passed on a public servant's details to seemingly help facilitate a smear campaign. There is certainly intense pressure to break stories in a competitive market, and that pressure creates an incentive to accept pre-packaged stories from people with interests at stake, but this is considered ethical because the culture sanctions it.

Only 20 of the 70 [political commentators] were women and they were more likely to be interrupted than their male colleagues.

To be savvy is to admire 'political management', it is to toast clever 'politics'—politics as in intrigues, not politics as ideas—and it is to defend that interpretation no matter the logical or ethical contortions it might take. Savviness is as much performance as it is ideology. In this context, is it any wonder that politicians and journalists were the least trusted groups in 2015? This might have something to do with representation. One consequence of savvy commentary is that it self-selects. Of the 70 political commentators who appeared on New Zealand television during the 2011 election campaign, nearly 60 were either media or political insiders. There was also a gender bias—only 20 of the 70 were women and they were more likely to be interrupted than their male colleagues—and an age bias—at 20, I was the youngest television commentator to appear and media consultant Brian Edwards was the oldest at 74. TVNZ did not feature a single commentator under 40.

So, not only does political commentary sound like an elite discourse, it looks like one too, and this is problematic. Diversity is not a nice-to-have. Political commentary is one way that ideas, including marginalised ideas from underrepresented groups, can enter the public sphere. If a particular demographic is overrepresented—whether that is an age group, an ethnicity, or even an occupation—then that comes at the expense of underrepresented groups and their experience. Savvy commentary not only self-selects, it self-perpetuates. The effect of broadcasting or printing certain people with certain views is to create a hermetically sealed world, one that generates an endless series of glorified talking points that might sound or read like analysis, but do not seriously interrogate power.

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