Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Karl du Fresne: Howling at the Moon

There’s a crisis in the news media and the media are blaming it on everyone except themselves. Culpability is being deflected elsewhere – mainly to the hapless Minister of Communications, Melissa Lee, and the big social media platforms that are accused of hoovering up advertising revenue that would otherwise go to traditional mainstream media companies.

But while it has been clear for a long time that Lee is out of her depth, she’s not responsible for the media’s collapse and it’s not exactly clear what her media tormentors expect her to do about it. Bail it out with government money, presumably. But the proposition that the government should prop up news media that are openly hostile to it makes about as much sense as Israel providing arms and ammunition to Hamas. In any case, why should the long-suffering taxpayer be made to pay for the media’s manifest failings?

And while it may be true that Facebook and Google have been piggybacking on the mainstream media (although I sometimes wonder whether the damage has been conveniently exaggerated), pointing the finger at them neatly sidesteps the uncomfortable issue of the media’s own contributory fault.

For anyone unable to join the dots, the publication last week of the fifth annual Trust in News survey should help. It showed that New Zealanders’ trust in the reporting of news has continued its headlong downward plunge – from 42 percent in 2023 to an even more dismal 33 percent this year. Significantly, this is a faster decline than recorded by similar surveys in other comparable countries. Even report co-author Merja Myllylahti said she was shocked by the results.

In 2020, the year the New Zealand survey began, 53 percent of respondents said they trusted the news “most of the time”. So there has been a cumulative fall since then of 20 percent, and the decline is accelerating. Even the Otago Daily Times, which emerged from the latest survey as the most trusted media outlet in the country, scored only five on a scale from 0 (“not at all trustworthy”) to 10 (“completely trustworthy”).

RNZ and TVNZ both fell short of the break-even point. As publicly owned news providers, RNZ and TVNZ have a special obligation to provide trustworthy (in other words fair, accurate and balanced) news and commentary, but they have failed themselves and us.

The latest survey, conducted by Horizon Research for the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), also revealed that more New Zealanders are actively avoiding the news. I’m one of them. I’ve been a news junkie all my adult life, but I haven’t watched a TV news bulletin since last December. And it seems I’m not alone; I exchanged emails yesterday with an old friend, another retired journalist, who announced that he was boycotting the news and thought there had been a subsequent lift in his mood.

The report accompanying the trust survey gives a rather large clue to why so many people have lost faith in the mainstream media. It noted that those who no longer trusted the news were concerned about its negativity and, perhaps more tellingly, by “what they perceive as political bias and opinion masquerading as news”.

Eighty-seven percent of those who didn’t trust the news said it was biased and unbalanced, 82 percent said news reflected the political leaning of newsrooms and 76 percent felt it was too opinionated. Moreover, 47 percent of respondents couldn’t be sure that the news media were free of political or government influence most of the time – a predictable legacy of the ill-conceived Public Interest Journalism Fund, which showered public money on journalism projects that satisfied ideological acceptability tests.

No surprises there. But are the media listening, or are they too self-absorbed – too busy weeping, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as the Bible might put it – to see what’s obvious to virtually everyone else? The level of self-delusion is staggering.

One thing is inarguable: notwithstanding all the contempt being heaped on the Minister of Communications, she can’t be blamed for the collapse of trust in the media. That’s entirely the media’s own doing.

Neither can the problem be attributed to Facebook and Google. Even if the social media giants were made to pay in some way for the news they’re accused of currently pillaging free of charge, that wouldn’t solve the trust issue. So the media need to start rebuilding trust, as the authors of the Trust in News survey suggest. That is, if it’s not already too late. And perhaps the process of rebuilding trust could start by no longer angrily looking around for other people to blame for a media crisis that’s largely of the media’s own making.

Physician, heal thyself, as Shakespeare might have said. Problem is, the media appear to have no self-criticism mechanism – or if they have, it’s been out of use for so long that no one can find the switch to activate it.

Some high-profile casualties of the current media upheavals have plaintively and volubly appealed for public support on the basis that the media are essential to a functioning democracy. Doubtless that same argument is used to justify the fact that the threat of journalists’ job losses gets infinitely more media attention than, say, the closure of a meat processing plant or clothing factory. Journalists are supposedly different because of their noble calling. But arguments about the special place of the media hold true only as long as the media are fair, balanced and neutral in the way they treat the news.  Once they abandon that obligation, all bets are off – which is exactly what has led us to where we are now.

The truth is that the New Zealand mainstream media have been in self-destruct mode for years. Traditionally, the media’s legitimacy and moral authority rested on their role as a “broad church”, willing to report and reflect a wide array of news and opinion. To put it another way, the “old” media sought to reflect the diverse communities they served; a nation talking to itself, in the oft-quoted words of the playwright Arthur Miller.

The “broad church” model served the public and democracy well, but that changed with the ascendancy of a new generation of journalists, many with university degrees, who fatally saw themselves as being intellectually and culturally superior to the masses.

Rather than attempting to connect with the community at large, this new generation preferred to write about, and for, people with the same interests, values, tastes and ideological beliefs as themselves – an approach doomed to commercial failure, since it reached only a narrow demographic group.  The nexus with the broader community was severed and in the process, the mainstream media succeeded in delegitimising themselves.

All this coincided with the digital revolution and the resulting emergence of online platforms that gave people alternatives. Hence the continuing plunge in newspaper circulations and the shrinking audience for TV news.

It’s surely significant that the decline in trust has become sharper over the past few years. New Zealanders could be accused of being passive and even apathetic, but they are not entirely stupid. They observed that for six years, the media gave the Labour government a conspicuously easy ride, obligingly falling into line over crucial issues such as Covid (remember the media disdain for the anti-vaccine protesters at Parliament?), climate change, rampant crime, co-governance and the Treaty.

These were issues that provoked deep and growing unease and division. Yet a stranger to New Zealand, monitoring the media in the years 2020-2023, would have formed the impression the country was united in blissful accord behind Labour’s policies.

Jacinda Ardern was treated obsequiously and her ministers largely escaped critical scrutiny, other than in instances of behaviour so egregious it couldn’t be ignored (the names Kiri Allan and Michael Wood come to mind). Legitimate Opposition attacks on the government in Parliament went unreported and press statements from conservative lobby groups were routinely ignored. Media complicity was crucial in the advancing of a radical government agenda.

Compare that with the relentless barrage of anti-government rhetoric that has dominated news bulletins and newspaper headlines in the six months since the election as the media gorged on a diet of left-wing outrage over the coalition’s policies. It began almost the day after the election and it hasn’t abated since. Ministers are being subjected daily to a level of interrogation that their Labour predecessors encountered rarely, if ever. Regardless of one’s politics (and I’m not a supporter of the coalition), the contrast with the media’s pusillanimous, sycophantic approach under Labour is striking.

Unfortunately for the reputation of journalists, the public can weigh all this against the knowledge that people in the media are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Left. In the Worlds of Journalism study published by Massey University in October 2022, New Zealand journalists were asked to identify their political views. Of the 359 who completed the survey, roughly two-thirds identified as left-wing, 23 percent described themselves as centrist and only 12 per cent said they were right-wing.

Those figures don’t tell the whole story, however. An astonishing 15 percent of journalists described themselves as “hard left” and 6 percent as “extreme left”, although I’m not sure how they distinguished between the two. This was against an infinitesimal number – barely enough to register on the chart – who considered themselves “hard” or “extreme” right. The political imbalance was stark and striking.

In a perfect world, this need not be an issue. Many, if not most, of the journalists I worked with over the course of a long career were left-wing in their politics. This becomes a problem only if journalists allow their personal views to influence (contaminate might be a better word) their work. Regrettably the evidence suggests overwhelmingly that today’s journalists do exactly that.

This is not only allowed but in many cases encouraged. Journalists reflect the ethos and culture of their workplace, and contemporary newsrooms more often than not are places of left-wing groupthink. Many journalists of the current generation have been taught that the purpose of journalism is to agitate for change. They have been conditioned to believe that editorial balance – the idea that there is more than one side to every story – is bogus, and that they should be free to decide which narratives are valid and deserve to be promoted. Theirs is the journalism of advocacy and activism.

This is especially problematical because the biases of journalists do not reflect the views of the populace at large. New Zealand is not a society that naturally leans sharply to the left. That’s clear from the last election result, and from the broad sweep of our political history.

When journalists are so obviously out of step with the society they purport to serve, it’s small wonder that people stop buying newspapers and watching the news. Readers, viewers and listeners naturally resent being lectured, talked down to and subjected to social engineering projects such as the renaming of cities and the arrogant imposition of a new hybrid language which the country didn’t vote for and only a minority supports.

It’s often said that the police operate with the consent of the public. The same is true, in a way, of the news media. Once public confidence has been lost, it can be very hard to win back. To quote an old Dutch saying, trust arrives on foot but leaves on horseback. In other words, it takes a long time to build but can quickly evaporate.

To use a different analogy, the current relationship between the media and the public is like an unhappy marriage that has irretrievably broken down and one spouse has walked away, leaving the other wondering what went wrong and trying to convince anyone who will listen that the fault was not theirs, when clearly it was. In this case it’s the public that has moved on, leaving the media to howl at the moon.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. His blog can be found at


Anonymous said...

This article is spot on.

The spouse that walks away is the perfect analogy.

Anonymous said...

So we can now "truly state, that the PJIF $$'s was a well invested gamechanger for NZ MSM, that those who held a hand out, palm upper most, and had that palm crossed with 'silver'(NZ Tax payer money) can now be considered an investment with intent".

Karl, you like anyone else - here in NZ- you more than us 'plebs', have had an eyeball on matters media, using past knowledge & contacts for info.

I reflect back when the PJIF funding was published, something that at the time would have gone 'straight over the heads of the NZ Public', an act that no one 'did a deep dive as to why it was enacted. Or why a specific Govt entity was the 'money lender'. There was 'mention of Media having to kowtow to the TOW etc, but why? I smell Willie Jackson (plus Family & Friends, and the Office of TOW) in that domain.

You do not watch TVNZ News - well they lost the 'room' the moment Simon Dellow opened his mouth at 6.00 p.m, and spoke Te Reo - which was commented on at the time, main stream Kiwi's (& some Maori) did not relate to. Ditto with the Breakfast show.

But it was no use complaining to the BSA (or even TVNZ), they have both been shown to be biased with a recent event, involving the BSA, highlighting
this more so.

I wonder if AUT - School of Journalism did a Public survey on where people now get their news from, why and what news are they looking for - then openly publish the results - me thinks that NZ MSM might have to take note.

The other factor, beside Editors with scissor, or black pens, is the criteria for TV News as "dictated by the Censor and/or Paul Hunt".

My example here is the 'issue in Gaza' - NZ is not "being told the truth" and that is evident when you watch News items thru YouTube.

In reference to above, it is interesting that here in NZ, we have "off the street media people" who have openly stated, that news on Gaza is very carefully scrutinized as to what can be shown, on NZ TV News, with the rider "some scenes may disturb"- something you do not get with News via YouTube - it is look (your choice), listen suck it up, and it is up to you the viewer to decide truth or falsehood.

Am I allow to 'predict news going forward'- that we may end up going back to the future, the days of yonder and have re-established a one 'suit TV news outlet' that we had in the past - that being the NZBC.

Disney will not establish another News outlet - 'it is not in their gender ideology requirements'.

Anonymous said...

Martin Gurri’s book , The Revolt of the Public and the crisis in authority, is a good place to start in understanding what’s going on.
The media have shot themselves in the foot. Stuff buying Newshub will just perpetuate the left wing biased news. It’s death by a thousand cuts.

hughvane said...

Good to read you back again Karl.

If three expressions define the current muckstream media, they are:

Nowhere do we read so much as a hint that "I was wrong, I retract", etc. And that, largely, is why the public no longer trust them. The 'perps' as is commonly used these days, still deceive themselves that they and only they are the purveyors of truth - as they see it!

Pleased I am to read your view that Melissa Lee is not coping with her portfolio. The burning question however is; what can she do?

Anonymous said...

And the news flash is that Stuff will be taking over the TV3 6pm News bulletin. So more of the same bias reporting coming our way. They just don't seem to learn.

robert Arthur said...

Not just pro Labour but pro maori which, quite apart from the infuriating te reo twaddle, a source of immense annoyance to the huge number of viewers prevented for fear of cancellation from expressing their discontent.
Eons ago, when the whole nation watched,TV news was presented in straight Oxford English with no maori twaddle, interspersed by video clips from around the country. There were not two announcers attempting to appear mutually infatuated and trading time filler banalities. They should try the basics again.

Gaynor said...

The main aim of Progressive education is to use public schools as a vehicle for social engineering students into materialistic, secularized socialism. That is why we don't actually have, as we used to, effective, scientifically based teaching in our schools anymore, with consequently horrible stats.internationally and nationally, in reading, maths and science.

This same determined effort of Progressivism clearly abounds in journalism. 'News' as we traditionally thought of it is no longer a neutral area of informing the public of current events and ideas but a vehicle for indoctrinating the population into desiring a socialist utopia which most of us don't want anymore than we want this socialism /Marxism promoted through education and done at the cost of destroying our children's schooling.

When o when is this arrogance of Progressivism in academia going to break and it sees that its left wing political agenda is dishonest in any area of endeavour and can only end in a fiasco as is very evident in our education system. It doesn't work and from these latest news surveys, clearly shows it does not sit comfortably with most people's world view either. I have also found the quality as well as content of current news poorly written.

Anonymous said...

Serious tax payer and rate payer revolt is now required.

murray said...

Almost nothing is said of the Trojan Horse, filled with 14000 extra bureaucrats that Jacinda galloped in the door.
This took place under the cover of the P J I F bribe and Covid. The M S M busy reading Jacindas directives and propaganda
were not allowed to notice 14000 infiltrating the Treaty and Te Reo into our Parliament and bureaucracy,
Will the Coalition put this right. The bleeding hearts are distraught with some unfortunates being laid off. I wonder
why the 14000 are not peremptorily sent back to their previous "employmen"?

Anonymous said...

Spot on Karl, as always.
The Newshub/Stuff deal will not solve the media’s problem, only temporarily ease some of the cost pressure on TV3’s owner.
Meantime, it will spread the well-documented Stuff bias on climate change, Treaty issues, and Covid mandates further into another media arm.
There will be precious little fairness and balance left in New Zealand’s media-scape.
I can’t see the rate at which audiences are deserting NZ MSM easing. In fact, the growing dominance of Stuff lefties will hasten it.
Advertisers will continue to follow. Marketers will look at cost-per-thousand, CTR and conversion rates, and increasingly conclude putting dollars into NZ MSM doesn’t make economic sense.
The end approaches and it won’t be pretty.

Anonymous said...

Just to prove the extent of their bias - Karl, could you submit your article for publication to every newspaper in NZ ?
I'll bet $1000 that none of them would print it, especially
in its entirety without editing.

But it does need to be published beyond Breaking Views

Thanks Karl for creating this item which most of us could never do so articulately

Anonymous said...

Just wait till action for Seymour's Treaty Bill starts..... the MSM is a key player in this process.

There will be strong public support for a referendum . This will be blocked by National+ Opposition.

The MSM will not report on the people's demand for democracy - only on the so-called support pro-CG/He Puapua.

The battle for NZ is coming.

Richard McGrath said...

Sadly, the activism so evident nowadays in our journalists and newsreaders has also spread like a cancer into our judiciary.

Anonymous said...

Karl, great to have you back. Unfortunately it's probably going to get worse with stuff entering the news space. God help this poor little country. Another far left news room...probably worse than what it was, and it was BAD.

Anonymous said...

Yes Karl, me too. But I turned off nz mainstream media the day Cindy said the government is your single source if truth. CCP written àll over it. Thats how dictators start, pay the media out to become state media. Cant wait for the demise of Stuff, RNZ and TVNZ. All mainstream.liars.

Brian said...

Dumb it down, skew it left and wonder why no one's watching