Round the traps….

A series of choice lines from blogs I checked out this evening.

Ally rises up to the challenge of her rivals:
I wrote an awesome song based on my experiences in the campground showers, it is called “Pubes of a Stranger” and it has the same tune as Eye of the Tiger.

Stephen Stratford visits the ‘great literary lines that might get you laid’ and votes for  “Stuff me in a tutu and let’s screen experimental videos all day.”

Doesn’t do it for me. I’d go for the Amisian 

“You know how it is when two souls meet in a burst of ecstatic volubility, with hearts tickling to hear and to tell, to know everything, to reveal everything, the shared reverence for the other’s otherness, a feeling of solitude radiantly snapped by full contact — all that?”   

because I love the way the last two words deflate the whole thing. 

Afterthought: Amis junior’s prose here borrows from a passage in Evelyn Waugh’s great novel about journalism, ‘Scoop’ which also uses two words at the end of a long, apparently emotive sentence, to undercut what has gone before:

Why, once Jakes went out to cover a revolution in one of the Balkan capitals. He overslept in his carriage, woke up at the wrong station, didn’t know any different, got out, went straight to a hotel, and cabled off a thousand-word story about barricades in the streets, flaming churches, machine guns answering the rattle of his typewriter as he wrote, a dead child, like a broken doll, spread-eagled in the deserted roadway below his window — you know. 

In more serious mien, Cactus Kate in one sentence puts her finger on the great thing about court coverage and in the next sentence the problem with it:

“Publishers must love court reporting because it is generally excluded from possible Press Council complaint and other proceedings because the court is public. If you study court reporting in any depth to a case you are familiar with because you have sat in court everyday with them during it...”

Every day.  All Day, or most of it.  When you could be chasing other stuff.  And the court staff hate journalists and usually will do anything they can to obstruct you.  

Oh, that’s not the bad bit…in fact, that’s the fun bit, because unless you do something really objectionable they can’t throw you out, so you can entertain yourself coming up with ways to subtly annoy them.  

No, its the all day thing.  Opportunity cost and all that.  

Shy egomaniacs

Stephen Stratford at Quote/Unquote has a nice little post about journalistic introverts and how often the stereotype of the loud beery partygoing journo is belied by the number of rather quiet types who inhabit the industry.

A line in one of the first books I read about journalism, Tim Crouse’s ‘Boys on the Bus’ summed it up – one of the journalists interviewed commented that most journos are “shy egomaniacs”.
A lot of us – especially the print journos – are most at home behind a keyboard. Personally I do my best and clearest thinking when I’m actually in the act of writing, although it helps if I’ve done some thinking (preferably while exercising) beforehand. Not always possible these days, however.
Journalism is also a role. It helped a lot, when I was younger. I was normally a bit of a wallflower in a social situation, but if I had to go and get a story it gave me a reason to talk to people. Very very useful.
It could leave you a little one dimensional though. I remember going to a real social situation, when I was about 19, at a hall in Pukekohe. Got talking to a very attractive woman, thought things seemed to be going reasonably well, until she asked me what I did and I said I was a journalist.
“Oh yes,” she said, and then, with a real edge in her voice: “Is that why you’re interviewing me?”
Time and life experience knocked off my awkwardness. Some of it, anyway.


Poneke, who I link to over on the right, is no more.

Citing “occupational and family pressures” he’s gone offline, at least for a bit.

That blog went from nowhere to a must-read for a lot of people very quickly. I have a hunch it has been a victim of its success: the writer, who in his earlier days was one of the country’s finest journalists, now does media relations for a government agency.

Which might have been OK if the profile had been kept lower. Unfortunately it became well read by a lot of people.

Rightly so, I might add. Well written, thoughtful, and with the skill and guts to ask questions people would really rather were not asked.

It also stepped above some of the more adolescent attitudinising you get on a lot of blogs. It was a a blog for grown ups who are a bit beyond trite ideological face-pulling.

So it will definitely be missed. He’s hoping for a return when things are a bit less fraught, even if as a guest blogger on some of the established blogs.

Climate Change and journalists

Recovering, slowly, at the moment from a bit of a health thing. My tendency to over-do things has been a bit, umm, overdone of late.

I notice a debate starting to rage here and here about the “letting go” of Listener Ecological columnist David Hanson.

I know nothing about the particular case, but the debate around it raises some interesting issues around media coverage of climate change and related issues. Poneke considers the coverage of climate change by the media has been sensationalist and alarmist. I’m inclined to agree.

Journalists, as a group, are not good on issues to do with science and maths. Most of us – myself included – are people who gravitated towards subjects like English and History and – when we got to tertiary study – Politics, Philosophy and Sociology. The closest we get to anything science is economics, which isn’t science at all, although it does involve maths. Sometimes.

That has always meant that journalism, as a profession, is incredibly vulnerable to anyone who comes along with a plausible sounding story involving science. Its a vulnerability I feel we’re not sufficiently careful of.

This is most noticeable on any stories to do with medicine and health.

My own views on climate change? A qualified agnosticism. I’d break my views into four parts.

  1. My knowledge of history tells me the earth has been through periods of apparent warming (and cooling) before. But my knowledge of history also tells me that we have lived through a very unusual time. Over the past 200 years we’ve taken a whole heap of stuff out of the ground and converted it into energy, and shoved the waste from that into rivers and into the atmosphere. The chances of that not harming the atmosphere, and the waterways, strike me as being pretty slim.
  2. Which means that, just like we don’t shove stuff into rivers with anything like the abandon we did a couple of generations back, we should be a lot more careful about what we shove into the atmosphere. Reducing emissions, in other words, seems to me to be a sensible thing to do.
  3. Climate Change itself? Don’t know. We won’t know until its too late to do anything about it.
  4. Kyoto Protocol? Very very dubious about it. Grandiose schemes like this have never worked. It also seems to me to be primarily aimed at reducing economic growth.

But to return to the issue of media coverage of the issues: If I was running journalism training I would be pushing very hard to recruit more people who can understand scientific issues. It strikes me that, whatever your views on climate change, we’re being a bit short-changed as far as quality coverage is concerned.

The Truth about news rooms

Terry Pratchett’s novel ‘The Truth‘ has a great line about how journalists will always view the main purpose of the office floor as serving as a big, flat, filing cabinet.

It’s true. Back in August I began reorganising my filing system at the home office : at the time the system was two cabinets, with vaguely appropriate titles assgined to the drawers, a small ‘to file’ tray piled high and toppling over with papers and reports, and various ‘pending’ stacks of paper around the office.

The new system will work, I am sure, when it is finished. At the moment it is about three quarters completed but there are piles of work to be included still around the office.

The Soulmate earlier today wandered in and said the office needs airing: shouldn’t I open a window?

I looked out at the Wellington Harbour and noted the rising north westerly, looked around the paper-strewn floor and various other surfaces…(there’s a couple of CDs holding down some OIA requests to be mailed out, for example, on top of the radio) and said ‘not a good idea, right now’.

I will finish the filing system probably in the week before Christmas. In the meantime there is a glass of Lagavulin standing on the desk. This serves as periodic refreshment as well as something which will make this office smell like an old fashioned newsroom (although Lagavulin is far too good a brew for an old-fashioned newsroom: Grants would be more appropriate but I’ve got this thing against drinking liquid sandpaper).

Pratchett had one other great line about journalists: he reckoned having started his career as one it got rid of any silly ideas about writers block, because if you claimed to have it, unsympathetic people would shout at you until you wrote something.

This is so much like my early experiences in provincial newspapers I just want to… look, a toast to old fashioned news rooms, everywhere.


Is there a fragger?

‘Fragging’ was the term used by US troops in Vietnam to describe handgrenading or shooting from the back an officer who ordered them into the field. (‘frag’ = fragmentation grenade)

The Sunday Star Times’ story on how senior Act and Business Roundtable people were cheering on the Don Brash takeover is, on the face of it, a clear and pretty nasty case of political fragging.

The story itself is a quite overheated and conspiracy-theoryish in tone and I must say I hadn’t realised Ruth Laugeson is Ian Wishart’s new nom de plume.

Of the four main bullet points early on in the story one is old news (Barry Coleman’s paying for some of Brash’s media training); and two of the others (the interest from Roundtable people) is hardly the stuff of shock- horror.

What is interesting – because of the light it throws on the SST and Laugeson’s own politics – is the underlying assumption that all Brash’s backers were principally motivated by ideology (a lot weren’t: there were some big issues around management under the old leadership); and also that there is something sinister in business groups taking an interest in the National Party. Roger Kerr takes considerably less interest in Naational’s internal politics than a number of senior union officials take in Labour’s.

The keen involvment – which went well beyond the odd supportive email – of senior Act people is a little more eyebrow-raising. There, I think, is a legitimate story, particularly as a lot of people on the National-Act side of politics are asking ‘what the hell” questions about the quality of strategic thinking around how the two parties might work together. There seems to have been an extraordinary degree of muddleheadedness about this for some time.

So the Frag-hunt is now on within National. It’s another distraction the party doesn’t need right now and that fact alone doubles the treachery of whoever leaked the information.

The two main questions are who had access to the information, and who benefits from its release? I’ve got no insight into the first question: the second is obvious – Labour, and those within National who don’t want to see a Brash-led party win.

I’d have thought that would narrow the field considerably.

If, that is, the source is within National. The story seems to point that way. However…journalists don’t just protect anonymous sources by not naming them. That’s often not enough.

You also often have to write the story in a way which points away from those sources.

Sport, politics and the media….

Isn’t a lot of political journalism like sports journalism?

Most coverage is about who’s winning, who doesn’t have a show, and who might be the wild card. (OK, we all know ‘wild card’ is what journalists say when they’re tired of saying ‘Winston’ but you get the idea…)

How often do you hear an interviewer ask a politician not about their policy itself, but about how that policy might affect the polls?
How often do you read an analysis of political trends which doesn’t really talk about policy but which talks about whether Labour will achieve its deeply cherished goal of being the “long term party of government” or who Winston will go with and what portfolio he might want?

ALL the bloody time, that’s how often.

This bugged me for a long time. It still does, but a bit less so..

Most of the time, most people talk about politics in much the same way they talk about sport. OK, not rugby – nowhere as engaged as that. More like, say, the cricket or the netball. Or a horse race they might have a small bet on. The discussion is all about the various players, the handicaps, and so forth.

So in that sense the the way the media covers politics is driven by how people talk about politics – most of the time, anyway.

A lot of the debate of whether a vote for Act is a ‘wasted vote’ is actually about this mindset – the desire not back a loser.
The mentality is as basic and as unprincipled as that.

That changes when either (a) things are obviously going badly and there is a creeping unease (eg most of the 1980 except for a blip in the middle; the early 1990s) or (b) when people get disgusted with the antics and arrogance of those in power (eg 1997 when there was real outrage about Tuku’s underpants, the Parliamentary palace, etc).

There’s perhaps a bit of the second happening now and it will poison Labour’s third term (and yes I think they’ll get one).

It also changes closer to election time. People do focus on the issues if they are given a chance. There is still the sporting overlay, but people enough people do vote on the issues, and, mostly, they look to the future.

The sports thing is still there, which is why I think most people will think the legal decision requiring TV3 to have Jim Anderton and Peter Dunne to appear on the leaders’ debate is OK.

Tonight’s debate probably won’t inform very much. It might change a few minds, but it is unlikely to be on the issues.

But tomorrow people won’t want to know about any of that.

They’ll want to know who won and who lost.