Ed­i­to­rial, Let­ters and Ge­off Pryor’s car­toon.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week -

It’s not just the Her­ald Sun. It’s a me­dia that is frag­ile and de­fen­sive, built on un­ques­tioned val­ues. It’s the un­com­fort­able re­al­i­sa­tion that we can be wrong – that the ethics we hold dear as jour­nal­ists were honed in rooms of men, drawn from the same class, the same race, the same schools. Th­ese val­ues didn’t change even as the news­rooms changed, and the news­rooms didn’t change enough. And now, in an age of in­se­cu­rity, we rely on a con­fi­dence that was based on unchecked priv­i­lege – and we are mostly too scared to check it fur­ther.

News­pa­pers are built on an ex­pec­ta­tion of truth­ful­ness. They are em­bar­rassed by their er­rors, un­der­mined by their fal­li­bil­ity. Largely, this has served them well. It has cre­ated a cul­ture of earnest­ness and ac­cu­racy. It has also made jour­nal­ists pro­tec­tive – un­will­ing to chal­lenge the as­sump­tions of their craft, lest their whole pur­pose crum­ble.

A cub re­porter knocks on the door of a griev­ing woman for the sim­ple rea­son that cub re­porters have al­ways knocked on the doors of griev­ing women. This in­tru­sion is un­crit­i­cal and un­re­mark­able, its pur­pose lost some­where be­tween the spot that waits for the story and the au­di­ence there to read it. In­fre­quently do we worry about the woman. Some of us will say she wanted to tell her story. Jour­nal­ism is like na­ture: it’s what we’ve al­ways done.

It is not sur­pris­ing the Her­ald Sun can­not hear crit­i­cism about Mark Knight’s de­pic­tion of Ser­ena Wil­liams. For them, the mat­ter is un­com­pli­cated: “Mark Knight car­toon not racist or sex­ist.”

They main­tain that racism is a ques­tion of in­tent. They be­lieve an act can be stripped of its con­text and an image de­nuded of its his­tory. They feel the au­thor­ity to make th­ese as­ser­tions for the sim­ple rea­son that they have al­ways had it. They are not im­peded by their own over­whelm­ing white­ness in this task; they are em­bold­ened by it.

The Mur­doch press is a car­i­ca­ture of racist provin­cial­ism. They pub­lish Andrew Bolt and sanc­tify Bill Leak. But the rest of the me­dia suf­fers many of the same is­sues. We strug­gle to hear crit­i­cism. We de­ify our work. We fluc­tu­ate be­tween vic­tim­hood and priv­i­lege, un­able to rec­on­cile our power with our less­en­ing means, keen to de­fend what it is we do, the great so­cial im­port of this work, and yet in do­ing so over­look the oc­ca­sions on which we trans­gress. The Her­ald Sun is not alone in this; the ABC is just as guilty.

Ear­lier this year, Na­tional Ge­o­graphic con­ducted an in­quiry into its own racial bi­ases. It com­mis­sioned Univer­sity of Vir­ginia pro­fes­sor John Ed­win Ma­son to lead the process. The ed­i­to­rial an­nounc­ing the is­sue was blunt: “For decades, our cov­er­age was racist. To rise above our past, we must ac­knowl­edge it.”

Ma­son found a mag­a­zine alive with cliché and con­de­scen­sion. He found views that re­flected their time and did noth­ing to lead read­ers be­yond it.

“Amer­i­cans got ideas about the world from Tarzan movies and crude racist car­i­ca­tures,” he said af­ter­wards. “Seg­re­ga­tion was the way it was. Na­tional Ge­o­graphic wasn’t teach­ing as much as re­in­forc­ing mes­sages they al­ready re­ceived and do­ing so in a mag­a­zine that had tremen­dous au­thor­ity. Na­tional Ge­o­graphic comes into ex­is­tence at the height of colo­nial­ism, and the world was divided into the colonis­ers and the colonised. That was a colour line, and Na­tional Ge­o­graphic was re­flect­ing that view of the world.”

The me­dia as a whole – The Satur­day Pa­per in­cluded – could ben­e­fit from sim­i­lar work in this coun­try. It need not be his­toric, un­for­tu­nately. There is enough in this past fort­night to fill a news­pa­per with apolo­gies.

Un­til we do this work, we will con­tinue to re­port from the past and find our­selves in con­flict with the re­al­i­ties of our present. Look­ing across at this week, we are no longer the first draft of his­tory: we are its un­sold re­prints.

We need greater diver­sity. We need greater cu­rios­ity about our pur­pose. We need a will­ing­ness to con­front the fact that we can be wrong and that we are. There is no use pre­tend­ing this is lim­ited to the more grotesque ex­cesses of our craft: it is present in the un­rep­re­sen­ta­tive ev­ery­day of our en­tire in­dus­try. We ask ques­tions of ev­ery­one but our­selves.

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