Over the fold is a piece due to be published at ABC’s The Drum.
Rallying away from the media
Americans are curiously passionate about politics. This is something that, for many years, I observed with wry amusement. From an Australian perspective, Republicans and Democrats seemed so similar that it was hard to imagine getting excited about either. But there is little doubt that over the past decade the perception has changed.
The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has a thesis regarding why this change has occurred. He points the finger squarely at the media. The pressure of increasing competition for scarcer and scarcer news attention from the public has polarised the US new media. The polarisation is real with Fox News on the right and MSNBC in the left and CNN not knowing what to do with itself. That has been born out in academic studies that suggest the US is uniquely extreme in this regard. Indeed, when Andrew Leigh and I tried to replicate the same studies for Australia, all of our media placed themselves straight down the centre; in sharp contrast to their attempts to position themselves otherwise.
It is with that in mind that I travelled with my 11 year old daughter and 9 year old son to Washington to attend the Rally to Restore Sanity. The trip was my daughter’s birthday present as she had become a fan of Stewart and Stephen Colbert after we watched them to get some informative news for a school assignment. She had had political inclinations after a confrontation with Peter Costello back in 2007. This would give us a chance to observe American politics at close range. And we were joined by around 150,000 others who ruthlessly represented themselves in the middle of US politics.
But we didn’t quite get that. The event was a caricature of political rallies. It had music, poems, awards and speeches but with a twist as Stewart tried to mix his reasonableness with Colbert’s representation of extremism. In the entertainment stakes, even in this crowd, it was Colbert that won out and it is perhaps this that supports Stewart’s thesis. It is the rule that disproves the exception. For while reasonableness brought in the crowd, extremism – even overtly false extremism – kept their attention for three hours. While other news organisations in the US would not be as overt, they are playing on the same things to drive demand. In fact, reasonableness only has a chance of being entertainment in an environment where extremists are taken seriously.
In Australia, we see the same pressures on the media and the same tendencies to move towards extremism and to focus on the political game rather than the substance of the policy debate. Consider this week’s pillorying of Joe Hockey. He raised the important policy issues regarding our financial system but did so initially with a loose statement on interest rate regulation. The media piled on as did politicians (some disappointingly so). Hockey could never quite live it down despite providing some of the most thoughtful comments in years on the broad issues with our banking system. Put simply, Australian governments have been in the business of home mortgage interest rate targeting ever since actual rate regulations were removed. What do you call Wayne Swan’s regular attempts to sway the banks with moral appeals whenever the Reserve Bank tightens monetary policy; even though that is the point of such policy? If it’s not regulation, it has the same intent.
The Australian media are increasingly finding it profitable to focus on the gaffs and draw attention away from real policy issues and accountability. We are far from creating the environment where thousands would feel the need to be counted at a Rally to Restore Sanity but we are heading in that direction. When we return to Australia my hope is that my daughter’s school assignments can use our local news for their information. My fear is that we will have to look elsewhere.
Joshua Gans is a professor at Melbourne Business School and a visiting scholar at Harvard University.