The Rally to Restore Sense

by

Over the fold is a piece due to be published at ABC’s The Drum.

Rallying away from the media

Joshua Gans

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.

5 Responses to "The Rally to Restore Sense"
  1. 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.
    I call it trying to appear to be doing something about high interest rates while not actually doing anything. Mr Costello was not above doing the same thing. Do you ever recall a treasurer complaining when the banks were dropping their interest rates faster than the RBA? Me neither.
    I like to think of this behavior as yet another example of Boganomics.
     

  2. In the entertainment stakes, even in this crowd, it was Colbert that won out and it is perhaps this that supports Stewart’s thesis.
    I think it’s simply that Colbert is more talented.

  3. “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.” I reckon this means the methodology you were using (which I understand and thought was really clever in its conception) is unsound. Any method that yields the conclusion that the Age and the Australian are similar and in the centre can be automatically consigned to the dustbin.
     
    Regarding your defense of Joe Hockey, he was not unfairly targeted for one silly comment. It is more a case of him making a comment that flies in the face of liberal tradition and branding, without warning anyone, including his own party, and then trying to place this within some kind of larger policy reform agenda that he recently threw out there to make himself look like a leader and progresssive thinker.

    Having said that, I agree with your general observation that the media is trending towards more emphasis on the superficial and the partisan, see http://blogs.mbs.edu/fishing-in-the-bay/?p=255.

  4. I disagree.  From my perspective in the crowd (smashed just behind the last speaker, near the family reunification tent: the furthest back where you could stand and still hear, and thus the spot that acquired more and more rally-goers as the event went on), I was amazed by how reasonable everyone was.  Even though we were all smashed together, unable to avoid touching strangers, unable to see, swaying with the random Brownian motion that rippled through the crowd and forced us to either move with the flow or be crushed, even so, whenever someone wanted to escape the crowd, we all managed to find room to take a step back to allow that person’s egress.  Even though there were a few jerks that took advantage of the new paths to surge forward and crush everyone even more, the rest of us, the vast majority, didn’t yell at them, punch them, or start a riot.  It really was like the New Jersey turnpike: we all managed to get along, which really impressed me.  It would have seemed so easy for a sudden panic to cause a stampede that really could have killed people: but it didn’t happen.  Reason really did triumph over fear.

%d bloggers like this:
PageLines