Let’s get one thing clear first: the structural problems in the media landscape discussed in this article are far from the most important issue raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. However, given the powerful role played by journalists and editors in shaping public opinion, their close ties to political elites, and their historic (and contemporary) role in perpetuating racist structures that govern our society, it is an industry that warrants critique.
Over the past week I have been blown away by the momentous culture change occurring in newsrooms and workplaces across the US media. The movement for racial justice, reignited recently by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, has always been aimed at reshaping power relations, and it makes sense that its ramifications would also be felt inside media institutions.
The reckoning in the US
The highest-profile incident so far occurred at The New York Times. An opinion piece published by US Senator Tom Cotton suggesting President Trump use the military to quell civil unrest sparked a huge internal backlash. Dozens of NYT staffers publicly criticised their own employer and argued the op-ed’s publication was a threat to the safety of black reporters.
It was an extraordinary situation given how rare it is for journalists to criticise their own colleagues, and the fact that reporters at the NYT are prohibited from publicly disparaging their employer (it’s a similar situation in almost all newsrooms). The internal backlash eventually led to the NYT apologising for publishing the piece with a number of factual errors and the resignation of the paper’s opinion editor, after it emerged he hadn’t actually read the piece before it went live.
The stoush highlighted ongoing debates inside most media organisations about what kinds of voices and ideas are acceptable in public discourse, and how those decisions are influenced by the lack of diversity (race, gender, class and more) in senior editorial and management roles.
But it was only the beginning. Since then a number of publications including Bon Appétit, New York magazine, Paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Refinery29 have seen high profile resignations and apologies in response to allegations of racist workplace practices or inappropriate editorial content.
A memo sent out from the editor of the LA Times to all staffers acknowledged the paper’s history of ‘dehumanising’ people of colour and committed to editorial and organisational reforms to improve diversity.
The scale of change is extraordinary but so is its pace. All these resignations, apologies and commitments to reform have occurred since James Bennett, the then NYT opinion editor, resigned just over a week ago.
What’s happening in Australia?
As a journalist who has been vocal about the media’s failures on race for years, often to the detriment of my own career and professional relationships, I wondered how long it would take for the kind of cultural shift occurring in the US to hit our shores.
Australian newsrooms are already significantly less representative of the population than those in the US. And not only is our news landscape dominated by News Corp, a company which actively seeks to destroy the lives of people of colour it doesn’t like, even our liberal news outlets give space and prominence to straight out white nationalists.
The biggest issue when it comes to racism in Australia, and this applies across society as well as to the media, is denial that it actually exists. Very, very few senior managers, editors and journalists understand how structural racism operates on a societal level, across the media as a class, and in the organisations they run and work in.
Even fewer have acknowledged the role the have played in perpetuating it, and fewer still are willing to accept that their decisions and actions can change it. This could have been a moment to change that, but a number of recent examples suggest that won’t happen.
On Friday June 5, The Age newspaper published a front page story accusing Black Lives Matter protesters of threatening police ‘with spitting, inflammatory chanting and other forms of physical abuse’. The sole basis for the accusations was given as a ‘senior government source’. Many protestors, including the organisers, were angered by the story and its framing, which portrayed Aboriginal activists as violent and abusive without justification.
Following a backlash on social media the story was edited, and an apology was added. There was no commitment to review editorial policies or practices that allowed a story as false and inflammatory as this go to print in the first place.
The same newspaper also apologised for an editorial it wrote two days earlier falsely claiming there was no history of slavery in Australia.
The day after the Black Lives Matter rallies in Australia one of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs, Insiders, went to air featuring an entirely white panel.
Again, there was an immediate backlash on social media (for transparency’s sake, I was very much a part of that backlash).
This incident was more interesting because it was the first time a number of journalists (both white and non-white) at the ABC spoke up to criticise the show’s panel and the way the discussion was conducted.
An analysis by Junkee’s Rob Stott found that the show had never featured a non-white panellist. Not only is this fact extraordinary in and of itself, it’s even more remarkable that this was never brought to light and interrogated until now.
It took a global movement against racism for a TV show on the public broadcaster to finally be called out over its appalling history of erasure.
Last weekend Insiders invited ABC journalist Bridget Brennan onto the show, a former national Indigenous affairs correspondent, and announced a commitment to improve diversity.
No one from the show’s production or ABC management has spoken publicly about how and why the show failed to feature a non-white voice until June 14, 2020. There’s been no commitment to overhauling editorial policies or instituting training or other mechanisms to ensure diversity is reflected on air.
The Insiders fiasco is a particularly egregious example of institutionalised racism, but it’s far from the only program at the ABC to have this issue. Most flagship programs at the broadcaster have entirely white productions and few, if any, non-white reporters. This situation could have been an opportunity to announce a comprehensive review to fix these problems, but so far there’s been nothing.
As we saw with The Age, there’s been a quick apology but no interrogation of how these issues actually occurred.
And these are the least extreme examples of what’s been playing out in the Australia media over the past week.
The Australian Financial Review was criticised over a column about the death of David Dungay Jr, a 26-year-old Dungatti man who died in custody.
Then The Daily Telegraph published an article blaming ‘aboriginals’ and ‘negroes’ for the institutional racism they experience.
Chris Uhlmann, the political editor at Nine (prior to that the political editor at the ABC), has compared protestors seeking the removal of statues that celebrate colonialism to Islamic State.
Cotton vs. Bannon
In September 2018 the ABC was criticised (again, for the sake of transparency, I was one of the critics) for a Four Corners episode that featured Steve Bannon.
The show was criticised both for the prominence given to Bannon and the fact that the host, respected journalist Sarah Ferguson, absolved the former executive chairman of a far-right news platform and Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, of holding any racist views.
In an interview this week Ferguson again defended the interview, saying she was ‘outraged’ by the critical response to it and believes ‘If we don’t listen to each other, we are screwed.’
In many ways the incident has parallels with the Tom Cotton op-ed in the NYT. The defence for both was that these individuals, whether you like them or not, are powerful and influential and there ideas should be contested and interrogated—no matter how uncomfortable they might make you
It’s a traditionalist approach to journalism and it’s seemingly hard to argue against. But as Margaret Sullivan argued in The Washington Post, it’s a flimsy defence.
Firstly, there are plenty of powerful and influential people who hold views that aren’t being aired in the opinion pages or on flagship current affairs programs. There’s lots of views that we accept don’t deserve prominence, like Islamic extremism or defending violence against women.
And deciding how to report a perspective is more complicated than ‘Well, we have to air all sides’. If a US Senator thinks the military should be deployed against protestors, that’s obviously newsworthy. So perhaps it should be reported in a news piece, with the rigour that brings, instead of being run as opinion?
And if Bannon is a character worth of interrogation shouldn’t he be… interrogated? Not treated as a svengali who has ‘no evidence’ of racism against him, when in fact there’s plenty.
The difference between the two is that the Cotton op-ed led to a resignation and sparked a movement inside US newsrooms to correct outdated perspectives on what ‘balance’ and ‘independence’ looks like. In Australia the Bannon interview has clearly not led to any kind of introspection, given Ferguson’s full-throated defence of it in the current context.
Hasn’t the Australian media always sucked?
The point here isn’t that Australian news outlets are being especially outrageous. All the examples in this story are pretty much par for the course when it comes to everyday racism in the Australia media landscape
The issue is that while a critical mass of journalists in the US are forcing change by speaking out and denouncing racism in hiring, salaries and editorial decisions, Australian journalists are by-and-large remaining silent.
Most journalists here are too afraid of ruining their job prospects by criticising a competitor, let alone their own outlet. The few who do decide to speak out are overwhelmingly from marginalised communities themselves and face not only the burden of racism in their workplaces, but punishment for publicly speaking out against it.
The handful of examples we do have of recent ‘change’, as minimal as its been, does show that when a big enough section of the community demands it, editors and producers will respond. But those responses need to be stronger, and they need to be happening in far more places.
Instead it seems like most journalists and editors here have decided to litigate the issue of race by honing in on the culture war issues of statues and ‘non-woke’ TV and film. These are issues that warrant examination, absolutely, but it’s bizarre to watch one of the largest social movements in recent Australian history boil down to whether or not we should watch Gone with the Wind (if you think I’m exaggerating the Prime Minister was literally asked about the film at a press conference last week).
This issue is linked to the broader question of the media’s race problem because it seems overwhelmingly driven by white journalists. I can’t find an opinion piece on the issue of statues or Chris Lilley by those in the industry who actually experience racism, but there’s plenty from white journalists (even when they admit they don’t understand the issues they’re writing about!).
White, liberal journalists in Australia are great at wringing their hands at the state of the industry, and the horrible racism it perpetuates. But why do they expect it to change if they stay silent and watch from the sidelines as their non-white colleagues get torn apart for daring to speak out?
Culture change doesn’t happen because managers and editors wake up one day and decide to be ‘good’. It happens when the rest of us collectivise and demand it. That’s what we’re seeing in the US. And sadly it’s not what we’re seeing here.