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Terry Cantwell © 2003


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Yesterday I told a work colleague that I had attended Friday 14 Februaryís peace rally in Melbourne. She looked disappointed. ďI would have gone, had I known, why wasnít it advertised anywhere?í she said.

I was tempted to give a smart answer, but simply told her that I had learnt about the rally from the Internet.

But she has a point. The media gave little coverage to the rally before the event. On Thursday, some commercial jocks tried to beat up their usual "student agitators wagging school to upset the traffic" line, but in general, the print and broadcast media ignored the event. This seems a little odd Ė considering the hysteria that preceded the Melbourne s11 protest a few years ago.

Iíve worked in commercial media on and off for many years, and I can honestly say that I have never been instructed to censor political content. I know many people on the left believe there exists a corporate media conspiracy to discredit their causes, but I think the reality is more simple, and in a sense scarier than conspiracy. Commercial media is a business, and as such uses standard management techniques to produce content. The survival of the organisation is paramount - therefore content has to be reliable. Risk taking is frowned upon and as a result, media professionals are terrified of making the wrong call.

Like any manufacturer, we need raw material to make our product. At the radio station where I work as a producer, our material originates from the hundreds of daily press releases we receive, from the Associated Press newswire, from daily newspapers and personal leads. We donít have enough time to verify news that isnít sourced. I have four hours to prepare a talkback show. I must decide what stories to run, and then chase interviews, write scripts, balance content and crosscheck as many facts as possible. I have to ensure that interviewees are "good talent" and that their credentials are up to scratch. Itís stressful, hectic and I am constantly concerned about stuffing up. So quite often, I will fill the running sheet early with easy "gets", (the threes "f"s Ė fashion, freaks and finance) which will hopefully give me time to chase up some "real stories". Unfortunately, what goes to air rarely reflects the most important, or interesting stories of the day; more likely, we will invent new angles on re-hashed news. Thatís the reality of it. Weíre not lazy or unprofessional Ė weíre just working with the resources weíve been given.

The Left talks about the mainstream media as if it were an amoeba-like parasite conspiring with the government and its capitalist masters to subvert the truth from the public. This is not altogether true. Australian Commercial media is a highly competitive industry comprised of separate organisations battling for market share. We donít pool resources and have little working contact with our competitors. Sometimes we will interview a reporter from a rival network or the chairman of a television station when there is something of mutual benefit to share (the Oscars or a national charity appeal for instance). These interviews are usually cordial, with lots of "mate, how is the family?" backslapping banter. But this masks an ego-driven, highly paranoid industry, where many people hate each other. Australian media has a sameness to it that leaves it open to charges of conspiracy.

Australian shock-jocks demonise the left because the left is an "easy get". Protest spokespeople are controversial and are usually willing to be interviewed. Their views are usually guaranteed to elicit talkback and letters to the editor. Management experience and industry research suggests that Australian talkback audiences and tabloid readers are predominantly a lower-middle class, baby-boomer demographic. Their views tend to be conservative and they are not impressed with too much intellectual analysis or complex issues. These people buy the goods and services that commercial media advertises. We are simply giving them what they want Ė they are keeping us in business.

When I was a kid, my dad advised me, "donít believe everything you read, newspapers donít always tell the truth". Iíd say most people have been given that advice at some point. Its vital that you question everything you read or hear. Not because the author is lying, but because he or she is probably telling you what they think you want to hear.

Compared to the mainstream media, the Internet is a far richer source of information. Information is shared and linked. Internet users are not only readers, but also participants who can respond or add to the information presented. Todayís Melbourne Herald Sun ran four articles about the anti-war movement, most of it geared against the protestors. I studied the articles and discovered very little I didnít already know. The Herald Sun is giving its readers what it wants. (a few days ago, Herald Sun readers bucked the national trend and voted 73% to 27% in favour of going to war with Iraq). On the Internet, I found hundreds of articles on the peace issue. Granted, many were un-sourced opinion pieces (but thatís no different from an Andrew Bolt column) but I found links to UN documents, CIA history, and military movements in the gulf Ė all sorts of fascinating stuff that I wasnít aware of.

The rallies demonstrated how quickly the mainstream media is becoming irrelevant as a source for new information. The events in Australia were not advertised or broadcast; yet, five hundred thousand Australians knew where and when to turn up.

Next week, US congressmen and women will report to work and find themselves in the midst of one of the largest civil disobedience actions in history. Win-Without-War -- a coalition of anti war groups -- has organised a cyber-march, in which people from all over the world will email, fax, and telephone every congress member with concerns about the forthcoming war. The organisers are expecting so much cyber-traffic into Washington that government phone systems and computer networks may crash. I didnít learn about this from the Melbourne Age, the Herald Sun or radio 3AW (they are probably not even aware of it yet) but this event has been the talk of cyberspace for almost two weeks.

Itís only a matter of time, if it isnít already happening, before the news networks will be playing catch-up with the internet, trying to claw back some readers and listeners. The culture of information sharing is changing so dramatically, that the traditional media networks have a huge job ahead.




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