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March 30, 2009 | by  | in Features |
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Toy Stories

There’s a complexity to Buzz Lightyear that lends him well to analysis: his twirly fringe, gloriously defined chin, gizmo-spruced spacesuit, and a helmet that does that “whoooosh” thing renders him less a piece of Star Command machinery and more “a really cool toy.”

When he and Woody barely escape Psycho Sid’s firecracker during the climatic scenes of Toy Story, the cowboy says to the spaceman, “You’re flying!” and the spaceman retorts: “This isn’t flying! This is falling… with style!” It’s not quite real, but it’s good enough; it’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.

There’s an element of “falling with style” that drops down on the institutions of New Zealand’s news media. It pervades the way it questions the world around it. The many colours of the newsian rainbow refract through a kaleidoscope of different imperatives and considerations—commercial, thoughtful, smart and sexy—to give us our daily bread in splotchy newsprint or gorgeous widescreen.

The light that sheds upon the busy hustle and bustle of our three-isled paradise is one often scrutinised and talked about with disdain and wonder. The ‘shit house’ quality of New Zealand news is there for all to see: images of pompous journalists rolling around in pools of fellating self-indulgence, prised from combative journalism schools rich with ideals of feet-to-the-fire justice, sprinkled with a dusting of ambition, heart, body and soul, crushed so catastrophically by greedy corporates with dollar signs ka-chinging in their eyes, keeping tabs on the “TERROR FILES,” dressing David Bain up in a hooped jumper by Janet Sampson and wondering why on earth the man’s cheeks are a darker shade of crimson. Boy howdy, Buzz. This really puts the “falling” into “falling with style.”

“The role of the news media is to tell stories, put the facts before the public, and to make money for their shareholders if they are a commercial operation.” So says Prime News’ Editor Richard Sutherland with a colourless intonation bordering on matter-of-factness. Yeah, that’s right, journo nubs. Wrap it up. Your Woodward & Bernstein-coloured thoughts of fancy journalistic discourse digging through the trenches of truth are little more than fairytale. This beautiful three-prong system offered by Sensei Sutherland pulls the miniskirt off journalism and hands it a heavy pair of bloomers to sport instead. Fact-filled stories told to the public for a fee; what is this, a seminar by Robert Fisk?

Questions can, and inevitably do, rise as to whether true journalistic inquiry has been sacrificed. Does it make sense to look upon the institutions of the news media with hope, or is it equally sensible to turn one’s nose up at items not staunchly journalistic, but deliciously bubbly?

“I don’t think that’s for us to define; it’s up to the field of journalism to define that in itself,” says Dr Thierry Jutel from Victoria University of Wellington’s Media Studies department.

“I think it’s kind of hard for others to say what they think the news media should be. The news media always has a claim to a kind of independence and professionalism. If you’re inside the field, you can make a claim, as opposed to being on the outside and making some kind of abstract and disconnected idea about what the news media should be doing,” Jutel says.

Who’s to disagree? Historically, the gist of the news media has always been to “tell stories” and “put the facts before the public,” and it has enjoyed a bountiful bevy of success here. The field is self-sustaining, buoyed by a sense of responsibility to the public discourse, and providing a service that’s noble in intent. Sometimes moving, often truthful, and staggeringly unique. Oh, history. You do amuse.

New Zealand’s news media culture can’t possibly be examined without dropping a few thoughts on the essence of New Zealand media culture itself.

“It’s such a small scale, for one,” says Colin Peacock, storied journalist, media commentator, and host of Radio New Zealand’s Media Watch. “Which, unfortunately, means we have a system of duopolies operating.”

Indeed, our information comes in generous dollops; a dollop from one spoon, and a dollop from another. The spoons are relatively similar in size and shape, and the dollops themselves are reasonably proportioned, but each handler will profess upon Pulitzer himself that they are different.

New Zealand print news is dominated by Fairfax Media and APN News & Media; radio is deftly split between the Canadian-owned Mediaworks and The Radio Network; and television—as adorable as it is for Prime News to think it’s a player—is presided over by the giants, TVNZ and TV3.

“By competing with each other, these companies don’t want to be diverse—they don’t need to be diverse. So many people tune into the six o’clock news, and you find that because of the commercial imperatives, they’re broadcasting the same thing, which I think is the problem,” Peacock laments.

… And a light bulb appears. These duopolies are cooking up sweet, delicious profits; they need to cook up sweet, delicious profits, and they need to keep tabs on what’s being brewed in the cauldron across the road. You can already smell where this is heading, and these dashing dualities make no bones about their need to breathe in sweet ka-ching in order to survive. As the philosopher Sutherland says, the role of the news media is “…to make money for their shareholders if they are a commercial operation.”

So, is this the problem with New Zealand’s news media? Have they rendered news stories little more than toys of commerciality? Have the imperatives of the dollar become so ingrained in the everyday lives of our media giants that they have slithered down the throats of journalistic discourse? Do commercial imperatives affect the kind of journalism produced? Dr. Jutel?

“Well, yes, they do.”

Well, I guess that lands you dribbling newsies on One News in the lap of Uncle Dollar, don’t it? Oh, I’m sorry, Dr. Jutel, you have something to add?

“Traditionally, the news hour doesn’t have to make money. It’s strategic to its position on the schedule grid in terms of leading into other things for the evening.

“The imperative for television networks to have news hours is more clearly about branding than it is about news journalism.”

Which, I suppose, makes sense in the pit of duelling duopolies trying to make a name in a field of sameness. Television’s news markets are defined broadly by the imperatives of the medium, but what about print media? What’s their excuse?

Colin Peacock feels that the question shouldn’t be whether commercial imperatives of print media affect the quality of journalism, but instead what lets them.

“If you look at print news, it’s not being run necessarily in the best interests of the newspapers or the audience,” he says. “When you have a head office in Sydney, it’s impossible.”

“If you look at a lot of the content published in the likes of The Dominion and The Press, a lot of it comes from Australia simply because the material’s from the same company.” Peacock explains that this explicit centrality is a decisive factor influencing how many bodies in New Zealand’s print news have moved about. A troubling shift in recent times towards cheap, centralised content has disenfranchised a number of seasoned journos—the pros, the guys with an eye for a story, a story for an eye that’s eager to be stunned.

“News should be about telling you what the truth is, what the facts are, and these days they go after the story because it needs to have a lot of impact, and a lot of things get exaggerated. Nowadays you need to extract the maximum impact from a story, and that tends to make it a bigger deal than what it is.”

Consider the case of celebrated journalist Tim Watkin. The former New Zealand Herald luminary, co-editor of The Listener, and recipient of the Wolfson Fellowship, cast aside the ebbs and flows of New Zealand’s print media and saddled up towards the speakeasy Internet where he established Pundit.co.nz.

Peacock says “Here’s a guy who should be a senior reporter, but he’s gotten to a stage in his career where he’s pissed off with working for a company where the profit margins are sinking, where they’re sacking people, and where everyone’s getting less creative and ambitious.”

“The journos who can do that hardcore journalism that you need, they’re not in the game anymore.”

It has all the appeal of an autoimmune disease, but what shape will our toy stories take in the future?

“I think daily papers will go on for some time, but they’ll become hugely centralised, so New Zealand will become something of a branch office,” offers Peacock.

“And that hasn’t happened already?” laughs Dr. Jutel, when the idea is put to him.

“There’s obviously a move towards more online content, which doesn’t require a fixed base of operations, and the costs are smaller, comparatively. But beyond that, I really don’t know.”

Peacock sighs as he contemplates where the toy chest of New Zealand print media will be stored in the future.

“What will become a thing of the past is the idea of the building on the main drag in the big city that houses the paper, the journalist, the ad sales, the design, the layout, et cetera. That’ll all go.”

It all sounds rather depressing: centralised McDonald’s news served in an Aussie accent. It’s a sorry indictment on a country so teeming with stories to tell, issues to air and conversations to have that the mechanisms by which these are expressed will grow tatty like a used toy.

“One minute you’re defending the whole galaxy, and, suddenly, you find yourself sucking down Darjeeling with… Marie Antoinette and her little sister.”

Kia ora, Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Kia ora.

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