The Zero’s Journey: Why journalists are too convinced of their righteousness (and should immediately stop smelling their own farts)

Yes, the second part of that subject line is childish but so is the tendency among journalists to cast themselves as untouchable heroes.

In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell outlined the hero’s journey like this:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The same arc is present in the self-image of a lot of journalists; they venture out into the world, encounter the fabulous forces of trolls and people who don’t think journalists are a strikeforce of saints and superhumans, win a decisive victory by having their worldview confirmed by other journalists, then come back from this daily adventure with the power to share their byline approved wisdom with their lowly readers, even those who get angry in the comment section.

Yesterday, the latest edition of The Ruffian, a newsletter written by former ad man, current journalist, and self-proclaimed expert in winning arguments, Ian Leslie, was pinging around Twitter receiving praise from lots of other hacks who saw themselves reflected in it.

The piece, headlined Angels, demons, and videotape, is balanced on a recent episode of former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss’ podcast in which she and Kmele Foster, the co-host of the Fifth Column podcast, look at the ‘Central Park Karen’ story from May 25 last year and suggest that the media presented the interaction between a white dog walker and a black birdwatcher in a wilfully unbalanced way.

I might unpick the methods and motivations at work in Weiss and Foster’s podcast in another edition of this newsletter but today I want to focus on Leslie’s vision of what good journalism is as outlined in his article.

Appropriately for a former ad man, he begins by casting back to a commercial for The Guardian from 1986, the famous ‘Points of View’ spot. It begins by seeming to show a skinhead running from a car then the perspective switches to show him chasing a businessman seemingly trying to mug him but it’s the final shot change that gives the full picture — he’s saving him from falling debris. The voiceover, with the classic patrician tone of a public information film, says:

An event seen from one point of view gives one impression. Seen from another point of view, it gives quite a different impression. But it’s only when you get the whole picture that you can fully understand what’s going on.

The screen fills with the words “The Guardian” and the advert’s job is done.

After asserting that the ‘Points of view’ campaign was “one of the best ads ever made”, Leslie writes:

… I see this thirty-second-Rashomon as essentially an ad for Journalism. It is a brilliant dramatisation of what is probably the most valuable function of journalists: refusing to take narratives at face value, even or especially when that’s what everyone else is doing. That’s what distinguishes journalists from tweeters or YouTube ranters. Journalists check our stories about what’s going on against the facts and give us different, more truthful angles.

The defensiveness against YouTube and social media is hilarious but what’s really astounding about that final line (“Journalists… give us different more truthful angles.”) is that it’s an ad exec’s slogan rather than anything resembling the truth of British journalism in particular.

A lot of journalists like to believe they are working in a heroic industry of truth-tellers for whom honesty, integrity, and the facts are sacred.

Facts such as the vast pile of evidence given to the Leveson Inquiry that journalism is partial, partisan and predominantly defined by the whims of a handful of billionaire owners are not so sacred. Nor is the fact that survey after survey finds that the public trust journalists about the same as estate agents, even though a vanishingly small number of them have ever tried to sell someone a flat with a toilet in the kitchen.

There are countless examples of skewed perspectives and looking at things from one point of view in the British newspapers on a daily basis (just look at any news report or column about trans people or the GRT community). But I’m going to jump back to December 2019 for an easy example of how the British media fails to “give us different, more truthful angles”.

At the height of the General Election campaign, Matt Hancock — then Health Secretary, now famous for being looked at with pity by his own dog — was visiting Leeds General Infirmary. The hospital had been in the news after the Yorkshire Evening Post and Daily Mirror published an image of a four-year-old boy with pneumonia sleeping on the floor because of a lack of bed space.

One of the British media’s most committed ‘truthtellers’ The Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson falsely suggested the image was fake, basing her claim in part on a Facebook post by a woman who later said she had been hacked. Pearson retweeted screenshots of the Facebook page, telling her followers “I presume this is genuine” and doubled down by saying the photo was “100% faked”. Leeds General Infirmary confirmed that the story was true. Pearson has yet to offer an apology for her claim. People waiting for one are now bluer than Papa Smurf.

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Incredibly Hancock’s visit to the hospital produced a second example of media distortion. He had gone to Leeds General Infirmary after Boris Johnson had refused to look at the photo of the boy and had instead taken the phone from the journalist questioning him and pocketed it. It was then claimed by a Tory party source that one of Hancock’s aides had been punched by a Labour protestor as he left the hospital.

The political editors of the BBC and ITV, Laura Kuenssberg and Robert Peston, were both fed the ‘news’ and rushed to report it via their Twitter accounts. A video quickly emerged that proved the claim was false.

The footage showed the aide walking into the protestor’s arm. It wasn’t even a phantom punch like the one that ended Muhammad Ali’s second fight with Sonny Liston. There was no punch at all.

Peston said he had been informed of the ‘encounter’ outside the hospital by “senior Tories” while Kuenssberg said she had been given the information by two sources. Both apologised on Twitter but only Peston reported the incident on the air. He told ITV News at Ten viewers:

One of Hancock’s aides was poked in the face, but despite what many of us were told by the Tories, it was plainly an accident.

Kuenssberg’s TV and radio reports did not mention the Tory spinners’ lies at all. It was although, if you weren’t on Twitter, they never happened.

Three months before the Leeds General Infirmary incident, Kuenssberg was at the centre of another controversy involving reporting from a hospital. When the father of a sick child confronted Boris Johnson at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London, she quote tweeted one of the man’s messages with the words:

This is him here

While the BBC press office released a statement that defended her…

Like many others, Laura quote tweeted a thread by Omar Salem, who had written himself about his encounter with the PM on social media and describes himself as a labour activist.

Any suggestion there was malicious intent behind her tweets are [sic] absurd.

… those four words carried a lot of meaning. She didn’t write “He discusses the incident here…” or “Here is his perspective…” but “This is him here”. It suggested both the end and the start of a hunt.

One journalist who tweeted about Leslie’s article provides a much more recent example of a failure of perspective. John Rentoul, The Independent’s Chief Political Commentator, tweeted a screenshot of this section of Leslie’s piece…

Journalism ought to act as an inhibitor, dampening the febrile spread of misconceptions and misinformation, helping us to make less knee-jerk, more considered judgements. But for it to play that role, we need journalists who positively enjoy the work of undermining narratives, and who take as their mission something close to James Baldwin’s description of the poet’s responsibility: “to defeat all labels and complicate all battles.” Yet we appear to have fewer of those than ever.

… and commented that it was “a good description of a kind of journalism we should have more of…”

Less than 24 hours earlier, Rentoul had been obliged to post a personal apology to the Labour MP John Trickett for a tweet he had sent on May 7 2021, in which he had written:

A Labour MP — a Labour MP — who thinks it’s clever to use a slogan implying support for murdering police officers.

His apology stated:

I based this on a tweet in which Mr Trickett used the ‘Kill the Bill’ slogan. I accept that Mr Trickett was not condoning violence against police officers and that he was using this phrase to reference his opposition to the Police and Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

I accept that my tweet was wrong and I sincerely apologies for the distress and upset that my tweet has caused Mr Trickett.

John Rentoul should “make less knee-jerk, more considered judgements”, but imagine the hubris of tweeting high-handed moralising about journalistic ethics less than a day after you’ve been forced to admit you interpreted someone’s words in abject bad faith.

Some apologies are gained through legal threats. Some are gained through the threat of a flaming-torch wielding crowd of angry villagers marching towards the ancient castle where you slumber in the crypt. Either way, for Rentoul to have just had to pay damages and post a ‘please retweet’ apology then pontificate about good journalism has more front than Babs Windsor in Carry On Camping.

When Leslie writes…

Too often, news organisations and their employees act only as reinforcers, coming in behind a viral story and giving it rocket boosters. This is partly because they are hungry for clicks. It’s also because the mindset of journalists has changed. They no longer have much fealty to the traditions inherited by Baquet1 and his generation. They see their job as fighting for one side of a political battle. It hardly occurs to them to seek out information which undermines a story that bolsters their own side.

… he is implicitly exempting him and his friends from those criticisms. It’s a dig at younger journalists who are, in fact, obliged by click hungry editors from that older generation to churn out content farm reactions to social media shite.

In the same way that opinion columnists insist that young people simply don’t care about owning a house or having a job for longer than two years, his suggestion that young journalists “no longer have much fealty” to journalistic traditions is abject horse shit. As with housing and employment more generally, young journalists work within a media environment that is systematically broken and they are, by and large, not the ones who broke it.

There’s another way of looking at that Guardian ad too — another perspective if you like — which is to see the use of a skinhead protagonist as emblematic of a common tendency in British and American media. That's to bend over backwards to understand the ‘concerns’ of the right, far-right, and out-right fascists while dismissing anyone to the left of Benito Mussolini as “hard left” babies who don’t understand anything and should be either ignored or vilified.

The Bari Weiss podcast episode that excited Leslie into writing his piece is about pointing at an incident seen by many as representative of the way white people, particularly in the US, use the police as a weapon against black people and saying, “We think this example was more complicated therefore there’s too much talk about race in the media.”

Look carefully at what stories and examples are picked apart and which are not. Look also at what stories are treated as major news and which are relegated to down page coverage and the briefest of mentions in bulletins. Which victims are given front-page treatment and days of coverage? And which are mentioned, if they are mentioned at all, as an afterthought in the news in brief column?

I’m not trying to set myself up as a paragon of journalistic ethics nor suggest that there are no good journalists in Britain (#notallhacks) but the gulf between what many of the most prominent hacks think our trade is and what it actually boils down to most of the time is so vast that even Evel Knievel would have baulked at trying to leap across it.

A lot of the journalists and columnists who showered praise on Leslie’s piece read it and saw themselves in the sentence…

Journalists, like good novelists, should be curious about everything and empathetic about everyone. They should seek to tell a different story, not the story everybody else is telling. 

… when, in fact, they write for papers that indulge in groupthink on a daily basis and which buy into a set of assumptions about wealth, status, and the role of the establishment in Britain that are never truly questioned in the media.

There are some journalists who are heroes — journalists who stand up for things and reveal secrets and injustices that others would like kept hidden — but most of us are not heroes. Journalism is a job and too many people working within the industry like to valorise it, circle the wagons when it is criticised, and act as if the “bad apples” go to another school.

The abject arrogance of many people in senior positions in journalism is one of the biggest reasons why the media isn’t more trusted. Every time someone like John Rentoul tweets from beneath his Tony Blair bedspread, in his Tony Blair wallpapered room, about how journalists should “undermine narratives” an angel loses its wings, lights a fag, and says, “Fuck this for a game of soldiers.”

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New York Times editor Dean Baquet