Last year will be remembered as a one of change for women. Perhaps not all women, but for those with a professional headshot, 2017 was a time of glorious advancement. At the Golden Globe awards, Oprah Winfrey was appointed Fantasy President by a press she praised for “insatiable dedication” that bravely took place “under siege”. Locally, Tracey Spicer accepted an Australia Day honour for her journalism uncovering sexual abuse in the media sector. The magazine Time made the #MeToo movement its Person of the Year. If one were a media worker in 2017, it was difficult not to believe in an epochal transformation.
If one were a typical media consumer, though, 2017 was likely to look rather different. Journalists and celebrities may continue to believe quite absolutely in their power to transform reality. Meantime, media itself has been trashed in the public understanding. The reality that media workers seek, often very earnestly, to shift is one with which only media workers, and perhaps their admirers, are familiar. This is a “reality” that believes its own foundation to be communication. Communication is now perceived by media workers as the basis from which reality itself springs.
If everyday reality were ever determined, not merely restated, in some part by media accounts of it, this is even less true now that it has previously been. News media, you may have heard, is increasingly received as a joke.
Faith in press as an insatiably dedicated institution that speaks the “truth” evoked by Winfrey is at an all-time low. In Australia, the US and other Western economies where a free press can still be paid for, a majority believes media and news to be “fake”.
Unfortunately, a majority are often quite right. Media workers, those who almost uniformly brought us “irrefutable” proof of weapons that were never there, do tend to serve up accounts we could call “fake”. Which is not — just to be boorishly clear — to suggest that any of the Spicer stories, for example, lack in meticulous research. It is to suggest that (a) many major reports from respectable mastheads not only lack in research or independence, but are refuted or corrected within days of publication and (b) the last thing media might want to report on in a time of its diminished status is itself.
For all their honourable intentions and punishing labour, journalists of this #MeToo movement may not be rewarding their sisters. The context into which these stories are offered is one of diminished public trust in media. The subjects of these stories are overwhelmingly media workers. There can be no doubt that those writers and journalists who give their all to #MeToo do so nobly. There can be some doubt that this work will attain the “structural change” Tracey Spicer says she is seeking.
To her credit, Spicer has said in recent weeks that she intends to cover experiences of sexual abuse and harassment that occur outside her own industry. She does seem to have a partial awareness that her own experience at work may not be of a universal type. Still, her view, like Oprah’s view or the Time magazine view, is that “structural change” might occur without any changes to actual structure. Instead, change is sought not collectively but individually and within an existing framework.
In her interview with The Guardian and on ABC TV in the hours following her Australia Day award, Spicer speaks of individual legal actions as the route to structural change. She has indicated that she intends to import the US example of establishing a legal defence fund for use by victims of workplace sexual harassment and abuse.
Do we really want to enrich the company of Litigious & Long while subjecting victims to months of reliving their trauma with every form and interview? Or, might it not be more effective to ensure that all workers in the categories of casual, self-employed and contract — insecure work in which women are more likely to be engaged than men — cease to exist? Not a battle that can be won in the super market-friendly US, but one for which we Australians could surely argue a powerful case.
Such thought — let’s make it harder for bosses to sack “problematic” workers; easier for workers to make “problematic” demands — does not occur to media. If it did, then the thought that reporting on media in a time of diminished faith in media would have also occurred from the outset.
For more than four months, the references to those outside elite professions have been scant — one Dorothea Lange-style moody photo essay in the New York Times and many women in media saying that they cared about all women, not just themselves. Which I am positive is the “truth”.
But truth is no use when it appears to its consumers as proof that media continue to believe that they are the architects of physically existing reality — one where men and women are routinely abused at work. This is a false assumption. Or, you might prefer to call it “fake”.