From that moment on Friday when Waleed Aly joined the dots leading from the murders in Christchurch back through white supremacy to business-as-usual Australian political dog-whistling, the outrage machine in media and politics has been scrambling for cover.
Desperate for diversion, leaping from denial to threats and back again, looking for some footing that will somehow lead them back to where they thought the world was a week ago.
No-one has been more wedged than Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Just last week, he was busy looking forward to a greatest hits revival, with a Tampa election redux.
Then, in his blistering statement on Friday night’s episode of The Project, Aly demonstrated the enduring power of white hot anger delivered with ice-cold journalistic steel. His intervention set the parameters of debate for change, and journalists — particularly journalists of colour who are rarely given a voice — are seizing this moment to push reset.
By the weekend, Morrison was denying an eight-year-old SMH story noted by Aly, headed “Morrison sees votes in anti-Muslim strategy.” The PM’s staff were on the phone demanding retractions and threatening defamation. (The story’s author, Lenore Taylor, stands by the story.)
Peter Dutton attempted the standard diversion of “let’s not politicise tragedy”, with a desperate lunge for moral equivalency between white supremacist Anning and Green senators. It was left to Dutton-voting Matthias Cormann to clean up that particular mess by asserting the unique awfulness of Anning.
News Corp has been no more sure-footed. Just last week, they were all hot and bothered about the great threat to freedom of speech in commercial activist group Sleeping Giants’ targeting of Sky News advertisers. Then, New Matilda re-upped a February report from the One Path Network documenting the repeated anti-Islam stories — many front-paged — in News Corp’s papers. The report broke out close to 3,000 examples over 12 months by masthead, by page and by columnist. (You can download it here.)
News has blamed social media. But a separate report over the weekend demonstrated how the power of media outrage has been amplified — not diminished — by social media. Social media tracking company News Whip found outrage bastion Fox News is a strong leader in engagement on Facebook, and clear front-runner on pages with the most “angry” reactions from users.
Seven went back to its long-failed strategy of “exposing racism” through an on-air “debate” between Sunrise presenter David Koch and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson. The channel, and Sunrise in particular, have done much to succour One Nation, including through paid appearances by Hanson.
The ABC has picked the weekend’s pivot most successfully — notwithstanding its role over the past year in providing platforms to the white supremacist right with a “what’s wrong with this?” insouciance. Monday night’s episode of The Drum was given over to a panel of Muslim women.
But there’s a long way to go if these baby steps are to be transformed into a new, diverse range of truth-seeking media voices that reflect the sort of tolerant society that everyone has been lauding over the weekend.
The challenge is that there’s money in outrage as a deliberate business model to engage through bias confirmation. But it’s not journalism. It’s a vector for right-wing talking points. It employs a rhetoric that simply uses the semiotics of journalism to create a pretence of truth. Last week Crikey reported on how this works to mainstream climate denialism.
We’ve seen (most recently in the Wentworth byelection) that many Australians are embarrassed — humiliated and angry — by the outrage economy and its impact on politics. But dismantling these structures will require commitment by media companies to walk away from programming that brings them both money and influence.
There’s a parallel debate in the US. Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan earlier this month described News Corp’s sister organisation, Fox News, as “an American plague” and Jane Mayer has highlighted the lines between Fox (and the Murdochs) and Trump in The New Yorker.
It tells us that both here and in the US, this outrage machine is at a moment of historic weakness. It’s doing more harm that good to its friends in the political mainstream. It’s discredited and despised. Now is the opportunity to reshape the media to be what we know it can be.