Johannes Leak and Kamala Harris (Images: AAP/Joel Carrett and Gage Skidmore/WikiCommons)

Dolly Parton had some great advice over the weekend for anyone caught up in disputes over racist imagery and commentary: “don’t be a dumbass”.

Asked about the removal of the word “dixie” from her show in the latest issue of Billboard, Parton said: “As soon as you realise that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is: I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.”

It’s a timely message for the editors at The Australian. And, in fact, all of Australian media right now.

Friday’s now-notorious cartoon by Johannes Leak had the double whammy of racism and sexism, characterising a 55-year-old US senator and vice-presidential candidate as a “little brown girl”. When pushed, The Australian editor Chris Dore played the “this cartoon’s not racist — you are!” defence, claiming it was a satire of Joe Biden’s views. Sure, Chris.

Prominent journalists from the ABC pushed back. Michael Rowland  expressed sorrow for the “good journalists” at The Australian. Shalailah Medhora tweeted: “I can’t imagine what it must be like being a POC at the Oz right now.”

Benjamin Law asked white TV and radio hosts to identify the cartoon as racist. “Call it for what it is. Don’t euphemise ‘racist’. You have eyes … It’s not up for debate,” Law said. He then asked journalists to hold the masthead’s editorial management accountable: “Get past the fact you went to the same school and that you’re on the same Walkleys committee together.” Ouch!

In an internal email leaked to The Guardian, Dore called on his staff to rally around “one of our own” and blamed the criticism on “media rivals” (read: the ABC). Internal responses seem to have been muted.

For Annabel Crabb, the cartoon was a deliberate provocation: “Further discussion just generates clicks for shit work.” The Drum presenter Julia Baird concurred: “Hard agree. We won’t be discussing it.”

And, with that, the cartoon disappeared from the news cycle. By Sunday morning’s “Talking Pictures” segment on Insiders, the cartoon was one picture most definitely NOT worth talking about. 

The traditional media’s response to the racism and sexism embedded in The Australian’s cartoon suggests that Australian journalists are largely resigned to the problem. The media is not rising to the practical challenge of confronting racism and, in the social media age, we can see exactly how quickly the dial shifts to “ignore”.

The Australian evidently took the hint and stopped digging. This brouhaha would have once merited a long “cancel culture” editorial matched with reader’s letters howling from the nether-regions of the masthead’s audience. But this time it produced a short, defensive editor’s note with four readers’ letters — two for and two against. (It would be interesting to see the emails between Sydney and News Corp’s New York HQ that informed that decision.)

It’s a hard call. Ignore, or respond and amplify? But we should judge it by results: walking past the News Corp standard entrenches it. Treating the cartoon as a one-off provocation or talking up the “good journalism” in the company while ignoring the bad risks legitimising the racism across the company’s mastheads.

News Corp has long been using cartoons to amplify extremist positions in its culture wars, relying on the Australian Press Council conclusion in a 2018 Herald-Sun case that: “cartoons… use exaggeration and absurdity to make their point. For this reason significant latitude will usually be given in considering whether a publication has taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial offence, distress or prejudice.”

In this context, how much social capital should the ABC spend supporting the “good journalists” at the company?

Last week ABC journalists were supporting an Australian reporter attacked for asking hard (if repetitive) questions of Dan Andrews; Twitter feeds were amplifying News Corp columnists (among others) as Insiders panellists. All very collegial.

But this ignores the fact that News Corp just as often ends up destroying the reputations of its own “good journalists”. Bill Leak, father of Johannes, was once respected as Australia’s best newspaper artist. Then News Corp recruited him into its culture wars, leaving him remembered more for his late-life racist cartoons than his outstanding earlier career.

Highlighting the good that individual journalists do, while burying the institutional racism and sexism, gets the mix all wrong. It feeds the myth that News Corp is just another news media organisation, more or less like all the others.

Maybe we should ask: What would Dolly do? And don’t be a dumbass.

Do journalists have a responsibility to call out News Corp’s poor behaviour? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey