We Are What We Read

Having largely cut corporate media from my information diet (more on the food analogy below), I’ve had time to read more books. Recently: for review, at Scoop Review of Books, Barbara Brookes’ epic A History of Women in New Zealand, Paul Moon’s Ka Ngaro Te Reo: Māori language under siege in the 19th Century (plus Why English? Confronting the Hydra, a rather depressing collection about the global dominance of English); in The Listener, Susan Faludi’s memoir about her parent, In the Darkroom; and, a few months ago, some first novels for The New York Times. I’m working on reading, and hopefully writing about, The Struggle for Māori Fishing Rights, by Brian Bargh (Huia), and I just got my hands on Vincent O’Malley’s The Great War for New Zealand: Waikato 1800-2000 (Bridget Williams Books).

bwb8126_the-great-war-for-new-zealand_lrVincent foreshadowed this book in his 2014 collection Beyond the Imperial Frontier: The contest for colonial New Zealand, in which he had a chapter on the Waikato wars that included some of his new research. (My review is here. Yeah, sorry for all the self-linking, but if I don’t do it, no one will.) I don’t remember hearing a whole lot about that book back then (I might have missed it), but this new one seems to be attracting a lot more attention. Thankfully.

There’s definitely a growing momentum for more (any? some?) recognition of the wars fought on this land, particularly since 2014, which was when we really got to see clearly how much media and government attention was lavished on foreign wars (well, mostly the Gallipoli battle) compared with those fought here. It was 100 years since the former, and 150 years since several major battles of the latter. (I researched and wrote about that pretty extensively back then.)

Not for review (by me!), I’m up to volume two of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six (yes six) volume memoir, My Struggle. I can’t really explain why (so far) I love this book (does it count as “a book”?) But I’m thinking about it. Meanwhile, am a bit stuck at around the one-third mark in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Actually, there are quite a few books I’m stuck in the middle of… And, no, I have never been able to finish Infinite Jest.

But still moving along is another epic on the state of the bloody media, in the form of a collection titled Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand, put out by Freerange Press (who do some very cool stuff). Which brings me to the media and food.

We Are What We Eat, uh Read

We need to start treating the “news” more like we (try to) treat food: Eat healthy, stay away from junk. It’s up to us to get these people to stop pumping out sugary crap (aka clickbait etc. etc.) by not “consuming” it. I haven’t taken this so far as to come up with particular news diet fads (what would be the news equivalent of Atkins, or mediterranean, or high-protein, or low fat diets?). But we all know crap when we see/taste it, and I suspect we all know we should be avoiding it.

I’m actually not a food dieter, so it took a bit of trial end error to work out how to change my news eating habits. My findings: Start out with a fast of at least a day and up to a week. That means no mainstream corporate news/junk food at all. Not even headlines. I predict not only will you feel less depressed and annoyed, you will actually be better informed. (I know, it sounds counterintuitive, but don’t forget, you won’t be under the misapprehension that the most important issue facing humanity/Aotearoa NZ society is All Black sex.) After the fasting period, slowly introduce the healthy stuff – longform, serious, non-clickbait content that has some substance to it, and books. And, yes, if you relapse and find yourself clicking on that sugary shit, you must atone by consuming something serious. And, yes, you should feel guilty, as guilty as if you’d scarfed down a giant bottle of fizzy drink. (If you fall off the wagon, another quick fast should get you back on track.)

I think you’ll find that almost nothing of what our for-profit media are pumping out is stuff you need to know. Which brings me to a premature conclusion from having not quite finished Don’t Dream It’s Over: People, it already is over. Time to put them out of their misery, because as with sugar, they’re doing us way more harm than good.


‘Breaking News’, NZH Style

No comment necessary, really.

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Stop the Press

I’ve been meaning to add a link to a piece I wrote for Scoop about ‘The State of the Media’, so here it is: Stop The Press. It’s a bit of an epic that grew out of trying to write a “review” for Scoop Review of Books of Nicky Hager’s “Dirty Politics“, which I was going

This cartoon is from October 1912, "The Maoriland Worker"

This cartoon is from October 1912, “The Maoriland Worker”

to call “Dirty Journalism”. But while I was working on it, “Dirty Political” ‘news’ kept happening, the election was coming up, and it seemed like a standard review wasn’t going to do it all justice. Meanwhile, I started reading (in some cases re-reading) a whole bunch of books about journalism, some new, some classics, some fiction, some non, and I recommend them all (see below for the list). Which is how the review turned into a bit of an epic.

The bottom line from a personal perspective is that I’ve come to the conclusion that the mainstream/corporate (whatever one might like to call it) news media does more harm than it does good, despite its mavericks and truth-tellers. Which is not to say I have any great ideas about where else one can go to learn about the world. For me, it’s a combination of long-form journalism, the source itself (as in, why not just read the media release directly, rather than read the media release as reprinted in msm?), NGOs, a few blogs, some overseas outlets, and books. My main source for NZ news is the RNZ website and Scoop, plus a couple of blogs. (I’m no longer on Twitter or Facebook.)

I can’t imagine how you could read the following (and/or work in journalism) and not come to something like the same conclusion:

• Davies, Nick. Flat Earth News: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. (Random House, 2008.)

• Davies, Nick. Hack Attack: How the truth caught up with Rupert Murdoch. (Faber & Faber, 2014)

• Hager, Nicky. Other People’s Wars: New Zealand in Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on terror. (Craig Potton, 2011)

• Hager, Nicky. Dirty Politics: How attack politics is poisoning New Zealand’s political environment.(Craig Potton, 2014)

• Hager, Nicky. The Hollow Men: A study in the politics of deception. (Craig Potton, 2005)

• Herman, Edward and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The political economy of the mass media. (2008 edition. Random House)

• Leibovich, Mark. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital. (Blue Rider Press, 2013)

• Leveson, Lord Justice. “Report into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the Press.” (2012) (OK, so I didn’t read all the volumes, word for word.)

• Lewis, Charles. 935 Lies: The future of truth and the decline of America’s moral integrity. (Public Affairs, 2014)

• McAfee, Annalena. The Spoiler. (Vintage, 2012)

• Moorehead, Caroline. The Letters of Martha Gellhorn. (Chatto & Windus, 2006)

• Sinclair, Upton. The Brass Check: A study of American journalism. 1919.

[Sinclair published the book himself and waived copyright, so it is available for free download at several sites including: https://archive.org/details/cu31924026364251 ]

• Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. (1906)

• Waugh, Evelyn. Scoop: A novel about journalists. (1938)


Journalism, Memory & Forgetting

This is ‘a version’ of a paper I gave at the 2014 Journalism, Media and Democracy (JMAD) Centre conference, Media, War and Memory.  The talk/paper was/is titled
The Past is Not a Foreign Country: Why Journalists Should Write a Better ‘Second Draft of History’ and looks at how we allocate (or mis-allocate) memory around our colonial history, particularly with respect to contemporary reporting on Treaty of Waitangi issues. Excuse the philosophical style type etc. rambling at the top. If you want the journalism/empirical stuff, just go down to the section headed “Journalism and History”.

In this paper I’m going to look at memory and collective memory first from a philosophical perspective – this is to make the case that the business of personal and collective memory lie at the heart of our existence both as individuals, and as citizens who, in theory, want to have an identity, a place where we belong. Put another way, memory and remembering are viscerally existential matters.

Next, I look at how journalists help or hinder in forming that collective memory – in this particular case, I do that by investigating a year’s worth of reporting on Treaty settlement issues.

(The black and white photos throughout of various commemorative/battle sides in Aotearoa New Zealand are from architect Geordie Shaw’s amazing and beautiful M Arch thesis, titled The Lost, Erased, Unseen, and Forgotten: Translating into Architecture the New Zealand Wars, which you can read online right here, and you should.)


Tapuaharuru RedoubtWhat is memory? The answer to that question depends on who is asking it: The neuro-scientist. The teacher. The historian. The gerontologist. For the philosopher – in particular the phenomenologist – consciousness and memory are effectively one and the same thing. Without remembering, without memories – that is, consciousness over time – I don’t know who or what I am because I don’t know where I came from, what I’ve done, where I’ve been, what I’ve thought, whom I’ve loved and loathed.

Because of the way consciousness and time and memory overlap, one can actually make the much stronger claim: it’s not just that without memory (consciousness of time) that I don’t know who or what I am, I may not even know that I am – I may not even “be”.

In a phenomenological sense — indeed in an existential sense — an “I” or “me” that only exists for an instant is no “I” at all.

Perhaps the first in the Western tradition to seriously investigate memory was St. Augustine — the 4th century theologian and philosopher – which he did in his book Confessions:

In the vast hall of my memory…sky land and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten.

There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it.

But it’s not just that my past introduces me to my present self. it is also the source of my future self. Here’s Augustine again:

Out of the same abundance in store, I combine with past events images of various things, whether experienced directly, or believed on the basis of what I have experienced; and on this basis I reason about future actions and events and hopes.

Te PorereSo here I am – me, and my continuous past, my memories. There’s obviously still something missing, and that is the world I emerge into. It was the phenomenologists, among others, who really began to challenge the possibility of an isolated individual consciousness – a la Descartes’ res cogitans (thinking thing) – or at least the possibility that such an individual could make any sense to us as beings-in-the world.

A key player in this shift, and which lay at the core of the phenomenological school of thought, was Heidegger and his re-conception of the person as Da-sein, literally being-there, but it’s usually left un-translated because it is philosophically untranslatable. (Anyone writing anything about Heidegger must acknowledge his links to Naziism. The question of how his philosophy should be considered in that light is important, and I certainly don’t have an answer. There’s a good recent piece about this in the Oct. 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books by Peter E. Gordon.)

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Adventures in Stockphotoland

For a while now, I’ve been noticing and collecting stock photos that are used to “illustrate” the news, and thinking about what the invasion by Stockphotoland means for journalism. It turns out to be a bit of a rabbit hole kind of issue … The more you think about it, the weirder it gets, the harder it is to find clarity. So while waiting for a few govt departments to get back to me with info for a completely different story I’ve been trying to write, I put together a blog post cum think piece on the question, that went up at The Hand Mirror, where it was titled “Pregnant and Headless”, then (slightly rewritten and added to) at Werewolf as “Airbrushing the News”.

I thought I remembered discussions from Back In The Day about the importance of trying to represent the community in which a newspaper lives via the people, stories, voices it covers. Images are so powerful in this regard, and file or stock images that act as a kind of key word for a story even more so, since they represent that story. Which is why the use of stock images is so insidious. It’s not just that they don’t come close to representing the community in which our news media lives, but that they far too often actively reinforce stereotypes: understandable since most of the stock is from the U.S. And as Angela Phillips wrote in the Guardian (there’s a link to her piece in the Werewolf article), the choice of image primarily reflects how the person choosing the picture sees the world.

I’m still thinking about this issue; I know it’s hard being a photo editor, but I’m coming to the conclusion that only news photos should accompany news stories (or relevant file pix, of course, that directly relate).

(Uh, I’ll leave this short post stock-image free.)

Forgotten, but Not Gone?

It’s nice of the BOP Times to include me in their new revamped Web site with my own little green tab (see screen shot below) under their “blogs” section even though I was let go a few weeks before Christmas so don’t write a column there anymore. The trouble is, none of the pieces next to the little green “Alison Mcculloch” tab are mine or have anything to do with me, being about 1. Half Ironman results 2. “Record road toll” (record low toll, as it turns out) 2. This being the 2nd best place in the world to get a tattoo, and 4. Exercising.

It’s also somewhat interesting that what are in some cases columns are now labeled “blogs”. I’m wondering if paid (contract, freelance or staff) columnists are being phased out in favour of community contributed (i.e. free) blog posts?

There are some interesting discussions to be had about working for free. I do it lots for causes I believe in, including some alternative journalism work, but they’re non-profits and/or non-corporates. You could argue this still undermines pay and conditions in the industry, and I can see that. But I’m pretty disillusioned about “the industry” and think alternatives are badly needed. So…I’ll keep doing whatever I can to support (some of) them., “The industry” is in the middle of a revolution right now, anyhoo, so no one really knows what’s going on or how things will turn out.

There was some talk not long ago on one of the journalism pages on Facebook about a contributor to one of the two big chains (those being APN, which owns the BOP Times, and Fairfax) who instead of being paid for an article of hers they published was told that getting a clip for her CV was payment enough. Everyone who chimed in seemed to agree that this was unacceptable and that freelancers needed to arrange payment up front. (As well as lamenting how pitiful NZ freelance rates are. True!) That’s a separate issue from the big chains making use of “the community” for free content, but nevertheless related I think. The newspapers say community content is about involving the readership and that’s valid to a point. (Funny how before the Internet and the decline of the industry, they didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic about this? Or am I misremembering?)  Beyond some as-yet unknown point, though, community involvement (aka community provided free content) is just community exploitation.

Nex question: If this is a trend, will it work? Will readers want stuff from their local newspaper they might just as well get from standing too long in a checkout line and listening to the rant du jour? We’ll see. If the papers do a good job of gatekeeping, they’ll likely get some good stuff in amongst the not-so-fine. But good gatekeeping (i.e. editing) also costs money, so you’re almost back where you started. Hmmm.

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Bye Bye BOP Times

My last BOP Times column was on Saturday, and I’m rather wondering if I broke the record for shortest-ever newspaper columnist gig. (I started in July.) The reason given was cost cutting, though I know the paper is revamping both its content and its format — going tabloid, uh, compact, in March next year — so who knows. I put a lot into the columns (all of them are listed here) and learned a whole heckuva lot doing all the research, talking to lots of people. It was actually pretty cool getting to know the BOP just that little bit better. In fact, I’ve got lots of good stuff stored up that I didn’t get to use that I’ll likely put into pieces for Werewolf and elsewhere. But, meantime, summer (!!) and finishing up other writing projects, seeing The Book through publication and plotting and scheming the wee campaign roadshow, which I’ll be posting more about over the next couple of months. (All you pro-choicers out there, please stay tuned!)