This week’s media (or “media”) controversy in Australia again concerns News Corp. Readers of last week’s tirade will already know my views about that organisation, but there’s an important point to make here about the way that its sins are presented even by its critics.
What happened was that the Australian last Friday published a cartoon by Johannes Leak (which I won’t link to) depicting the Democrat presidential ticket of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Biden was shown using words that he had actually used, but torn from their context and framed in a way that made them demeaning of Harris.
Paul Barry on Media Watch again has a careful explanation of the affair. In his words, “Leak twisted Biden’s words to suggest he was referring to Harris, when he clearly was not.”
When accused of purveying racism and sexism, the paper’s editor replied that the cartoon was actually accusing the Democrats of those things. He was clearly right about that.
His critics responded that that attack was false and absurd. They were clearly right about that, too. That makes the cartoon at best stupid and unfunny, and at worst an exercise in bad faith. But does it make it racist and sexist?
Janak Rogers, a journalism lecturer at RMIT University, thinks it does. Writing in the Conversation, he said “this cartoon should never have been published, and it has no place in Australian media.” But it seems to me there is a gap in his reasoning.
When Rogers says that the editor’s “explanation [of the cartoon] is unconvincing,” he runs two different things together: whether or not the cartoon is an attack on Biden, and whether or not the attack is credible. The claim of credibility is indeed unconvincing, but an unsuccessful attack is still an attack.
A bogus accusation of racism and sexism is not just a piece of toxic politics; it also trivialises those issues and therefore threatens real harm to their victims. But is that enough to be able to say that it is itself a racist or sexist act?
Rogers doesn’t spell out the argument, but I think what he’s saying is that the lack of good faith here is so transparent that the attribution of racist or sexist views to Biden just can’t be taken seriously. And if the representation of Biden’s voice is inauthentic, then the cartoonist has to be taken as speaking in his own voice.
That’s fair enough. But the culture of illiberalism runs so deep at News Corp that I’m not convinced “bad faith” is really the best description. It would not surprise me if many of its people have quite genuinely lost the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. I’m not a big fan of Kevin Rudd, but I think he does a better job of characterising the problem when he refers to “fuelling racist and sexist prejudice” and “encouraging ridicule on racial or gender grounds.”
And I do worry a little that putting the focus onto racism and sexism risks losing sight of the fact that News Corp’s agenda is fundamentally political. Its belittling of women and people of color is not a free-floating evil, it’s part of an overall political campaign whose ultimate range of victims will be much broader.
The media, however, don’t want to frame the problem in those terms. It’s less confronting to think of News Corp as a media organisation that happens to have some blind spots about race and gender, or to have a few bad apples among its employees.
But it’s not. It’s a political player, and a powerful one. I have no idea whether Leak is personally racist or sexist; that’s beside the point. The point is that he’s doing his job.