Shit Speech, 2021 Edition
A global health emergency has made mass media's addiction to conflict even worse
A while back - two years, in fact - I wrote an essay about a problem that had been bothering me for a long time. The news media, and the commentary served up alongside it, seemed saturated with stuff that you’d have trouble calling hate speech, but that definitely seemed to exist on the lower echelons of the hate speech spectrum. Glib, cruel, inchoate, reactionary, just kind of useless speech.
I wanted a definition, and I wanted it to be reasonably sticky, so I called it “shit speech.”
Russell Brown was kind enough to publish the piece on Public Address and it caused a minor stir. A surprising number of people got in touch with me directly to say it had touched a chord. Fired up, I decided I’d definitely do something about it, and promptly didn’t. But the issue still lives rent-free in my head, and I figured I could do worse than spending a bit of my spare time trying to do journalism about journalism.
I’m also keen to return to the topic now because the issue has hardly abated. In fact, I’d argue that in many ways it’s got worse.
But before I launch into a slightly revised version of the original essay I wanted to talk more about the rationale. The premise of The Bad News Letter is that our news media frequently fails in what I see as its incredibly weighty responsibility to convey to the public the current state of reality. You know, to actually tell the truth, the whole truth, etc etc. Opinion journalism, or explanatory journalism, is an extraordinary powerful tool. It could play a vital role in the discourse, as something that amalgamates complex issues and explains them succinctly for the benefit of the rest of us.
Unfortunately, most of the opinion journalism we are offered does not help clear the waters of public understanding. Instead, it muddies them with, well, shit. Recently this could be plainly seen in the discourse about hate speech legislation. Our talented media communicators could be doing a great job of explaining the tricky aspects of how the proposed reforms might fit into the bigger picture of existing strictures on speech, but instead, they’d rather heap shit on a roaring garbage fire, benefiting no-one.
Today, it’s this take that could have come from the Taxpayer’s Union, but no - it’s from an actual working political journalist.
The problem is this, when it comes to much of what passes for opinion writing in our mainstream media: being shitty is the point. These garbage takes and the people who make them are not exceptions: they’re the rule. These cruel, gloating, cherry-picked, conflict-ridden opinions are the result of a concerted, special effort by media owners and producers to produce an endless conveyer belt of shit that will wind people up. Reality - such as the fact that artists have also been affected by the pandemic, or that arts funding is difficult to obtain, and a drop in the bucket compared to, well, nearly everything else that Government pays for - is only occasionally enlisted as a bit player in the endless game of You Won’t Believe How Many Clicks This Gets.
In my opinion, society can’t function well, or at all, when significant parts of its polity view reality at right-angles to each other, actively encouraged by people who profit from conflict and division. That’s why I care about this stuff. There should be a shared commitment from media to make sure that anyone who commands an audience is both a.) doing their best to explain reality as it is, and b.) aren’t being dickheads. I think that’s something most of the public would agree with.
So yeah, here’s the essay.
It’s time we fixed the New Zealand news media’s problem with shit speech.
First, let’s put together a working definition. Shit speech is the stuff that might not necessarily be described as hate speech, but it occupies much of the same spectrum. It’s speech that presses the buttons of prejudice, bigotry and outrage, but isn’t necessarily hateful per se; that isn’t (always) lies, but is most often inaccurate, skewed, or otherwise misleading. It’s the floating turd in gutter journalism.
To paraphrase the Broadcasting Standards Authority decision on Heather du Plessis-Allan’s foul commentary about Pasifika nations, it’s speech that is “inflammatory …and [has] the potential to cause widespread harm.” It’s the lower-level stuff in the Pyramid of Hate.
In New Zealand, common topics that shit speech explores include, but are not limited to, immigrants and refugees, the “entitlement” of Maori, LGBTQI issues (callously “debating” the human rights of trans people is the current issue du jour), the “Treaty grievance industry,” and the full spectrum of climate change denial.
Anti-Islam rhetoric used to feature prominently, but for some reason, it hasn’t much lately. I wonder why.
Notably, shit speech is often almost completely devoid of style, substance, wit, or even basic legibility. Mike Hosking’s blithe strawmen frequently contain so little substance that they barely qualify as brain-farts. Leighton Smith is a frequent climate change denier whose only saving grace is writing so inane it’s indistinguishable from the output of an AI trained to generate meaningless text.
So who’s talking shit? As well as the names already checked, and an array of occasional op-ed contributors, it’s Duncan Garner with racist takes on immigrants. It’s Sean Plunket with misogynist references to “feminazis.”
Those are just the ones that come immediately to my mind, but there are plenty more, and not all of them are on the right of politics. I’d also count Chris Trotter and Bomber Bradbury among our stable of shit-talkers, as well as other voices on the Left who seem to glory in stoking conflict. If I’m being honest, I should sometimes include myself among those, from back when I had a regular-ish column, and I thought getting people at each other’s throats was going to in some way help the world.
But the voices on the left don’t tend to have the platform the others do. Not at all coincidentally, many of these personalities overlap with the talk radio and TV broadcasting stable. They are powerful media personalities, with their own shows, who occupy very special safe spaces in New Zealand’s news infrastructure.
This is because these personalities are engineered to generate attention through outrage. Which is ironic, seeing as they’re often accusing others of being outraged snowflakes or virtue-signallers.1 People who love this behaviour signal-boost. So do people who hate it. The behaviour exists because we enable it – and the media personalities’ bosses love them for the attention that we all give out. The feedback loop looks like this:
Get people to talk shit
Shit gets engagement
Profit! (Sort of, as we’ll see.)
Go to 1
NZME has just implemented a paywall, where they’ll hide their premium content – presumably the excellent work done by the likes of David Fisher, Keith Ng, Kirsty Johnston2, Matt Nippert and many more – behind a weekly subscription. When this was first announced, the words “Mike Hosking” started trending on Twitter – spurred mostly by people begging the Herald to install him behind the paywall, so they didn’t have to hear from him any more.
This won’t happen.3 I’ll bet any amount of money that while quality investigative journalism will tend to disappear behind the paywall, shit speech will continue to dominate the free pages.4 The many people who can’t afford five bucks a week on news will continue to get Mike Hosking & Friends for free, along with all the Daily Mail re-skins they can stomach. So it’s more important than ever that their audience makes it clear that this isn’t actually acceptable.
I’ll get to how this might be done in a bit, but first, some context.
Why shit speech is so compelling to publishers
For news media, it all went comprehensively to shit when advertising became quantifiable. Before online marketing, you couldn’t say for sure if things like TV commercials and newspaper advertising – what we’d now think of as “traditional” advertising – actually worked. The old approach is the equivalent of carpet bombing. A business would spend a great deal of money at an agency, who would produce creative, that would then get placed at further enormous cost as a billboard or full-page ad in the New Zealand Herald or in the ad breaks for One News with John Hawkesby. Ideally, following the media placement, sales would ensue. But you couldn’t always directly attribute the sales to the campaign.
Then Google AdWords and others came along and it became clear quite quickly that, for the most part, the traditional approach was (and mostly still is) absolute balls. Businesses, large and small, flocked to advertising media that could give them a tangible return on investment, and the vehicles of traditional advertising started their long, slow crash.
Which brings us to the present day. Now that big-ticket ad spend and the even more reliable income stream of classified ads is mostly gone,5 one of the last things that online news media has left to sell to advertisers is a flimsy, flawed measure of attention called “engagement.”
In online attention economics, you have a few key metrics that add up to a broader definition of “engagement.” Clicked on a link for the first time? Congrats, you are now a Unique Visitor, and that fact has been recorded somewhere in analytics software. Hung around on the page reading? That’ll clock up your on-page time. Scrolled past a certain point on a page? Clicked a “continue reading” button? That’s measured too. Read the comments? Left a comment? That definitely counts as engagement, and that’s why many news sites cling to comment sections despite overwhelming evidence that, without extensive moderation, they are toxic cesspits comprehensively dominated by cranks and extremists, who drive out moderate voices. It’s also a reason many news sites still have autoplaying videos, despite the fact that audiences hate them. When you scroll past a video as it starts to play and continues to babble away on mute, it still counts as engagement.
The other thing that can be easily tracked and counts towards engagement scores is social media interactions, which, in a sad irony, tend to take place on the same platforms that have so comprehensively bankrupted the news media.
Where that leaves us: Beat journalists are ridiculously overworked, and the meagre funds that publishers set aside to do investigative or otherwise valuable, society-enriching work – like Stuff Circuit, or the Herald’s investigative team – are constantly under threat.
But that’s not all; there’s another, even more insidiously perverse incentive at work. It’s the conflict narrative.
The conflict narrative is something that gets hammered into you at journalism school. It goes something like this:
Good stories have conflict.
Good stories get read.
Therefore, stories should have conflict.
On the surface it seems fairly harmless, but once you dig into the concept a bit you discover a midden of toxic bullshit. This simplistic formula is an excuse for all manner of media evils, the main one of which is false objectivity: Telling Both Sides Of The Story. And it gets worse, because while the impulse to tell good stories or to provide balance comes from a place of good intentions, it’s very easily hacked by bad actors who take advantage of dwindling journalist resources to do their jobs for them.
This is why we so often see the Taxpayer’s Union, which is a laughably obvious front for industry and corporate interests, one that exists solely for the purpose of anti-democratic malfeasance, quoted to provide “balance” to a hard news story about, say, cigarettes or cycleways.
It’s why it’s deemed acceptable to print commentary featuring Both Sides of an issue like climate change, even when one “side” is demonstrably wrong and, very often, intentionally lying.
It’s why, in politics reporting, we get opposing sound-bites instead of policy discussion. It’s why Duncan Garner6 hounds Chloe Swarbrick for a scalp instead of having a proper discussion about the nuances of cannabis law reform.7 It’s why we have the press gallery offering sage reckons about some political happening or other being a “bad look”, offering Machiavellian commentary as if politics was nothing more than an episode of Game of Thrones, instead of the vital mechanism through which government delivers for the people it represents.
The conflict narrative is also a big part of the reason why it’s deemed acceptable for talking heads to intentionally stoke conflict in their op-eds and on the air.
I want to make the point that narrative conflict is not always bad. In many ways, it’s inevitable. Any unpopular truth-telling will incite some conflict, no matter how well-intentioned or carefully put. So will satire and other hard-hitting commentary, punching up at the powerful. All these things are essential.
But there’s a difference between conflict caused from telling the truth, and allowing (or encouraging) your staff to lie, prevaricate, promulgate bigotry, or otherwise stir shit on vital topics in the name of audience engagement. Racist commentary serves no good purpose. Misogynist commentary serves no good purpose. Lying about climate change serve no good purpose.
Making news, instead of reporting it
There’s another feedback loop in the shit-speech ecosystem: the news media having their cake and eating it too. Or, rather, making the news and reporting it too. Here’s a working example: Mike Hosking hates cycleways, and he’s not shy about expressing it in many, many radio rants and (loosely transcribed from radio) columns in the Herald. But the Herald has other columnists and writers, like the excellent Simon Wilson, who use the garbage Hosking produces as fuel for far more considered pieces that politely present the hard evidence for why bikes are actually a bloody good thing in cities.
Now, Simon Wilson’s sort of writing is a good thing, and we need more of it. But it’d be better if he didn’t need to use Mike’s shit, in the same publication, as the launchpad. (Another, more recent example of this cynical content factory in action: Sean Plunket, speaking on Mediaworks’ Magic Talk, on how “woke feminazis” are going to ban rugby. His words are repeated verbatim, with no counter-speech, as clickbait news on Mediaworks’ Newshub website. This then is counterproductively signal boosted – often by people who oppose or seek to mock this sort of misogynistic, paranoid bullshit but just end up smearing it around. When I saw it, it was because some leftie had angrily retweeted it.)
In the Hosking example above, I’ve used cycling as an example, but it if you substitute “cycling” for “climate change” it all gets a bit more fraught. Much of the news media is constantly trying to have it both ways on this, and other important topics; keeping the deniers and cranks onside to preserve conflict, but also presenting the science.
The result is not any kind of balance; it’s a net loss for audiences. The NZME ecosystem is particularly awful for this. The could easily create an editorial line on climate change, as Stuff has laudably done, but instead they allow at least two of their headline columnists to deny and cast doubt on this vitally important matter at every opportunity.
The biggest of all these problems is that shit speech is cheap and it sells. As a product, it’s a no-brainer. For the people trained in producing shit speech, it comes as naturally as pooing. Why spend money on expensive investigative journalism when you could get 10 times the engagement and attention by just throwing a few fresh turds on Facebook?
How we can get rid of shit speech
Many of the views espoused by the shit-talkers shouldn’t be on the air. They shouldn’t be in our nationally-syndicated newspaper columns. They are poisoning the well of our discourse, and our society is about ready to die of dysentery. This isn’t a bug; it’s a feature. To cause conflict is what shit speech is for. And it’s not even the shit-talkers’ fault.
This isn’t so much about media personalities or even their politics as much it is about perverse incentives. Most of the people I’ve mentioned are gifted communicators who could do so much better if they tried, or if the incentives supported them to.
The blame for shit speech sits entirely with the people who publish it.
I’ll say it as plainly as I can: if media publishers and editors gave the merest fuck about ethics, we’d wouldn’t have this issue. But we do, and audiences are dealing with it in the wrong way. Every time some new, horrible reckon arrives, instead of ignoring it, we draw attention to it. Well, that’s exactly what publishers want us to do. We won’t rein in Mike Hosking et al’s claim to the shit-speech throne by furiously tweeting their columns every time they say something offensively stupid. Instead, shit speech needs to be deplatformed and ignored.
Here’s how that can be done.
Lay complaints with regulators
Note your concerns with advertisers and sponsors
Hold the editors and publishers accountable
Step 1: Instead of angry-tweeting or rage-posting on Reddit about the latest debacle (including, of course, a link to the offending screed), use your energy to complain to the relevant authorities. First, complain to the editor or producer of the shit-speech in question. If the response is insufficient, then take it to the Broadcasting Standards Authority (for radio and TV) or the New Zealand Media Council (for print and websites.) While a rebuke from either authority still holds some weight in the media, it doesn’t always count for much, which is why I recommend also doing step 2:
Step 2: More effective still is to express your displeasure to the people who sponsor or advertise on the content in question. This is publishing’s Achilles heel. Sure, complain to the harried marketing coordinators running corporate Twitter accounts if you feel like it, but it’s always best to vote with your wallet. You know how many departing customers it would take to make BNZ’s sponsorship of the Mike Hosking Breakfast profoundly unprofitable? Not bloody many.
So if, like me, you are furious at NZME encouraging Mike Hosking and Leighton Smith’s8 endless prevarication on climate change, you might want to take it up with the sponsors, and make sure that people who feel the same way are ready to do the same thing. If their scant margins are threatened, publishers will drop shit-stirring broadcasters like hot turds. We’ve seen this happen many times before, not least with John Tamihere during the Roastbusters scandal. (Of course, he’s running for Auckland Mayor now, which to me is just another example of the shit-speech Ouroboros in action.9) In fact, that’s actually a neat summary of the issue: the personalities themselves are not really the problem. The platforms are. If Mike Hosking was drummed out of his media tomorrow, another shit-stirrer would pop up to take his place, because that’s how the incentives are set up. So, to me, step 3 is the most important:
Step 3. Hold publishers and editors accountable. Don’t ever complain to the news personalities who generate the awful opinions you hate so much, because that’s what they’re paid to do. Ignore them. Go straight to the publishers. Complain to the editor. Tweet at the publishers. Make sure you’re letting them know that you know what they’re up to, and that it’s not good enough. Inform them that you’re talking to their sponsors, that you’re calling advertisers. For some reason, a lot of people who set themselves up as free speech defenders for foreign fascists hate this sort of behaviour, but sadly for them, this is free speech and freedom of choice in action, and you should wield this powerful weapon as best you can. Oh, and if you absolutely must link to examples of shit speech to make a point, don’t reward the sites hosting it with a direct link. Take a screenshot, or use a service like Pastebin instead.
And here’s my final suggestion for defeating shit speech: pay for news. If you can afford it, sign up for the Herald’s new paywall. Join the Spinoff Members. Click the Press Patron button on Public Address.
“Wait,” I can imagine you thinking, “you’ve just shelled out around 2000 overwrought words telling us what a shit-show the news media is through the powerful medium of poo metaphors. Now you want me to literally give them money?”
Yes, and here’s why.
For all the gross excesses of conflict-milking and shit speech promotion by media companies, going after “engagement” is a losing game.
Proper journalism doesn’t have much of a place in this economy. Of course, it never really did. Excepting the extremely weird and endangered animal of state-owned media in liberal democracies, a lot of the news only ever really existed as a reason for customers to purchase reams of classified ads. Clickbait and shit speech has always been with us. The incentives were perverse from the start, and now they’re just more so.
However, if you pay for your news with real money rather than nebulous “engagement”, you become an actual customer, a true stakeholder.10 This is important. For all the pitfalls of the news media, and despite the best efforts of unethical publishers, journalism – real journalism – is more important than ever before.
We need people who will find important things out and tell us the truth about what is happening in the world. In my opinion, while I think it’s far better for society for real news to be available for free, paying directly for good journalism is what might secure its future. It removes some of the pressure to create cheap engagement through outrage. Instead, you can show that you value real news, and a diversity of well-framed opinion that doesn’t cause conflict simply for the sake of engagement. And if you don’t like what your paid news source is up to, well, opting to withdraw your custom speaks much louder than an angry retweet.
This whole long thing has been an exhortation to stop signal-boosting shit speech, but I’d like to end it with a call to promote well-considered, positive speech from new, diverse voices that might otherwise get drowned out by all the shouting.11
If we, the audience, can show news publishers that shit speech isn’t what we want, it increases the odds that they’ll start serving up some proper good shit instead.
Since I wrote this, what’s changed? A few of the commentators I namechecked have departed media, possibly permanently, probably temporarily. Sean Plunket alleges that pressure from advertisers played a role in his departure from MagicTalk, which, if true, is a clear-cut case of advertiser influence being perhaps the only authority that media ultimately bows to.
On balance, I’m not sure this is a good thing. If advertiser pressure is the only effective lever the public has to pull when it comes to bad media behaviour, that’s less than ideal, as it’s easy to see it used against publishers of inconvenient truths rather than blathering bad-take factories. A comprehensive and properly enforced code of ethics, one that covers opinion instead of explicitly leaving it out, would be far preferable.
But until that day comes, if it ever does, it looks like the only way to hold media to any kind of account will be via their purse-strings.
I think it’s telling how quickly and enthusiastically many, almost exclusively on the right of politics, have adopted the creepy, hateful language of Gamergaters, Trumpers, and the alt-right, and are now bemoaning the “woke.”
Johnston has since moved to Stuff.
It didn’t happen.
This did happen.
For all the wailing about Google and Facebook, classified ads are how newspapers used to make most of their money, and that lunch got cut first by eBay and TradeMe.
Duncan Garner has since departed the AM Show, having mysteriously decided after years of early morning starts that he doesn’t like early morning starts.
This aged well/badly - the cannabis reform referendum very narrowly failed, and I think the terrible, conflict-driven media narratives at the time, and the way this was gamed by powerful lobbying interests, played a big part in this. I assume a study will come out on it in the next decade.
Leighton Smith has since retired from live radio. Don’t worry! You can still hear his weekly reckons on the Leighton Smith Podcast. Thanks, NZME!
He didn’t win, but it’s only a matter of time until someone else from the wonderful world of reactionary right-wing media reckons has a hoon at politics. I reckon it’ll be Mark Richardson. Place your bets now!
I am less optimistic about this now than I was when I wrote it, and to be honest I was kind of forcing the optimism even back then 😭
If you don’t want to support a media behemoth that happily engages in conflict-for-clicks, you could subscribe to someone’s Patreon, or *cough* Substack newsletter.