There is certainly a place for these voices. But what worries me is that, increasingly, they set the tone for, and lead, the public discourse. In decades past, the heroes of journalism – even on opinion pages – were the voices of reason and cool authority, journalists such as Walter Cronkite, Edward R Murrow and Walter Lippman. Now, in the twenty-first century, one of the surest paths to media stardom is to shout more inflammatory invective louder than than anybody else. The greater the reaction that commentators provoke, and the more traffic they attract to their publications or broadcasts, the higher their profiles and the fatter their pay cheques. There is obviously a skill to identifying hot-button issues and sparking debate. But when public debate is all sound and fury, where can we go for nuanced thinking and genuine illumination? Some of Australia’s highest-profile commentators are people who act – in public at least – as if they have never experienced a second of self-doubt or entertained the thought that they might be wrong.
The worst commentary in Australia is more concerned with point-scoring than with educating audiences. Some commentators play to their own cliques, neglecting the wider public. They tend to exaggerate the facts or selectively highlight those that support their own positions, while conveniently ignoring those that do not. They do not realise – or perhaps care – that by overstating an argument, they undermine it. Opponents’ views are taken out of context or subtly skewed to distort them, and any error, no matter how tiny, is magnified in an attempt to discredit the whole. Thoughtful opinion writers, both conservative and liberal, occasionally disagree with those of the same stripe. But the commentary that bothers me toes the ideological line unswervingly, regardless of the contortions of logic required. As the polemicist Hendrik Hertzburg observes, ‘A political ideology is a very handy thing to have. It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things you know nothing about’.
Leigh Sales, On Doubt, 2nd ed. (Carlton, VIC; Melbourne University Press, 2017), pp. 12-13. ISBN: 978-0-522872-934.