Opinion: ‘don’t be a dumbass’, indeed

By Christopher Warren

Monday August 17, 2020


Dolly Parton had great advice over the weekend for people like The Australian editors caught up in disputes over racist imagery and commentary: “Don’t be a dumbass.” Might be good advice for all Australian media right now rather than hurrying past last Friday’s racist cartoon, eyes averted.

Asked about the removal of racist iconography 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.”

The traditional media’s response to the racism and sexism embedded in The Australian’s Friday cartoon suggests that much of its heart has a hardened to ignoring, not fixing. In the social media age, just how the dial gets shifted to “ignore” — just how journalists “think” about the practical challenge of confronting racism —  gets played out in front of us all.

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 identity politics. Sure, Chris.

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

“You have eyes,” Benjamin Law threaded in  a how-to guide for radio and television hosts: Call it as racism. “It’s not up for debate,” he said — instead 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 Crab, the cartoon was a deliberate provocation: “Further discussion just generates clicks for shit work.” Drum presenter Julia Baird tweeted: “Hard agree. We won’t be discussing it.” And, with that, the cartoon disappeared from the media cycle. By the time of the ABC’s Talking Pictures segment on Sunday’s Insiders, the cartoon was one picture most definitely NOT worth talking about.

The Australian evidently took the hint and stopped digging. Where once this brouhaha would have merited a long “cancel culture” editorial matched with reader’s letters howling from the nether regions of the masthead’s audience, this time it produced a short, defensive editor’s note with four readers’ letters — two for and two against. (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?

Judge it by results: walking past the News Corp standard, entrenches it. Treating the cartoon as a one-off provocation, Talking up the “good journalism” in the company and ignoring the bad, risks legitimising and amplifying 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 its journalists were supporting an Australian reporter attacked for asking hard (if repetitive) questions of Dan Andrews and its Twitter feed was amplifying News Corp columnists (among others) as Insiders panellists. All very collegial.

Highlighting the good that individual journalists do, while burying the 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.

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

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