Letters to the Irresponsible

I know reading letters to the editor is not good for my health. I know that letter-writers are not representative of the population at large. I know that letters are included because they are likely to be controversial and dramatic. But still, I can’t stop.

It’s because I think letters to the editor are *important*. They matter for the simple reason that they’re right there on the editorial page of the newspaper, and they’re presented in small bite-sized digestible chunks, and they’re delivered in a tone that speaks of personal character rather than impersonal journalistic machine. They are the easiest reading in the newspaper.

And so it bugs me when the same negative things turn up over and over again. Particularly, speaking of the DomPost, there’s racism against Maori. Hardly a week goes by without Maori described as selfish, devious, dishonest, stupid, or worse. (And, almost without exception, these charges are levelled at “Maori”, as if to describe the fundamental nature of everyone with Maori identity.) Sometimes this is delivered hand-in-hand with a claim that there are no true Maori left anyhow. It’s ugly, and it’s been prevalent as long as I can remember. Would it be a surprise to find that Maori feel they are misrepresented and unwelcome in mainstream media?

Almost as frequent these days is the culture war against Islam. You know the ins and outs of this one, it appears all over the world, and the NYC mosque controversy has stirred it right up. The claim that got me agitated this week was the old claim that “if Islam isn’t a religion of violence, then why haven’t Muslims denounced terrorism?” Of course, they have, Islamic voices have been plentiful in condemnation of terror attacks. Here’s one big list countering this myth; there are many others.

The reason this last one gets to me is that this wrong-headed belief exists in the first place because of the failings of our newspapers and other media outlets. The denunciation of violence has never drawn much presence in our news narrative, and so many people think it never happened. And now those same people use newspapers (and talk radio etc) to pronounce their misconception, to damaging effect.

Look at that again. The number of times newspapers, within their pages, print “why do Muslims not denounce violence?” must massively exceed the number of times newspapers have ever reported on Muslim denunciations of violence.

The media is responsible for the misconception. By then publishing these letters without answer, I think it is also responsible for its propagation.

What are the editorial responsibilities of newspapers? I know the DomPost editor takes the reader letters very seriously and personally checks each day’s selection. It seems to me this is a massive failure on her part. The responsibility to fairly present reader’s views does not remove the responsibility to correct an obvious factual misconception. “But our readers really think this” is an inadequate defence against the charge of spreading a damaging prejudiced myth, especially when the reason they really think this is your own failure to adequately describe the world.

Nicky Hager and the Emails of Doom

Speaking of the political rhetoric and its disconnect from understanding…

Author Nicky Hager accuses the prime minister of being “cranky” and of coming up with “wacky” conspiracy theories. Hmm. – Liam Hehir, Palmerston North

Backstory: investigating journo Nicky Hager came into possession of a lot of internal emails from the National Party, and used them as the basis of a book called The Hollow Men that essentially rolled Nats leader Don Brash out of politics.

Nats attack dog Matthew Hooton went ferociously after control of the story with the lede-friendly counterattack line that those emails were stolen not leaked, probably by high-tech computer hackers, and that made Hager a criminal, and never mind the substance of the book because he’s a criminal and they were hacked! HACKED I SAY!

Cue endless discussion over whether or not the emails were hacked (the media reports all use this frame even though none of them really seem to know what “hacked” means). Meanwhile, things that came up in those emails remain ignored by every media commentator and most politicos. John Key, current Prime Minister, was an important liaison between the Exclusive Brethren and the Nats machine; he denies this vehemently even though the Hollow Men movie has a clip showing him entering a meeting with the EBs. Does anyone challenge him on this? Apparently not. The only story is whether or not the emails were HACKED, i.e. whether Hager is an outright criminal or just a very naughty man.

So, there are two police investigations into the allegations of hacking. Hager maintains “no, they were leaked to me”. Police say, twice: no evidence at all of anything like hacking, whatever that means.

John Key’s response: “Bollocks.” Nice one, P.M., stay on message there. So in the face of two police investigations you’re just going to stick to your story? Of course you are, because your story is a strategic position adopted upon advice from media advisors, and is not in any way connected to anything real. Nats insider/advisor Richard Long, who might be the very one who helped John Key come up with the response line to this story, enthusiastically supports the bollocks line in his completely independent political commentary column in the DomPost.

And so we get the letter to the editor by Liam Hehir, who helpfully demonstrates how effective this media management has been. In Hehir’s world, it’s Hager who’s the wacky conspiracy theorist and John Key who’s the reasonable and sensible one. Sorry Liam Hehir, but you’ve been sold.

I can only point at the media on this. John Key has basically said the police investigations were flawed, and discounted their conclusions. On the basis of nothing much at all he’s pushing a line that says Hager’s entirely reasonable claim of “leakers at work” is a lie, and Hager is a thief. No-one pushes back on this. And certainly no-one pays much attention to the dirt that the emails in question throw in Key’s direction. Media as stenographers to the powerful, as Glenn Greenwald likes to put it. The result is Liam Hehir’s letter. Come on, DomPost and others, do your jobs will you?