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November 13, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Dear Ashton Kutcher: thank you for making independent media even more appealing

Oh, Ashton. You may have been the lovable yet tragically unintelligent dumbass on That 70’s Show, but now you’re a Grade-A dinkus. Last Wednesday, Kutcher tweeted his outrage at the sudden sacking of legendary Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno, then realised about an hour later that the coach had been sacked for allegedly ignoring child molestation attacks committed by Paterno’s defensive coach, Jerry Sandusky.

The gaffe cost Kutcher dearly. The actor, who was the first Twitter-user to reach a million followers, has done what many Twits see as the unthinkable—he has decided to relinquish his tweeting habits. After numerous apologies and what seems like genuine remorse, Kutcher will no longer be updating his followers about the fascinating minutiae of his life. Tweenies around the world are probably still crying and hugging their Kutcher pinup posters.

However, Kutcher’s gaffe does highlight our harsh new media environment; in an age where anyone can build up a networking system of instant communication with millions of people, those who put their foot in it have their errors magnified. In Kutcher’s case, he didn’t just momentarily lose face, he lost credibility with a huge portion of his fan base and hence, the people who keep him in business by watching his shows and paying to see his movies.

Even so, I still find it difficult to blame Kutcher for an offhand comment about a news item. His reaction is indicative of what commercial news media has become. The developed world has become accustomed to a media system that offers minute-by-minute news updates, with pointless sound bites that try to condense complex issues into an instantly relatable fact. (In this context, it’s easy to see why the great climate change debate has become so distorted in the media, as explained in an excellent and succinct article by Natalie Latter.) But if Kutcher was as recently as Wednesday afternoon the poster boy for a marriage of new-age technology and media, as well as a boon for Twitter, does he deserve such a public slamdown?

Obviously, Kutcher’s tweet was inappropriate, and in an explanatory blog he later wrote, he seemed to realise it as soon as he heard the full story. But his tweet itself is revealing; as a society, we are generally accustomed to getting what seems to be the ‘whole story’ in a sound bite. It’s logical, then, to presume that any sound bite you hear on television is the essence of the story and that any other information is purely circumstantial. Even rumours seem to become fact as soon as they are tweeted, as in the case of a Liberty County, Texas sheriff trying to find dismembered bodies that aren’t there. Twitter has become so influential that it legitimises the author rather than the other way around. But Twitter is a dangerously simplistic tool; it is a minute-by-minute publishing environment where immediacy is the greatest advantage and one person’s opinion is a huge ‘pull’ factor for followers. In such circumstances, you might get too comfortable with publishing off-the-cuff thoughts. This is, perhaps, where Kutcher didn’t think twice.

Even if you don’t tweet, the perceived greater privacy of an email is no defence to litigious admissions; the hilarious Cook’s Source affair exploded after the Editor of the magazine, Judith Griggs, refused to acknowledge she stole writer Monica Gaudio’s work and published it, then ignored requests for a small reimbursement (a token amount that the author was going to donate anyway). When Griggs replied to Gaudio’s email, she mistakenly argued that ‘the internet is public domain’ (i.e., no copyright restrictions) and that she had done Gaudio a favour by editing her piece for her. Gaudio published parts of the letter on her blog, causing an online reaction so virulent that Cook’s Source quickly went out of business, had its major advertising partners pull out, had its Facebook account hacked and most likely ruined Judith Grigg’s chances of ever working in publishing again.

Another instance of vilification by social media comes from Australia itself. Larissa Behrendt, Aboriginal-rights and anti-Intervention activist and lawyer, was recently watching a Q & A episode featuring guest Bess Price, a pro-Intervention activist. Midway through the show, Behrendt switched channels to watch Deadwood, which featured, well, a man making sweet love to a horse. She tweeted thus:

‘I watched a show where a guy had sex with a horse and I’m sure it was less offensive than Bess Price.’

Cue media hellstorm for Behrendt. The Australian railed at her for days, eventually corralling an apology out of her, something which satisfied neither The Australian or Bess Price. (It also made me wonder whether a ‘tweeted’ comment can ever be construed as ‘personal’ or ‘off the record’, given that it is generally clear whether someone has a ‘work’ Twitter account or a ‘personal’ Twitter account that is open to public access as well as friends and family.)

If you put the Kutcher, Griggs and Behrendt sagas in the context of a discussion on the state of modern media services, all three stories seem to make a compelling argument for reverting back to the good old days of Fourth-Estate content control. Before Twitter, news bites and 24-hour news cycles; the golden-age of the newspaper and the journalist.

While news may be horribly affected by commercialism now, it wasn’t always so. Constant prime-time updates on Kim Kardashian-lite starlets was not the norm. Julian Petley and his quote friend Reuven Frank summarise the point perfectly in Petley’s article on the Fourth Estate (more simply, the media) trying to function in a highly commercial environment:

‘Since blaming public taste is the usual response of those accused of abandoning the ideals of the Fourth Estate, it’s worth quoting Reuven Frank, a former president of NBC News, on this particular gambit: “This business of giving people what they want is a dope pusher’s argument. News is something people don’t know they’re interested in until they hear about it. The job of a journalist is to take what’s important and make it interesting [my emphasis].”’

Once upon a time, news media and journalists told us what to care about (idealistically, anyway). It might seem a little controlling and juvenile to argue that society needs to be told what’s important, but it seems that the greater public cannot be trusted not to click on, listen to or tweet about vacuous celebrities. We can’t accuse media companies of leading us down the vacuous path of celebrity obsession when they are simply responding to our responses and feed us more of the same, at the cost of news that actually matters.

Still, perhaps desiring the death of social media for the sake of proper news is a little too eager. If you want to put a positive spin on it, the internet has allowed readers to access a huge array of once difficult-to-acquire publications from overseas, as well as allowing smaller independent news outlets such as Crikey and New Matilda, and university-sector independent commentary site The Conversation, to gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive news environment. In a country with a small population such as Australia, that has a huge impact on reader choice and in such cases, due journalistic diligence is often rewarded by loyal readers.

The most positive aspect of new-age media is that it requires you to be an active reader, even when you’re simply surfing news sites. Your click matters, so stop clicking on Kim Kardashian and instead start thinking critically about what kind of message you are sending to the people who read news site statistics on what attracts visitors.

Kutcher may have slipped up on Twitter, but the debacle has highlighted just how important it is to think critically about what you read. What a novel idea.


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