Propaganda 101 for Ex-Journalists

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 19/08/2012 - 3:59pm

Yet another open letter to the Coffs Coast Advocate:

Dear Sir,

I confess to feeling a little overwhelmed. I've never considered myself particularly influential, so when I suggested last week that you assemble an astroturf group of random cretins to inject a much-needed element of opacity into your campaign to improve the market value of ocean-view properties in the Jetty area, I had little expectation you'd take my advice; still less that you'd do so in under a week!

And what a group! Unless I'm mistaken they appear to be predominately Coffs old-money born and in-bred; scarcely a chin between the lot of them, and not unduly burdened by an excess of grey matter. Just the people to recite from a deck of prepared talking points without a stray original thought taking them off-message.

I know you've made a few false steps so far in the campaign, but nobody can say it's really your fault. Back in your day universities quixotically emphasised the teaching of journalism, to the great detriment of the mercenary propaganda skills of a generation of local newspaper editors, leaving them grossly unprepared for the media industry of the 21st century. However today's cover story is more than enough to demonstrate to your advertisers that you're a quick and willing learner.

Because you've had the grace and humility to accept my advice in the past, I feel obliged to highlight the next most prominent weakness in your campaign so far (I'm happy to give counsel for as long as you find it useful - consider it "Propaganda 101 for Ex-Journalists"). You have a serious problem with framing the issue.

At the moment, the debate is whether to go ahead with the plan devised by the Think Tank (nudge nudge, wink wink!), or to leave well enough alone. This is a debate you don't want to have. It makes your desired outcome appear like the extreme end of a possible spectrum of opinions, and invites speculation about whether it's a good idea or not, phrases like Integrated Coastal Zone Mangement, and the sort of tedious wallowing about in facts that journalists like to do, but has no place in the Advocate. What you need is a position even more outlandish than your own that will make doing nothing seem a woefully inadequate response to a dire crisis rather than sensible caution, and will make your advertisers' plan (whoops, I mean the Think Tank's plan of course!) the reasonable, indeed inevitable, compromise. You won't even need to be seen to be pushing one point of view at all, merely giving Fair and Balancedâ„¢ coverage to both sides of the argument.

Now bear with me; I have a soundbite for you: "The precise aerial delivery of chemical defoliants, which have come a long way since the Vietnam era, along the entire length of the Coffs Coast, is the most cost-effective way to open up currently under-utilised community assets to - literally in some cases - pave the way for our own tourism resources boom." Picture a grey-haired duffer in an old suit with - this may be gilding the lily, but I think we could pull it off - a bow tie. You could probably source someone suitable in a quick fishing trip on the CHEC campus. It's not a real university of course, but that just means any academic who's hit rock bottom there will desperately seize on any opportunity to get his name in print in the hope of getting out.

If all this sounds a bit extreme, please remember that you're not just engaged in the task of expunging any lingering vestiges of journalism from the Advocate, but your clients are also depending on the Advocate to take the politics and the democracy out of government. The business of the press is business. In Coffs Harbour, which produces nothing of note but suburban sprawl, this means the business of the press is real estate, and ensuring any and all other civil institutions are subordinate to the demands of property holders.

This is no small task, but I have faith in you, and look forward to next Saturday's front page.

Matthew Davidson.