Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated. And perhaps it’s nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media.

In 1993, Edward Said stunned the world of cultural criticism with his revolutionary critique of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. The literary professor and avowed lover of the Western literary canon reviewed Austen in a way like never before: as a cultural artefact that reflected and embodied the British imperial ethos.  

Austen, he wrote, “synchronises domestic with international authority, making it plain that the values associated with such higher things as ordination, law, and propriety must be grounded in actual rule over and possession of territory.”  

As both a critic and a fan, Said was surprised at accusations he was discrediting Austen. Rather, he was demonstrating that even novels ostensibly about domesticity could not be separated from the politics of the time.  

Said showed that art not only can but must be both enjoyed and critiqued.  

That criticism must, in other words, be constructive. 

Said’s approach to criticism is more needed now than ever. Increasingly, it appears that constructive criticism and cynical attacks are being conflated.  

I find this nowhere more apparent or more troubling than when it comes to criticism of the news media. 

After The New York Times opened an Australian bureau several years ago, some readers and journalists complained its coverage was patronising. Such complaints, journalist and former Times contributor Christine Keneally said, indicated that locals felt it “considered itself superior to the local press”.

As I wrote at the time, grievances included needlessly explaining Australia to Australians, engaging in parachute journalism, and not employing enough local journalists.” The newspaper wasn’t doing anything that Australian journalists don’t do as a matter of routine when covering foreign places. Whether wittingly or unwittingly, English-language media often assume an air of authority as they “explain” the local culture and events to their audience back home, adopting an almost anthropological tone that has been frequently and hilariously satirised. 

The problem, then, was not the Times per se but Western approaches to journalistic “objectivity that equate their own interpretations with fact.

Consequently, the criticism centred on mocking the Times rather than interrogating the broader problem of Western journalistic processes and assumptions. This merely served to make the Times defensive and resistant to the criticism. 

It is futile to simply demand that journalists “do better” on certain issues or to single out specific publications when the problem so often comes down to Western media conventions as a whole.  

How then should we go about it? Robust public constructive criticism of the press is vital. Not least because:  

“There is everywhere a growing disillusionment about the press, a growing sense of being baffled and misled; and wise publishers will not pooh-pooh these omens.”   

This quote could easily have been written last week but comes from legendary American editor Walter Lippmann in his 1919 essay ‘Liberty and the News’. 

Lippmann urged fellow journalists not to reject criticism but use it as a means to improve. “We shall advance when we have learned humility,” he predicted hopefully. “When we have learned to seek truth, to reveal it and publish it; when we care more for that than for the privilege of arguing about ideas in a fog of uncertainty.” 

Some of this antipathy towards critique could perhaps be explained by a lack of consensus of what critique actually is. The job of a critic is often misrepresented as being merely “to criticise, telling us what is good and bad. However, the true role of a critic, explains culture writer Emily St. James, is “to pull apart the work, to delve into the marrow of it, to figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves”.

Social media complicates our understanding further because of the difficulty of in reading people’s tone and intent online. Then there is also the unfortunate fact that social media is so often used deliberately as a platform to launch cynical, shaming attacks, which makes it even more challenging to distinguish criticism from cynicism. 

This can be applied to the news media as easily as it can to novels or films.  

As media scholar James W Carey observed, and as Said demonstrated in his critique of Austen, genuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Over many decades historians and scholars have agreed on the shape criticism should take. Namely, that criticism is an ongoing process of exchange and debate between the news media and its audience. That it should be grounded in knowledge rather than solely in emotion. That it should not be pedantic, petty, and shaming.

Media researcher Wendy Wyatt defined it simply as “the critical yet noncynical act of judging the merits of the news media”.

And as media scholar James W Carey observed and Said demonstrated with Austengenuine criticism is not a “mark of failure or irrelevance, it is the sign of vigour and importance”.

Lippmann and Wyatt advocated for criticism of the press by the press, such as a public editor or ombudsman hired by the publication solely to address readers’ concerns and complaints.  

Others including Carey argued that true criticism can come only from the outside; from academics or authors that are not on the payroll to ensure fairness, and minimises the possibility of retribution. Many journalists, they warn, have been ostracised by their peers for daring to critique their own. 

Much of the onus, then, falls to editors and publishers to open up the news media to constructive criticism, and to not “pooh-pooh” our concerns. But we, as individuals and as a society, all bear some responsibility for fostering a social climate that encourages such critique.  

If we are to demand that journalists heed our criticism, we must also enter into it in good faith. Like journalism itself, any and all criticism should also be weighed up on its merits. Our ultimate goal should not be merely to shame journalists but to transform the news media in an ongoing process of reform and improvement.

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