Games journalists play

In the fallout after New Zealand’s election on the weekend, political journalist Tova O’Brien interviewed one of the hapless losers, a smooth talker named Jami-Lee Ross. The interview has had nearly 11 million views on Twitter -- and since there are only 5 million people in New Zealand, this means that it was an international hit.

The election was a triumph for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Her centre-left Labour Party won in a landslide, scoring a majority in parliament, a rare event in local politics. But her success doesn't begin to explain the popularity of the video. It was the fun of watching a well-armed gladiator twisting a sword in the carcase of a wounded foe.

Mr Ross was the leader of a new party, Advance New Zealand. It was wiped out, failing to get even 1 percent of the national vote. After ten years as an MP, he was out of a job. I think that this is all you need to know about him. Oh yes, and he consorted with Covid-19 deniers.

A sneering Ms O’Brien hung him out to dry in a four minute television interview. A few choice thrusts from her rapier:

  • “You are out of National, out of parliament, out of Botany, your political career is in tatters.” 
  • “You sold your soul for political ambition.”
  • “I don’t wanna hear any of that rubbish.”
  • “People have described you as narcissistic.”
  • “This might be last time that you’re on air. It’s probably the last time we’ll invite you on. Are there any apologies that you want to issue to anyone?”

An unknown politician, an unknown journalist, unknown issues. But the video of the interview went viral, with leading journalists praising it to the skies.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones described it admiringly as “One of the most amazingly savage interviews you'll ever watch.”

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, of The Intercept, rhapsodised: “An absolute masterclass in interviewing a politician by New Zealand's @TovaOBrien - one of the best interviews of a politician I've seen. Also one of the most entertaining.”

Jake Tapper, of CNN, gushed: “she has some fans in the US !!!”

Mehdi Hasan, of MSNBC, tweeted “I have no idea who she is - or who he is - but she makes my questions look like softballs!! Love it.”

British broadcaster Piers Morgan simply said, “Fabulous.”

Hang on, let’s take another look at this. Mr Ross lost a job after ten years. He was humiliated by the election. His life looks ruined. And Ms O’Brien calls him, more or less, a scumbag, talks over him, shuts him up, cuts him off, and insults him.

She can call him names. He can't. She will have a job tomorrow. He won’t. She can put the boot in. He can’t. She has a powerful media company behind her. He doesn't. She’s powerful. He’s powerless.

Isn’t that just gold-plated playground bullying?

But she has an excuse, guys! He's wrong about Covid-19! “You’ve been part of the political movement that’s been peddling misinformation during this election campaign,” she sneers. Look, mate, it's obvious: if you're not part of the consensus, bullying’s OK. Lack of empathy's OK. Lack of civility's OK.

The scary thing is that her colleagues in major networks in the United States and Britain loved her when did you stop beating your wife technique for browbeating her guest. It was a masterclass in discrediting unpopular views.  No wonder the "mainstream media" is on the nose in flyover country.

Once upon a time, journalism was about defending the underdog. Is the new paradigm giving the underdog a kick in the guts?

Not long ago, Pope Francis made some wise comments about the media’s temptation to ridicule and belittle. “Journalists sometimes risk becoming ill from coprophilia and thus fomenting coprophagia: which is a sin that taints all men and women, that is, the tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positive aspects.”

If you don’t know what “coprophilia” and “coprophagia” mean, pull out your Webster’s. There are no better words for Tova O’Brien’s interview technique.


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