The Dim-Post

August 29, 2011

Cult of savviness

Filed under: media — danylmc @ 8:22 am

I’ve been reading this speech by media critic Jay Rosen on the dysfunctional nature of political journalism, and one of his criticisms is of the ‘cult of savviness:

In the United States, most of the people who report on politics aren’t trying to advance an ideology. But I think they have an ideology, a belief system that holds their world together and tells them what to report about. It’s not left, or right, or center, really. It’s trickier than that. The name I’ve given to the ideology of our political press is savviness. And I see it in Australia too. When you watch political journalists on a roundtable program summing up the week and looking ahead, what they are usually performing for us is… their savviness.

So let me explain what I mean by that term.  In politics, our journalists believe, it is better to be savvy than it is to be honest or correct on the facts. It’s better to be savvy than it is to be just, good, fair, decent, strictly lawful, civilized, sincere, thoughtful or humane.  Savviness is what journalists admire in others. Savvy is what they themselves dearly wish to be. (And to be unsavvy is far worse than being wrong.)

Savviness is that quality of being shrewd, practical, hyper-informed, perceptive, ironic, “with it,” and unsentimental in all things political. And what is the truest mark of savviness? Winning, of course! Or knowing who the winners are.

I would defend the worship of savviness – to a certain extent. Government is hard: it’s not enough for someone to be good, fair, decent etc – they have to be smart. Worthy policies aren’t sufficient – they have to be implemented properly, and if they aren’t then you alienate voters from the values and policies you’re trying to advance. You make it harder for your party to introduce similar policies in the future. Savviness is a key quality, in politicians and the journalists writing about them.

But they do need to understand the basic ideas and value systems behind all the skulduggery and political machinations. For a hilarious counter-example, take a look at the Q & A panel struggling to comment on Guyon Espiner’s interview with Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level.

Wilkinson’s interview is here – it’s not difficult, just an academic discussing his subject in layman terms. And his thesis isn’t difficult to critique – did he cherry pick the countries he included in his study? But the panel don’t go there – instead they obsess over his performance as an interview subject. You get the feeling that if Wilkerson had received media training and thrown in some jokes about Charlie Sheen they would have been avid converts to his hypothesis.


  1. Paul Holmes admitting that he didn’t understand the interview to start with was particularly embarrassing. If you can’t understand basic political ideas, why are we interested in your panel opinions?
    Cringe-worthy TV.

    Unfortunately what you write is all too true Danyl.

    (For the record there’s no cherry-picking, just selection by countries that earn above a certain GDP/capita, and for which there is a complete data-set)

    Comment by Ben Clark — August 29, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  2. I noticed Wilkinson’s rebuttle of the effects of immigration which was along the lines of Sweden is the same as the USA.

    That’s certainly cherry picking. Yes, it’s true as long as you only consider immigration percentages for foreign born but that does not take into account the very very different role immigration has played overall in the demographics of these two countries.

    Comment by NeilM — August 29, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  3. I’m not going to watch the Q&A because I’m not a masochist, but I presume it shows that “savvy” and “smart” are not the same thing. In particular, if you’re a member of the media, it’s much more important to be savvy than smart, which is why Paul Holmes still has a career after all these years.

    Comment by bradluen — August 29, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  4. #3: “which is why Paul Holmes still has a career after all these years.”

    I threw my hands up in disgust at his chairing that panel discussion. His admitting that he didn’t understand any of the discussion (the subject matter is a book that takes basic ideas and packages them for the lay man) is appalling, and his snide comments throughout basically to the effect that it wasn’t worth debating as a result were appalling. The other panel members were nearly as bad.

    Comment by DT — August 29, 2011 @ 10:27 am

  5. Perhaps being “savvy” is what drive Espiner and Garner, and thus their backing the “winners” drives their spiel over truth and accuracy. Mmm. That fits.

    Comment by xianmacIanmac — August 29, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  6. If you watch the actual interview it’s obvious that Espiner understands and engages with the ideas – which isn’t hard. I mean, it’s an incredibly famous, influential book, and the argument is not complex.

    Comment by danylmc — August 29, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  7. Yes, Espiner clearly understands things like simple correlations, unlike Holmes. In fact, my favourite episode of Q&A this year was the one where Holmes was away and Espiner ran the whole show itself. Which kind of made me wonder why TVNZ continue to pay his salary.

    Comment by DT — August 29, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

  8. Ah, but are we savvy in perceiving savviness? I would argue that in politics – and not a few other fields – the greatest determinant of someone being seen as savvy is the wind direction. It is very hard to be perceived as savvy when you are being showered with shit. Perhaps by definition you cannot be savvy if you are receiving the aforesaid shower.

    Comment by Tinakori — August 29, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  9. The problem with “savviness” as a measure is, apart from the fact that there’s no metric, is that it is relatively easy for a politico to acquire savviness – it’s just a matter of getting the right administrators and support staff. Savviness is not a product of individual talent and acumen as much as it is a matter of the right support infrastructure.

    Comment by Hugh — August 29, 2011 @ 1:30 pm

  10. I think describing “savviness” as backing the winner is not quite right – they want to be the winners with the first (or exclusive) story on something different. So journalistic “savvy” is winning the coverage. That’s why they sometimes drive or even create stories, it’s a way of giving them an edge. And edge in “savv” rather than balance, but who cares, a Happy Meal isn’t a balanced diet.

    Comment by Pete George — August 29, 2011 @ 2:37 pm

  11. I don’t know why they fronted with Holmes in the first place. The original show Agenda, with Espiner and Christie, was FAR superior.

    Comment by Adze — August 29, 2011 @ 3:08 pm

  12. In fact, my favourite episode of Q&A this year was the one where Holmes was away and Espiner ran the whole show itself.

    You know DT, I watched this episode (not having followed the show previously) and thought Espiner was the front man, following on from Agenda.

    Boy was I dissapointed when Holmes, that inane, smirking poison dwarf popped up on the screen and attempted to ruin every subsequent Sunday morning.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 29, 2011 @ 3:42 pm

  13. I have asked people at TVNZ about this – apparently there is a conventional wisdom in senior management that he’s our greatest broadcaster ever.

    Comment by danylmc — August 29, 2011 @ 3:46 pm

  14. They can’t have got the memo that (a) Holmes tanked on Prime and (b) people seem to like the Walrus better on his old TV1 slot.

    Comment by Gregor W — August 29, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  15. From the interview “the problem for him is that he’s rested a lot of his arguments on evidence….”. Which is about it really.

    (As you say, if the panel had gone on to discuss the evidence instead of talk about…. what ever they were talking about, then it might have been a more useful discussion.)

    Comment by David Winter — August 29, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

  16. The one week Jon Johansson is away…. I couldn’t believe the panels response, even for who was on the panel, or are the intentionally trying to dumb us all down??

    Comment by max — August 29, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

  17. I don’t know what to think about this post and thread.

    I need a Panel to tell me what it was about, and who won and lost in the comments. Otherwise I’d have to read it for myself.

    Comment by sammy — August 29, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

  18. Agenda was also quite good when Simon Dallow was fronting it (before he went prime time). Even if I seem to remember him rocking a goatee at the time…

    Comment by max — August 29, 2011 @ 5:13 pm

  19. @ max

    On the bright side, the pol sci woman called out the 100% pure for what it was, a tourism brand and for NZers to stop tying ourselves into impossible knots trying to turn a slogan for foreigners into our reason for being. We didn’t fall the abstain bollox so let’s get over this one.

    Comment by insider — August 29, 2011 @ 6:02 pm

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