First Drafts and Cargo Cults: Journalism and the Crippling Power of Myth

Society

02.07.2013

First Drafts and Cargo Cults: Journalism and the Crippling Power of Myth

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On June 17 1972, months out from a US presidential election, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Headquarters. Their mission was to look like a common drive-by burglary, photograph confidential documents, and fit the entire joint with listening devices. They were acting on the payroll of the official Committee for the Re-Election of the President, Richard Nixon. They replicated a garden-variety bungled crime too well, and in getting caught they would eventually bring down an entire administration, almost terminally undermine American confidence in its own democratic institutions, and through no intent of their own, choke their country’s legacy of investigative journalism forever.

We like to think of great events as having ‘ripples’, because these sound like a positive and momentous and exciting effect  - like the Velvet Revolution, or the Arab Spring. Tumult, capital-c Change. They’re active. So, if you think something like Watergate had a ripple effect, then you’re probably wont to go on about the Fourth Estate’s apex, about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein gaining the trust of the source of the century and blowing the American system wide open, about the way it changed the relationship between rulers who had been trusted to do the right thing and a public who bred a healthy skepticism out of their initial shock.

You might be a grizzled veteran of those heady glory days of the press. You might also be a doe-eyed journalism school student scarcely a quarter of that grizzled veteran’s age. Because Watergate galvanized the press and with them a nation – from that time on, forever emboldened: active, aware and focused on the big issues.

But another way of seeing a ripple is as a sad echo, a faded mimicry of the original splash. Diminishing returns.  And if you want to see a textbook example of those, let’s start with one of the most anticlimactic and bemusing lists in Wikipedia’s annals, from the name down: “List of scandals with “-gate” suffix”.

What we get is kind of fascinating, but also relentlessly trivial. Watergate’s progeny are Gordon Brown calling someone a bigot, an Irish Minister of Defence resigning over a defamation stoush, ‘Horsegate’, someone hiring an illegal nanny, mishandling of local government funds, non-payment of nannies’ employment taxes which essentially creates a further epidemic of illegal nannies, another but entirely unrelated Horsegate, and an improperly sublet constituency office in Glenrothes, Fife.

There’s corruption, waste and military intervention in here – often in developing countries - but there’s also a whole lot of noise, novelty and colour alongside it.  “-Gate” doesn’t signify the transgression, it signifies the point where the transgression becomes a subject of public knowledge. Just how public – how loud, how damning – is up to the press themselves.

Browsing through the gates, you're converted to sociologist John Thompson's notion of ‘scandal syndrome’: a ‘self-reproducing and self-reinforcing process, driven on by competitive and combative struggles in the media and political fields and giving rise to more and more scandals which increasingly become the focus of mediated forms of public debate’. In his 2000 book  Political Scandal: Power and Visibility In The Media Age, Thompson details how this culture means other pressing issues – matters of life, death, and survival – are left undercovered and underreported. Meanwhile, the business of government (which, let’s not forget, is to govern, rather than to produce an endless series of embarrassments that have to be dealt with somehow) is gradually paralysed.

If everything’s getting blown wide open, is anything? What happens when ‘Watergate’ becomes journalistic shorthand, a synecdoche for any and every scandal? And with ‘Corngate’ on the list, and other New Zealand ‘scandals’ like ‘Paintergate’ and ‘Drivergate’ only absent out by some miracle (rather than Wikipedia’s discerning editorial threshold), are we going the same, hysterical way?

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The ‘gate’ suffix stretches across space and time, to the point where it gives the most Parks and Recreation-level folly (I’m sure there was an episode where Leslie Knope fakes a painting) some veneer of secrecy and sleaze. But the thrill of uncovering a coverup isn’t necessarily born of expediency or even cynicism. In the States, Watergate’s meaning to the press has become almost Biblical, a sort of article of faith for everyone who has ever gone to journalism school. American sociologist Michael Schudson puts it like this:

Watergate overwhelms modern American journalism(the) myth is that Watergate led to a permanently more powerful, more celebrated, and more aggressive press. This myth is often supported by reference to a set of presumably empirical propositions: Watergate created unprecedented bitterness between the president and the White House press corps; it turned journalists into celebrities; it caused an unprecedented (and, it is often added, excessive) increase in investigative reporting; and, finally, among young people it led to an extraordinary increase in interest in journalism as a career.

Schudson wrote that in 1992, though it still flies today. Plenty of the empirical claims about Watergate, including the ones he notes, can actually be debunked . W. Joseph Campbell disposes of five of them here on the BBC’s website, including the lie that Watergate inspired unprecedented interest in joining the profession. But even if you can dismantle it with quick reference to cold, hard stats, wide belief in a myth has its own effects. If journalists have decided that they’re the hardnosed celebrities, or if every high-level leak denotes a vast cover-up that only the press can reveal, and if everyone is leaving journalism school with the certainty that the path of sustained success will be to find a Watergate of their own, then Watergate wasn’t exactly a null hypothesis. Instead, it had one hell of a placebo effect on the profession.

What does that effect look like in the field? It’s worth going back to the 17th or 18th of May, when a domino trail of media outlets (even ours) started calling the past five days Barack Obama’s ‘worst week yet’. If this seems like a strange way to think about anyone’s career, you’re probably right –we don’t tend to think of sportspeople by their worst weeks so much as runs of form, and if you’re Neil Young or Ridley Scott your lesser works tend to blur into a overall critical worship. It’s even hard to imagine this happening outside of an election campaign season 20 or 30 years ago, so maybe it’s best attributed to the modern news cycle.

So what actually went down? Over a few days, in a febrile, ever-repeating 24-hour news cycle, accusations finally bubbled over that the Obama Administration were concealing nefarious goings-on in the investigation of the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi (hilariously, that Wiki-page has something called ‘Concussiongate’, where Hillary Clinton faked a fainting incident to avoid testifying about it); that it had personally ordered a raid on a bunch of Associated Press phone records;  and that it was co-ordinating IRS discrimination against conservative groups and thereby opening up a floodgate of tax martyrdom.

In fact, by the end of the week all three had virtually fallen over. 100 pages of internal emails exchanged by officials in the aftermath revealed a shambles but not a conspiracy; any errant decision-making about weird roleplay patriot groups was nipped in the bud by finding someone important (in this case, the acting director of the IRS himself) and firing him, and – well, seizing of AP phone records wasn’t about shadowy and unlawful dealings at all. It was legal, borne of Department of Justice powers most Democrats are too wet to curb and most Republicans are actually quite happy with. Good luck seeing news networks sustain their focus though – even though it’d most likely be in their indirect interest.

Inevitably, “worse than Watergate” reared its head a few times in the mix. Okay. If you want to compare the above ‘scandals’ – any political scandal in a Western democracy, really – to Watergate, political scientist Jonathan Bernstein helpfully re-iterates the outlines of the Watergate cover-up: its extent, its methods, and the parties involved. And if you want to look at an even longer list of the acts themselves, they’re listed here as ‘The White House Horrors’ (Histrionic, sure, but this is a country that compares a tax-status ruckus to “the stuff of Third World juntas”, so best to just ride with it). Again, Watergate gets invoked because something was concealed, then very publicly revealed. But how often is a cover-up worse than the crime; and when it is, is it really something worth caring about?

The middle of May was a case study, a week of scandals where nothing scanned - but as I was writing this, we’d all just found out about the existence (though not the exact parameters) of PRISM. That the National Security Agency had been running an electronic surveillance programme gathering metadata about Internet users with the compliance of Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo - and that, simultaneously, the US government had been collecting the phone records of hundreds of millions of American phone customers via an FBI order.

Again, this is legal (but very opaque, and still awfully ugly) under the Patriot Act. So let’s agree that it’s total shit, but reserve judgment on how the press eventually handles it – does it get treated as some shadowy and unlawful new Administration cover-up sustained by an erratic stream of leaks, or an entire system enacting bad law with bipartisan support? Because the former is going to burn out once there’s not a ‘new twist’ and Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, goes to ground; and the latter is only going to change with sustained, long-term and/or long-form journalism that achieves dual aims. This would involve clearly outlining how all this happened without going into tangents, but also offering up some nuance – ie, your phone-sex hotline records in Wisconsin are going to fade in the crowd, but this is what it entails for the young Muslim man who read about Jihadi bombings he had no connection to on Yahoo (it entails this).

It needs to have patience and courage and the maturity to tailor and articulate what makes this surveillance so concerning without going overboard, and to convey to the public and to the mechanisms of government what would make it right. If the press doesn’t do this, another window to overturn these laws passes and the mountain of secrets and bullshit will continue to pile up. And again, it’s also in their interest, because the PRISM arrangement as alleged doesn’t exactly favour a free and unencumbered press. That’s all [1].

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Ben Bradlee was executive editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991 – he backed his reporters as they probed and exposed Watergate, and saw his trust rewarded. But later, he described how:

Reporters – especially young reporters – covered the most routine rural fires as if they were Watergate and would come back and argue there was gasoline in the hose, and the fire chief was an anti-Semite, and they really thought that this was the way to fame and glory.

But when that rural fire turns out to be a bust, and what was nominally a scandal runs out of light looking for heat within a fortnight, what’s the opportunity cost? The Washington Post, again — Ezra Klein imagining what would come out of Obama’s mouth at a press conference if he had the freedom to tell them what he really thought, to ‘go Bulworth’ [2]:
Look, the reason the American people can’t trust their government is here in Washington. Right now sequestration is cutting unemployment checks by 10 or 11 percent. Do you hear anyone talking about that? Or doing anything about it? No. You hear Republicans aides telling Politico, anonymously, that the speaker is quote “obsessed” with Benghazi. You know, I don’t think most of the Republicans screaming about Benghazi could find Libya on a map. I don’t think 10 of them knew our ambassador’s name. And, let me be clear, Speaker Boehner certainly wasn’t obsessed with giving us the money we asked for to keep the embassy’s safe.

But now he’s obsessed with Benghazi. And not even Benghazi. The Benghazi talking points. Are you kidding me? He’s not obsessed with global warming or unemployment or rebuilding our infrastructure.  And now that there’s conflict, all of you are obsessed with Benghazi talking points too, and meanwhile, we’re cutting the National Institutes of Health and we’re cutting too deep into the military and we’re making life harder for the unemployed and we’re doing nothing to keep this planet in good shape for our kids.


People are struggling, but most of these struggles don’t have a figurehead, a villain, a secret, or anything to be uncovered (as opposed to hidden in plain sight, and in dire need of being patiently analysed and explained). There’s no lure of access, because the military and secret service are full of secrets and leaks and intrigue, and how we give families welfare paychecks and reduce carbon emissions is generally not.

Amid all of this, of course, the press is struggling too. Newspapers and print, obviously – but it’s possible to forecast a time when the declining revenues of big networks – ABC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox – begin to eat into their budgets for news and current affairs. Facing an uncertain future, there’s probably an allure in the ritualistic allegation of cover-ups, secrecy, and espionage, especially if you believe that once upon a time these acts, writ large, led to a bestowing of kudos, prestige, and potentially material wealth (scandal syndrome, without a doubt, served commercial purposes. And subsequently, it’s also what audiences have been led to expect. No one is really going to intercede and demand differently). A return to traditional ways, the restoration of a moment in the social order where the press were fearless and the White House cowered.

Though young American journalists have been so well inculcated in it, Watergate’s not the foundation of an organized institutional religion at this stage. Instead, it’s left behind a cargo cult.

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[caption id="attachment_7270" align="aligncenter" width="336"]The cover of Metro Magazine, June 1987 - Phillida Bunkle and Sandra Coney's feature on National Women's Hospital and the methods of Herb Green was considered one of the best moments of investigative journalism in this country. The cover of Metro Magazine, June 1987 - Phillida Bunkle and Sandra Coney's feature on National Women's Hospital and the methods of Herb Green is still considered one of the best moments of investigative journalism in this country. Both were writers and researchers in public and women's health, but neither was a journalist, per se.[/caption]

New Zealand got Corngate. It got Paintergate, and Drivergate – but they’re more lazy pop culture catchphrases than they are the instilled repetition of any ethos. They’re like hash-tags on slow days on Twitter.

Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of an analogous moment that gets held up, Simba-like, to New Zealand’s media savannah. Watergate is virtually an origin myth to American j-school students, but any course of study equips you with a view of the world, and your place in it. Duncan Kennedy famously wrote of law school’s intensely political reproduction of hierarchy (like journalism, law makes all sort of claims to neutrality, balance, and being some sort of above-the-fray arbiter of what’s right for all). Medical schools struggle with the tension between a rigorous technocratic approach to disease (your most austere specialist) and a more social one (your GP growing up – and which one ends up earning more?). So what’s poured into our young journalists during their Comms degrees, or their graduate diploma years?

The workmanlike competency of the workers who come out [3] suggests that they’re getting sound fundamentals in what a story should include, who they should talk to and how to keep on top of something as it develops. But are they given a myth – something they aspire to, or someone they aspire to be?

I talked to a set of j-school grads who were less than 5 years out of the womb. I asked them what sort of local examples were held to them as great journalism in their time at school, if any; whether there were others that were shorthand for greatness when they emerged into the working world; and what they thought about the exercise of mythmaking in journalism .

They’re people who enjoy their work, though they’re increasingly realistic about the political economy of the work they’re doing (small and isolated population, struggling profession) and the limits this imposes. They came up with different investigative highpoints, suggesting that there’s no Watergate-style ‘consensus’ origin myth in New Zealand reporting. Encouragingly, they also suggested that the way we’re teaching the craft is pretty healthy.

S: “There were no big case studies taught at AUT, though the second big Christchurch earthquake had just happened. It is my feeling that NZ doesn't really have the same history of investigative journalism as the US. There’s a smaller market, and less money around to keep someone on a retainer for a long story. The things that stick out for me are big breaking news events. Aramoana, the quakes, and things like that. It's that first draft of history stuff that really gets me going. That said, investigative journalism is amazing. And there are great examples of it, they just aren't from NZ.”

Journalism’s first draft doesn’t always have the cloak-and-dagger allure or exclusivity of a scoop, leak or scandal, but it’s important, and it’s perhaps so fundamental that it gets taken for granted. Apart from being the primary record later on, it’s plainly useful to its audience here and now – and plenty, like Aramoana, like the Wahine sinking – have been cited as ‘coming of age’ moments for NZ news (the NZBC’s Wahine reporting won the World News Film Award in 1968 for Best Coverage of a Dramatic Event).

Conversely, fears about investigative journalism’s decline have nothing on the possibility that a news provider might not even be able to deliver the fundamentals anymore – witness Mike McRoberts’ outburst after TV3 ran Magnum PI repeats during the first Christchurch quake, and the resulting Mexican standoff both television news stations got themselves in trying to do better the second time round –  each costing themselves $1 million a day in lost ad revenue from their week of live coverage, and daring the other one to blink first.

Two of my friends also pointed out that some of the high points in NZ investigative reporting weren’t even from trained journos. At least one came from a politician – and though he’s an anomaly, the notion of stories that simply originate with politicians is a troubling one:

M: The Metro piece on the 'Unfortunate Experiment' is definitely a high point of NZ investigative journalism. It's often held up as an example of the form. And it led to real change through the Cartwright Inquiry. Interestingly, neither Phillida Bunkle nor Sandra Coney were trained journos. I can't think of a comparable newspaper investigation off the top of my head. Hager, Kitchin, Stephenson and Fisher are seen as NZ's top journos in the field at the moment - but Hager and Stephenson especially find themselves open to criticisms of bias and inaccuracies. It goes with the territory.”

H: “The closest thing I can think of is the Winebox Inquiry, though it's not a neat comparison because it wasn't the media that busted the issue wide open. Love him or hate him, it was Winston Peters.”

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Recent circumstances have reminded us that politicians and their staff are constantly leaking information, or at least the penumbra of information.  By the tonne. Here and everywhere. This is not really the boon for investigative journalism that it sounds like, because if strategically leaked information is being reported as the giver intended (because you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth – I would struggle to) then what you have is actually a pretty passive and ordinary journalism – privileged by the sensitive lines of access, and devoid of context or accountability. To be blunt, you’d be a putz to think that politicians didn’t learn something about how to do their job better from Watergate too.

Peters, of course, is a wonderful and terrible exception. Most sensitive political information is meted out in sly confidence; he manages to broadcast even his most substantive and believable allegations like a man wearing a sandwich board on the street corner. Which probably works a treat for capturing his base, but also suggests why despite lots of diligent work here and there, our journalists never really adopted the Winebox saga.

S: “There's an interesting disconnect as well between this mythical and platonic role of journalism and what actually happens once you're sitting in a newsroom. Also, in NZ, many of those teaching journalism aren't practising journalists or haven't sat in a newsroom for a very long time. I think the last great bastions of old-school journalism we have are in the Press Gallery.”

H: I think the myths that get trotted out can lead to a sense of disillusionment, given that there is very little room for investigative journalism in today's newsrooms because of the squeeze on resources. Then again, our romanticizing about Watergate probably masks the intense amount of after-hours, individual toil and frustrating dead-ends that would have been involved with it.

I'm of two minds; in one sense you need to have this overarching narrative of journalism speaking truth to power because otherwise, why would you do it? The hours are lousy, the pay's not as good as other industries and job security is precarious. But on the other hand, these myths may give young reporters false expectations. Personally, I think it's better to hold up smaller, less earth-shattering investigations (like the Press' good scoop on CTV building construction manager Gerald Shirtcliff's stolen identity) as examples for younger journalists.”

The Press? Bu—but—bu—he’s got a point. Read that piece for the story alone first, which is a ripper that went under-reported elsewhere in the country. Then, read it for the journalism, which doesn’t have the luxury of a Deep Throat or a Dunne to blow the lid off anything, but draws together a lot of research, a lot of interviews and a lot of different strands to tell the chronology of one man’s false life and what one of his myriad lies may have led to. Modestly and efficiently, it’s very, very good and, if you want, it’s an example of the press having direct consequence. It feels like a case study.

S: The Hollow Men is the sole thing that sticks out. But is what Nicky does journalism? I feel like a bunch of people I did j-school with would barely know about iconic journalistic work. I do because it's something I have wanted to do for a long time. Helps that I also like politics. And depending on what you came in there for – what you actually wanted to achieve with a journalism degree or do once you were out there, there might not be that same drive to uncover the truth? 

I feel like half my time at uni was taken up thinking about this sort of thing, though - I learned more about mythmaking journalism doing a media studies major, as opposed to journalism school.”

If that last point is true, then we might be in good hands. I was grateful for how I didn’t get any of the “without fear or favour!” and “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!” insuffrobore puff from the four people I spoke to – how our journalism programmes hadn’t filled them with false hope and ultimately thwarted them, and how they’ve been left to gradually feel out their own niches in a tough space. Most of all, they’re opinionated, and not just for being opinionated’s sake. I keep going back to media critic Jay Rosen, musing on Watergate then American j-school in general:

“Deans of Journalism, scribble a note: Investigative reporting, exposing public corruption, and carrying the mantle of the downtrodden were taughtnot as political acts in themselves—which they are—and not as a continuation of the progressive movement of the 1920s, in which the cleansing light of publicity was a weapon of reform—which they are—but just as a way of being idealistic, a non-political truthteller in the job of journalist. (Which is bunk.)

This kind of instruction is guaranteed to leave future journalists baffled by the culture wars, and in fact the press has been baffled to find that it has political opponentsas far as the religion knows, none of this is happening. And J-schools—by passing the faith along but making little room for non-believers—are part of the problem.”

We should be clear here – reporters who have a misdirected sense of ‘crusading journalism’ are not ‘The Problem’. Certainly not by themselves. The reasons for bad journalism are plentiful – that there’s less money going into newsrooms and therefore less time and resources to do a worthwhile job on a story, or do a story at all; that more and more people trained in journalism have gone into public relations and obfuscate what was a comparatively honest if messy relationship with the press. That too many publications are owned by too few interests. That the format of news on the television, in print and on the Internet is constantly massaged into new and prescriptive forms by a roving transnational army of consultants while the content lies ailing.

Journalists can seek a noble ideal of balance and even-handedness, but they shouldn’t assume that the forces permeating their daily professional lives are beatifically non-ideological in the same way. They’re in a unique position to refine their critical investigative skills – they have the ability to turn these tools on themselves and the milieu they work in. And they should - because for the most part their audience can’t, and their masters won’t.  Crucially, their part of the problem is also the variable.

Meanwhile, those who will likely be our strongest journalists of the next 20 years aren’t beholden to one myth, one idea of ‘making it’. We don’t really have one, and the traditional ladders up are collapsing, and they’re likely to have to forge new ones. This is obviously really scary, but the alternative – the same practices in ever-decreasing circles, with ever-decreasing returns, and ever-decreasing budgets – a sort of Thriftgate firesale – is worse.

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Last month, Media 3 produced a retrospective on “For The Public Good”, a documentary originally filmed for TVNZ’s Frontline in 1990. It was meant to be about the Fourth Labour government’s uncomfortably close relationship to big business at the time –but it ended up being the fiasco that got TVNZ sued by the six or so most powerful men in the country, ruled as defamatory, had its makers effectively blacklisted, and scared anyone off taking a sustained look at the intersections of money and power in this country until Hager’s work 15 years later.

What “For The Public Good” actually showed us should have been shocking enough, but what it intimates – recreations of David Lange’s legs stalking into sinister carparks at Dutch angles, Day Today-style footage of a dinner party from a hedge, and a number of absolute leaps on intuition where someone bet that the sinister thrill of mysterious sources would do rather than a more restrained and stoic telling (ie: proof) – fucks it in full. You can’t barely discuss the substance of the documentary now without risking a lawsuit, because a lot of good got compromised by the bad.

Bad journalism about the trivial or inane is simply bad, but journalism that kneecaps its own potential is devastatingly, profoundly sad for its makers and (especially somewhere this size) society at large. I think about something like PRISM again – the cracks now being alleged in the Guardian’s initial reporting,  stories about the public’s belated acceptance of what the programme may entail that feel eerily like a fait accompli – and feel a sense of dread.

Far away from everything else but plagued with most of the same systemic problems, Kiwis who want to report the news, and to interrogate it, are now in a brave new world. This is not as glamorous as it sounds, and it’s certainly not as glamorous as All The President’s Men or “For The Public Good” looked, but it’s important. Let’s see more journalists being sad, sober, and often lonely, and frequently unpopular. And let’s see them being skeptical – not just about all the obvious things, but skeptical about what they’ve been taught to think. Because that’s brave, in a way that will have ripples.


[1] This is all without prejudice to how reporting on PRISM pans out, and to what extent editors, producers and publishers allow their staff to hold tight to the story – to effectively pursue a form of ‘advocacy journalism’, rather than go looking for the next big bust. I’ve read a lot of well-reasoned investigative articles and op-eds on the PRISM issue now, and what’s impressive is that they’re not really taking sides so much as differing to the scope of the issue. The general climate is one that’s asking for greater assurance and transparency, as good a fulcrum as anything for journalism that achieves something in our time.

Embarrassingly, the only completely worthless thing I have seen a paper print on PRISM is this piece by the Herald’s John Roughan. And I don’t even mean worthless in a pejorative sense. It’s much, much worse than that – Roughan’s thoughts on the matter are intrinsically without any worth or value to human knowledge. It’s borderline remarkable.

[2] The notion of ‘going Bulworth’ stems from Warren Beatty’s 1998 cult political comedy of the same name. Beatty’s character is a faded Democratic senator who, in the face of political oblivion, turns on the press, his party, and his corporate benefactors and starts speaking his mind freely (and, uh, rapping). It’s an okay film, but it’s come back into the public consciousness with May’s revelation that Obama himself has privately described a fantasy of doing the same.

[3] This isn’t intended as a slight. If journalists see themselves as a profession – with codes of ethics, standards bodies, and accreditation – then it’s good that they have a workmanlike competency the way that it’s good that doctors, teachers and lawyers do. Or to put it another way: given the choice between flair, attitude and an ‘eccentric hint of genius’ and being able to manage an adequate c-section, what do you look for in an obstetrician?

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