Deborah Hill Cone – truth or trash?

Was Deborah Hill Cone’s controversial column on female journalism truth or trash? It certainly provoked a strong reaction from journalists of both sexes. Many saw it as a dissy pissy hiss at female journalists.

The discussion has continued, resulting in NZ Herald reporter David Fisher challenging me to explain the truth. It came from this Twitter exchange about whether an apology from Hill Cone was appropriate:

I wonder if Deborah Hill-Cone might consider apologising to #youngfemalejournalists in her Monday column.

I think she’d be pleased with the outrage and encouraged to write more on the theme rather than apologise

So much easier than doing the hard journalistic work eh? Provoking outrage & truth don’t count.

 Any truth or substance to her column bill? Any?

Some truth, but no worse than some male journalist’s methods.

I admit that as a quick quip that wasn’t well explained. I’m sure that some “feminine” methods of extracting information from politicians are used, but it could equally be claimed that “masculine” methods are used.

And how do you get a story from lesbian or homosexual politicians? In reality probably as per most stories, you just ask.

Approval from Pete George is the harshest condemnation yet. Ouch.

I thought that reaction was odd and said so. Fisher responded with:

Tell you what, you tell me what bit of that column contained “truth”.

I don’t think there’s a quick simple answer to that, certainly not one that can be done in by tiny Tweets. Here’s my non-journalist analysis.

Better to blend in than be tempting target

I don’t agree with that. I don’t blend in in the blogosphere and frequently seem to make a tempting target.

I’ve been reading my kids a book called Maude by Lauren Child, but I think it might make a cautionary tale for journalists.

Maude’s family are all fabulously eccentric – her mother wears a hat with a real peacock perched on it, her father’s waxed moustache is so twirly it attracts butterflies, her brother tapdances everywhere he goes, and so on. But everyone feels sorry for Maude because she is so inconspicuous that she just disappears into the background.

For her birthday Maude asks for a goldfish but her unique family can’t bear to get her something so banal, so they buy her a tiger instead. All is fine until they’re so busy being fabulous they forget to feed it. The eccentrics shriek and scream and come to a sticky end. “Yum, yum,” says the tiger. But quiet Maude just stands completely still and is invisible. “Sometimes, just sometimes, not being noticeable is the very best talent of all.”

When I started out as a reporter we were taught the very best in our profession were ciphers, like Maude. They blended in anywhere: that’s how they got the big stories.

Like everything, journalism isn’t that simple. Sometimes journalism requires blending, inconspicuously observing, and then reporting.

But sometimes it requires pushiness. Sometimes it requires deviousness. It requires perseverance, cheek, boldness, secrecy. And if you believe what many say modern journalism involves cutting and pasting carefully crafted crap – sometimes referred to as churnalism.

Lacking any sophistication, and unaware that it is frequently much more powerful to be in the background than grabbing headlines, I thought this sounded boring.

Ultimately headlines are surely the main aim of most journalists. Headlines are powerful. A paragraph on page 53 isn’t.

As a young female journalist I was probably sadly before my time in shamelessly trying to schmooze my way to notoriety of any kind like an overpainted attention-seeking goose.

There are some overpainted attention seeking geese in journalism. And, overdressed, overspoken, outlandish. And some of them are ganders.

Back then, how I would have loved to have been in Andrea Vance’s position, the famous Fairfax journalist who brought down a Cabinet minister.

Vance didn’t bring down a Cabinet minister. Dunne wasn’t in Cabinet. And Vance didn’t bring him down, she reported on something of great public interest. She used a number of sources. Dunne was one source, but there is still doubt whether he was the major source or if he was just a supporting source.

And Dunne outed himself and downed himself. That was totally of his own doing, and nothing to do with Vance.

How glorious to be feted for your special powers of turning a powerful man to mush, leading him to say he “made errors of judgment” while in your thrall.

I think that’s where Hill Cone started to annoy female journalists. “Special powers”, “mush” and “in your thrall” are part of the innuendo and accusations that are strongly disputed and with little or no evidential foundation. That’s bad journalism.

Whether their relationship was romantic or not scarcely seems to matter.

It does matter to the many who have tried to make up a headline grabbing unsubstantiated story, and to politicians wanting to smear.

Although it does seem disingenuous for Vance to now play the victim.

Others may have suggested or implied Vance is a victim but I have seen no evidence of Vance playing the victim.

Whatever the background, Vance still exhibited a degree of influence – for that week anyway she was more powerful than any politician – that made her the envy of her colleagues.

Vance didn’t do anything that week.

That week Winston Peters opportunistically tried to claim the spotlight and the credit for a story he was fed (by someone with questionable motives) but had no evidence for. It was largely a sideshow.

That week David Henry released the result of his investigation into who leaked the Kitteridge report to Vance. He said he had insufficient evidence but strongly implied that Dunne was the leaker – however he remarkably ignored the possibility that the leaker would not have used parliamentary emails.

That week Peter Dunne admitted his behaviour hadn’t been up to standards he thinks are required of a Minister (he was a minister outside Cabinet) and as due to that he resigned.

That week Vance was out of the country and did nothing in relation to all this.

Especially those who are a little too dangerously in love with the romantic image of their profession – they are the noble crusader, the Katharine Hepburn wisecracker, the reincarnation of Martha Gellhorn.

That seems very odd in relation to Vance breaking the GCSB spying story. Maybe Hill Cone is referring to David Fisher and his Twitter profile: “Saving the world, one story at a time – david.fisher (at) 021 347 154″

Even if these days being a female reporter is more like being an “It” girl than a hack.

I’m sure that being a female report is many different things to different reporters.

Vance’s GCSB stories were focussed on the content, on the subject – particularly that the GCSB spied on New Zealanders illegally. I didn’t think there any “It” girl about it. Perhaps there has been some jealousy from other journalists but most of the public didn’t know who was behind the revealing of the story.

You have to be good at putting on the different personas that are expected of you, whether that be vampish, coquettish or as “enchantingly nasty” as Rita Skeeter.

Odd descriptions in relation to journalists. But we all put on different personas in different situations, whether they be professional or personal. I adjust my persona depending on whether I’m dealing with my boss, my colleagues or the wide variety of clients I deal with. Having different personas is an important part of dealing with a wide variety of people.

Most often young female journalists still seem to be cast in these starring roles by older tweedy men. It is in the classic tradition of Pygmalion – anyone remember Maddie in House of Cards?

I have no idea how individualistic journalists can be, how “cast” they are by their bosses and how older and how tweedy those bosses are. I suspect there is a bit of variety.

I wonder how many female reporters in the parliamentary Press Gallery have unresolved “daddy issues”. (Oh I know they will all deny this strenuously, they are tough, independent and staunch. I’d have said the same, too.)

I don’t wonder how ridiculous this sounds. Perhaps I need to look up what “daddy issues” means, but it sounds accusatory and demeaning to female reporters.

Daddy Issue – a young woman who is attracted to much older men. Often stems from a lack of a good relationship between the girl and her father.

Ok, that’s worse than demeaning.  And particularly accusatory in relation to Vance. With zero evidence.

I just can’t help thinking it would be progress if female journalists were writing their own parts rather than continuing to play the role of temptress to male politicians.

And that continues the quite nasty insinuations specifically (for Vance/Dunne) and generally (for all female journalists).

I’m fairly certain that more than a few female journalists will claim to be “writing their own parts”. Especially those who are bosses and editors – I presume some rise above Hill Cone’s ceiling.

Personally, I can’t think of anything I’d less like to do these days.

She seems to have chosen not to. But I’m not sure many female journalists would like to be doing what she’s doing either.

I’m not quite Germaine Greer, who in her 50s decided gardening was better than casual sex, but at 45, perhaps not far off.

More on the sex theme.

Female reporters are like prima ballerinas or elite gymnasts; with a few notable exceptions (Kim Hill, Fran O’Sullivan, Susan Wood) for most of us our career is over and our waistlines are expanding by the time we’re 30. But the tweedy old men can blithely carry on with a new retinue of young proteges.

David, there is probably a bit of truth to that. But I suspect it’s highly questionable how much truth. It certainly sounds like an extreme over generalisation to me, but I’m not in journalism so I don’t know.

But I can think of quite a few other female journalists who to me are nothing like Hill Cone’s alleged world of female reporters are like prima ballerinas or elite gymnasts.

These days the female journalist I most admire does not resemble Andrea Vance with her high-profile “scoops”.

That’s a remarkable comment. The best journalism, the best “scoops”, should be high profile. Sure they have to compete with a media obsession with celebrityitis and trivia. That makes a high profile story like the one Vance broke on the GCSB even more notable, more high profile.

In any case the minority amongst us who want decent news are far more interested in the story. The reporter may be noticed but they are not the story, they are only the story teller. They are key, but not the key focus, and shouldn’t be.

Janet Malcolm (aged 70-something) is most famous for her quote: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Not famous to me, and with a quote like that I’m not surprised. And I note that is only referring to male journalists. Perhaps David will get it.

Malcolm has what Slate writer Alice Gregory calls “terrifying neutrality – like a teacher who is capable of handling even her most despised pupils no differently than the ones she secretly adores”. But I can’t imagine Malcolm flirting on Twitter or wearing disco pants.

If Hill Cone was one of New Zealand’s top journalists that might be scathing. But it sounds dissy, hissy, pissy.

And I don’t imagine that one of New Zealand’s top journalists would write like that.

So David, I had to work through that in detail to see what I really thought.

As I said, there is some truth to Hill Cone’s observations. I noticed the disco pants controversy. I noticed the “flirting” on Twitter, and raised my eyebrows at times – but I never saw anything that justifies the resulting sexual innuendo.

But there are at least as many untruths. And assumptions (often false). And gross generalisations.

And it is very slanted towards (or against) female journalists – what terrible tricks their supposedly male bosses supposedly make them use to weedle stories out of politicians. No mention of what tactics of trade male journalists may be encouraged or expected to use.

To summarise, I can understand why female journalists have reacted to the Hill Cone column – which consisted of partial truths and copious crap. And some of that was quite crappy crap.

And I note that a number of male journalists flirted (on Twitter) with statements of support for their female colleagues who had took exception to the general dissing of female journalists and the specific attacks and insinuations directed at Andrea Vance.

Like me, they say more trash than truth.

UPDATE: Ironically after Hill Cone said with a few notable exceptions (Kim Hill, Fran O’Sullivan, Susan Wood)”

Anyone who knows @avancenz works knows DHC slur was baseless.

Leave a comment


  1. Tim Wharton

     /  24th June 2013

    The column was absolutely true, only it was singularly about Deborah Hill Cone’s career. After an early promising career where the only scoops she got were handed to her by men she slept with, a marriage and divorce both driven by her “daddy issues” (which she herself has written about having), she is wealthy enough from the divorce to opt-out of real journalism and become a professional Facebooker and dilettante “mature student” so far removed from the practice of real journalism that she isn’t aware it exists anymore — and that there are plenty, plenty of women doing it, even past their 30s.

  1. Fisking David Fisher | Your NZ
  2. Deborah Hill Cone tries again | Your NZ

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