New words, old ideas


    A few years ago, the oldest dictionary publisher in the United States, Merriam-Webster, created a site called ‘Time Traveller’ which lets users find out how old words are by typing in a date. This is more fun than you might think.

    Flipping back through the years is like sipping a glass of nostalgia, neat. Remember the days before ‘cancel culture’, ‘Instagram’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘virtue signaling’? Maybe not. If you were born the same year as ‘climate change denier’ ‘social media’ and ‘butt-dial’, you are now old enough to vote.

    Some word fads seem lame now, like ‘riot grrrl’ and ‘cyber surfer’, while others have quietly expired, like ‘Dear John’, ‘zoot suit’, and ‘gloaming’. But even as ‘quiet quitting’ was noisily born last year, ancient words remain. Where would we be without ‘Christmas’, ‘beard’ and ‘apocalypse’? 

    I was born the same year as ‘yay’, ‘call forwarding’ and ‘AI’. I won’t say when, only that it was before ‘shower gel’ and after ‘doofus’. Winston Peters was born in 1945, along with ‘antifungal’, ‘d’oh’, ‘firestorm’, ‘ejection-seat,’ ‘hard sell’, ‘biting midge’, ‘1080’ and ‘A-bomb’. 

    Recently, I discovered a new word, thanks to social media. “Possible first appearance of ‘cookersphere’ in print?” asked a friend, linking to a topical story about a mass privacy breach of medical data. “Dictionaries take note.” 

    “Cookersphere.” What does it mean? 

    On 29 November, Mediawatch producer Hayden Donnell used a politer phrase for the same thing when he referred to an “alternativemediasphere” – “or less charitably the conspiracymediasphere”. This, he explained, “is deeply hostile to mainstream news outlets”.

    Winston Peters, Donnell said, has long chased the residents of this ‘sphere’ and so his crankiness toward professional journalists should come as no surprise.

    “I’m a little bit flabbergasted by how flabbergasted some of the media has been about that,” Donnell laughed. “This is Winston.” 

    True to form, nanoseconds after being sworn in as deputy prime minister, Peters boiled over with rage at the press gallery, there to record the happy day. The Labour government’s Public Interest Journalism Fund (PIJF) was “bribery”, he howled.

    Journalists needed to “tell the public what you signed up to, to get the money”, he yelled, implying that publicly owned media like TVNZ and RNZ have submitted to shadowy government operators.

    Newshub’s political editor Jenna Lynch, not one to take kindly to bossy secret squirrel phone calls from the state (I have never met a journalist who is) was outraged. 

    “It is unbecoming of a Deputy Prime Minister to falsely accuse the media of accepting bribes,” she fumed. “You can bet your bottom dollar that this… serial litigant would at least threaten to haul someone through the courts if they levelled the same baseless accusation at him.” 

    Peter’s accusation of bribery is bonkers – and destructive if it makes future governments nervous about supporting the kind of public service media common around the globe. Radio New Zealand keeps us informed in a crisis, fosters the arts and local community reporting through the local democracy reporting scheme, and like all media is an important resource for historians.

    Every society needs court reporters, data journalists, photo journalists, investigative journalists, reporters from minority communities, science reporters, education reporters, arts reporters, reporters who understand employment rights, business reporters and local government reporters. Many struggle to attract the same number of eyeballs to their work as online ‘clickbait’, although this is the traffic advertisers want. As most of us know, the shift of advertising to vast online platforms has annihilated the media business model. Even the biggest newsrooms now lack the funding to cover your child’s soccer game, review or preview an exhibition, a play, a band or a book. An independent media’s core business, to expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions is becoming impossible to pay for. 

    Peter’s fixation on the Public Interest Journalism Fund, as Donnell explained, makes no sense. One of the biggest recipients of the fund – (and other lucrative government payments, such as Covid-related advertising) – was NZME, the owner of The New Zealand Herald, and Newstalk ZB. These sites hosted such savage criticism against Dame Jacinda Ardern while she was PM that many people blame them for her resignation.

    A common (and distasteful) complaint about the PIJF was that it required funding bids to conform to the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi. “The head of funding for NZ On Air has confirmed that not a single PIJF application was declined for failing to meet Māori reporting criteria,” says Peter Thompson, Associate Professor of Media Studies at Victoria University.

    The Public Interest Journalism Fund also ensured journalism cadetships survived the Covid-19-induced downturn. It seems odd to pile so much bile on such an important scheme, especially when it is such a small slice of overall government media funding. NZ On Air also funds Q+A with Jack Tame, Newshub Nation, the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme and RNZ. 

    I’ve just discovered the first known use of ‘conspiracy theorist’ was in 1961; older than me, but younger than Winston.  Jenny Nicholls

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