Mass media, citizen media, new media, and politician media management - it all gets frequently evaluated, criticised - and sometimes praised - for its role in helping us understand what's happening in politics and society. Being an election year, 2014 has contained more political scrutiny of the media than usual. This has also been the case because of a number of media-political controversies - with Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics being the biggest.
The state of the media
For the most robust and in-depth assessment of the health of the New Zealand media, see the latest annual report by Merje Myllylahti, published today: JMAD Media Ownership Report 2014.
Myllylahti's report details and summarises a number of important trends in the New Zealand media, one of which is "blurred lines among politicians, bloggers, journalists and PR practitioners".
Here she is referring not just to the important revelations from Dirty Politics , but also to other controversies this year in the blogosophere, Maori TV, TVNZ and Scoop that "raise questions about political interference in media affairs".
In a section entitled "Political machinations and the blogosphere", the JMAD report finds "increasing evidence of unethical alliances among bloggers, politicians, PR companies and legacy media". And it's not only Cameron Slater's blogging that is highlighted, but others from the left.
Across a number of different media, Myllylahti cites alarming challenges to independence. The report concludes with the statement that: "Taken together, the trends described in this report suggest that the public sphere in New Zealand is shrinking as public interest journalism declines."
Of course the JMAD report doesn't just deal with overtly political issues, but also questions about ownership and organisation of the media landscape - see Wayne Hope's summary of the report: Who owns NZ media?.
For a whole-hearted defence of journalists and the New Zealand media, it's well worth reading Gordon Campbell's recent blog post, Why Good Journalists Are So 'Rude' . He explains why the media needs to be combative with politicians.
One section of Campbell's argument is worth quoting at length: "We are operating in a media environment where almost everyone fronting up for an interview has been schooled in the tactics of smothering, diverting and re-framing the narratives of media inquiry.
"Our politicians, corporate chieftains and bureaucrats all know how to do this, and it is only a little bit harder these days to frustrate journalists in interviews than it is to block and delay Government responses to OIA requests.
"Which is something politicians routinely and selectively do, as the Prime Minister has happily conceded. These abuses of the OIA Act are being done entirely for political reasons. In other words, this is not even remotely a level playing field.
"Any public figure being interviewed begins the media encounter with a distinct advantage: it is they who hold the information that the public needs to know, and they have been given the specific tools to frustrate the efforts of the interviewer to force/induce/seduce them into disclosing it.
"The ability to frustrate public inquiry is now seen to be part of the essential skill set of any budding politician, or senior bureaucrat'.
For more interesting discussion of these issues - especially in terms of Radio New Zealand's more combative engagement with politicians - see the Press editorial, Criticism of Radio NZ a storm in a breakfast teacup , and Michael Wright's Turbulence on the airwaves.
Gordon Campbell's defence of the media was in response to Keith Ng's blog post, Sunlight Resistance, in which he asserts that the media failed to carry to carry out its duty in election year to hold the government to account.
And as if to bolster Gordon Campbell's argument about the one-sided nature of the media-politico dynamic, Hamish Rutherford reports today that in government departments, "The number of staff employed in communications roles - often dubbed 'spin doctors' - rose to 288, up just one from a year ago, but up 25 from 2011" - see: Public servant numbers climb.
Recently Vernon Small wrote about the problem with spin doctors and how this profession has essentially taken over the state apparatus and see their main job as being to protect the Government from the Opposition: "It often goes well beyond how to communicate an issue - or even what to communicate - into frankly how to spin and counterspin Opposition attacks and manage the media in the most derogatory sense of the phrase" - see: Putting the spin on 'neutrality'.
And for an example of the difficulty that journalists face with the communications from ministers and their officials, see Barry Soper's Blustering Brownlee confuses media over military deployment .
Media under pressure from politicians
Sometimes the media is weakened due to the pressure applied by politicians and governments. Is that the case in New Zealand? According to Myles Thomas of the Coalition for Better Broadcasting, TVNZ's role of speaking to truth to power is being diminished by its owners. Thomas has argued on the Daily Blog that TVNZ lacks "serious criticism or investigation of the Government" - see: Does 'No-Surprises' Also Apply To TVNZ News?.
Thomas reckons the public broadcaster is out of line with the rest of the industry: "When you stand back and look at NZ media outlets, most of them have at least one or two people who attempt to hold the Government to account: John Campbell on TV3, Guyon Espiner and others at Radio NZ, David Fisher in the Herald, Andrea Vance at Stuff... TVNZ doesn't." Why?
Thomas argues that "the government of the day appoints the TVNZ Board, which perhaps unsurprisingly now contains quite a few 'friends of the National Party'. So TVNZ is already very much under the thumb of the prevailing political party."
Heather du Plessis-Allan, who might be more combatative, has now joined TVNZ's parliamentary gallery team and perhaps this will act as a counterweight - see Rachel Glucina's Trouble and strife joins press gallery.
TVNZ isn't the only broadcaster accused of an unhealthy political orientation. Today Martyn Bradbury asks, Has Laila Harre been blacklisted from Radio NZ? .
He asserts: "Laila Harre was due to appear on a RNZ panel discussion about the future of the Green Party, but the Green Party complained about Laila being part of the debate and she was then dumped from the panel discussion."
The Green Party is also bullying political journalists according to David Farrar, who yesterday detailed Russel Norman's "shrill attacks on the Dominion Post and Trans-Tasman" - see: Norman attacking the media .
Farrar says that Norman has been 'lambasting a journalist for writing a story he didn't like and demanding he print his views on his own MPs'. Alluding to Muldoon's repressive actions towards press freedom, Farrar asks of Norman: 'Isn't this what a certain other party leader used to do in the 1970s?' See also, Pete George's Russel Norman versus Trans Tasman.
In fact, it is a political spindoctor's assessment of the media, which might well come to define 2014.
Pam Corkery's outburst at political reporters on behalf of the Internet Mana Party will go down in history: 'You work in news you puffed up little shit! .... When will you glove puppets of Cameron Slater just piss off?' - see: Quote of the year competition open for votes.
Blogosphere aiding democracy?
It's Cameron Slater and his Whaleoil blog that will be most memorable this year in terms of the blogosphere's questionable influence on the media and politics.
Hints of a possible new book by Slater, "Illegal Politics" - no doubt a Whaleoil counterview to Nicky Hager's Dirty Politics - appears today in his blog post, Du Fresne has fallen out of love with John Key.
Slater also refers to a new media service about to be launched, Freed.co.nz, which Chris Keall has recently covered in his article, Tony Lentino's 'Whaleoil 2.0' site back on.
Last month, Slater wrote a very interesting blog post, I'm alive and have something to share, which explained much about his views on the conspiracy he sees against him.
The blog post also contained a (successful) plea for money to help pay legal bills. The post is parodied by Scott Yorke's hilarious - or perhaps 'bad taste', depending on your point view - blog post, A plea for help.
The whole blogosphere - including the left blogs - appears to have been tarnished by the Dirty Politics scandal. But did the left blogs also help undermine the parties of the left?
That's the question asked recently by Philip Matthews in his feature, Should Left-wing bloggers just shut up?.
He wonders whether 'the Left [was] undermined by its own bloggers? Was the squabbling and bickering on the internet symptomatic of the Left's general disarray and lack of discipline? Should everyone on the Left just shut up and let the politicians do the talking?'
Coming to the defence of the blogosphere as a whole, Rodney Hide has said, Forget the Whale and get on with it. He argues that 'The blogs, as mad and as bad they are, add richness and diversity to political debate.
It's true much of it is gossip. The blogs have lifted the lid on what was once confined to Bellamy's. They have opened it up'.
Hide is praising of the democratic qualities of the blogosphere: 'The blogs are the new pamphleteers without need for paper or printing press. The good ones generate big readerships and are an excellent way to push political points.
The blogs are the wild west of political reporting. They are anarchical. They are threatening to established political, legal and media institutions. They are free speech at the click of a button. If you don't like them, don't go there'.
Politicians becoming the media
Rodney Hide is also hinted as a replacement for the retiring Leighton Smith on Newstalk ZB - see John Drinnan's Radio rivals play a pricey game.
Another option, Rachel Smalley, is checkily rejected as a contender by Drinnan who says that 'she believes in global warming and doesn't see it as a liberal conspiracy'.
Another politician who has fallen from grace, Judith Collins, is also taking on a stronger media presence, starting as a newspaper columnist this week. A Sunday newspaper has tweeted today: 'In @SundayStarTimes, we publish the toughest ever interview with @JudithCollinsMP to coincide with - yes it's true - her first weekly column'.
The backbench MP in questioned retweeted this, adding the word "Hmmm". Another tweeter (@Alt_NZQT) responded to the news: 'Judith Collins' column. A.K.A a chance for Mike Hosking to look moderate humble and reserved' - see my blog post, Top tweets about Judith Collins as a newspaper columnist.
Finally, political satire doesn't receive much 'serious' attention in New Zealand. But one media studies scholar, Elyse Robêrt, has just written a thesis on News and the politics of satire: TV3's 7 Days.
To get an idea of what goes on in the heads of political cartoonists, see Alex Fensome's Cartoonist Tom Scott always quick on the draw , and Sarah Stuart's Twelve Questions: Rod Emmerson.
But for the real thing, here's some recommended new satire: John Clark's New Zealand, a User's Guide.