A staring contest, earlier today
For those unfamiliar with the Herald Sun, perhaps the best way to get a feel for the type of paper it is is via its nickname, the "Herald Scum", or "The Scum" for short.
The chief reason for this moniker is, i think, not so much its unrelenting right-wing bias (a characteristic of all News Corp media organs, including The Australian, which engenders nothing like the same disgust) but its undisguised contempt for its readership.
Unlike The Oz, the Scum doesn't make even the faintest of nods in the direction of journalistic objectivity or balance. The paper doesn't so much blur the line between editorial and news as it does take an exact note of the line's location and dimensions, carefully paint over them with a thick slime of xenophobia, homophobia, anti-intellectualism and anti-union sentiment and stand gloating beside them, smug in the assumption that its readership will be too stupid to notice. No story is too complex to oversimplify, no adjective too blatantly biased to employ.
Yet for all its misguided "i-mentioned-the-war-once-or-twice-but-i-think-i-got-away-with-it" arrogance about its readers' inability to detect its agendas, on Thursday the Scum credited them with greater cognitive ability than most marketers ever will.
In order to try and steal some of the centre ground back from ascendant Labour Leader Kevin Rudd, PM John Howard had suggested that he would mitigate one of the more doctrinaire clauses in the new Workchoices legislation.
The Scum led with a two-word headline:
On the face of it, it's a pretty simple headline. But it in fact demands the reader to bring a great deal of information with them in order to make sense of it.
First of all, the reader has to get the analogy between an electoral race and a staring contest. It's not a particularly obvious connection because, taken on its own, it's not a particularly relevant metaphor (Howard's not really backing down to Rudd, per se).
In order to completely get it, you have to be familiar with the history of that metaphor's use. Ideally, you have to know that, almost forty five years ago at the resolution of a nuclear standoff between the USA and the USSR, someone at the higher levels of the US government (i've seen the quote variously attributed to JFK, RFK and Secretary of State Dean Rusk) described the Russian backdown thus: "we were eyeball to eyeball and the other guy blinked".
That's some fairly obscure knowledge to assume of a mass audience.* No marketer I've ever met would do it.
And that raises the question: are we,as a profession, more patronising than the Herald Sun?
*You probably don't actually have to know the whole story, but you do have to be familiar with the reference as it has translated in pop culture, as in, for example, the title of former Pepsi CEO Roger Enrico's book about the cola wars.