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The Chronic Ailments of Television News By: Paul Hollander
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, November 18, 2002

A few years ago Jim Maceda, a reporter on NBC evening news informed the viewers that based on the interviews he conducted on the streets of Bagdad he reached the conclusion that Saddam Hussein enjoyed broad and strong support among the people of Iraq. Disturbed by the ignorance and journalistic irresponsibility these comments reflected, I wrote a letter to the producer of NBC evening news asking "does Mr Maceda truly believe that in an exceptionally brutal police state such as present day Iraq any critic of the ruling dictator will come forward and unburden himself or herself in public to an American TV reporter? Did he ever hear about the treatment of the critics of the system?... how did he select his informants and who did the translations...?") I received no reply from NBC.

A recent (October 28) article in THE NEW REPUBLIC helps to explain the attitude of Mr Maceda and many of his fellow reporters in Iraq. Foreign journalistic in Iraq are tightly controlled by the government and its ubiquitous "minders" who accompany them everywhere; if they displease the authorities they get kicked out or are refused visa. As the article pointed out "broadcasting his [Hussein's] propaganda is simply the only way they can continue to work in Iraq... the networks make these concessions because the alternative is no access."

We do not know what proportion of American reporters are aware that "Like their Soviet-bloc predecessors, the Iraqis have become masters of the Orwellian pantomime - the state-orchestrated anti-American rally, the state-led tours of alleged chemical weapons sites that turn out to be baby milk factories..." and the other deceptions they are exposed to and expected to report. Whatever their level of awareness they faithfully report what they are allowed to see. An exception to the observations made in this article was found in an excellent recent Frontline/World program on Public Television entitled "Truth and Lies in Bagdad." It was made by a British reporter who was expelled well before his visa expired and who probably does not expect to return soon, if ever, in view of his findings.

It is no mystery why the Iraqi government is intent on denying free access to foreign reporters and why it manipulates and shapes what they report. The mystery is why American news organizations and especially TV networks "mindlessly recite Bagdad's spin" and why they are convinced that having their representatives in Iraq under these conditions serves a useful purpose?. A CNN executive (interviewed for the NR article) insists that these manipulated reports are "newsworthy" and it is essential for CNN to be able to report from Iraq; .being there "is an end in itself" the NR concluded.

But why this obsession with "being there" when it not only precludes the gathering of reliable and informative news but actually assures the opposite: the steady, abundant flow of misinformation, amounting to Iraqi government propaganda?

An attempt to understand this peculiar policy on the part of the networks leads to further reflections about the chronic and broader flaws of television news.. The striving for a spurious authenticity is a major explanation and one that is not limited to the misleading reports from Iraq. It is this quest for "authenticity" that prompts network executives and reporters to believe that "being on the spot" is by itself valuable, that thrusting a microphone in the face of a docile and intimidated pedestrian in Bagdad is a notable accomplishment in pursuing it.

But the presumed benefits of "being on the spot" have become an obsolete journalistic article of faith in our age of resourceful police states, mass manipulation, organized spontaneity, and model institutions created for propaganda purposes and especially for the benefit of foreign visitors. In a book of mine (POLITICAL PILGRIMS) I referred to some of these efforts as the "techniques of hospitality" authorities in communist systems devised for the explicit purpose of deceiving visitors from abroad; these techniques have not been limited to communist states as the case of Iraq shows.

The pursuit of authenticity is not the only explanation of the problems here discussed. There is also genuine ignorance on the part of many American journalists about repressive political systems abroad - quite similar to past ignorance about communist states which led to purveying similarly misleading information about them. These journalists and their employers find it particularly difficult to grasp that public opinion in highly repressive police states cannot be easily, if at all, assessed, sampled or measured, because in these societies people wear a tightly fitting mask of conformity.

Asking people on the streets of Bagdad what they think of their government or of the United States has certain parallels in domestic television news, not that the Americans queried are intimidated and hence cannot respond truthfully. The similarity lies in the compulsion to solicit the views of ordinary people more or less randomly selected, who have no particular expertise or qualifications for making instructive comments on the subjects in question, only semi-articulate gut reactions. In spite of this no newscast passes without reporters earnestly extracting some such snippet of banality from these randomly picked "ordinary people," usually on the street, shopping malls, or other public places. Their opinions or reactions are compulsively solicited about major events deemed newsworthy, whether it is war with Iraq, the state of the economy, the price of drugs, airports check-ins or disasters of one kind or another. These handful of interviews, besides their minimal substance, are not samples of public opinion.

I suggest two explanations of this phenomenon. One is the motivation to pay lip service to egalitarianism by conveying that the networks care for the opinion of ordinary folks and not only the experts; we are to believe that it is enlightening and important to learn what these handful of anonymous, interchangeable "regular" people opine on various issues in the seconds allotted to them. Such people must come from all walks of life - an approach also dear to advertisers who like to illustrate the wonders of their products by "regular" but "diverse" people - bus drivers, nurses, farmers, old age pensioners, firemen, policemen preferably of different skin color and ethnicity.

Inserting the snippets by ordinary people serves a second purpose: to avoid dreaded abstractions or more complicated ideas; presumably it would tax the intelligence of the viewers to be informed , say, that a certain percentage of old age pensioners cannot afford to pay for their drugs instead of showing an actual old age pensioner who cannot afford them and says so. Likewise information about the changing price of gasoline cannot be dispensed without showing a human being pumping gas and muttering something about the changing prices.

Since the news have to be lively and if possible dramatic and entertaining; whatever is abstract, dry, analytical and lacking in entertainment value is methodically avoided . This of course is the obvious explanation of the fondness for reporting violence and disasters of every kind and as well as tearful personal responses to loss and suffering, whenever possible. As of this writing every network provided on several occasions an extended and identical coverage of an earthquake in a small town in Italy doubtless because the victims were children. Here was a juicy disaster with a particularly painful toll.

The Italians portrayed successfully met (without intending) the network requirements for stereotypical emotional display: they sobbed, wildly gesticulated, ran around; they, were authentically and spectacularly grief-stricken.

It should also be noted here that while photogenic catastrophes in different parts of the world are given eager and detailed coverage, in the normal course of events approx. 90% of the world remains shrouded in obscurity and never referred to. The news coverage is trapped between a resolute parochialism (the overwhelming majority of news being domestic) and the pursuit of the odd, exotic and disastrous elsewhere whenever it occurs. In order to deflect critiques of dwelling on the morbid or pathological, the evening news usually ends with some scraps of an uplifting, feel-good, human interest story, often quite trivial..

Television news will only become informative and honest if and when its makers will decide that providing entertainment to maximize the audience is not its major obligation, when criteria other than photogenic suffering or banal feel-good snippets will govern news selection and when the producers of the news will have acquired a better understanding of the world outside the United States including the kind of political repression that has no precedent and parallel in American experience.

At the time when the U.S. is approaching the possibility of war with Iraq it is particularly important that the American public be well informed. This includes information about the character of the prevailing Iraqi political system, its exceptionally repressive nature and its pathologically brutal leader. The media does not have to "demonize" Saddam Hussein, since the facts speak for themselves. Most Americans have no idea how he came to power and how he stays in power. There are plenty of Iraqi exiles in the U.S. who can provide chilling "human interest" stories about the system which could be a revealing counterpoint to the supervised, sham interviews on the streets of Baghdad discussed earlier.

A thorough examination of political conditions in Iraq on television could contribute to the kind of moral clarity that would help the public to decide whether or not regime change in Iraq would or would not constitute a "just war."

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