Turn Off The "Lite"

I was scoping around the various newspaper sites, as I do every morning, and found myself staring at the following headline at the top of the Toronto Star: “Frost/Nixon Up For 5 Golden Globes”.

Generally speaking, I have nothing against “entertainment news”, conceptually anyway. Most will agree: we can’t always be bombarded by the depressing day-to-day reality of just how potentially stupid we are as a species of animal. Sometimes we need our Robert Mugabe cut with a little Brad Pitt to make it go down easier.

I will accept that, as a species, we can’t eat our broccoli without the promise of something else more appetizing, like dessert.

Perhaps it was the fact that the Golden Globe awards are a second-rate contest, occasionally with fixed odds; a calliope’d portent of what the Oscars will be in a year or so (at the rate they are going). Perhaps it’s my bewilderment that a Canadian newspaper is putting it at the top of its site at a time when our Parliament has been prorogued by the government to protect its divisive reign, at a time when smart people have stopped investigating how and why the Vesuvian economic crisis in the U.S. happened, at a time when several African countries – not least of which Zimbabwe – are undergoing crises which the world will undoubtedly pay for down the road.

I admit, I am jaded by the media. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were somehow able to harness the energy otherwise spent on detailing the brunch menus of Hollywood stars, to put it to use in better investigative reporting (or more investigative reporting, which would be nice…you know, fifth estate and all that).

There is a time for “lite” news. Some of what some people consider to be “lite” is actually – in small doses – tranquilizing in a nice way (cats that use toilets, public school spelling bee competitions, the ubiquitous athlete crossing the globe to raise money for x, etc…). I’m not, after all, nailing a manifesto to someone’s door. I’m questioning the proportionate worth of “lite” in a capricious world which, for now, is not “lite” at all (unless you’re a Buddhist, in which case everything is Nothing – please find another blog to read).

Rather than constantly anaesthetizing ourselves with the likes of the Golden Globe nominations (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” hasn’t even been released yet!), I wish our media could put the likes of “lite” into a corner rather than, as if under hypnosis, regurgitating the same soulless AP and Reuters items without care or discernment of the type of world we wish to portray.

Happy Thursday.

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Article: The Top Censored News Items of 2007

Slashdot, a site I visit every once in a while for media/technology news (their motto is “news for nerds, stuff that matters”) had a summary of a very interesting (if disturbing) article, by an outfit named Project Censored (from their website: “Project Censored is a media research group out of Sonoma State University which tracks the news published in independent journals and newsletters. From these, Project Censored compiles an annual list of 25 news stories of social significance that have been overlooked, under-reported or self-censored by the country’s major national news media”).

Indeed, the Top 25 Censored Stories of 2007 contains some pretty disturbing stuff. Like:

#2 Halliburton Charged with Selling Nuclear Technologies to Iran

and…

#11 Dangers of Genetically Modified Food Confirmed

Again, though it may be easy, superficially, to think this is yet another left-wing group with a wishlist, it isn’t. These are well-researched, authoritative items of interest that are cross-confirmed by third-party contributors. That our media (and yes, there is an Americentric focus to the list – Project Censored is, after all, an American outfit) pays scant attention to any of these and yet devotes slightly less time to Anna Nicole Smith’s death than on the day of 9/11 is a travesty.

Since we’re on the topic of journalism, ethics, and self-censorship, allow me to talk to you about bias. There’s been a lot of mud thrown since just before 9/11 (and obviously since) about a “liberal media bias” in the news. In return, and certainly since 9/11, there have been just as many accusations about “right-wing media bias” also. The problem is that neither accusation is particularly correct – or rather, neither of these stances tackles the larger issue: money.

Television news requires advertisers to produce it. The producers of television news require viewers in order to sell advertising time. Ostensibly, there is no difference between news programming and sitcoms. They need to keep viewers watching in order for the advertisers who sponsor/pay-for the program to feel as if their money is well spent. Print news is the same (as are their internet-based spin-offs): advertisers are the lifeblood of news. It has been this way for over a hundred years.

So, getting back to the “liberal media” vs. “right-wing media” infighting, it’s not a question of who is truly pushing a “liberal agenda” or what show is promoting an unquestionable “right-wing” viewpoint. It’s about making money, getting viewers, and above all, keeping advertisers happy.

This is one of the not-so-good things about capitalism. When you surrender journalism to “the market”, the market wins every time. Thus, Anna Nicole Smith’s death is the rational choice for keeping viewers entranced and advertisers happy over, let’s say, the destruction of the world’s fish stocks. Complexity – and if there’s anything you can count on in life, it’s complexity – does not sell, or so “the market” dictates.

There are always exceptions – PBS in the US and CBC in Canada: however, both have been corrupted by government intrusion, if not partially hobbled. Funding for public broadcasting is constantly being trimmed and political interference, particularly in PBS’ case, has started to infect the roots.

I write all this not to say “don’t read newspapers, don’t watch Newsworld @ 11” but rather so that people understand that, yes, it’s possible for a newspaper or broadcast to spend pages of print and minutes of talking without actually focusing on stories that are truly substantial.

My advice: Keep digging. Don’t get sidetracked by trifling “left” vs. “right” debates when the freedom of news itself is the issue.

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Darfur – A Range of Opinion

You know you’re looking at a real-life problem (as opposed to the more easily-digestible choices portrayed in television dramas…who am I kidding – television news as well) when its tangled complexity clogs the drain of your ability (or desire) to “solve” it.

Take Darfur.

The way in which this conflict is rendered has been a hotly debated topic. A recent analysis showed that, in 2005, the Darfur story was covered for all of 10 minutes on the three major American networks; this would imply that the television-drama ER (in an upcoming episode) will have covered 6 times as much as them…again, in a single episode.

The newsmedia is sometimes the only means a tragedy has of reaching the eyes and senses of those who are too distant to know about them. Speculatively speaking, I have to wonder if some in the newsmedia – the above mentioned networks who all but avoided this situation for years prior – are now reluctant to spotlight it because doing so inherently implicates past apathy. An extreme interpretation, perhaps, but considering the media’s tepid hold on our trust – post 9/11 – this seemingly bizarre behaviour is not without recent precedents.

On the topic of how the situation in Darfur has been rendered in the media,Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, describes in this bloggish-commentary what he calls the Darfur Disconnect:

[…]
Commentators thunder away at the need for sanctions against the regime in Khartoum and denounce western leaders for not authorising Nato to intervene.

Last weekend the outrage took a new turn, with big demonstrations in several American cities, strongly promoted by the Christian right, which sees the Darfur conflict as another case of Islamic fundamentalism on the rampage. They urged Bush to stop shilly-shallying and be tougher with the government of Sudan.

The TV reports are not wrong. They just give a one-sided picture and miss the big story: the talks that the rebels are conducting with the government. The same is true of the commentaries. Why demand military involvement, when western leaders have intervened more productively by pressing both sides to reach a settlement? Over the past few days the US, with British help, has taken over the AU’s mediation role, and done it well. Robert Zoellick, the state department’s number two, and Hilary Benn, Britain’s development secretary, have been in Abuja urging the rebels not to waste the opportunity for peace. Sudan’s government accepted the US-brokered draft agreement last weekend, and it is the rebels who have been risking a collapse.

[…]

An interesting, if divisive, point of view. I say divisive because it drags into the debate an almost unnecessary contention that there is some cabal of the (increasingly journalistic cliche) Christian right to portray this as a spectre of Muslim imperialism against Christian Darfurians – the truth of that particular matter is certainly more complex. I can certainly say that the rally I attended in Toronto had no religious overtones or other types of self-investment.

The more salient argument in this excerpt is whether, in pushing for military intervention, NATO/UN forces could unknowingly apply the wrong type of pressure and drive the conflict deeper or perhaps fragment it along ethnic/political lines – in this regard, it’s not as if there is a single Darfurian rebel organisation sitting at the negotiation table. There are several – some small, some large, and inevitably one would assume each may have their own agenda.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to spin this into something that it’s not – ie obfuscate the conflict to the point where inaction is seen as an option – but rather, I’m trying to see different points of view because I really don’t feel we’re getting it from the media.

On this note, the CBC is having a Foreign Correspondents Forum on June 1st. They are taking questions from viewers regarding international events/affairs. I’ve taken the liberty of posing some of the questions raised above. If you would like to do the same (about Darfur or any other area of the world), visit this page for more information.

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Comment: Watch the Packaging

We have never lived in a more duplicitous age of mass-communication.
Partisan propaganda is becoming more insidious and sublime than
ever before.

Here’s the classic setup:

1) First, the delivery: matter-of-fact, neighbourly, and gently
authoritative.

2) Second, the offence: more than just choosing a random offender,
but an offender who acts as a subtle metaphor for a greater (more
dire) concern. For example, rather than choosing someone who (let’s
say for naive reasons) refuses to honour fallen WWII soldiers,
choose someone who is also a university student. Student council would be
perfect: corruption at the root of education. Suddenly (seamlessly) your target
becomes indicative of a classic hate-mongering cliche: the
ungrateful and radical liberal post-secondary environment. This is
the classic stereotype – worked great in Cambodia.

3) Third, compound the offence with a black and white conflict:
heroes and villains. Follow the naive student’s debacle with an
earnest recapitulation involving inarguable tales of those who
bravely fought for our freedom from fascism. Talk about how evil
lurks at every corner and does not care about the democratic rights
of civilians, and how the only tonic for this insidious evil is a
militarised environment: soldiers, police, guards, controllers.
Slowly draw this together with the events proceeding September 11th
2001 and proudly unfurl the [place country here] flag.

4) Fourth, summarize. Condemn the naivety of post-secondary
environments – portray them as liberal oases for myopic elites, while
our downtrodden guardians fight without asking for thanks, against
an all-pervasive evil which is thankful for student dissent.

5) Conclude with a question for the general public: who’s side are you
on?

This is the overarching style indicative of news media formats
today: rhetorical, manipulative, and hate-mongering. It’s all in the
packaging, not the individual stories themselves. Who wouldn’t
believe the student is a naive idiot? Who wouldn’t believe that
soldiers put their lives on the line everyday? Put the two together
and you have cause to be suspicious about what goes on in
post-secondary environments – about the students, teachers, and
those who defend their rights.

It’s similar to documentary filmmaking: there’s no such thing as
objective. The minute you edit footage you are making an intentional
move to direct the discussion in a particular way/format. Words like
‘fair’, ‘balanced’, and ‘objective’ have been twisted like toffee in
the last five years. The end result is: you’re on your own.

Utilize critical thinking at all times. Ask yourself if you’re being
shown the big picture or simply baited. Ask yourself if there is a
perspective that isn’t being allowed into the picture. Ask yourself
if the questions asked are not actually questions, but assumptions
(ie. How long until Quebec separates?).

When you turn on the news, you have no friends.

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