Nowadays, with the proliferation of news sites on the Internet, when anything that happens is beamed around the world as it happens, to be seen on laptops and smartphones whenever and wherever we are, the centrality of the “main news broadcast of the day” – they are on at around 8 P.M., every day, on any channel – has diminished. We are kept updated 24/7.
And yet, in places less “hooked on news” than Israel, (and we are hopeless, helpless news junkies here in the Middle East) people still turn on the TV once a day, at 7 or 8 P.M. Having spent the last 10 days in the Netherlands, I’ve had ample chance to ponder the nature of news in general, and TV news in particular.
Wary of presenting only my private musings, I’ve armed myself with a theoretical treatise on the subject, a new book by the popular French philosopher (or pop philosopher) Alain de Botton, “The News, a User’s Manual.” Stating that “The news is everywhere, we can’t stop checking it constantly on our screens,” the book attempts to answer the question of what it is doing to our minds.
To sum up the 255 pages of the small hardcover volume, De Botton sorts out six types of news (political, world, economic, celebrity, disaster and consumer). He bemoans the fact that the news stokes our fears of what may befall us, and our anger, because of the helplessness we feel; provides us with superficial facts that lack an intelligent bias, giving us the illusion that we know, but failing to make us care, and so on. “At one and the same time both lofty and banal, a bit like God on an off-day,” summed up Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday.
Watching the events of the day unfolding in (Dutch) words and pictures, I’ve come to the rather banal conclusion that “news” seen from “there” (the Netherlands) seem to be different than I expected them to be, since I am used to absorbing them while “here” (Israel). For instance, for the entire 10 days of my stay, there was not a word on Dutch TV about Israel, the Palestinians, Iran, the Klos C or Iranian missiles. I’ve learned a lot about Dutch internal affairs, and of course could follow the events unfolding in Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula.
Which was very interesting, and even intriguing, if one remembers the caveat “From Washington to Moscow, everyone is lying about what’s happening in Ukraine” (Ariel Danieli, Haaretz, March 6). Looking for a measure of “intelligent bias,” I stumbled on the closing segment of “Breaking the Set” on the RT America channel, hosted by Abby Martin, on March 3.
RT, previously called Russia Today, is an international, multilingual Russia-based television network, broadcast in 100 countries. It is registered as an autonomous nonprofit oganization, funded by the federal budget of Russia and is considered by many to present and support the official Kremlin line. Martin, a Washington-based journalist, is prone to sense conspiracies in the making (for instance, she refuses to accept as the gospel truth the 9.11 narrative as presented by the U.S. government and press). She has been described (by journalist Nik Afanasjew of the German daily Der Tagesspiegel, according to a brand new entry about her on Wikipedia) as someone who “looks like a model and acts like a punk.”
Her program “Breaking the Set” describes itself as “a show that cuts through the pre-written narrative that tries to tell you what to think, and what to care about.” The show’s opening credits show her dressed in a little black dress, wearing red high-heeled shoes, walking into the studio wielding a sledgehammer and smashing a TV set carrying a CNN newscast (with Wolf Blitzer on screen). I guess one can call that “intelligent (albeit somewhat aggressive) bias.”
On March 3, Martin ended her program with a minute-long statement delivered while she paced the studio with a roll of papers in her hand, waving it to make a point. Martin announced that she “wanted to say something from my heart about the ongoing political crisis in Ukraine and Russia’s military occupation of Crimea… What Russia did is wrong… I admittedly don’t know as much about Ukraine’s history or the cultural dynamics of the region, but what I do know is that military intervention is never the answer, and I will not sit here and apologize or defend military aggression… Just because I work here, for RT, doesn’t mean I don’t have editorial independence. And I can’t stress enough how strongly I am against any military intervention in sovereign nations’ affairs.”
RT responded to The Huffington Post’s (London) query by saying: “Contrary to the popular opinion, RT doesn’t beat its journalists into submission, and they are free to express their own opinions, not just in private but on the air…. there will be absolutely no reprimands made against Ms. Martin… [she] noted that she does not possess a deep knowledge of reality of the situation in Crimea. As such we’ll be sending her to Crimea to give her an opportunity to make up her own mind from the epicenter of the story.” Martin subsequently tweeted that she would not be going to Crimea.
But that was not the end of it. On March 5, an anchor for an RT America newscast, Liz Wahl, quit her post, saying on the air: “Personally I cannot be a part of a network that whitewashes the actions of Putin… that is why, after this newscast, I’m resigning.” The station condemned Wahl’s decision and said it does not compare to the Abby Martin situation because Martin “spoke in the context of her own talk show… When a journalist disagrees with the editorial position of his or her organization, the usual course of action is to address those grievances with the editor, and, if they cannot be resolved, to quit like a professional. But when someone makes a big public show of a personal decision, it is nothing more than a self-promotional stunt. We wish Liz the best of luck on her chosen path.” Wahl herself, speaking with Laurence O’Donnell of MSNBC, said of Martin: “We’re doing two different things. Abby Martin is still with the network. The things that she says on her show happen to be what the Kremlin likes, it’s a narrative they like. This is a narrative that I find to be propagandist, I find it to be hostile toward the West.”
Which just goes to show that even if we do get some bias on our newscast, intelligent as it may be, we can never really tell whether that bias distorts the facts or not, and if so, which way, and who is best served by it (as the Roman Lucius Cassius taught us, always ask “cui bono?”). But being utterly helpless in the matter, even if it augurs a new cold, hot or nuclear war, and knowing full well that anger won’t help us any, one can at least follow a personal story and keep on wondering, with De Botton, “what is [the news] doing to our minds?”
Not much good, I’ll venture to answer. But that’s all the news there is.