Reclaiming Journalism

One of the more haunting experiences I had as a school child was attending careers day.  I confidently advised my counsellor that my future job did not yet exist.   Nonetheless, we were compelled to select three career options, and I emerged with a Rabbi, a Journalist, and a food technologist as the most likely vocations to pursue.  Some of my friends emerged with more creative career choices ranging from professional surfer, to psychopathic rehabilitation warden.

It was journalism that I initially pursued through my tertiary education.  However I made an early decision not to be a professional journalist.  Not that I do not enjoy writing.  I realised early in the piece that being a journalist required unscrupulous ethics.  It involved trading on the benefit of other people’s misery.  It meant exaggerating the truth.  Through the art of selective fact representation, it meant creating a narrative that misrepresented reality.  It meant sensationalising the unsensational.  It was all about attracting headlines at any cost to the principles of decency. 

I’m pleased that I realised that early enough to avoid losing my integrity to the world’s second oldest profession.  The irony of that was that I ended up working with taxes.

There is no doubt that if you watch the news or current affairs on TV, that the product you see values entertainment above news.  The press is no different.  For example, political journalism is much more concerned by the stereotype of the politician, and the soundbyte statement than it is about investigative journalism.  There is no substance to the analysis of political policy. Real journalism is as dead as the dodo.      

Alistair Campbell was a former press secretary to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, and a former tabloid journalist.   He perfected the art of political spin.  In later describing the “putrid culture” of the British media he said “It is anti-politics; it is politics as soap opera; it is as if there is nothing really serious going on so I will tell you all the trivia and pretend it is really important”.

We see all the time that news from the Middle East has more of an entertainment and romanticism about it than and understanding of the real politic. I saw plenty of quirky press snippets about the Arab spring, and the erosion of democratic principles in Israel (aka, a parliamentary bill to tax NGO’s who are funded to suffocate the country through the promotion of hatred).  However there were some bigger stories that have not been publicised.  Such as the sovereign threat to Israel over its recent offshore gas resource discoveries from Turkey.

How many people have heard about the follow on consequences of the Palestinian membership of UNESCO, the UN’s prime agency on science, culture and education?  Under the guise of cultural heritage, sites such as the Patriach’s tomb, Kever Rachael, and Har Habayit (Temple Mount) will be deemed Muslim holy sites, with the implication that all semblance of Jewish history and connection will be severed and physical presence for non Muslims banished.  Is that not news?

You may have read about the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria being suspended from the Arab League.  However not much has been said about the nomination and election of Syria to two of its committees, one of which deals directly with human rights issues.   That is correct!  A country that opens fire on its own people for protesting is now empowered to arbitrate on global human rights issues.

Human Rights Watch comments “Syria will serve a second two-year term on the 30-member Committee on Conventions and Recommendations, which examines “communications … relating to the exercise of human rights”, according to UNESCO’s web site. Syria also joins the 23-member Committee on International Non-Governmental Organizations, which is mandated to encourage approved activist groups to help further UNESCO’s overall goals.”

Here’s another example.  Last Friday, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood held a “Kill the Jews” rally in Cairo  to market the anniversary of the UN proclamation of the 1947 partition plan. 

It is a shame that the “news” that we receive avoids the real stories and threats that confront us, and reduces our media consumption to content that is banal trivia.  Some investigative analysis of all of the above events would certainly make people thing a little differently about Israel and its place in the Middle East.

The risks of “infotainment” extend further than jounalism.  It impedes the ability for people to distinguish between fantasy and reality.  There is no better example of this than the SBS screening of the drama “The Promise”.  This program is a fictional story that draws out every imaginable anti-semitic carnard to portray Israel and its citizens in a negative light.  It invokes Holocaust imagery to deliver viewers a mindset that effectively says “This happened to the Jews and they are now doing it to others”.  This grotesque attempt to draw moral equivalence between the genocidal ambitions of the Third Reich and the security concerns of modern Israel is a farce.  Despite its status as a fictional drama, the viewer of this is fed an untrue sterotype of the Israeli and an inverted reality of the victim of this conflict.  This impacts and prejudices their world view of Israel, and therefore stands as yet another form of mindless media driven towards fostering hatred of the Jew.

We have just read the parsha of Toldot in the Torah, which deals with the very ethically complex story of Esau’s sale of his birthright to his brother Jacob.  Through a simple reading of the text it could be construed that the telling of a lie is sanctioned by Biblical text.  Various commentaries and the addition of midrash and interpretation help to provide context to the story.  Whether that is “political spin”, or “investigative journalism”, it is still interesting to note that the end conclusion will shift due to the addition of information and perspective that is necessary to understand the story.  However an effort needs to be extended to understand what is happening.  This is how Torah is learnt.  So too, it must be how news is ascertained and interpreted.

We do not live in a simple world, and there are situations and events that we encounter each and every day that do not sit comfortably with our clean idealistic desires.  We need to remove the element of entertainment from our news media, and reclaim the profession of journalism in order to restore some sanity to be able to truly understand what is happening around us. 

With that said, I’m still glad that I chose not to become a journalist.  However, one of my motivations towards blogging was to be able to become part of the solution, not to perpetuate the problem.  I leave you with a lead towards Neil Postman’s script of “Amusing Ourselves to Death” in which the author laments the rise of a culture in which all public discourse takes the form of entertainment.  Postman argues that television has made entertainment the natural format for the representation of all experience, turning our culture into one vast arena for show business. 

It’s time we dispensed with fantasy and entertainment within our news media, and reclaimed reality.