The reason why I stopped watching television…

You’ve got that right. I don’t watch TV. I’ll say it again, just so you know your eyes are not deceiving you: I DON’T WATCH TV. A lot of people ask me why. In this next post I will try to explain why it is I don’t watch TV anymore and why I think TV is nothing but a brainwashing black box.

In the day and age of the Internet, the media reports on a decline in the amount of hours people spend watching television, especially young people. Well, I’m at least one person who helps to bring that figure down. However, plenty of people still watch TV on a daily basis and I am often met with blank stares or confused looks when I admit to people that I haven’t watched TV in over a year. It’s been over a year since I’ve really watched the news, a TV series, a talk show or any other type of TV broadcast. The handful of times that I did watch TV were always when others would turn on the TV. I may have switched it on once on my own accord during my summer vacation and even then it was on for about 10 minutes till I switched it off again.

The most obvious reason why I stopped watching TV is that it simply doesn’t interest me anymore, and that I think I can spend my time much better doing other things, like going to the gym or going to concerts and listening to music. All TV series that I was watching can easily be found online or on DVD anyway, and those shows aren’t even on at times that I can watch them. However, the main reason why I stopped watching TV is because TV is nothing but a staged play where everybody is just really good at playing their parts. Everything is scripted, prepared, discussed, reconsidered, discussed again, debated and rewritten until the lines are perfect, the parts are equally divided between the participants and everyone gets to have their say the way they want to say it.  This sounds like something done for TV series, but it also goes for all news broadcasts, interviews and other so called ‘objective’ reports.

What the media has everyone believe is that everything is happening ‘live’, as in, right now, and ‘objective’ as well as unaltered and unfiltered. That, in fact, is the biggest lie ever told. NOTHING that happens on TV happens spontaneously. If it does, than it is only on exceptionally rare occasions. Not a single person in an interview says things the way they would if you would actually ask them the questions in a different setting. Celebrities and politicians all get media training and every John or Jane Do you see being interviewed on the street is always nicely prompted to speak in such and such a way.  The people who don’t speak the way the media wants them to, is simply cut from the item. And Janet Jackson’s ‘Nipplegate’ at the Superbowl was probably known by someone, else the screen would simply have gone to black. I found out about this when I was a student and dabbling around in journalism. I wrote a few articles on freelance basis for the university paper and did an internship at a Dutch TV channel. I’m not saying I’m the expert on this matter, but some of the things I had to do just made me frown and none of my colleagues seemed to question any of it.

My first shock came when I found out that what many journalists do is copy/ paste articles from AP, ANP, Reuters, or whatever news agency it is their paper/ TV channel uses. A few lines are usually rewritten to make the article fit with the newspaper or TV broadcast, but more often than not it is simply copy/ pasted and presented to the public. This goes for smaller stations, like the one where I did my internship, but also for the ‘reputable’ national news broadcasts. A journalist is not someone who goes out there to find out about what’s going on in the world. No, everything is hand-delivered to their desks. This is of course one of the many perks of the Internet and the digital age we currently live in, one might say. However, news agencies can only cover so much and news agencies report from just one point of view. This goes totally against all I was taught during journalism classes, where I was told that as a journalist you should always try to be as objective as possible and look at the news from all angles. They just forgot to mention that all that gets reported is just one angle.

There is, for instance, a rule for how ‘important’ certain news is: You take the distance (in miles or kilometers) of that what has happened with regard for the place where you live divided by the number of deaths occurred during whatever it is that has happened. Yes, you heard that right: the number of deaths. Naturally, it then also matters who those deaths are. Let’s say that you live in New York and 3 people are killed in a car crash. If the 3 people killed are American soldiers in Iraq, it will be all over CNN in seconds. If the 3 people are American tourists on vacation in Europe, then that is already less interesting and if the 3 people killed are from any other country CNN could really care less whether it gets reported. It simply is not important enough. It of course also matters what caused the car the crash. If it’s a bomb, or a police pursuit or anything else that’s ‘exciting’ the importance of the event will go up the ladder and it will be more likely that the event gets reported.

Moreover, the guests and experts that are brought in by journalists to give some weight to the items are carefully selected. It is made sure these people are ‘media friendly’ and look good on camera while giving explanations in such a way that even an amoeba could understand it. A rule seems to be: as long as you can deliver catchy one liners that stick in people’s heads you’ll get screen time. In my point of view, this often steers interviews and news broadcasts away from the actual content. And again, this also goes for ‘reputable’ news sources. Even the conversation with the correspondent in a foreign country is played out and often times, foreign news is merely a video made by an AP reporter with the voice over of the correspondent. That same video, only with a different voice over, is then broadcast in plenty of countries around the globe, often simultaneously.

Then there is the matter of point of view. Every journalist has a point of view, depending on for which newspaper it is you’re working, to your religious and national backgrounds. A Dutch journalist, Joris Luyendijk, wrote a book on how difficult it is to give a good and full account, from a Western perspective, on how the Middle East ‘works’, especially on TV. His book sparked a great amount of debate in the Netherlands. To me, I found that I share many of his sentiments about journalism. He divides up his argument in two points:

Het Zijn Net Mensen makes two main arguments. One is that journalism western style works only in western style societies. The Arab world is comprised of dictatorships and when you restrict yourself to western methods of journalism there you end up with a fundamentally skewed picture of these countries. The other argument is that the promise of objectivity is a harmful myth. The representation of a conflict, for example that in Israel/Palestine or between the US government and Iraq, always involves selection and that selection inevitably helps some parties to the conflict make their points while disenfranchising others. At the same time parties to a conflict differ in their ability to manipulate the newsmedia which creates an extra set of distortions.

I fully agree with his points and if you are interested in this matter, you should definitely pick up his book which has been translated into several languages. That this phenomenon of Western media reporting in a Western style is still current is something I read about a few days ago in the latest edition of Newsweek. In their article ‘All the Propaganda That’s Fit to Print’ they report on Xinhua, China’s state news agency. The article starts by saying how the news agency organized the ‘World Media Summit’, where even media guru Rupert Murdoch spoke and had all the pretenses of a significant media convention. However, the summit was “a media bust, especially in the English-speaking press, which barely covered the […] event”. The problem is that Xinhua is the ‘official organ of the Chinese Communist Party’ and thus leaning heavily on propaganda.

The article talks mainly about how Xinhua has been expanding around the globe and how the news agency has been trying to get a foothold in other countries than China. With success it seems:

It’s and alluring deal in the Middle East, Africa, and the developing world, where newsprint sales are up and there’s hunger for non-Western perspectives. […] But in recent months, Xinhua has signed content deals with state-run outlets in Cuba, Mongolia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Turkey, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe, making it a leading source of news for Africa and much of Asia, with more boots on the ground in those continents than any other organization.

According to the article they aren’t even that bad at what they’re doing, taking into account that it’s China’s propaganda mechanism. The article quotes:

“In the second Gulf war they were very good,” says Kamil Erdogdu, China correspondent for Turkey’s state news agency. “They got many things first; I used them many times.”

The image of the news agency is not that good as articles can be “boring, as one would expect from an organization that believes “news coverage should help beef up the confidence of the market and unity of the nation””. Despite the fact that Xinhua’s coverage leaves room for improvement,  “The Chinese perspective now seems like just another ideological choice on the dial, an option as valid as Aljazeera, Fox News or MSNBC. An African or Asian newspaper editor might find the bias less annoying than the Pentagon does”.

So where does this lead us? Simply because a media summit is organized by an organization we don’t approve, we might as well not report on it? And that is also why we ignore the news agency all together? My personal conclusion is that watching the news on TV and even reading a newspaper should be taken with a grain of salt and a huge one at that. I do know one thing for sure: for me, this bias has taken the joy out of watching TV.

You can discuss this matter in the comments if you want to. I would be interested to find out what you all think.

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