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Published:January 20th, 2007 07:40 EST
Soap Opera Reporting - Hot Copy #15

Soap Opera Reporting - Hot Copy #15

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

(Editor’s note: Following is a transcript of Del Marbrook’s Hot Copy, No. 15, podcast)

Some of you will become editors, some of you media executives. Some of you will win prizes for superior reporting and writing. So here’s something to think about on your way to the top, whatever your particular top happens to be.

In a world that has become a closely woven fabric we can’t afford the luxury of soap opera reporting. But we are foolishly luxuriating in it.  By that I mean we can’t treat the news like soap opera any more. Yet that’s exactly what we’re doing, more and more every day.

Historically, the newspapers broke up oral news into blocks of gray type, replacing town criers and tribal narrators. Radio and television broke up the news even further into sound bites and jiggly imagery. Once this happened, our leaders started feeding the media with sound bites, as if tossing goodies into cages at the zoo. And so everything became a slogan, short, memorable and misleading. Misleading, because in the real world, the world where people get killed because of sound-bite thinking, as we’re seeing in Iraq, things are much too complicated to render into tiny bits of type and sound, or flashing images on a screen. To live full, complete lives, personally and on the greater stage of life, we must recognize that the issues we confront are complex and we are ill-served by politicians, journalists and preachers who try to sum everything up in a memorable slogan. Slogans get people killed. They bring down democracies. Remember Germany where the Nazi slogans brought down a great democratic republic.

We are living in the conjunction of a world that has grown immensely more complicated than ever before and a communications industry determined to reduce everything to simpleminded reports and inappropriate humor. The ever-increasing inanity of cable news anchors and the background dramatization of news with bad music, if it can be called music at all, and chopped-up imagery is incompatible with the need of people who live in a republic to understand what is going on. The media would have you believe that our government has sold out to corporate interests, and that’s probably true as far as it goes, but it hardly goes far enough, because the media are owned by those corporate interests, and if the media had been doing their jobs properly the public would have comprehended a long time ago that a massive betrayal of its interests had taken place in Washington and in state capitals. I don’t blame reporters and editors for this as much as I blame their corporate bosses whose demands for souped-up infotainment have corrupted the Fourth Estate. But there’s plenty of blame to go around. Two executive editors at The Los Angeles Times have been fired in recent years for resisting corporate reductions in newsroom staffing. We’ll see if the new owners of that newspaper are any different. We may even see if local ownership will prove as responsible to readers as newspapers are responsible to shareholders. We’ll see if greed continues to trump vision and duty.

Why should corporate greed and entertainment, cheap humor and slice-and-dice journalism go hand in hand? Well, it’s because entertainment news—the latest antics of the rich and famous—is cheaper to gather and present than other kinds of news. You need brains and time to figure out corporate and public corruption, you don’t need much of either to yak endlessly about weddings in Italian villas and over privileged people throwing telephones at working stiffs.

Because television competes for ratings and newspaper compete for advertising lineage, they are presenting the news to us as if it were a soap opera in which everybody overreacts to everything. Everything becomes a drama, an operatic drama in which people behave exaggeratedly for the benefit of viewers and readers.

This is exactly how we got into the Iraqi mess. The media bear a huge responsibility for the deaths of so many American and Iraqi lives. Let me remind you how it happened. I know you witnessed it, just as I did, but did you notice the way it played out? Day after day our politicians implied that Saddam Hussein and the al Qaeda attacks on the United States were linked. They never said it in black and white. But they implied it. And the press let them get away with it. What exactly did they get away with? Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party stood for a secular Iraq, that is an Iraq that would not be run by a religious clergy. The Baath Socialist Party was anticlerical. That is the party we have now destroyed by force. I’m not saying Saddam or his Baathists were good guys, but I am saying they stood against religious government. Al Qaeda on the other is a fundamentalist religious movement born out of the Wahabbi religious sect that rules Saudi Arabia, our ally. In other words, Saddam’s Baathists were bitterly opposed to the Wahabbis in general and al Qaeda in particular. (By the way, the word Wahabbi has given way in recent years to Salafist).

Did any of you ever hear anyone in the press write or talk about al Qaeda being rooted in Saudi fundamentalism or Saddam being a bitter enemy of al Qaeda? Did you ever hear our government talk about it. Of course, because they were inconvenient truths. When it comes to propaganda, the truth is always inconvenient. That’s why we have a fourth estate, to tell us what’s inconvenient, not what’s entertaining. An unremittingly entertaining fourth estate is paving the road to authoritarian rule. Such a fourth estate will literally entertain us to death.  By the way, when have you heard the press discuss the possibility that global corporations might just find authoritarian governments easier to deal with than democratic governments?

Now let me ask you something even scarier. Did you ever once hear the media or the government say that the danger of toppling the Saddam government, however bloody it was, was that it could set off an armed conflict between the Shiites, seeking revenge against Saddam and his Sunnis for long years of oppression, and the Sunni minority? And did you ever hear them say that in that event the Sunni Arab nations, that is the majority of Arabs, and in fact the majority of Muslims, might not stand by and watch the Sunni Arabs of Iraq oppressed?

And here’s a still scarier question. Did you hear anyone say that toppling Saddam and touching off a civil war might just throw the entire Arab World into conflict with Shiite Iran? And did you hear anyone say that might set off an atomic arms race between the wealthy Arabs and the Iranians, who happen to be running out of oil reserves?

In other words, did you hear the media or the government put the situation in this much larger and much scarier context? No, you didn’t, and yet there were plenty of experts who were talking about these matters.

What we did hear is war-drum background music on CNN and Fox and many of the other media, acting as if every foolish pronouncement of the government and its political stooges in Congress was as important as the last foolish pronouncement, while in fact what was really important went unreported and unremarked, and that happened to be the fact that we could: a) set off a civil war in Iraq, which we have done, b) set off a conflict between Iran and the Arabs, and c) set off a nuclear arms race.

This is what soap opera reporting gets you. It gets you into deep hot water in a world getting more complicated by the minute.

An intelligent, responsible press corps would have said, night after night in many different ways, with background documentaries, that there is an historical enmity between Iran and the Arabs, between the Muslim Shiites and the Muslim Sunnis, and the Baathists hate the fundamentalists, and al Qaeda is fundamentalist and it originated in Saudi Arabia, our allies and the special buddies of the Bush family.

Think of how things might have gone if the American public had understood all this. And, when you think about it, what’s so hard about understanding it?

The trouble is that background is difficult to dramatize. It’s difficult to turn background information into soap opera. The press corps was worried about its ratings, not about the American men and women who were about to be sent to their deaths, or the Iraqis who were about to be killed. The press corps was not concerned with a conflagration in the Middle East.

There were many other aspects of the Middle Eastern situation the press corps failed to report, namely that Israel and its lobbyists pushed for the Iraq invasion and inflamed a Shiite resurgence by invading Lebanon.  These facts too would have given the American public a more rounded and balanced picture of the situation.

But background facts get in the way of news as entertainment. They are the elephant in the room. They’re inconvenient. It’s hard to hype the news and make it sound exciting when you have to fill people in on the background, on the context.

Here’s some food for thought. This background information, this historical context, could have been dramatized, and it could have been made current if the press had had the imagination and the will to undertake fresh reporting of Baathist hostility to fundamentalists, of Saudi complicity in fundamentalist activity around the world, in the Sunni-Shia enmity, but the reason the press failed so miserably is that its business executives didn’t want to spend the money to undertake the work of bringing these issues to the public. Day-to-day sound bites and news flashes and drumbeat background music are cheap compared to investigative reporting. The American press is being run on the cheap. Instead of investing money in visionary ways to cover the news and develop new ways to earn income, the press is following a business model of cutting back newsrooms and coverage. The results are already damaging to the way we conduct our affairs, and the damage will only get worse if we continue to make decisions based on such skimpy, soap opera news.

Here is another example of lazy reportage. The Muslim communities in the United States played an historic role in the last election. They raised money for candidates whom they thought would not pursue what they perceived as racist policies. In Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, this played a role in the defeat of incumbents. But this development was poorly covered. Its significance has gone largely unnoticed by the general public. Why? Well, for starters, if you started routinely reporting how American Muslims are playing a role in getting some candidates defeated and others elected, why you might just have to start reporting on how much the Israeli lobby influences politicians like Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, and that would be a very dicey issue, because American Jews are much more influential than American Muslims.

So when the media moguls look you straight in the eye and tell you their decisions are not based on partisan politics, don’t believe them. Don’t think that because you’re journalists you have to swallow what your bosses say. You have to tow the line, yes, because they sign your paychecks. I’m sorry, but that’s true. But someday you may be the boss, you may be an executive, and then I hope you’ll remember what I’ve said and try to improve the situation.

A democracy is based on its people understanding things. The American people didn’t understand the situation in Iraq. They merely trusted their government to tell them the truth, and the government didn’t. What resort did the people have? The press, of course. That’s why the Founding Fathers gave the press such a privileged role. But the press didn’t correct the government. The press swallowed what the government had to say. Why? Because the press is dishonest or lazy? I don’t think so. I think the issue is money. I think the media bosses simply didn’t want to spend the kind of money that would have been necessary to make the truth dramatically and abundantly clear to the public. Even if they had been willing to spend the money, they lacked the imagination and the vision to do it.

For fourteen hundred years the Shias and the Sunnis have been in conflict with each other. Would it have been so hard to say so and to say so every night until the fact was understood as part of the big picture? The press was certainly willing night after night to talk about weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. Would it have been so difficult to report that the Saudis have been funding madrasas (schools) around the Muslim world and that these schools are preaching a virulent form of fundamentalist Islam that many scholars say conflicts with the Quran itself? What was so hard about that? Would it have been so hard to dramatize the historic and important conflict between the Baath socialists and the fundamentalists? Would it have been so hard to say that the Arabs fear a nuclear Iran and that they will probably develop nuclear arms themselves if it happens?

But none of these things were made clear to the public. Oh, if the public had gone to the trouble of reading what the Arab experts in the universities were saying, sure, then it all would have been clear. But when the public relies on the mass media to make decisions and to understand what the government is doing, well, then the public, as we see, is in trouble. And that’s where we are now, in trouble.


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