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Media Vultures






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IV. Media Vultures


hoodlum with a machine gun
Hoodlum firing a Kalashnikov in front of the University of Vlore (where I taught). Did the presence of journalists encourage people to make such displays? (USA Today)  

When Berisha shut down the presses during the state of emergency, he displayed his cynicism for Albania's ability to solve its own problems. Just when Albania needed the greatest variety of insights and perspectives, Berisha decided that the free flow of information posed a threat to Albanian society. I'm not saying that the struggle would have been more peaceful with a free press. But when people are allowed to read a variety of viewpoints, they are less apt to be swayed by the Mafioso with the Kalashnikov who declares that Berisha should die. In that single act, Berisha had severed the brain from the body of Albania, and the typical Albanian could only watch the collision of opposing forces and gasp. When faced with a dearth of information, a person assumes the worst; rumors spread, and people prepare for the worst; one stays glued to the television set even though the television medium itself contributes to the problem.

I am grateful for BBC, CNN and VOA during those tense times. They provided almost instantaneous information and analysis. BBC especially provided interviews and essays and experts stating their opinions. The Sunday before we were evacuated, I was listening to a BBC reporter (Johanna Robertson?) narrate a report about the atmosphere in Vlore. For the last two years I had been writing friends, describing the city and now Ms. Robertson, after a mere weeklong visit, wrote a report that nearly brought me to tears. And Jane Perletz from New York Times began a Vlore story with this lead-- "Palm-studded Vlore, a Wild West port on the Adriatic Sea where expensive new cars compete with donkey carts on dusty streets, has been organizing itself for one of Europe's most bizarre revolts." Excellent lead to an excellent story. A USA Today story on Vlore is accompanied by a photo of a father in front of the University of Vlore showing his son how to aim the Kalashnikov they had swiped from the arms depot. I'm glad such keen observers visited my city and described it to the world. It's a pity that such publicity is won only through bloodshed. I used to tell Albanians that almost nobody in Texas knew where their country was. Many Americans thought it was in Asia or Africa. Most exclaimed "Albania?" in a puzzled voice when I announced my destination. Albania is a small place of only about 3 or 4 million people; it hardly deserved any more recognition than it used to have. But now that there was a war-or was it a military conflict?--it sticks in everybody's minds, and even those acquaintances usually ignorant of geography know that Albania was a bad and dangerous place.

Western journalists try to balance the story by seeking freaks from both sides. In their zeal to report the topic, journalists overlook the ordinary.  

The responsible journalists paid undue attention to the "action" parts of the story. They spent most of their time covering mafioso who made idle threats against Berisha and young hoodlums parading their booty on the streets. As skeptical as journalists are, they write about the publicity-seekers and think that these people comprise the full story. At least Western journalists try to balance the story by seeking freaks from both sides. In their zeal to report the topic, journalists overlook the ordinary. Every person I met was a different story, deserving of being told, yet they are often irrelevant to the current political situation and unlikely to succeed in arousing the fickle curiosity of the international press. How sad that the world of readers cannot be persuaded to read about a foreign country unless some peculiar social tragedy has spiced it up. Even the highbrow press, has to "sell" its news. One BBC listener complained that BBC gave skimpy coverage to a major catastrophe in India on the same day it broke the momentous news that Michael Jackson had plastic surgery on his nose. Surprisingly, the BBC editor's defense was less interesting than his claim that a natural disaster in India just wasn't unusual enough an event to attract the attention of listeners. 10,000 people dead in a California earthquake, on the other hand, was more newsworthy because California had never before experienced such casualty levels.

corpse at the university
Time magazine photo of a corpse 20 feet away from my university office. Even the mainstream media is fascinated by blood and bored by depictions of real life.  

The media, even the reputable members of it, seldom gain readers or viewers by putting events in a long term perspective. Instead the media must reinvent or discover new crises to distract people from the old crises in which nothing interesting has happened recently. Let's see. This year, the crisis in Albania came after Peru, Bulgaria and Afghanistan and before Zaire, Israel, North Korea, Hong Kong, Cambodia and now Israel. It was fascinating to watch the international media businesses, especially the TV stations, package Albania for world consumption. CNN's approach was striking in its banality. After only a few days of conflict, CNN had produced a fancy opening, a few musical bars and a catchy title, "Days of Rage." There were interviews with analysts, press spokesmen, on-the-scene reports, pictures of tanks moving around the central square, sounds of gunfire, hooligans acting crazy on the road. For those starved for information, like us, it was a godsend. But for the typical viewer, it was just another country, another hotspot, no different from the report they saw about Liberia or Columbia or Afghanistan.

I shouldn't criticize everything about CNN; it reported its news quickly and gave generous amounts of time to coverage and analysis. But media, especially the television media, is limited by its manner of presentation; it is based on the assumption that the most important social events are those with striking visuals or rowdy crowds or corpses. It is based also on the assumption that the viewers around the world have uniform tastes and concerns. Perhaps the very concept ora "global news show" is faulty. I remember thinking this while watching the CNN World Weather Report and asking myself, "why the hell should I care whether it's raining in Ecuador?" Although the international press is more likely to give a well-balanced account of events, its intended audience-- the viewer in Hong Kong or Russia or Mexico--is unlikely to appreciate the level of detail or even to care.

A step below CNN was Euronews, a 24 hour news station with an attention span of no more than 30 seconds for anything. I can't describe how horrifying this station was. not only during the Albania crisis but all the time. The pesky commercials were, I suppose, a commercial necessity; much less bearable were the lengthy graphics prefacing each segment--temperatures scrolling over a European map in 3 languages, a whirling montage of scenes of random violence, 10 seconds of music during each transition, stock footage almost unrelated to the news story and the use of "video press releases" to indirectly promote new computer products or services. "Euronews," rather than being a news service, was a snapshot service; it provided glimpses of hotspots without regard to context. One watched it with a confidence that by doing so one knew what was going on. My host family, who spoke not a word of English, used to watch it religiously every morning during breakfast; at first, this used to infuriate me until it dawned on me that they did so not to be informed but to be spellbound. Every hour, Euronews broadcast 3 or 4 minutes of raw video footage, labeled "No Comment," the stranger the better. Of course, for a good week or so, freelance cameramen seemed to be hustling Albania footage quite successfully. I imagined film editors wading through hours oldreck for the best shot of teenagers and unshaven mafioso firing automatics. Once "No Comment" ran footage of a Albanian man digging through trash at a trashheap. Another time, mobs of people seemed to be ransacking shops and displays. Upon closer inspection, however, the mobs were actually crowds of Italians celebrating at a famous festival. Euronews was dedicated not to news but to spectacle. And it that respect it bore some complicity for the hoodlums who were creating it.

In spectacle it is easy to confuse "show" with reality and difficult to find spontaneity. During my last day in Vlore, a parade of mourners passed along, full of flowers, solemn faces and even occasionally a tear. TV cameras, photographers and foreign journalists followed along, assuming lead positions to get the best camera angle. Right in front of the hearse, stood one or two cameraman photographing every moment of the procession. To me it seemed that the cameramen, not the coffin itself, was the center of attention to the crowd. I don't doubt that the majority of the people in the procession had genuine feelings about the murdered person being led forward. But who was organizing the parade? Did the presence of the media change the people's behavior? Did the paraders feel the need to look solemn in order to make the entire picture perfect?

One of the problems with this kind of reporting, I think, is that cameramen may work independently of reporters writing the story. The cameraman searches for images and spectacles without trying to put things in context. The reporter, on the other hand, is in the capital city, chasing after people to interview or press conferences to attend. Perhaps the radio reporter has an advantage in not having to deal with images. But radio and TV aim to convey a sense of presence. You were there. At least with print journalism, reporters don't need to convey a sense of presence. It is easier to weave a narrative through a single medium rather than trying to integrate sound, image and word.

And easier to slant the news. During my first year of teaching, my English students expressed near unanimity that TV news was less slanted than newspaper reporting. To them, TV news was more objective, while newspapers (at least Albanian ones) were constantly trying to slant the facts to suit their political viewpoint. TV at least did not try to present opinions for fact.

Even the much maligned Albanian TV did not distort the truth; it merely provided selective glimpses of it.  

This opinion absolutely floored me, but there is a bit of truth to what they say. With TV news, the reality of a picture was undeniable. Even the much maligned Albanian TV did not distort the truth; it merely provided selective glimpses of it. On the day of the fraudulent May 1996 elections, Albanian TV news interviewed a score of people about their opinions. Although the majority of televised people expressed satisfaction with the election results, a few conceded that there were "irregularities." By presenting milder versions of dissent, Albanian TV succeeded in conveying the impression it was conveying both sides of the story. But Albanian TV made no effort at investigative reporting, trying instead to spin the news. Most Albanians could receive TV newscasts from Italy or Greece, and almost every Albanian could understand Italian; almost everyone had watched the Italian broadcasts, and yet almost everyone still watched Albanian News! In spite of the slant, Albania TV offered the comfort of a native language, the familiarity of local coverage. Albanian TV was guilty of nothing but silence; reporters dutifully reported what the international media had been reporting. Since everyone saw it on the Italian channels anyway, there was no point in trying to keep it a secret.

We have two extremes of news reporting: the crisis sensationalism of Western media and the head-in-the-sand reporting of state run TV. Western media thrives on crisis and anarchy; state-controlled media thrives by creating the illusion of order and control. We talk about a free press~but what does that mean really? Freedom from state interference? Freedom from commercial obligations? Freedom from the need to cater to the lowest common denominator? Freedom from prejudice? Freedom from analysis and opinion? Freedom from canned news in the form of press releases? Perhaps a truly free press could never sustain itself.

The End