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?
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
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.
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
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.