The Media Needs a Total Reformation—Not Just a Reform Here and There

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

This article builds on a column of 1974 the author wrote for the New York Times. It was the most prominent article printed that day on the op-ed page. Over a long career, he has developed those ideas and the following is the result.

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — A famous Fleet Street press lord once pinned up a notice in his paper’s newsroom. It read: “One Englishman is a story. Ten Frenchmen is a story. One hundred Germans is a story. One thousand Indians is a story. Nothing ever happens in Chile.”

Why is it that the press, by and large, is still so inept at finding a way of presenting historical relevant facts, including the backwaters and the undercurrents? Why does it give so few of its resources to anticipating events?

Why did UPI, the news wire, in February 1962 not have a single dispatch from Chile? Yet in the Chilean press it was reported that month that a Chilean had become the youngest cardinal in history (perhaps indicating Vatican perception of the coming revolt among young clergy in Latin America); and inflation had reached such a point that banking transactions were practically suspended.

The shortage of clippings on this affair no doubt in part accounted for the lack of depth in much Western reporting on the final Salvador Allende economic crisis when, with CIA help, the democratically elected Marxist president was deposed by the army.

Chile/1962, which nobody thought important, is in fact a critical element for understanding Chile/2022, which recently elected once again a very left-wing president.

And so it is with a multitude of other issues—energy, food, raw materials, racial and ethnic conflict—issues whose jagged peaks too often rise out of the clouds taking us unaware. Perhaps the most significant journalistic ‘oversight ‘ in recent history has been the energy crisis combined with global warming, and in particular the events that led up to them.

Our media today are blunt instruments in culling out the news that is important and lasting. Too often it is obsessed with a big shock event—as with the Russian/Ukraine war—or with the passing trivia of a dramatic moment, the Oscar ‘slap’.

Too often they are unable to pick out the particles that will later coalesce like globules of quicksilver into a mass—tangible and significant. They rarely have any sense of history. How many reporters or editors have a workable knowledge of the events at the end of the Cold War when President Ronald Reagan promised President Mikhail Gorbachev that if the two parts of Germany were allowed to unite “NATO would not expand eastward one inch”.

The continuous expansion of NATO provoked the Russian bear in its most vulnerable parts. If the press had educated its public on the history of events, then maybe Westerners would not have rushed so blindly to encourage Ukraine in its near suicidal fight.

News reporting, which is so wedded to the sudden, the jerk, the sharp break in continuity, finds it difficult to report the incremental, the casual, the imperceptible shifts in the affairs of man that cumulatively more often than not shape life on our planet.

The first indications of an energy crisis to come did not begin with the Yom Kippur war 1973 and the subsequent oil embargo against the West led by Saudi Arabia, resulting in a 300% price rise, although for our television channels this provided the first moving picture of the ‘crisis’.

It began in the early 1960s when OPEC was an infant yet was able even then successfully to resist price cuts by the major oil companies. Despite the warning signals, the media tended (there are always exceptions) to overlook the size of the changes underway.

Journalists can share the blame with the highly compartmentalised way intellectual pursuit is managed in our society. We journalists have always prided ourselves on being generalists, on having the virtue of being able to operate untrammelled by discipline or convention. We work across the board, pursuing leads wherever they might take us.

Yet often in practice the generalist’s argument is a defence for fickleness. By generalists we don’t necessarily mean floating across intellectual demarcation lines or going back into history to make hard, succinct, well-researched, original, points about octopus-type problems. Rather we interpret ‘generalism’ to mean flexibility in the face of diverse ever-changing news.

But why should our media be so limited, so inexpert? Why does the press insist on devoting so much of its time and talent to reporting the ephemeral, the trivial and the dramatic? Why is its bias, with occasional notable exceptions, against plumbing the depths?

In 1922, Walter Lippmann, the New York Herald Tribune columnist (often referred to as the greatest journalist of the twentieth century), published his landmark study “Public Opinion”. He wrote that “News and truth are not the same thing and must be distinguished”.

Lippmann went on to argue that “The function of news is to signalise an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

But should we accept this dichotomy between news and truth? Maybe in 1922, when people were less educated and newspaper staff less equipped to deal with issues intelligently, Lippmann’s observations were a sad reflection on the inevitable. But today this dichotomy needs no longer hold sway; it is not a necessary and unavoidable one.

Journalists in the top serious newspapers in the US and Germany have PhDs (less so in the UK). If they worked at it hard, as they did for their degrees, the contemporary quality and historical depth would improve quite dramatically.

Take the BBC as an example. At the time of the Brexit debate the BBC did make a strong effort to be impartial. But that’s not quite the point. Impartial is a very slippery word.

(“When I use a word Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”)

The internal Brexit debate by BBC editors on BBC output and whether it was biased had too many moments of great simplicity—a mere counting of heads on both sides. Of course, that’s easier done than to pursue what is inevitably a subjective quest to balance the intellectual quality of the arguments made by the protagonists (as would be done in university exams).

What was missing in the BBC’s output was history and the perspective derived from it. That is where the debate should have centred, not on the details of fishery, transport and Treasury policies or the issue of the degree of British influence in Brussels. There was little coverage, over the years, on the history of Europe and how and why the EU had created arguably the greatest buffer, in the history of humanity, against war.

Few editors and reporters knew much about the history of the evolution of Europe since Charlemagne’s time, or details of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the First World War, or the path-breaking Aland islands’ (they lie in the Baltic Sea) ruling by the League of Nations. The way this dispute between Finland and Sweden over the ownership of the islands was solved is a template both for the Brexit debate and, also, for Russia/Ukraine today.

The League’s arbitrators, made up of very wise and experienced people, not populist newspapers, and politicians, decided that Finland could keep its historical hold on the Aland islands despite its people wanting to become part of Sweden, as long as it placed no troops or armaments on its soil. This ruling is regarded as one of the defining moments of international law.

A similar criticism can be made today about the BBC’s coverage of China and Russia. Most editors at the BBC news department were late teenagers when the curtain on communism in the Soviet Union came down. They know little of Gorbachev’s arguments in favour of keeping the Soviet Union intact (which would have avoided the wars in Ukraine, Chechnya, Georgia, Ossetia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), and the chaos of the Yeltsin years and the early economic and social progress of the Putin regime which made Putin extraordinarily popular.

They know little about the 500 years of Russian rule of Ukraine (and only 30 years of independence). These editors set their agenda based on very short-lived memories and, too often, shallow historical knowledge. Moreover, they belong to the news school—“if it bleeds, it leads”.

I have to say the BBC partly makes up for this in its superb, well-funded, brilliantly directed and presented, documentaries. Nevertheless, news programs have more impact on daily political discourse.

Mort Rosenblum, former editor in chief at the International Herald Tribune, in his book, “Coups and Earthquakes”, comes up with a handful of sensible reforms which even in the budget-tight world of the 2020s could achieve results. He does not call for more editors or correspondents. Rather, better motivation and direction for those already there.

Newspapers and tv channels should save their reporters for the difficult stories and let the agencies provide secondary local stories. He quotes approvingly a memo written by Seymour Topping when he was foreign editor of the New York Times, “We can be less preoccupied with the daily official rhetoric of the capitals. We should report more about how the people live, what they and their societies look like, how their institutions and systems operate . . . Our readers must have more sophisticated interpretive writing.”

But how to get this higher quality, more analytical, reporting? I have a few suggestions.

First: the way journalists are selected. The intellectual quality demanded of journalists must be improved. In many countries the media are finding it more difficult to attract the calibre of people they need. Not least is the problem of unionisation. In Britain, for example, the National Union of Journalists insists that journalists work themselves up the totem pole, often starting with a provincial rag—for that is what too many of them are. One has to have an unusual sense of dedication to take this arduous and unstimulating route.

Second: the question of age. Journalism is too often regarded as a young man or woman’s profession. Unless one starts to climb the totem pole in one’s early twenties, entry is difficult. Yet if journalism could adapt itself to hiring writers who have gained knowledge and expertise in other fields, that would enable a remarkable and steady transfusion of talent.

A third reform would be to allow writers and reporters to specialise more. For even when the media allow specialist reporters, news editors still expect their ‘specialists’ to concentrate on what they regard as hard news. Moreover, they expect them to submit copy nearly every day, or if it’s a weekly, every week. So involved is the journalist in chasing ephemeral hard news, he or she has little time to read—journalists don’t read much whether it be non-fiction or novels or meet experts in universities for reflective conversation.

My fourth reform is the question of presentation. For once the decisions have been implemented to make sure that reporting attracts the best brains, once we give those brains time to be thoughtful and pursue the linkages, it is no use if editors play their output down by shunting the material to remoter parts of the paper or produce programs which only the dedicated watch.

As important is the use of the front page or the lead item on TV and radio. The front page and the lead story are a paper’s and station’s most precious commodity. They help set the nation’s agenda. Yet if that page or the news headlines are half given over to the announcement of presidential candidacy, a plane crash, a sudden rise in petrol (gas) pump prices, the inconvenience of a train strike, or more fighting in Ukraine and Syria, this potential is greatly reduced. Often, we have to ask, where is the depth in any of these stories?

When the Guardian (a serious UK paper with a sophisticated readership) a few years ago decided to lead on its front page with the story of the wage levels of South African black workers it created a furore whose course took a long time to run. A parliamentary committee was established. The cabinet, both in Britain and South Africa, discussed it. And in many cases wage levels moved dramatically upwards. However, it was not a new story. The essential facts had been known for decades. Yet its presentation was such as to force the issue to the top of the agenda.

Rosenblum concludes wisely: “A democracy cannot function without an informed electorate . . . Foreign policy cannot be left unchecked to a Washington elite, to specialists or to interested lobby groups. World crises, if foreseen in time, sometimes can be avoided. But without reliable reporting from abroad, citizens are vulnerable and weak.”

It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s not just Walter Lippmann who has shown a better class of journalism. One thinks of the foreign affairs columnist, William Pfaff, my colleague at the International Herald Tribune and David Gardner, the Financial Times’s Middle East editor who died recently.

It will be a tough fight to lead reform in the media world. Old habits are very much ingrained. We need not just reform here and there. The media needs a total Reformation. Then we can, step by step, progress to a state of Enlightenment.

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: [IDN-InDepthNews — 27 April 2022]

Image source: Young Partnership for Peace and Development

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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