Truth in the News
I have always been fascinated by the old news reels like MovieTone news and the way they describe big events. For a modern student of semiotics, they must provide a field day. It’s not just the clipped upper class British accents, the staccato delivery denoting urgency, the obvious propaganda, or the way they crudely attempted to capture a folksy group psychology (oh look, the crowds wave with furious excitement and glee as soon as our victorious hero Mr Churchill disembarks from the naval warship).
What’s most obvious about those old pieces of arcana is the artifice. We know there’s a big disconnect between what happened and how it was described.
That artifice still exists, particularly in the hyperbolic world or politics. The default mode of every politician and every political journalist is to pump up the volume. It doesn’t matter if the row is insignificant. As the slogan for the solo handyman goes: No job too small. We’ll ratchet up that minor sneeze into life-threatening pneumonia.
Of course, the way in which we report on events involves using techniques and language that are formulaic and, more often than not, cliched.
Example: The Government found itself under mounting pressure last night to reverse its policies on widgets following an opposition onslaught against the measure in the Dáil.
That’s what opposition do. They oppose. Is the Government under real pressure? Not really. Not unless the masses take to the street and march on the Dail in their thousands. Or Joe Duffy and his army burst with indigation. etc.
The purpose of that illustration (and it’s not even a great one) is to show the artifice. It’s necessary. It’s not that you are prisoner of the format. Just by evolution, it has become the quickest, easiest, easy-toounderstand way of conveying what happened and what was significant about it. Readers are familiar with the form and can use the reporting to reconcile what they read with their own understanding of the event, having seen similar events live or at first-hand.
Sorry, this is getting to be a bit of a tutorial.
A couple of our correspondents on this blog think we are all fatally compromised, part of the establishment, lickspittles and quislings etc rather than the fearless brave and selfless sentinels of the truth that we really are!
The Dail is a small place and is like a boarding school in a way. You know everybody and they know you. You rely on them for stories. They rely on you for publicity and for advancement. Is there a compromise? Perhaps sometimes. But you know that, if necessary, you might have to bite off the hand that feeds. Yes, symbiotic. Or should that be dysfunctional.
The most honest assessment I have read of this relationship was described by Michael Hastings, the American journalist, who followed the presidential wanabees in the US during 2007 and 2008. In a confessional piece about the campaign, he made a foul-mouthed, if unerringly accurate, observation about the relationship between reporters and politicians (and their staffers).
Sadly, for us, it has the ring of authenticity about it, in part.
Here’s the quote from his account of being a member of the press corps for Rudy Giuliani’s campaign tour. (He hated Rudy by the way). The rest of the blog is taken up with Hastings’s musings, which appeared in the November 2008 edition of American GQ. The full article is well worth reading. You can find it here.
So here’s Hastings:
“I ate meals with staffers and campaign managers. I tried to say things that would make me appear sympathetic to Rudy while not technically lying (“Wow, he sure seems popular.” “I was in New York on 9/11, and I have to be honest with you, I was glad Rudy was in charge.”)
“I tried to sty out of any discussion about issues and to just repeat the mantra to myself: I am here to observe and record, observe and record.
“The dance with staffers is a perilous one. You’re probably not going to get much, if any, one-on-one time with the candidate which means your sources of inrormation are the people who work for him.
“So you pretend to be friendly and nonthreatening, and over time you ‘build trust’ which everybody inolved knows is an illusion.
“If the time comes, if your editor calls for it, you’re supposed to f*** them over; and they’ll throw you under a bus without much thought, too. (I should say that personal friendships can actually develop, despite the odds).
“For the top campaign officals and operatives, seduction and punishment of reporters is an art.
“Write this fluff piece now; well give you something good later. No, don’t write it this way, write it that way. We’ll give you something good later.”