Reflection of The WorId

by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Le Monde diplomatique (Paris), August 1999 (from World Press Review)


Once journalism was a mission, not a career. Now, new technologies have brought about a proliferation of the media. The main outcome has been the discovery that news is a commodity whose sale and distribution can generate large profits. In former times, the value of news moved within different parameters, in particular the search for truth. It was also the stuff of political struggle. The discovery of the commercial potential of news has sparked an influx of big capital into the media. Internal wars between media conglomerates have become more intense than the wars in the world outside. Major teams of special correspondents sweep the world. They move as a pack in which each journalist keeps a close eye on what the others are doing. Getting your scoop becomes a matter of life or death. This explains why, even when several major events are occurring simultaneously in the world, the media tend to cover only one: the one that has attracted the pack.

New technologies have radically transformed relations between reporters and editors. Previously, newspaper correspondents and reporters for press agencies and TV had a relative degree of freedom and could follow their intuitions. They could hunt out news, check, edit, and format it. Nowadays, they have increasingly become pawns to be shifted to various places around the world.

The editor, for his part, has news coming at him from a whole range of sources and thus has his own assessment of the facts, which may be quite different from that of the reporter covering events on the spot. Reporters are the victims of the arrogance of their bosses and the media groups. A cameraman from a major U.S. television company recently exclaimed: "What more can they want from me? In one week I've had to film in five countries on three separate continents."

This metamorphosis of the media raises a fundamental question: How are we to understand the world? Until recently we learned our history from the heritage of knowledge that our ancestors left us and from what archives contained and historians uncovered. Today, the small screen has become the new (and virtually sole) source of history, distilling the version conceived and developed by television. Since access to relevant documents is difficult, the versions of history circulated by TV-however incompetent and ignorant they may be-are incontestable.

Rudolf Arnheim, the German cultural theoretician, had already predicted in the 1930s that human beings would come to confuse the world perceived by their senses and the world interpreted by thought, and would believe that seeing is understanding, which is untrue. Television, in Arnheim's opinion, could have become one of the more rigorous forms of research, feeding our understanding. But it could just as easily make our minds lethargic as enrich them. He was right.

The confusion between seeing and knowing, and seeing and understanding, is used by television to manipulate people. In a dictatorship, censorship is used; in a democracy, manipulation. The target of these assaults is always the same: the ordinary citizen. When the media talk about themselves, they conceal the basic problem behind the form: They substitute technology for philosophy. They discuss how to cut, how to edit, how to print. They talk about problems of layout, or databases, or the capacity of hard disks. They do not concern themselves with the problem of the content that they are about to cut, edit, and print.

Do the media reflect the real world in which we live? They do but, unfortunately, in ways that are only superficial and fragmentary. Over the past four years, the audiences for TV news on the three main networks in the United States have fallen from 60 percent to a mere 38 percent. Of the topics presented, 72 percent are local in character and deal with violence, drugs, assaults, and crime. Only 5 percent of their news output is devoted to news from other countries, and many of them do not even manage that. In 1987, the American edition of Time magazine devoted 11 of its cover stories to international topics; 10 years later, in 1997, there was only one. The selection of news is based on the principle, "the more blood there is, the better it sells."

We live in a paradoxical world. On one hand, we are told that the developing means of communication have connected all parts of the planet into a global village; on the other, there is less and less space for international issues in the media. It is a recent phenomenon in human civilization, too new to have been able to produce the antibodies necessary for combating the illnesses that it generates: manipulation, corruption, arrogance, and the primacy of pornography.

The world of the media is a world unto itself. It operates at several distinct levels. Alongside the "dustbin media" are some that are excellent; there are marvelous television programs, excellent radio broadcasts, and remarkable newspapers. Nobody can deny that in the world of print journalism, radio, and TV, there are highly talented and sensitive journalists-people who value their peers and who relate to our planet as an exciting place that is worthy of being analyzed, understood, and saved. Often, these journalists work in conditions of self-denial, and they do it with enthusiasm and a spirit of sacrifice, shunning easy answers. Their aim is to bear witness to the state of the world in which we live.

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