The first local media event of the New Year was the unloading of caskets clad in the Lebanese flag on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport. Young, Lebanese citizens went to Turkey in pursuit of merriment, only to be caught up, alongside 39 other victims, in one of the the latest manifestation of the growing fanatic resentment overtaking the region: the Reina nightclub massacre.
Judging by their known last decisions, Rita Chami, Haikal Moussallem and Elias Wardini, would not have wanted to serve as fuel for the exploitative mechanism of politics, mainstream journalism and independent media. Yet, with little regard for human life or the sentiments of the bereaved, the powerful and the well-heard fed on the tragedy unrestrained:
-Newly appointed politicians used the opportunity to establish their legitimacy and reinforce the aura of control that surrounds their positions. They lined up to receive the injured and monitor the reception of the deceased, all the while having failed in their primary task to inform the average traveler what the intelligence community was well aware of: the momentary increase in danger to tourists on Turkish soil on New Year’s Eve.
-Local televisions satisfied the voyeuristic drive of their consumers, capturing every mournful tear, every emoting face, and elaborating heavily and with painful repetition on the details of the tragedy whenever visuals were insufficient to sustain the interests of the fickle TV audience. Moreover, in their rush to supply as much content about the tragedy in as short a timeframe as possible, they failed to fact-check many of the information that they publicized.
-Bloggers (myself included) and social media influencers jumped at the chance to openly condemn the mainstream media for its conflicts of interests, its sensationalism, and its affiliation to the ruling class. We declared ourselves both alternative media and guardians of unbiased reporting, all the while broadcasting little more than vacuous outrage. Some even took the opportunity to speak on behalf of the victims’ and their families with whom they are not acquainted.
As of now, the urgency to post about the massacre as a news event has waned. Those who had sought to benefit have already had their fill. Public interest in the story has also greatly diminished and emotions have cooled. Perhaps the time has come to examine past events with a critical eye and identify the failures of the media, both old and new.
Traditional media and news:
War-born or forged as a reaction to political crises in the conflict’s aftermath, several fundamentals that influence today’s coverage stem from an era that predates the broadcasting code of ethics as implemented by, say, Western media. In that respect, local television news outlets are a product of their time, circumstance and stagnation. The first journalists to populate the then new medium were essentially print journalist, untrained in the complexities of reporting through the small screen at an era when TV journalism standards were still being developed by the industry. During the black pair of decades which mar our shared history, the mere act of exhibiting fairness and impartiality on the airwaves was deemed a fatal offense, traveling across town to cover a story was a deadly lottery which took many lives, and funding was painfully scarce, only found through dubious means. Nonetheless, this generation of journalists performed admirably, producing a steady stream of vital and eagerly consumed news information which was never interrupted no matter how dire the circumstances were. Their combined effort resulted in the compilation of a precious record of war time events, which will one day come in handy in the act of writing our modern national history (as soon as competing forces in the ruling class are forced to abandon their efforts to change history for political gain). As such, these veteran journalists deserve our unreserved respect. Certainly, they have recently become the most recognizable components of a thoroughly corrupt and biased mainstream media machine which simultaneously increases its efforts to cater to power and orchestrates the devolution of news into a substance-deficient reality show, but it is neither them who have decided on this direction for the industry, nor them who have encouraged this transformation by consuming this ever-worsening product; it is us, all of us.
Fast forward to many years later: Today, faced with the prospect of losing more viewers, television news has become eager to compete on an equal footing with entertainment content. As a result of history and competition, an outdated mindset is applied when it comes to reporting on serious tragedies. Every time a massacre occurs we are revolted by the extent to which the TV coverage has increased its efforts to sensationalize. From close-up shots of the bloodied and the mangled, to the live reveal of deaths to the next of kin, the media exhibits a wanton disregard for decency and the value of life, systematically dismantling the ethics which had once been the foundation of the fourth estate.
It is not a mere morbid fascination or a personal viciousness that drives the members of the media to behave this way. It is a systemic race for the ratings, which drives management to pressure journalists into regarding any form of human misery as a sellable commodity, even if it conflicts with their personal morality. No individual media organization can afford to go against this trend and stay in business, it is consumer demand that determines the direction of the industry. No member of society escapes culpability for this phenomenon. We get the media we pay attention to; the media we consume.
The current model of online media -both official and non-official- that has found the greatest success is based on tapping into the basic emotions of the audience: fear, hate, etc, but most of all outrage. This model capitalizes on short-lived waves of emotion (outrage and indignation) and regards its consumers as an unreasoned reactionary mob eager to revolt momentarily before abandoning the issue for another.
A simple search can demonstrate how many official news websites are now resorting to outrage as a means to compete. Similarly, this working formula can also be found in non-official, independent media such as blogs and other forms of online journals.
Take the 16 most popular blog posts of 2016 as an example. At least half of the most popular blog posts of the former year were popularized by the public’s appetite for righteous outrage.
But this is a dangerous trend. Why? Because, the people who contribute to the rise of such social media voices waste the energy generated by their disapproval and indignation on Facebook shares rather than channeling it towards progress. As Adam Curtis explains in his 2016 BBC documentary Hypernormalization, social media quells popular anger and renders a malcontent population inert. As such, social media militants are unwillingly the greatest ally of the status-quo and the ruling class, because they allow the angry in society to voice their disapproval in thoroughly innocuous ways. Citizens cannot reach their ruling class through social media alone. Change demands commitment, longevity, rationalism and civility.
Revolt has become a product
Revolt has been reduced to a consumer product, produced by attention seekers and purchased with likes and shares. You buy it, you consume it, you feel good, you forget, you move on and nothing changes. While Facebook may give the impression that what we say is being widely broadcast and heard by thousands, the fact is that it happens within an echo-chamber. In other words, you only speak to an audience of the like-minded and are rarely confronted with facts and opinions that disagree with your worldview. In the rare occasion when the walls of the echo-chamber are breached, cultures clash and erupt in vast disorganized and extremely uncivil arguments that usually result in each community eventually retreating with its own, back into the security of ideological isolationism. The consensus, which one usually perceives on social media, is comforting but almost non-existent. In that sense, Facebook and other social media, has robbed a generation of the means with which to disapprove effectively.
Consequences on the fourth estate
Standard news sources have declined in popularity, partly because of the failings of mainstream outlets, but also because custom-made news tailored for the tendencies of the consumer is too appealing to a capricious audience that wants to be right more than they want to know what’s right.
In an attempt to compete, traditional journalism is undergoing a rapid alteration to adopt a business model fundamentally based on sensationalism and click-bait. This deterioration of the fourth estate results in the greatest shift in power from the people –who are becoming less and less informed- to the ruling class. The only effective means of protest against it is the boycott of unethical, illegitimate media and the support of proper journalism. Aside from that, journalism needs a new business model.
Journalism needs a new business model
As in every industry, enterprises driven either by private interests or by financial motive can never be expected to regulate themselves (a paint company will not resist the temptation of including lethal chemicals in its product if the result is even a minor increase in their profit margin). It is always a government’s duty to ensure that the consumers’ interests are protected against the unrestricted greed of an amoral, inhuman entity such as a corporation. In the same way, meaningful media reform can only come from the government. Admittedly this is hard to achieve, because the competing interests in the government are the greatest beneficiaries of a sick fourth estate. How else could they retain the ability to conceal their corruption and inadequacy from public view?
To change this a new financial model for news media companies, coupled with a set of strict regulations, must be enacted.
An entity that is charged with producing news -essentially informing the public of what must be known- must not be a money making enterprise in itself. To achieve this, every news organization must be a subsidiary of a larger media corporation, which provides its steady source of funding regardless of performance and viewership. Journalists within the newsroom must be given the freedom to pursue the stories which they themselves deem important, even and especially if that means loosing viewers and popularity. Each media company that wishes to broadcast through any medium (whether it be state or privately owned), must provide the public with a non-profit news service. The budget of the news service they provide, will be deduced from the tax load which they have to bare, thereby shifting the burden of funding journalists on the tax payer who is, after all, the sole beneficiary of a healthy fourth estate. If WE pay them, then they will start working for US.
An independent body must ensure that journalists are never influenced by any conflict of interest, that they are wholly unrelated to the stories they cover, that private interests (especially their corporate superiors) never exercise any influence over them under penalty of law. Said independent body must also be charged with promoting media literacy and regular training, presenting a code of ethics, encouraging and protecting whistle blowers from within newsrooms in order to make sure that corruption and conflicts of interest never occur. This independent body must be primarily investigative in nature. Its findings must regularly be published for the world do scrutinize. Furthermore, there should be a clear label on every media product being broadcast in every avenue, which clearly defines it either as news or as non-news. News would be subject to strict ethical and factual regulations, while non-news need only adhere to one law: never cloak yourself in the aura of news legitimacy.
Blogging deeply rooted in the culture of rapid opinion dissemination and emotional agitation, is gravely ill-suited to take up the mantle that most of the mainstream media is now abandoning for the sake of profit. The news consumer cannot merely applaud the ill-researched, fame-hungry voices that scream inaccuracies online as a means of protesting the decline of legitimate media. Instead, a rational approach is needed in order to cultivate better journalism, media literacy, and conscious consumerism of news.
Our newsrooms are sick. To relish in their downfall is not akin to throwing a brick through the window of the establishment. If the current trend of media –both traditional and new- continues in the same direction, then an Orwellian future becomes less in the realm of fantasy and more prophetic. The fourth estate is the only safeguard against tyranny and tyranny doesn’t always wear military fatigues and march in step.
Camille-Jean Helou contributed to this blog post.