Saturday, 31 October 2009

Switching channels

Most Russians don't get their news from newspapers, as polls regularly tell us, so the majority of the country's info-consumers probably missed Kommersant's recent warning that they'd soon be getting less-varied daily dispatches from their medium of choice - television. The respected business daily reported on Oct. 16 that a top-down reorganization of Moscow-based REN TV and Petersburg - Channel 5 (the last two nationally-available privately-owned channels producing their own news broadcasts) meant the stations would be abandoning news gathering next year, allegedly as an economy move, and instead airing news segments produced by RT, the state-funded 24-hour news channel.
If this apparent final centralisation of Russian TV news operations didn't sound ominous enough in itself, the Orwellian euphemism used to describe it by one interested party ("an optimisation of the management structure") and the self-appointment of another as the project's "chief ideologist" surely coloured in the numbered spaces for even casual observers. In a word: yikes.
Granted, in the days following the Kommersant report two prominent REN TV representatives maintained that the reorganisation would not affect news programming. Still and all, it's hard not to see this progression as handwriting on the wall - and not least because it will put the two stations literally within the same walls and under the same roof that RT already enjoys, at the RIA Novosti agency's headquarters on Zubovsky Bulvar.
It makes sense to be concerned about any diminution, actual or potential, of Russia's ever-uncertain prospects for a civil society. But it also makes sense to keep three points in perspective as the REN TV/Channel 5 scenario actually plays out. Americans in particular would be wise to wait for the reorganisational smoke to clear before making judgments, as recent excesses in US news broadcasting have done much to render American television reporting more vulnerable to criticism - and less attractive as a paradigm - than ever before.
First, would the Russian consolidation really represent, as one local observer immediately characterised it, "a return to one of the worst aspects of the Soviet past, in which most people will have access to only one version of news"?
In fact, this "final centralisation" would actually be less final and less centralised than it might appear. Even with TV news sourced solely by state outlets, any Muscovite who doesn't like it can easily turn on various electronic options, including the round-the-clock, Russian-language Euronews TV channel (my own choice for viewing over breakfast) and the editorially independent Ekho Moskvy radio station (where my kitchen radio's dial is set). If those aren't enough, the world's news in the world's own terms is no further from most Russians than a laptop or their local Internet cafe. How many international TV stations are available now through any high-speed cable hook-up - a thousand? Two?
Second, Russian state TV is not - and can't become - Soviet state TV. The latter was a genuine monolith that largely deserved the 1950s joke about its "diversity": Channel 1 was all propaganda, while Channel 2 showed a man telling viewers to turn back to Channel 1. Today's state channels can occasionally diverge in their reporting, as Channel 1 and NTV did last week over Gazprom's controversial Okhta tower in St. Petersburg. Various talk shows and documentaries, moreover, can be quite frank and utterly un-Soviet in their criticism of state institutions and government authorities - and these are not solely the province of the intelligentsia-oriented Kultura channel.
Thirdly, the proximate monopolist alleged in the REN TV/Channel 5 case, RT, is itself a diverse and self-critical institution. (Full disclosure: RT and The Moscow News share a sibling relationship within the RIA Novosti/TV Novosti family. Fuller disclosure: I once appeared as a paid talking head on an RT news analysis programme. Fullest disclosure: I stunk.) Stinking aside, any state channel that would put me on the air live, given what I've written about state TV here over the years, is either commendably diverse and self-critical already or willing to get egg on its face trying.
OK, now let's get cross-cultural for a moment. A reduction in reporting perspectives is an unfortunate development anywhere, of course - or is it? If you've recently returned from (another) visa exile to the United States, as I have, it's hard not to make some comparisons that are fairly unflattering to the post-Cronkite generation of your historic homeland's TV news.
Last week a Pulitzer Prize for Shoddy Reporting should have gone to the myriad national TV broadcasters who fell for and perpetuated two utterly bogus "stories" - of a boy supposedly trapped alone in a balloon somewhere over Colorado (when he was in fact hiding out in the family home on orders from his publicity-hound parents); and of a US Chamber of Commerce announcement that the organisation had suddenly reconsidered its longstanding opposition to measures against global warning - when it had done no such thing. In both cases, the need to get on the air first, or at least fast, with something "truthy", to borrow news satirist Stephen Colbert's wonderful coinage, trumped any impulse the TV reporters and producers might have felt to take a longer look at these suspicious-sounding non-events before promoting them into air-worthy news items.
OK, hoaxes happen everywhere, maybe this was just a bad week. That doesn't account for the giant hoax known as Fox News, a rabidly partisan political concern that has been masquerading as a network news organisation for some years now. If any doubt as to Fox's real status persisted as late as 2008, right-wing crowds at last year's presidential campaign rallies dispelled it with frenzied rhythmic chanting - "Fox News! Fox News! Fox News!" - quite as though the network itself were running for something.
And maybe it is. How else would you decode the work of "commentator" and Republican functionary Sean Hannity, who uses his Fox News slot to organise, publicise and then "analyse" anti-administration rallies? Or the excesses of Fox-friendly Rush Limbaugh, who spent much energy last week airing citations from what he mistakenly took as Barack Obama's "college thesis" - and then "explaining" that his use of hoax-quotes didn't matter, since they certainly reflected what Obama had been thinking [!]. You want to talk Orwellian? Fox's slogan is "Fair and balanced."
Yet even these whoppers are trumped by Foxman Glenn Beck, whose incendiary, screw-loose ranting - over President Obama's "deep-seated hatred for white people", for example, presumably including his own mother - alternately tests the limits of American credulity and US libel laws, all for the entertainment of a large, growing and angrily undiscriminating TV audience. If you can imagine the ultra-nationalist gadfly Vladimir Zhirinovsky suddenly getting perhaps twice the TV exposure of Channel 1's incorrigible crank-commentator Mikhail Leontyev, you can perhaps begin to sense what the phenomenon of Glenn Beck bodes for the future of American newscasting.
Yes, "scary" is the word you're looking for. This self-acknowledged media "rodeo clown," with a history of alcoholism, drug abuse and religious zealotry, makes Zhirinovsky seem articulate and Leontyev positively Socratic. Yikes again.
If there was any good news about the news in recent days, perhaps it was that two prominent US journalism professors produced a timely and possibly eye-opening essay in the Washington Post titled "Finding a new model for news reporting." The piece was condensed from a larger report that warned quite soberingly, if belatedly, that traditional journalism "is now at risk" and that "preserving independent, original, credible reporting, whether or not it is profitable" is of "paramount" importance for the country. And not just that one, of course.
TV news practices in both these societies need serious scrutiny - and soon, before a dearth of independence debilitates one and an unconstrained profusion of it further debases the other. Put otherwise, near-monopoly and near-anarchy should both be averted: if Channel One is a problem, Fox News is not the solution.

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