Blaming the media

Here is a copy of my “Media Uncovered” column for the September issue of Bold Magazine.

I’m late to post this, but the issues are still relevant today:

LEBANON NEEDS MORE COVERAGE NOT LESS

BOLD// September 2012


By Habib Battah

With the Lebanese government under intense pressure this month after having failed to prevent a spate of kidnappings, road closures and street fighting in Tripoli, it may come as no surprise that the state been looking for someone to blame. Thus following this month’s unsettling events both the Information Minister and the head of Lebanon’s ominously titled National Audiovisual Media Council (NAVMC) were deployed to do what they do what Lebanese politicians do best: marshall the cameras in an effort to shape the news cycle with some fiery soundbites. The two officials berated the press for airing the conflicting claims of kidnappers and giving voice to the angry men burning tires on the street and their ‘sectarian’ rants. They claimed Lebanese broadcasters were pushing the country toward civil strife and had become “a media of chaos” and should apologize to the public.

Interestingly, the move backfired when TV stations turned the tables in their evening editorials, blaming the government for its inability to steal the spotlight from the armed groups making the news. Some channels cleverly juxtaposed the mandatory interviews with officials with those of station executives that refuted their claims. In a live broadcast of its show “Corruption” Al Jadeed TV devoted a whole hour to dissecting the government’s accusations against the press. The show host went so far as issuing a veiled threat to the state by calling into question the legality of the NAVMC and asking rhetorically if officials were asking her to open an investigation into the salaries of the body’s appointees.

Of course it’s refreshing to see the government’s ability to control news so embarrassingly diminished. But if the media suspects and insinuates foul play, it should already be investigating those claims. It cannot negotiate the depth of its coverage–or worse still use it as blackmail– and then claim to be a watchdog in the public’s interest.

In fact, if the government really wanted to criticize the media (though it should have other priorities) it could begin by complaining that journalists need to spend more, not less time highlighting the state’s failures. This should not be about merely shaming officials, but actually making efforts toward understanding the mechanics of the challenges the state is facing and the reasons why it has failed to meet them in the first place. If the press is to act in the public service, it needs to lay bare the governments problems so that citizens can help shoulder them or at least be inspired to think of ways that they can contribute toward resolutions.

The recent turmoil in Lebanon reminds us that there are just so many media investigations still waiting to happen. For example, when masked gunmen representing powerful clans parade hostages out in the open, what is the role of the state? What are its options? Is it equipped to deal with clan violence and how has it dealt with it in the past? What is the role of clan leaders? Who do they represent? How wide are clan followings? What role do clan leaders and followers see the state playing?

Lebanese TV channels should be spending hours on these topics, creating in-depth specials and traveling the land talking to researchers, experts, historians, clan members and officials that deal with them. Yet we see so little of this on our screens. Instead, the press too often abandons its story-telling role– its obligation to inform the citizenry– by letting the players air their own competing narratives unchecked. Everyday, TV channels broadcast a cacophony of live press conferences with viewers not knowing what to make of the conflicting statements they hear.

Recently, after a week of silence, some Lebanese programs finally began to ask questions about the series of kidnappings. A promo on Future Television showed footage of the masked gunmen and promised answers to some of the nation’s questions. But when show went to air, it was nothing more than a one-on-one interview with a prominent cleric opposed to Hezbollah. Again, instead of taking the time and effort to research and report on events, the broadcaster relinquished this role to a single talking head who clearly had an axe to grind.

Of course Future is not alone. When trouble erupts, Lebanese TV stations far and wide reach for the media stars of the country’s feuding political factions. They are given a megaphone to broadcast their self-serving spin on the complexities, consuming air time that could have been used for homegrown analysis and investigation. But again, viewers are left guessing about the cacophony of voices and the veracity of their opinions.

In the case of recent tribal violence, an oft-heard explanation from political pundits was that these groups were Hezbollah loyalists owing, pundits said, to the fact that most were Shiite by religion. But with a little bit of surface investigating, a reporter at local news channel MTV quickly revealed that many of Lebanon’s tribes were in fact Christian. The reporter was on the cusp of illustrating that clan power dynamics can supercede religious or political affiliations. But alas, the video package only lasted a few minutes. Why didn’t the channel give its reporter a half-hour slot to continue examining this most pressing of national issues? God knows, with the entire country thirsting for answers, the ratings could have been huge.

Questions about coverage also need to be asked about the footage of tire burners who block roads and the heavily armed warring militias in Tripoli. Too often these events are documented in five minute video packages that feature unintelligible screaming sound bites taped in the heat of action. What viewers need is more follow up reporting in calmer circumstances. They need to learn more about the players–both the field commanders and ring leaders who organize the action and the average citizens and volunteers that participate in its implementation. Each individual has a unique story and unique motivations springing from unique circumstances. It is up to the media to carry these voices and help contextualize them.

Yes the Lebanese state is burdened with a vast array of intricate and sometimes mind-boggling challenges. But its citizens must face these head on–they need not be shielded by tepid reporting or simplistic and polarizing political spin. Avoiding the difficult questions only bottles their explosive nature. This pushes us further away from the possibility of empathy, reconciliation and creative resolutions and deeper into the divisive and self-destructive denial that has become a hallmark of Lebanon’s political culture.

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