The most common criticism fired at the Lebanese press is that news outlets here generally serve as mouthpieces for the political bosses and feudal lords that own them. Yet beyond this most obvious bias lurks a deeper demon that haunts the everyday practice of journalism in Lebanon and throughout much of the region. In fact, politics is just one among many genres where a culture of pandering has consumed the production of media programming.
Take a show called “Andna bi Lebnan (We have it in Lebanon)” which purports to reveal all things “modern and distinctive” in Beirut, according to its website. Although it is aired by OTV, the channel that propagates all things orange–the color of former general Michel Aoun– the magazine show focuses on home furnishings and improvement; innocuous enough. The presenter, naturally dressed in a low-cut, rhinestone-encrusted evening dress, strolls through a showroom in high heels during a recent episode devoted to light switches. For viewers who have not fallen asleep or flipped stations at this point– braving both wardrobe catastrophe and zero suspense factor– the show actually sinks even lower into the integrity abyss. As the forever smiling hostess runs her polished red fingernails over a dizzying array of switch plate colors a la Vanna White, the camera persistently pans above her head to a lightbox sign emblazoned with the brand name of the Italian firm that makes the products.
Indeed, rather than filming in a neutral studio space, OTV has deemed it perfectly acceptable to shoot their entire program in a private company’s showroom, thus exploring the show’s purported topic only through the lens of a single manufacturer. If it wasn’t obvious enough, the presenter repeats the name of the brand in nearly every sentence: “Everyone uses it, engineers rely on it,” she says. “It’s made in Italy.” Meanwhile a text crawl runs along the bottom of the screen with the address and telephone number of the local distributor: “Simon Electric.” The text runs at least three times for good measure.
Like any good infomerical, “Andna bi Lebnan” proceeds to showcase Simon’s entire product line, even if it means straying from the show topic to include outdoor cable enclosures and heavy duty circuit breakers. Perhaps realizing the hodgepodge nature of this segment, editors decided to spice it up with a bit of Spanish guitar muzak. Surely station executives hoped Simon was happy, but were they even concerned if anyone was still watching their channel?
Of course OTV is just one of many Lebanese broadcasters that sees no problem parading advertorials as regular programing.
Earlier this year, local station Murr Television (MTV) tackled food safety on its weekly show “Investigation” following a surge in raids on meat distributors and restaurants peddling rotten goods. The report featured impressive undercover camera footage of unsanitary kitchens and the testing of suspect products by lab technicians. However the names of violating restaurants were withheld and viewers would soon realize that all of the experts interviewed were employed by the same sanitation company. Suddenly the “investigation” is paused as the program host begins singing the praises of said sanitation company, touting all the wonderful awards and certificates it has achieved. Meanwhile, an uncut in-house promotional video produced by the company airs on screen for several minutes.
Rather than investigate or even name the violating restaurants and hold government figures accountable for licensing, MTV merely urges its viewers to look for the sanitation company’s seal of approval wherever they shop. Again ad executives are probably thrilled with the coverage, but viewers, who have already had to endure commercial breaks, gain little from watching the actual program.
The pattern of substituting original content with that provided by advertisers reaches far beyond the medium of television. It dominates nearly all coverage of business across Lebanese newspapers and magazines. Rarely among them do we find hard-hitting reports on Lebanese corporations, let alone an honest review of a product or service. Any critical read of a local establishment that would be helpful to consumers is typically frowned upon and vetoed by a publication’s management. I once witnessed a heated yelling match in the newsroom when a local newspaper’s editor-in-chief publicly berated a cultural page editor after the later published a mixed review of a well-known (and overpriced) restaurant.
The culture of sycophancy and pandering hits hardest when it comes to news of the Lebanese economy, which is barely covered at all in the mainstream press. What passes as business news in Lebanon and much of the region often takes the form of a series of press conferences and press releases–news produced by and for companies, which isn’t really news at all. Yet at understaffed papers, editors are dying to fill pages and many journalists are happy to accept free lunches, gifts and a media kit with a time-saving, pre-written article, which allows them to get off work early.
Major press conferences in Beirut are often held at five-star hotels and typically followed by buffets with journalists and photographers jostling for a place in line. Newspaper and magazine advertising executives can even arrange free trips to exotic locations for reporters, paid by for major Arab, European and US corporations in exchange for favorable coverage.
Lebanese broadcasters and publications have gotten away with these deceptive behaviors for years largely because viewers had few other places to turn for their news and entertainment. Not only is the emergence of online outlets changing that, new self publishing platforms are also empowering consumers to publish their own reviews, including reviews of media itself.
“Viewers are not stupid,” an executive producer for the region’s biggest TV broadcaster recently told me. “But we still think they are.”