The Second Draft asked me to comment on a story they are developing about a report by CNN’s Ben Wedeman on recent events at Nablus in the West Bank. Yaacov Ben Moshe of The Breath of the Beast makes the case against Wedeman and CNN in two posts. The first entitled Nablus, Trashed or Staged? and the second, CNN Cannot be Trusted – Here’s Why.
As regular readers will know, I don’t trust Fox News or the BBC or any of the others either in that I believe that television itself can’t be trusted because it is, by nature, a form of drama. It roots go back to Greek theater and the oral tradition. Writing was invented – among other reasons- to ensure accurate record keeping – to freeze the slippery nature of truth in oral culture. (For example, clay tablets with lists of material to keep accounts accurate.) Using television as the primary vehicle for news has blurred the cultural and ethical lines between artistic and literal truth for past fifty years, because the visual portion of TV can be used to artificially construct – by framing and editing – what is perceived and experienced as actuality. Meanwhile, the verbal portion can carry on describing the visual element as if it were an neutral mirror of reality in the established style of reasonably objective journalism citing sources etc. But the visual portion is not often edited to get at literal truth – as in sports replays – but for emotional impact. Remember this is drama. Unlike print or radio journalism where the verbal portion has to carry the emotional message as well as the informational content, with TV the verbal portion can maintain emotional distance and more effectively pretend to neutrality. Radio and print propaganda that tries to convey dramatic emotion immediately gives itself away because it sounds bombastic. The internet is undermining TV’s credibility as a news source, as in the present example, because it gives anyone with an interest in the subject the opportunity to document and publish their objections. We are not just left impotently shouting at the TV – we can blog about it. Speaking of documentation, I can’t embed CNN’s video, but I can link to it here. Off you go. Its 2:42 long and this post wont make much sense without it.
The posts by Yaakov Ben Moshe deal in detail with the central issue that Wedeman breaches basic journalistic ethics so as not to offend Hamas and the Palestinians in order to retain access. CNN’s Eason Jordan admitted that CNN did much the same thing in Saddam’s Iraq to maintain access. However, I want to analyze this footage in a different way. I want to look at the broad emotional meaning of each scene in the context set by the reporter. In other words, I want to shift the primary focus to what your gut and heart are receiving while Wedeman is telling your brain what you are seeing and what to think about it. I would label the emotional content of each scene as follows. Your take may vary, but I doubt that you will find the sequence emotionally neutral.
23 secs – wrecked office shots – emotion=violation and outrage
11 secs middle aged man talking e= empathy with victim
13 secs Children on playground equipment e= childhood innocence
21 secs Israeli spokesperson with flag e= officialdom speaks - the accent is from central casting.
10 secs Woman in headscarf speaks e= empathy with offended innocence
20 secs Wedeman by exterior door e=neutral
5 secs middle aged man man with racks of clothes e=mild foreboding
5 secs of man talking e=financial fear
16 secs small boys dressed as Islamic fighters acting on stage e= horror or approval – dependent on allegiance
13 secs Israeli police arresting people ending with soldier with gun e= escalating anxiety to fear
6 secs cleaning up the wrecked office e=violation again
3 secs Israeli streets scenes with soldier and policeman e= ominous threat
I would summarize the overall emotional message of the story as: ‘Israel is a bully’. The intellectual crux of the story is reached, appropriately just before the end, when Fatah’s view that Israel may have over used its power is reported. Despite the patchwork of footage the story is emotionally and intellectually coherent at that moment.
For me the more general problem with this sequence of pictures, just like most sequences on TV news, is that they put the audience through an emotional process that fools the viewer into accepting a highly manipulated series of visuals as a real experience of the events depicted. We accept it as a real experience because it is a real experience – just not of the events depicted. Instead it is a real experience of TV. If I seem to be torturing the obvious let me give you an example of what I mean. In an amateur 9/11 video of the dust cloud from the collapse of one to the Twin Towers taken from inside a shop looking out the glass store front a woman screams in terror as the dust cloud roils by. She was having a real experience along with the others in the shop. We are sitting on our butts watching TV. Part of us knows we are in no danger – so we don’t scream. But part of us reacts and experiences and remembers it like it was real. This phenomena is part of all mediated experiences. For example, I think we all notice the shift in our consciousness that follows being lost in a book or coming out of a movie theater. With TV news stories like the one under discussion our critical faculties are routinely bypassed with emotional manipulation designed to create a distorted view of the subject at hand. Sometimes intentionally and consciously as I feel in the case of Wedeman’s story. But sometimes against the ideological bias of the news organization. I noticed in 2004 that in its reporting of the Iraq war, Fox News’s emotional message carried by pictures of bomb devastation and burning America military vehicles was much the same as CNN’s or the BBC’s. Part of the problem is the medium itself. Reporters and editors will go for the drama every time in large part because that’s where the ratings, and the money, are.
I’ll finish this post with a story my father used to tell of how insidious mediated experience can be because it sneaks by our intellectual immune system much like the aids virus. In the 1930s my parents were friends with a Jewish couple who had escaped Germany too late to bring out their money but early enough to have brought out some of it in the form of fine German linens. After dinner they would sometimes sit down by a short wave radio and listen to Hitler, their Jewish friends providing a running translation. They reported they still found themselves carried away by Hitler’s spellbinding oratory, even agreeing with him, despite knowing better.