“I Fear the Newspapers…” Anything to Fear in Today’s Media?

It is not uncommon to hear people remark after a phenomenal achievement, that a person did what Napoleon left undone. It is borne out of the greatness of this man who conquered Europe with military might. One would think that people like Napoleon would have nothing to be afraid of. This is not the case as he confessed that he feared “… the newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets”. Napoleon’s fears were legitimate given that Akbar Ahmed points out that the American media has been able to achieve world domination – a feat which the American political might could not. William Hearst also corroborates by stating that journalism could crush any man.

Not surprisingly, many people would be asking themselves the same question I have asked – what actually makes the media so powerful? Is it simply their ability to tell that story which everyone else would not tell, or is it the manner in which they tell the ordinary story. One anonymous author pointed out that “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed.  If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.” Could it then be that these great men feared the media not because it could tell a story but because of the power it had in misrepresenting the facts? Whatever the case, it is a truism that the media has power – whether for good or for evil.

It is however, my subjective view that whatever power the media had, has been on a steady decline and before long they will have just as much power to impact on society as reading “Strange Tales from the Arabian Nights” has.

This view is reminiscent of one made several hundred years ago by Thomas Jefferson that “ The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers” and Chesterton that “Journalism largely consists in saying “Lord Jones is dead” to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”  This has not been far from the perception I have had in the past few years since I developed the thirst for knowledge. I could not help having a feeling of disgust that the screaming headlines are always of the most negative things about society. The best place to begin a career in crime fiction would be a newspaper. Hence over time, I was not surprised as I gradually developed the attitude of always reading the newspaper from the rear – the sports section. This section happens to be the one that a person can go to and be sure to get positive stories of achievements of individuals and teams of people who earn a living by entertaining others while keeping fit and a section that will be most objective as the case maybe.

In the light of this, I am apt to question if the media as it is can hurt even a fly. The answer is an emphatic yes! It still has the power to hurt but this time not those in high places who should be afraid of  newspapers but rather it is the ordinary man whose everyday life is woe enough and so horrible that  it will make good headlines. After all, in most places, even where there is the chimera of press freedom, those with money can buy super injunctions to prevent stories being reported. This brings up a dilemma raised by the Houghton Line in 1965 that we are caught between deciding whether the world is growing worse or whether reporters are just not working harder.  While I cannot emphatically say that creativity and innovation is ebbing out of modern-day news reporting, I can say with every confidence that the world is not getting better.

The news around the world this Sunday the 10th of July 2011 was about The News of the World, a newspaper that carried above its editorial, the difficult-to-miss-words “world’s greatest newspaper, 1843-2011.” Whatever happened to that greatness that the New York Times on this day should have as it headlines “Emphatic Farewell for British Paper Caught Up in Hacking Scandal”; is an enigma that still beats my wildest imagination. Had the allegations about hacking the voicemail of celebrities and politicians in search of stories, been the only issues, I may have found it easier to understand – desperation can manifest in several forms. But when the scandal involves the fact that in 2002 the paper had listened to the voicemail of Milly Dowler, a missing schoolgirl who was later found murdered, and even deleted some of her messages to make way for more; with the list of their victims including Britain’s war dead and the families of those killed in the 2005 London transport bombings, my stomach churns with revulsion at the imagination of where the other news items I have read in the past years could have come from. I am not referring here only to The News of the World newspaper, I am thinking of the news the world gets from all newspapers and media sources.

The most dangerous and nerve wrecking thing about this whole saga is that it’s not a problem limited to the print media. Malcolm X had earlier warned that if we are not careful, the newspapers will have us hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing. When my mind goes down memory lane to the early years of the last decade, I recall with disdain how the top news media houses around the world made us believe that the only way to the security of the world was to attack the Taliban in Afghanistan and get Saddam out of Iraq.  I recall vividly as a student pointing out to my peers that this war was going to be a nightmare. If the media in the US and the UK had been objective enough – as we expect them to be –  and looked at the facts and presented them objectively, popular opinion would have prevailed on Bush and Blair to think twice before plunging the world into the security risk it now is. Ten years on and reporting of the issues are still from vantage perspectives.

If one were to think that the case of Iraq and the stories of Weapons of Mass destruction was one case in the past with lessons learnt, that person was in for a shocker. The reporting on the recent invasion of Libya has not been much different. It made me clearly agree with Robert Brault that “You don’t realize how little accuracy there is in network TV reporting until they cover a story in your hometown.” I realized from flirting across Aljazeera, CNN, BBC, RT, SkyNews, Vox Africa, that the same story was told so differently that if I had no idea of what was going on, I would never realize they were all reporting the same story. Each media house had a single story of the situation and each was a Gospel according to X. The only way the whole story could come out in its objective form could be like the case of the Bible when the different gospels are put together. This of course will be the work of historians, who will write volumes years later – and will they then tell the story as it happened? Even at that, in the final analysis, I am compelled to conclude that the situation of the world today is one that in reality, what we know about any one event is as much as journalists and historians make it appear.

The media today is therefore no more concerned about telling the exact story in a creative way but rather creativity has to do with their ability to distort the facts to suit a particular situation. There is therefore no need to fear the media – as long as you are not a rape victim, or a family member of yours is murdered, or you belong to a country that has something others want, and can only get, by using tax-payers money to wage war – because it is not concerned with what happened but about how people will react to what happened and how much money can be made from people’s reaction. What happened to the News of the World Newspaper has just been an opportunity for the world to have fresh news. The paper will come back by next week with another name and the cycle will continue.