Politicians and journalists from several countries met in Prague this week for a conference focusing on the relationship between politicians and the media. Participants in the conference, hosted by the Czech-based Ferdinand Peroutka Foundation, discussed current trends and argued whether there can ever be such a thing as "objective reporting."
Prague. 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, opined more than 200 years ago that if he had to choose between living in a country with newspapers and no government or a country with a government and no newspapers, he would choose the former. The press, Jefferson said, is the lifeblood of democracy.
Despite Jefferson's words, rare is the politician today who praises the media. And journalists usually return the compliment, working to expose the corruption and venality of many politicians.
Participants at this week's Prague conference on the media and politicians agreed that the Czech Republic was an apt place to host such a discussion, as 12 years after the fall of communism, the issue continues to appear at the forefront of public debate. While the country enjoys a varied and free press, Prime Minister Milos Zeman has publicly called journalists a "pack of idiots" and worse. In October, his cabinet pledged to sue a prominent Czech political weekly ("Respekt") for calling his government corrupt and he openly pined for the weekly's closure. One of Zeman's ministers recently sued another national newspaper for printing lewd caricatures of himself and other politicians -- and won.
Deputy Prime Minister Pavel Rychetsky gave an illustration of the current Czech government's attitude to the media in his speech to conference participants. Rychetsky said that contrary to what some might think, politicians did not have much power. Power, according to Rychetsky, rests in the hands of the media, which reflect the views of their owners and advertisers -- not those of the public and politicians.
Rychetsky said this situation necessitated the existence of publicly funded radio and television stations, so that what he termed "objective news" could be transmitted from the government to the people, in regulated form: "Politicians have almost no other way to communicate with the public, with voters, with citizens, than through the media. The media cannot be unregulated."
Rychetsky argued that since politicians in power were democratically elected by the majority of the population, their unadulterated views should dominate the coverage by public media.
Rychetsky's speech was met with disbelief and condemnation from all conference participants. Hans-Ulrich Jorges, editor in chief of the German weekly "Die Woche", said he had never heard a mainstream European politician express "such a brutal and Leninist vision." Jorges said Rychetsky's belief that the media should act as a mere conveyor belt, delivering so-called "objective news" directly from the mouths of politicians, showed the Czech Republic was still grappling with the basics of how the media should work in a democratic society.
Conservative British MP David Curry, who spent the first half of his career as a journalist, said the idea that there existed "objective news" or "objective reporting" was as false as the idea that there existed "objective history." All is subject to interpretation, Curry noted. He used the example of a politician making a speech with three key points: "It is a matter of perception for the journalist which of those three [points] matters. If a journalist then chooses to take one of those points and contrasts that with something said by one of my colleagues -- so that the journalist then says: 'Curry is in conflict with somebody else' -- that's not the interpretation I wanted, but it's a perfectly legitimate extrapolation."
Curry said the key to preserving democracy was to have diverse media expressing a multiplicity of views. Politicians striving for one set of neutral news stories were pursuing a false goal, he stressed: "Politicians must expect and indeed welcome that the media have an agenda. I don't want a lot of neutral newspapers. That would be extraordinarily boring and there would be very little choice. I want my newspapers to have a view and to have an attitude. And in my country, they do."
Curry said that in many respects, the media were self-regulating and tended to follow the public, not the other way around, as Rychetsky suggested: "The press reflects society and the press follows, by and large, its readership. I don't believe in the theory that the press stakes a heroic flag and the public flocks behind that standard. By and large, the public buys the papers which it agrees with and the press is quite intuitive in knowing what its readership is feeling."
As a case in point, Curry said cited the current U.S.-led campaign against targets in Afghanistan. He said that two major British dailies which have taken a more skeptical attitude toward the campaign, "The Guardian" and "The Independent," have seen a recent increase in readers as people of various political persuasions seek alternative interpretations of events.
Most participants agreed that a far greater problem than unregulated criticism of politicians from the media is when journalists get too cozy with politicians. The often symbiotic relationship both sides enjoy can influence how the news is presented. In Western Europe and North America, politicians constantly attempt to manipulate how journalists cover the news. And sometimes, in return for continued access to information and other rewards, journalists agree to that manipulation.
In this respect, Quebec journalist Christian Rioux contrasted what he termed the aggressive "no holds barred" approach of North American and British journalism with the more deferential approach of European and especially French journalists. He noted that it was mostly the foreign press that had broken details of the corruption allegations involving French President Jacques Chirac and his entourage. And he said French journalists' fear of upsetting some "sacred cows" was having a corrosive effect on society, breeding discontent and cynicism: "How do you reproach disadvantaged youth for setting cars on fire or disrupting a football match while political leaders still have the right not to answer questions from the press about their use of public funds? Europe, and especially France, in my opinion, is living through a serious crisis of authority. It is a crisis in which relations between journalists and politicians play a major role."
In David Curry's words, "Deferential journalism is a recipe for a corrupt and inefficient state."
But as Professor Leonard Steinhorn of Washington's American University noted, even in the United States -- with its broad interpretation of free speech guaranteed by the constitution and aggressive style of journalism -- all is far from well with the media. Steinhorn said the business conglomerates that control the bulk of newspapers and television stations in the United States are demanding ever-increasing profitability from their investment. This means newspapers and television stations must increase advertising revenues, which they do by striving to obtain an ever-larger readership or audience share. That large audience share is obtained by blending news and entertainment into an attractive package, which has come to be dubbed "infotainment." To make it onto a newspaper's front page or a station's evening broadcast, news must be dramatic, full of images and sensation, and short on analysis.
In the competition for dramatic images, of course, television beats the printed media hands down, meaning most people now get their news solely from television. Steinhorn: "If you look at the typical half-hour news broadcast in the United States -- Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings -- and if you counted out the total number of words in that broadcast, you know how many pages of a newspaper that would be? Half a page of a newspaper. That's it. Half a page of a newspaper is the functional equivalent of the words that people are getting their information from in the United States. So how are we getting our information? We're getting our information through images."
While a picture speaks a thousand words it is also subject to easy manipulation. Steinhorn cited the case of famed CBS television news reporter Leslie Stahl, who in the 1980s prepared a report contrasting then-President Ronald Reagan's series of appearances at old people's homes and sports events for the disabled with his administration's funding cuts to the elderly and handicapped. Stahl intended her report to be a commentary on the hypocrisy of Reagan's policies. But as soon as the broadcast was aired, she received a congratulatory telephone call from the White House.
Surprised, she asked why the administration was in such a good mood. A presidential adviser told Stahl that thanks to her report, CBS had once again broadcast images of a smiling President Reagan visiting the old and the handicapped. Never mind the words, who could hope for better free advertising? Focus polls confirmed that most people who had seen the program came away with a positive impression of the president.
As conference participants noted, democracy rests on having a broad range of media presenting a multiplicity of opinions and interpretations, which educated individuals can then interpret through their own particular prism.
But awareness and education are key to making those choices and not allowing oneself to be manipulated. By the age of 15, however, a typical American teenager will have spent only 11,000 hours in school as opposed to 18,000 hours watching entertainment and infotainment on television.
If that trend continues and spreads globally, then it may pose the greatest threat to democracy -- greater than attempts by politicians in some countries to crudely interfere with the media.