Thursday, May 14, 2009

A dead rat who can read

Been watching Arab news TV channels including from Hizbollah and other Islamic groups. One documentary on Israel aggression showed the real situation on the ground.

All our mainstream media, Utusan, Media Prima, The Star, Astro are owned by United Malay National Organisation regime or its allies. We have some good talents but they are under so many restrictions. If we have mainstream media owned by the non-United Malay National Organisation regime and its allies, we may have more balanced reporting and healthy discourses.

However, with the Internet, the government cannot own the whole space...

Speaking to the assembled journalists, Hersh reminded them that no one likes a good reporter, since by definition the good investigative reporters will always be working to embarrass someone. As Hersh graphically put it, "We are like the dead rat that someone brings to the party. No one wants to talk to you". He went on to make clear that no reporter can do his or her job properly unless he or she really understands the subject. His best advice to any reporter was to "read, read, read".

Illustration: Nino Jose Heredia/Gulf News


The printed word still dominates when it comes to news in the Middle East. This week's very busy eighth Arab Media Forum in Dubai made very clear that there are hundreds of committed journalists in the Arab world who want to tell the deeper story of what is really going on in the Middle East, with a passion that is not often obvious from the pages or airwaves.

But with a few outstanding exceptions, many of the region's TV stations and radio channels have failed to invest in recruiting journalists, so these stations are stuck without the ability to develop their own news agenda. They can follow other people's diary events, they can record the daily round of affairs from the government, but their programming cannot reflect what their readers and viewers want to know about.

If a media organisation has a body of reporters, photographers and graphic artists, they have to decide each day what they are going to cover, and they will have the necessary round of daily meetings at which the senior editor will organise the day's news, and give assignments to reporters and others to go and find the stories that the organisation wants. This means that media with reporters can choose to decide to cover what they want: it may be the high cost of housing, or the growing threat of fake car break pads, or whatever else they think people will want to read or hear about, as well as the important diary events.

Of the region's TV stations, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, in particular, have a very high standing in the Arab world because they have their own reporters and cameramen. So, for example, when Israel invaded Gaza, they were able to send people to go and cover the event, and produced original content that told the story they wanted to tell.

Too many TV stations, radio channels and websites have not invested in their own reporting staff. Through this failure to invest, far too many media organisations condemn themselves to be mere aggregators, stealing other media organisations' work and rebranding it as their own, or even worse, simply relying on press releases and calling the output a 'news' digest.

The case for essential, healthy reporting was made during the Forum by one of the world's best investigative reporters, Seymour Hersh, who was the reporter who in 1969 first broke the story of the My Lai Massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1968 by US troops. At the time, many people could not believe that US troops were capable of such a war crime, and the telling of this story shifted public attitudes to become far more cynical of government claims. Since then, Hersh has built a formidable reputation for bringing detailed and frightening stories of abuse of power to the attention of the public, including ones detailing how US troops were abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and how the Bush-Cheney administration gave itself the illegal powers to order US special forces to go and kill people they wanted dead.

Speaking to the assembled journalists, Hersh reminded them that no one likes a good reporter, since by definition the good investigative reporters will always be working to embarrass someone. As Hersh graphically put it, "We are like the dead rat that someone brings to the party. No one wants to talk to you". He went on to make clear that no reporter can do his or her job properly unless he or she really understands the subject. His best advice to any reporter was to "read, read, read".

Going back to the My Lai story, Hersh made clear how important the reporter's duty is to his or her readers. He spoke of how he found the home of the soldier who eventually confirmed the story on the record. It was in a poor, white farming area, where uneducated and narrow-minded people had worked hard to subsist, and were beaten down by circumstances. He described the soldier's mother, a woman who looked much older than her age, who said of the US military, "I sent them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer". As Hersh said, such truth coming from such an unexpected source, made it clear how important it was to tell the story.

Hersh's insistence on the importance of the story, the argument between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya on their different styles of covering the Gaza War (both channels sent staff to bring back the story), and the talks given by many other speakers over the two days, come together in one resounding conclusion: media without original content are not going to gain respect, and therefore deserve to fail.

No comments: