Soft News On Hard Facts

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How the credibility of news outlets erodes is showcased by the manner in which the Ukraine war is being covered by some of leading international news media. For more than 23 months since Russian troops entered neighbour Ukraine, many media organisations, originating in major Western capitals and cities, gave a slant that the invading forces fought with World War II weapons and suffered regular troop desertions amid heavy casualties.

It now appears clearer that the severe setbacks Ukrainian military recorded were kept deliberately low. Hundreds of thousands of their men and women in uniform were killed. The mainstream news media originating in the countries supporting Volodymyr Zelenskyy simply did not discuss Ukraine’s losses at length. Yours humbly had from the beginning said in this column that, a prolonged war or not, Moscow could not afford to lose it. For a defeat at a crucial juncture of contemporary history would pose grave risk to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia’s regained superpower status. 

Certain to obtain one more tenure in office in the elections next March, Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys a high public approval rating even after 24 years in power. The former head of the country’s top intelligence agency, who served as vice-president served out the remaining one year in the presidential chair after Boris Yeltsin stepped down a year before his second term was to end. 

Regressive reticence

Putin’s foreign detractors had for years been very reticent in acknowledging at length the rapid economic strides and technological advances that Communist China had been making. Respect for information providers steadily falls when double standards get exposed. For the role that the media, as an effective unit of civic society, becomes a persistent suspect and hence a crippled public platform. 

In a leader last fortnight, “The media is the message”, The Economist viewed that the discovery and dissemination of information mattered a lot to politics. It quoted James Maddison, often hailed as the Father of the United States’ Constitution: “A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will always govern ignorance.” The magazine warned that political camps existing in separate information universes “tend to demonise each other”.

Crises spawn half-truths and outright lies, depending upon an actor’s desperation and penchant for shedding qualms for the sake of narrow expediency that offers an immediate respite whatever the long-term blow to the perpetrator’s image and damage to moral integrity. In context comes the concern expressed by The Guardian, a British news outlet, which described the mass slaughter of journalists in the course of the “many atrocities”. It quoted the Committee to Protect Journalists that reported on “the deadliest conflict for media workers”. About 70 journalists, including several foreign, suffered violent deaths and 100 others were injured in three months.

Prior to the latest war, Israeli military had killed 20 journalists in 22 years. No one was charged or held accountable for the deaths. In addition, more than 100 United Nations aid workers were already killed in the conflict, recorded as the highest toll in a single conflict in the UN’s entire history. And Israel is the single-largest recipient of the US aid since almost its inception as an independent state more the 75 years ago.

A telling story questioning the existing mode of media functioning relates to the extremely small trickles of information flow out of war-ravaged Ukraine since February 2022. A new interpretation of newsroom practice offers a disturbing attitude. It bids a good bye to view-free journalism that has “lost” relevance. Selective criticism is cowardice that dares to pick on soft target and cringes at the sight of the powerful, however corrupt and of degraded in character. Younger journalists question whether objectivity is desirable at all in the digital world. Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning journalist at American CBS News, dismissed “view-from-nowhere”, “objectivity”-obsessed both-sides-ism journalism as a failed experiment. 

Former British Home Secretary David Blunkett later confirmed having advised Prime Minister Tony Blair in March 2003 to bomb the Al Jazeera television transmitter in Baghdad. He had no worry about it, as it was a war. “In a war, you wouldn't allow the broadcast to continue taking place.” In April 2003, a US missile hit an electricity generator at Al Jazeera's office in the Iraqi capital and killed a reporter while wounding another staff member. The broadcaster’s offices had previously been hit by US missiles in Kabul during the invasion of Afghanistan.

Disturbing outlook

Racism and other forms of discrimination are issues afflicting news organisations. In July 2020, American journalists protested on the streets against their employers. Some journalists at The New York Times described a senator’s call for a show of military force to check the protesting journalists as “black nytimes staff in danger”. While more than 150 Wall Street Journal employees claimed that they “find the way we cover race to be problematic”, no less than 500 employees at The Washington Post supported demands for fighting against “racism and discrimination” at their paper. 

Surveys conducted by American agencies persistently indicate that less than half of American and European audiences trust what their media report. An example of an unwelcome normal can be gleaned from a recent prattle by the Associated Press news agency. Remarking on Putin’s reelection decision, it wrote: “But 71 is an age when death or serious illness are hardly distant concerns for the man who has ruled Russia for 24 years.” 

Facts are facts: in the US, hopefuls for the November elections, Joe Biden, 81, and Donald Trump, 77, make Putin a youthful man of 71 whose popularity ratings average 70 per cent compared with the American duo’s barely 40 per cent even if in power for not more than four years each. If unchecked, the new normal would eat into the news receiving habits of audiences across the mass media landscape while the lofty qualities of the Fourth Estate would be lauded in theory but flouted in practice—a tragic condition for both the public and the media.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)

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