Do we have the media we deserve?

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The ‘media’ is always telling us not to trust the media. Isn’t it time we started to listen to them? By James Porteous

14 May 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

by James Porteous

In theory, North East West South (news) just happens. 

Much like the myth that the word ‘news’ was derived from the four cardinal directions. (In truth, it can be traced to 14th century Middle English, and was plural for the adjective ‘new’ or ‘new thing.)

The essence of news, however, has always remained the same, whether it happens next door or anywhere in the world. 

Local news is often the main reason people read a newspaper or watch a television news broadcast. 

The stories might appear simple, but they are usually more important to the people of a community than what is happening in places most of us could not find on a map.

Let us say that a river in a small town overflows its banks following an unusually heavy downpour. The editors at the newspaper or the TV news program would assess the situation and send someone to the scene to report on the damage.

If the editor knows that this is not an isolated event, and remembers that this one section of the town is prone to such disasters, this may, or may not, change the way the story is handled. 

Why has the river breached its banks five times in as many years? What has been done to stop it from happening again and again? And if nothing has been done, why not?

How the editor decides which of those questions he or she wishes to answer will become his ‘main’ focus, even if these issues may by now have little to do with the actual flooding. 

He might ask, has construction taken place in the past to stop the flooding? If not, why not. How much money has been spent on such repairs? And which company was contracted to do the work? Are they reputable? Or is the owner ‘well-placed?’

These and other such questions will determine the ‘slot’ for the story in the daily news cycle. Headline, or bottom of the feeder? 

There is no way for an outsider to predict with any reasonable consistency how it might play out.

For quite some time, any discussion or thought about the ‘essence’ of a ‘newsworthy story’ tended to begin and end with such local stories.

National and International News

The waters become mirky once we move beyond the sphere of ‘local’ news.

‘Out there,’ the playing field often has even less to do with the ‘news’ itself and is more about optics, posturing, and propaganda.

We can at this point simplify the narrative by breaking these stories generally into two possible news narratives: 

1. There is only one side to every story

2. There are two sides to every story

There is only one side to every story

This first option has been the most common for some time. 

An airplane crashes into the sea and after a full investigation, it is determined that a crack in the wing caused the accident. 

The news spreads throughout the world and the followups eventually reveal that the manufacturer has been forced to make improvements and the countries who have purchased the plane are also made aware of the dangers. 

You might have noticed that recently, ‘one side to every story’ has taken on a troubling, almost sinister element of late.  

Take the West’s coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic as an example. Our intention here is not to debate the validity of covid, but to look at how governments, and news organizations, dealt with the ‘news story.’

You may recall that almost at once, as if by foreshadowing, the Covid-19 ‘news story’ hit the front pages and the 24/7 TV news cycle, where it would remain until late February 2022.

The narrative, again mainly in the west, was universal: deadly disease, lockdowns, daily updates, fear, masks, travel bans, running death numbers, almost mandatory vaccinations, the closing of schools and businesses…

On so many levels, it was a shitshow nightmare. It consumed… everything. Every thought, every deed, every newspaper headline, and TV program.

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And it was also mandated that this was to be considered a ‘one-side news story.’

Indeed, early on, or almost immediately, it was announced that no deviation from the ‘one-side news story’ would be accepted and, in many instances, deviation from this rule would actually be deemed to be illegal. 

Out of the corner of our eyes, we may have noticed fines being imposed for ‘flouting’ lockdowns, city streets filled with no one but police, lost jobs and livelihood, banning from so-called ‘social media, and a rabid, global school-yard retaliation against anyone who -depending on your ‘side’ in the ‘issue – believed or disbelieved the stories about the severity of the disease. 

Most of us persevered, buoyed in part by our faith in ‘our side,’ but also with the understanding that at some point the ‘one-side’ story would end and we would get on with our lives. 

And that almost happened. Well, at the time it looked like it almost happened. 

But what really happened was that this ‘one side to every story’ was replaced with another ‘one side to every story:’ The War in Ukraine. 

Almost overnight Covid ‘fell off’ the front pages and newscasts, only to be relegated to the back pages and the graveyard of worldwide newscasts.

There was now only one story that qualified as the ‘main story:’ The War in Ukraine.

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And again, as with the Covid story, at least in the beginning, and looking at it only from a news perspective, the hysteria appeared to be justified. Not the invasion or the carnage, but the global implications of the invasion. 

After all, we had not seen any universal ‘news’ lockdowns over the wars in Iraq or Syria. 

We did not witness the daily death tolls of innocent people or donate to charity drives or stand united. 

So those stories -and we could include the nightmare that remains in Afghanistan, and now Ukraine- have been presented as ‘one side to every story’ narratives. 

We know deep down that this is not the case. Anyone with a computer can quickly discover the.. nuances of The Ukraine War story. 

And indeed, I could certainly itemize dozens of those horrifying suppositions, here and now, but I know, as well as you do, dear readers, that the ‘only one side to every story’ rules, much like the rules imposed for Covid, prevent the actual public discussion of anything that might be perceived as being against the quasi-legal rules of ‘only one side to every story.’

So, instead, let us move on to the second and final news specimen.

There are two sides to every story

This rule is actually a time-honored news tradition. It is devious, dangerous, sinister, and often also almost invisible to the naked eye. 

The ‘two sides to every story’ relies on semantics. So an ‘official response’ will justify some act or deed or decision by uttering something so innocuous that if you were to use it as an excuse for sleeping with your partner’s best friend you would most certainly spend that night and many more nights sleeping on a park bench.

But the pundits in charge of ‘two sides to every story’ do not live by the same rules. 

Shireen Abu Akleh

As a recent and clear example, let’s look at the murder of Al Jazeera reporter, Shireen Abu Akleh. 

It was morning when this story ‘broke’ in my time zone and I could see that it was spreading around the world like wildfire. 

I don’t mean just ‘social media,’ but newspaper coverage and of course wall-to-wall coverage on Al Jazeera. 

It was obvious, right from the start, that this was going to be an ‘international story,’ with international implications. 

While watching the TV, I continued to scan the usual news sources to see what they were saying in the West. What they were saying in the West was nothing. 

Well, it was still early in the US, I thought. The story would ‘break’ there soon.

But it didn’t break there. Or in the UK or locally. It did not break and it did not break. 

The Guardian’s Two Sides to Every Story

Then finally, at 10:00 AM local time, The Guardian ran an item on the murder. 

It was not what I had expected to see. But it was most certainly what I feared I would see: It was being presented as a ‘there are two sides to every story.’

Please note the screenshots, starting with the rather odd wording of the headline: Al Jazeera accuses Israeli forces of killing journalist in West Bank. 

Of course, the word ‘accuses’ jumps right out at you. 

Bear in mind that this was The Guardian’s first report on her murder! 

They could have gone with the death of a fellow journalist, the loss to the people of Palestine, the heartbreak and tears already witnessed throughout the region, and the long-term implications of the personal and professional loss. 

Thousands of options. Any one of which would have told readers, many of whom were likely hearing about her death for the first time, the full implications of her death. 

In a ‘one side to every story’ the headline might have read: Al Jazeera journalist killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank

Or, if the full details were not yet known: Al Jazeera journalist brutally murdered in the West Bank

Or: Palestinians mourn the death of one of their own in the West Bank

Again, there were literally hundreds and hundreds of options, each of which would have done a perfect and suitable job of explaining the severity of the incident. 

But it gets worse. 

The subheading read: Israel denies Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by its troops and says she may have been hit by Palestinian fire

So, there it was. It was clear what they were playing at. The cold and dismissive summary, masquerading as a ‘one side to every story’ pronouncement, served as an announcement that The Guardian, and most likely all media in the west, would barely treat this as a ‘news story’ at all. 

And so it was. This ‘two sides to every story’ version of the story would remain as-is, without a single separate update, for about six or seven hours. 

During that time there were no new stories about what was happening in the streets, or the worldwide reaction… nothing. 

Guardian Newspaper headline

The eventual update appeared with a new subheading: Israel officials appear to back away from earlier claims Palestinians to blame for death of Shireen Abu Akleh. 

At first blush, this might sound like a retraction of the original subheading, but in truth, it was merely reinforcing the message of the first version. 

It was meant to suggest: The original allegations are likely true, but in the spirit of an abundance of caution, Israel has suggested they will take time to rethink their original response.

In other words: There are two sides to every story.

The Guardian was not the only publication to treat this as a ‘just another day in a strange world’ story. 

Just to be clear, this was, and in many ways still is, a breaking news story. As such, the full details were not known. 

But that is the nature of news. Every single day, news organizations around the world rush to tell stories without knowing the full details. 

They actually have a process to take this into consideration: They openly state that it is a breaking news story and the full details are not yet known.

So we have to ask: Why did The Guardian, and so many other news outlets, run with headlines such as Al Jazeera accuses Israeli forces of killing journalist in West Bank?

The US Government and the ‘Two Sides to Every Story

Jen Psaki, the now-former White House press secretary, and therefore speaking on behalf of the US government, gave a perfect example of a ‘two sides to every story’ response.

‘This is a day where we should all be marking – including everyone there – the memory of a remarkable journalist who lost her life. 

‘With the disturbing footage from the funeral procession today in Jerusalem…we regret the intrusion into what should have been a peaceful procession. 

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‘We’ve urged respect for the funeral procession the mourners and the family at this sensitive time,’ she said.

‘I think when we said they were disturbing we obviously, we’re not justifying them, but I will leave my comments at what I said.’ 

So that is it. End of story. The murder of a working journalist, even if no one would ever prove whether or not it was an Israeli bullet that murdered her, should no longer be considered ‘a story.’ 

This story, sad as it might be, has been found to have no legs as they say in the news business. ‘Please open your playbooks and return to our regularly scheduled ‘one side to every story,’ The War in Ukraine.’ 

We could certainly spend a year or more speculating on the West’s motives, but one thing can be said with absolute certainty: This reaction, was not an accident. It was not an international publication or a government making an error in their rush to publish a breaking news story. 

In the case of The Guardian and other news sources, it was an editorial decision. It was an editorial decision that would have been revisited a dozen times between the time the original headline was published and the equally dismissive follow-up was released.

It was a decision by governments and editorial staff who, like the rest of the world, were sitting in their newsroom watching the story unfold before their eyes.

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The Human Reaction

Most people who witnessed this day and the following days were not standing on the rooftops, defending their opinions at the top of their lungs. 

Most reasonable people who witnessed police beating up pallbearers would have thought this was totally off the human response charts. 

Most people would expect that even news sources or governments who did their best to ignore the ‘breaking story’ would acknowledge that few people in the world had never witnessed the sight of police beating up people carrying a coffin. 

Most reasonable people would know, without being told, that beating up mourners and pallbearers because they knew it was ‘illegal’ to carry a flag or sing a song was about as obscene and as disgusting as any of the war footage that many people were seeing for the first time. 

If you don’t stop these chants and [Palestinian] nationalistic songs we will have to disperse you using force and we won’t let the funeral take place,” one Israeli police officer said.

Imagine saying such a thing in the streets of a nation created with the express intention of providing a safe haven to millions of people who have also suffered some of the worst atrocities known to mankind?

Imagine saying that to another group of people who were mourning the death of someone who spent a lifetime trying to put an end to the daily humiliations that were designed with the express intention of convincing their would-be nation they were not worthy of even the most basic civility?

Imagine saying such a thing in Chicago. Or Paris. Or Berlin.

Well, the problem is that suddenly we can imagine saying such a thing in those locations. And many others. 

And, as is becoming clearer every day, in Ukraine, in Palestine, in so many other countries, the ‘one side to every story’ rule is here to stay.

James Porteous | Clipper Media News

James Porteous

James Porteous is an author, photographer and researcher. Clipper Media News is a daily publicatioin featuring news and views you can use.

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