|What will happen to the media?|
|July 25, 2008|
July 25, 2008
Is the media in Georgia free? Is it independent? Is it fair? Is it even handed? These questions have been much discussed.
No matter how they are answered, the conversation generally focuses on the definition of “free,” “independent,” “fair,” and “even handed.” I’ll try to stay away from these and look at a different topic: Do the media in Georgia tell people what is happening?
For the most part, Georgian society views the news the way it viewed the Latin American soap operas that used to be popular. News is almost entirely about “politics” and politics is portrayed as the arguments between representatives of the state and the “opposition.” Those arguments are watched by society with the rapt attention of a schoolyard fight. Because of the attention these arguments receive by society they escalate and become more aggressive and bitter. It is a great mystery to me why the public pays attention to these people. Perhaps because that is what is in the news, gradually people have become convinced that these stupid arguments are actually what the news is supposed to be composed of. But these shows are not unique to Georgia. Most countries have them but they also have other, better, programs. Although it is easy to blame the public, that is not a very good excuse for those that control the media.
There is no ground swell of demand for higher quality information in Georgia. Print is usually where the best media starts, but newspapers are often not sustained only by their advertising and they are expensive so few people can afford them. Radio throughout the world is becoming more important as governments increasingly worry about television and do what they can to control it. But radio rarely has the drama of TV. That is probably good, but for whatever reason it doesn’t bring in the audience of television. Nevertheless, many people in Georgia have a nagging feeling that they do not receive an accurate picture of what is really happening. So why don’t they demand something better?
At least until recently TV was filled with shows that were structured according to the following format: a host will invite two or so people, one from the state and one from the opposition. The host would encourage them to yell at each other. They would. This format has several advantages. The first is that it is extremely easy to produce. It costs very little and takes no serious research. It also gives the appearance of fairness and even handed democracy in that it presents two opponents. And it is popular. All other things being equal, for many viewers, watching two people yelling at each other is more fun than watching two people discussing a topic calmly and rationally. Conflict does not need to be at the heart of news or information but it is at the heart of most narrative. So the narrative that this type of television gives us about Georgia and about ourselves is that there are two sides and they are very angry. People perceive politics as the drama of democratic debate because that is all they are given.
But what about the journalists themselves? Journalism is not the best paying profession in the world. At best, great journalism presents some truth to the powerful that the powerful don’t like. That can be a frightening career path for a person to embark on in Georgia, particularly when the government tends to categorize people into two groups, those that are with us and those that are against us. What kind of journalism will that attitude create? And the government is not at all even handed in how it deals with journalists. It gives out very little information in general and, what it does give out, it only gives to those that are loyal to it. So those that are not inclined to be unfailingly loyal have no sources in the government and can only present a one-sided view. Because of their one-sided view, the government shuts them out further. And the cycle continues.
The state is often sporadic in how it creates policy. It moves silently and quickly and tends to present its decisions well after they are made rather than in the process. It is not easy to get the full story at the best of times. There is a general disinclination to showing the decision-making process to the public, much less to tell them how the decisions will be made or let the public be involved. There is an attitude that now is not the time for government officials to disagree with each other in public. All of this is a journalist’s nightmare.
The state has created a mood of perpetual crisis. At any given moment in the last several years there is the feeling that Georgia is on the brink of a great chasm and only a light tap will push it over that brink. No journalist wants to be the one that pushes it over the brink. Many journalists defer to this portrayal of a crisis and don’t say all they know.
Unfortunately many journalists believe that their job is to present information as it is presented to them at press conferences. They rarely do any background research and rarely ask tough questions. They simply act as a conduit for whoever is speaking. Often they will get footage at the beginning of a press conference, ask for a very quick comment, and show it as is. Why not try to find out more? This can be for several reasons, worrying about adding bias, getting it wrong, sounding stupid or aggressive, or simple laziness. But in the end they aren’t doing the audience any favors since so many press conferences are not important or conceal something much more important than what is actually being discussed.
Other journalists try to say what they know but are prevented from saying it by the owners of the station they work for. To keep their jobs, they simply complain to friends and family rather than getting together with others in similar circumstances and publishing information on how they cannot say what they think should be said. This is not so brave, but who can blame them?
The thing that is impossible to see on television in Georgia is careful and balanced investigation, particularly into corruption. This type of program has many things going against its production. The first difficulty (unlike shows with people yelling at each other) is that it takes a great deal of time and research; time and research that stations are unlikely to pay for or encourage. The second problem is that the government hates it. Strangely the government believes that only they should research and expose corruption and they do not tolerate anybody else doing that job. Even worse, they want to control which types of corruption are investigated and which individuals are fingered.
The third problem is that there are several examples of programs like that being produced but not being shown. Doing that doesn’t seem like a wise career move for a journalist or producer.
There was a great deal of focus around the recent elections on equal coverage. This was all well motivated but it is time to recognize that stations are biased and as long as there is a mix of viewpoints, they will all tend to keep each other in line. The public broadcasting station in the period before the parliamentary election was a good example. They did a very good job of covering the sides equally, their statements, press conferences, and campaign activities. But at the same time, they ignored reports about election related problems with the voters list, CEC neutrality, administrative resources, or the commentary by the various observer organizations. There is too much emphasis on trying to make each one of these stations even handed. If they are owned or controlled by the government, they will not be. If they are owned by somebody else they will not be. Think back nine years ago when the government was the Citizens Union of Georgia and the “opposition” was Aslan Abashidze’s Revival Party. Equal time between those two groups? Why? Even at that time they were both in many ways irrelevant to the bigger processes going on in Georgia. Equal time within a station is less important than having several different voices.
But voices that aren’t in line with the government seem to get shut down, or have persistent difficulty with licensing, or difficulty keeping advertisers - so much trouble and so persistent that practically the only stations with news now that many people can see are ones that the government is quite comfortable with. This isn’t a good thing. And despite how loudly the government denies the existence of this problem, everybody knows it inside the country and outside the country, in the corridors of NATO and the EU in Brussels, in Berlin, Washington, London, Moscow, and Sokhumi. That isn’t doing Georgia any favors.
So the answer is that currently, by following the media within Georgia you don’t really know what is happening. By its public and private statements, the government says (and some people believe) that free and independent media destabilizes and polarizes the country. They are exactly wrong. By preventing independent media from investigating and saying what it wants, the government is destabilizing and polarizing the country. They should stop.
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