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The World is Watching

Tuesday, October 26, 2004 Posted: 11:52 AM JST

Aaron Schwartz has a great article on his blog today about the way some journalists do their job. Something I complained about recently as well. Here follows the complete article.

The World is Watching is an incredible and, to my knowledge, unique film about the making of news. Two film crews, one at ABC News headquarters in New York, the other with ABC’s Central American Unit in Nicaragua, spend a day watching exactly how the clips that appear on the national nightly news are made. The result is revealing.

The crew begins the day by checking in with Washington to get the appropriate framing for the story. At the same time, they keep an ear out for tips and scoops. They hear about a village leveled by the contras (the US-funded group fighting Nicaragua’s socialist government) and set out to get some film.

They interview a peasant. “You have to be angry,” the reporter coaches his subject, who stubbornly remains calm and peaceful despite having been brutally attacked. This peasant, like every other one in the film, can clearly and eloquently explain exactly what’s going on: Reagan is fighting a war by proxy against their government because it has dared to institute policies which favor the poor (that is, people like them) over the wealthy elites. They live in horrid conditions, they are brutally attacked by contra forces, they appear to be just poor and stupid peasants — yet they know exactly what’s going on and tell the cameras as much.

The cameras, of course, know better. For the journalists and the folks at home, the events are seen through a different frame. Five Central American countries have signed a peace agreement promising to institute Democratic reforms in exchange for peace. Most of these countries are US client-states where the governments we instituted brutally terrorize civilians and suppress democratic freedoms. The media doesn’t see that, though. Instead, Reagan literally directs their eyes elsewhere by delivering a heartfelt message to the media: they have an import responsibility — perhaps “one of journalism’s great triumphs,” he says — to ensure democracy flourishes… in Nicaragua.

The journalists unquestionably accept this frame, sending camera crews to Nicaragua, not the other countries. Once there they ensure everything that comes back is fit into this frame. We watch as Peter Jennings marvels at how the Sandanista government has managed to survive the democratic reforms. We watch as the Washington team carefully scrutinizes the voiceovers, blanching at the suggestion that the protesters in the street are somehow “anti-war”. “It sounds like they’re peaceniks or something,” one reporter says. Pro-Sandanista protesters would be much better.

Once the piece hits air the peasant’s words, so eloquent before, are chopped and translated for the larger audience. Now she is seen stupidly insisting that she does not see communism. This is just a backlash against being attacked by the contras, the voiceover helpfully explains, and anyway, she’s just a peasant — what does she know? Meanwhile, the Sandanista government still refuses to negotiate with the contras and is thus presumably the cause of all this violence. The whole piece takes up just two minutes on the news.

At the same time the piece airs on ABC, the facts on the ground show a different story. Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandanistas, is giving a speech to a large assembled crowd. He will negotiate with the Sandanistas, he says. It’s too late — the piece has been filed and the ABC crew has already flown to the next day’s location. The folks at home never hear the news.

Keywords: opinion_item

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Stone Bridge Press

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