December 11, 2013
Who wants to be informed?
Argentina’s information war will reach a climax next week, when government and Grupo Clarín representatives meet face to face in Supreme Court territory to produce final pleas before the tribunal write down a ruling on the 2009 Media Act, arguably the most contended piece of legislation this country has seen in years.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner said this week and repeated on Twitter yesterday that she “dreamed” to see the Argentine public well informed, “so that they can not be fooled into believing things that are not true.” The president dropped the line before making an odd figures-plagued comparison on the economic profiles of Argentina, Australia and Canada.
The great paradox during the second half of the Kirchner decade is that, contrary to the president’s dream, the government has fostered freedom of expression but largely overlooked the public’s right to be well informed. Wednesday’s hearing at the Supreme Court will mark a symbol in the clash between the two main protagonists of the media show, but the longer term effects of having a political system too used to opinionating on weak information grounds is likely to last for years.
Yet don’t think for a moment the information war is something exclusive of Argentina. Governments in all their formats and ideologies, journalists, news corporations, spin-doctors, sources and the like are making their greatest efforts to come to terms with the new information society which, beyond idealists slogans, is already showing it fully political consequences at national and global levels.
Fernández de Kirchner’s feeling that the public is ill-informed was also in the mind of Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian dictator, when he attempted to — and did for a while — shut down the Internet at the start of the Arab spring movement that would cost him the job in 2011. As he walked free to serve house arrest this week, Mubarak might be reconsidering how to use the new communications tools to his advantage now.
Which is exactly what the Chinese authorities are learning how to do, after years of a trial and error policy designed to let the Internet grow in numbers (China has some 600 million people plugged to the web) while at the same time keeping it under political control. On Thursday, the ruling Communist Party of China made a first-ever live broadcast over social media of a high-profile political trial, that of once rising political star Bo Xilai, who fell from grace over corruption charges last year as he seemed geared toward scoring a top politburo job. Far from usual secretive trials resulting in defendants pleading guilty in a pre-recorded testimony, Bo was lived-tweeted on China’s most popular micro-blogging service Sina Weibo as he defiantly made his case and challenged his accusers. The special Weibo account opened for the trial gained over a quarter of a million followers within hours and up to two million by the end of day one. Chinese authorities seemed to have learned to alternate outright control and repression with more sophisticated public relations tactics.
In the United States, where the market rather than the government is the main driving force behind the news, there is a newcomer that promises to cause some stir. Al Jazeera launched its local cable news channel (@ajam), hoping to seize a middle ground gap in the highly polarized media scenario dominated by the opinionated conservative Fox News and the liberals MSNBC and CNN.
Al Jazeera’s launch tagline for its US version was “Real News for the Real People,” picking up from a Hillary Clinton argument before Congress during her time as Secretary of State, when she said the US was losing “the information war” because networks like Al Jazeera, unlike those in the US, were delivering “real news” rather than “a million commercials and arguments between talking heads.” Al Jazeera announced it would only include an average of six minutes of commercials per hour — contrasting the some 15 minutes carried by its competitors. The New York Times described the launch of Al Jazeera as “the most ambitious US television news venture since Rupert Murdoch started the Fox News Channel in 1996.” A Financial Times US writer called it “a much-needed alternative view.”
Funded by the emir of Qatar, Al Jazeera has an audience of some 260 million homes in 130 countries globally. Its new US version is finding some difficulty getting distributors, in part because it is still perceived by some as being anti-US for its role during the post 9/11 wars. As it started up on Tuesday, it reached some 48 million of the 100 million US homes subscribed to television.
Al Jazeera’s mission of “just delivering news and in-depth reporting” fits a pop culture Zeitgeist dominated by Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom HBO series but has a stronger potential for political impact rather than mayor audience success. Who says, after all, that the public “just” wants unbiased news? As Argentina makes a rare attempt at argumentative resolution of conflict in its own media imbroglio next week, there will be a new chance for rationality. Conflict, however, still seems to be more popular these days.