December 6, 2013
POLITICS AND the PRESSSaturday, September 7, 2013
No fun for Argentina journalism
The most recent issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, the prestigious US journal that looks into the media and press trade, runs a cover story (www.cjr.org/cover_ story/lighten_up.php) on the seemingly positive influence television parody shows have on the public’s level of information about political issues. The success in the US of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report, says the piece by Dannagal G. Young, is evidence that citizens are not rational beings always ready to engage in thoughtful argument and that politics could and should rely on emotions to retain and attract the public’s attention.
Through the course of the last three centuries, citizenship has lost the “liquor-fuelled celebrations of the 1700s” and the ‘wild party-based participatory culture of the 1800s,‘ writes the author. As political leaders grew concerns that too much emotion could get things out of control, “they sucked the fun out of politics.” But did they really?
Fun is exactly what the new owner of The Washington Post, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, asked the legendary paper’s newsroom to have — and to produce. “The number one rule has to be: Don’t Be Boring,” he told them this week, in this first visit as future new owner. During his visit, Bezos had breakfast with Bob Woodward, who may be wondering now whether an investigative journalism saga like the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of a president would technically fall under Bezos’s definition of boring.
The newspaper world is getting ready to have some fun as the millionaire Bezos puts one percent of its total fortune to try to come up with a business-model solution to the question of newsgathering and publishing. If one of the wonder boys of the digital 21st century fails to do the trick, there might not be another silver bullet for the press as we have known it for centuries. Post staff seemed to be happy to hear from Bezos that he would want the paper to reach a “new golden age,”even without elaborating an inch. A veteran journalist cracked a joke at the start of Bezos’ Town Hall meeting saying, “I started working here six months before you were born.”
The Washington Post will always be remembered for having serious-looking guys like Woodward and Carl Bernstein in a newsroom reputed for having single-handedly forced President Nixon to quit office, but political fun seekers might best remember Nixon for his appearance in a series of interviews with the British TV host star David Frost two years after the presidential resignation. Frost died last weekend and the New York Times said in an obituary that he was “a newsman with a flair for show business, an entertainer with a thoughtful side, and at times a brazen schmoozer with undeniable sophistication and charm.” Another legendary US television interviewer, CNN’s Larry King, went on to try a stand-up comedian career after retiring from this quarter-of-a-century Larry King Live show on CNN.
The Columbia Journalism Review piece urges pundits not to be afraid of the cynicism attached to the dominance of humour in politics and journalism, as long as it encourages political awareness and participation. “People act when they feel. If we want people to participate, we’ll need to allow, and even encourage them, to connect to politics not just through their heads, but also through their hearts,” writes professor Young, who teaches at the University of Delaware.
The next question, of course, is exactly what type of emotions one would want to encourage. In Argentina, the two star political TV shows of recent years — mother ships of the two warring media factions, the government and Grupo Clarín — have been more inclined to foster anger and hatred rather than laughter and wit.
Periodismo para Todos, the creation of star journalist Jorge Lanata for Grupo Clarín on Canal 13’s Sunday prime time, has over the last year and a half been an invitation for viewers to get enraged at a ceaseless parade of acts of alleged corruption in the administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Despite being peppered with humorous imitations of some of the government’s leading figures — including the president — the show has however reflected more indignation than laughter — a mood that made it to the streets of Buenos Aires in a series of massive protests against the government between September 2012 and April this year.
The mirror reflection of Lanata’s show, the staunchly pro-government 6,7,8 on State television Canal 7 every evening, started off in 2009 as a media analysis programme but mutated to become the government’s main television pamphlet. On its peak of popularity, the programme’s viewers got organized via Facebook to demonstrate in support of the administration. The show is a good example of a somewhat original and entertaining format ruined by non-stop self-laudatory speech. As a result, the show can only confirm the fanaticism of a shrinking government following, feed the anger of the government haters and alienate the more lukewarm, be it former or potential government voters.
In both cases, however, humour comes as an attachment rather than the main body of the action. And it does, much to Bezos’ disappointment, become boring at times.