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How Does the Media Describe the World
On November 19, 1998, Ryszard Kapuscinski was invited to Stockholm by the Bonniers Mediauniversitet to take part as Keynote Speaker in the prestigious National Awards for Journalism, the "1998 Stora Journalisttriset". Below we present the text of his Keynote Speech, which he kindly sent specially to Books in Canada.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I was truly honoured when Mr. Carl-Johan Bonnier invited me to take part in today's ceremony. In his kind letter, Mr. Bonnier wrote that the atmosphere at this gathering will certainly be gracious and friendly.

I had no doubt that it would be so as each of my stays in Sweden passes in just such a warm and friendly climate.

I have a very personal relationship with your country because Swedes have saved my life on two occasions. The first time was in 1945 just after the war when a group of Swedish nurses and doctors arrived at the settlement where I was living outside Warsaw in order to innoculate the poor, sick children against TB, which had decimated hundreds of my peers. Then in 1974, during the war in Angola, when thanks to three Swedish hydraulic engineers, we (the beseiged in Luanda) had drinking water the whole time. Without that water, in that climate, we would have perished in a matter of days. I wrote about this fact in my book, Another Day of Life, where I thanked these young, dedicated Swedes. And I've encountered Swedish reporters for years in the Third World. These people were remarkably sensitive to the poverty and want in which the majority of our human family lives; and they have a strong desire to improve the living conditions, the fates of these unfortunate people.

I speak about this sensitivity and empathy, about friendliness and brotherhood, because in our discussions about the media, we spend too much time on technical problems, on matters of market and competition, business, technical improvements, and ratings, instead of the human aspect of this phenomenon which we define by the very general and imprecise term of media.

I am not a theoretician of the media but a journalist and writer who has been working for over forty years in the field of gathering and formulating information, being at the same time its recipient and consumer. So what kind of observations can someone make who has been involved for so long in the vast and puzzling land of media?

The first observation touches on proportion. The common phrase that "the whole of humanity is interested in the media" is exaggerated. Even if we can agree that such unusual events like, for example, the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics, are watched by two billion people, this is only one third of the population. Even news about major world events is not watched by more than ten to twenty percent of the inhabitants of our planet. That's a lot, of course, but certainly not "the whole world". In reality hundreds of millions of people live without any kind of contact with the media, or with only sporadic contact. I myself have lived in many places in Africa where there was no television or radio or newspapers of any kind. In the whole of the Republic of Malawi, only one newspaper is published, in Liberia, two very shabby ones. There's no television at all. In many countries of the world, television functions for only two, maybe four hours a day. In many areas of Asia-for instance, Siberia, Kazakhstan or Mongolia-even if television stations do exist, the sets the people have are so pitiful that they can't receive the signal. I remember, for example, during the Brezhnev years, they didn't bother cutting off a considerable part of Siberia because no one had a receiver that picked up Western broadcasts anyway. So a considerable part of humanity lives beyond the reach of the media, and doesn't worry whether they are being manipulated by it or not, or if a violent series will make their children more aggressive.

Besides, in many countries in the world-in Africa, for example, or in Latin America-television is ex definicione treated exclusively as a source of entertainment. TV sets are installed primarily in bars, restaurants, and inns. You go to the bar for a drink and in the meantime look at the screen. It wouldn't occur to anyone to expect something important from television, that this medium would educate, inform or explain the world, just as we don't expect these things when we go to the circus.

The real electronic revolution, this great revolution in technology and culture, was accomplished only in the last thirty or forty years. Above all, the journalistic environment changed. I remember the first conference of the leaders of the African states in Addis Abeba in May of 1963. Journalists from all over the world arrived. There were maybe 200 of us. These were primarily representatives from the big European newspapers, correspondents from news agencies and the radio. Some chronicle filmmakers also came, but I don't remember a single TV crew. We all knew each other, we were friends. We also knew each other's work. Many were true masters of the pen, top professionals, specialists in specific countries or continents. Today I have the impression that that was the last gathering of world reporters, the end of an era in which journalism was treated like a real profession, as a proud calling to which we were prepared to dedicate ourselves completely.

From that time, everything started to change violently. Gathering and providing information became a mass activity carried out by thousands and thousands of people. Journalism schools sprang up which every year let out hordes of newcomers into this profession. There is a crucial difference, however. A long time ago, journalism was a mission, a desired career. Now many of these newcomers treat working in the media as just an adventurous, short-term occupation and don't have any ambitious plans for the future. Today someone is a reporter, tomorrow the same person works in an ad agency, and the day after he's a stockbroker.

The electronic revolution led to a multiplication of media on a scale unheard of before. But what-besides technical progress-caused this explosion? More than anything else, the discovery that information is an excellent product that brings big profits, and its dissemination and sale are a lucrative business. A long time ago, the value of information was determined in terms of searching for and showing the truth and was also seen as an important instrument in the political struggle for influence and power. I remember during the Communist years, students burned Party newspapers in the streets and screamed-The press lies! Now the most important thing is something else: the value of information is measured by its attractiveness. Information must above all sell well! The truest information has no value if it is not attractive and if it doesn't attract an increasingly bored and capricious audience.

The revelation that information is a lucrative business led to a violent inundation of big capital into the kingdom of the media. The former, often idealistic seekers of truth, were replaced at the top echelons in the world of media by people of business. Everyone who spent years in various newspapers and radio stations would easily notice this transformation. Generally these offices were situated in sorry buildings, in small, dirty rooms in which the journalists, often poorly dressed, poorly paid people, were crowded.

Now just pay a visit to one of the big TV stations: you enter a luxurious palace, you are taken through quiet corridors of marble and mirrors by elegant hostesses. In fact, the true power has moved to these palaces from the offices of presidents and the government buildings. The power is in the hands of the one who owns a TV station-in broader terms, the media. The bloody battles which took place in Bucharest, Tbilisi, Vilnius, and Baku confirm this. In all of these cases, the rebels tried to seize control of the TV station rather than the parliament building or office of the president.

Since it was discovered that information is a commodity that can make money, it stopped following the traditional criteria of truth and lies, and began to depend completely on other rules-namely, the rules of the market, of maximum gain and monopoly. I think this is what the change in its place in culture depends on.

This change also caused the former heroes of journalism to be replaced by anonymous crowds of media workers. Americans even tend more often to replace the term, "journalist", by "media worker".

The world of media grew so much that it began to be self-sufficient, it began to live its own exclusive, closed life. The internal competition between press agencies and broadcasting networks became more important than the surrounding world. A packed herd of media representatives started to travel around our planet in one horde spying on each other and on guard against being squashed by the competition. Hence, even when there were several important world events going on at the same time, the media networks would report only the one being witnessed by the horde. I was a member of such a horde on several occasions and described it in The Soccer War and I know how it functions. I remember the American hostage crisis in Teheran. Nothing much was going on there, and yet thousands of reporters from all over the world stayed for months in the city. After a few years, the same army moved to the Persian Gulf where there was truly nothing special to do because the Americans wouldn't let anyone near the front. At the same time horrible things were going on in Mozambique and Sudan, but nobody cared because the herd was in the Persian Gulf. It was the same during the coup in Russia in 1991. Real events-strikes and demonstrations-were taking place in Petersburg but the world knew nothing about them since all the media representatives were waiting in Moscow for stuff to happen, and in Moscow nothing unusual was going on.

The development of direct communications systems, especially the invention of cellular telephones and e-mail, radically changed the relations between media representatives and their bosses. The media people lost their independence and right to their own interpretation of the facts, and that had an impact on the quality and truthfulness of the information. In the past, the newspaper, press agency or radio reporter looked for information, gathered data, uncovered something, created. Today he is often just a chess piece moved on the world board by his boss from headquarters that may be located on the other side of the planet. That boss, who may have information from various sources simultaneously, can have a totally different picture of the event from the on-site reporter. The headquarters, however, has no time to wait for the results of the reporter's work but instead lets him know what it knows about the event and expects from the reporter only confirmation that its picture is correct. Many of the reporters that I know are afraid to get at the truth independently. I had a colleague in Mexico, a reporter from one of the American TV stations. I met him once during the filming of the street clashes between the students and police in Mexico City. "What's going on here, John?" I asked my harried friend. "I have no idea," he responded not taking his eye from the camera. "I only film it and send the material to headquarters, and they make of it whatever they want."

The ignorance of media representatives regarding the events on which they are reporting is sometimes astounding. During the strike in the Gdansk shipyard in 1980, half of the media people who arrived from all over the world didn't even know where Gdansk was located. It was worse in Rwanda in 1994. The great majority of those present were in Africa for the first time, and many of the ones who came by UN planes directly from Europe to Kigali didn't even know where they were. And of course, they had no idea about the reasons behind the Rwanda conflict.

You can't put all the blame on the reporters. They are, after all, victims of their bosses' arrogance. "What can you expect from me?" a colleague, a cameraman for one of the big American TV networks told me. "In one week alone, I worked in five different countries, on three different continents!"

The revolution in media sets before us a fundamental problem: how to understand the world? Above all we are faced with the question: what is history? Traditionally, we drew our historical knowledge, thanks to which we could define our identity, from the stories of our ancestors, from tribal and family stories, or from school textbooks, books, and archival documents. The source of history was single, and, I'd say, almost tangible. Now a small screen has become the new, alternative source of history. The dangerous paradox is this: because we rarely have access to traditional, authentic sources of history, we are left with only one, often incompetent and faulty version of history-the one shown on television.

A good example of this problem is perhaps the above-mentioned Rwanda, a country which I visited on several occasions. Hundreds of millions of people watched the ethnic cleansing on small TV screens; the reports were often flawed. How many of these TV viewers would read even one competent book on Rwanda that would give a sound analysis of the situation? The drama of our civilization is based on the fact that because there is more and more media, and because books are being published at a slower rate, we are becoming the recipients of their fictional version rather than of true history. In time, the mass viewers will know only fictional history, and only individuals will know the true one.

Already in the thirties, the great cultural theorist, Rudolf Arnheim, drew attention to the fact that television was taking us into the land of illusions. The problem, he wrote in his book, Film as Art, is that people mistake the world of sense experience for the world of thought and they think that "to see" is the same as "to understand". Meanwhile it's not like this. Just the opposite, in fact. The inundation of images limits the domain of the spoken and written word, and hence the domain of thought. "Television," Arnheim wrote, "will be a difficult task for our wisdom. It may enrich us, but it may also put our minds to sleep."

And really, how often do we deal with the simple fact that people identify the idea of "seeing" with the idea of "knowing". For example, we hear two people arguing. One tells the other, "My dear, you are wrong. What you say has nothing to do with reality." And the other one answers, "What do you mean I'm wrong? Why, I saw it on TV!"

Television takes advantage of our illusion that seeing is synonymous with knowing and understanding to manipulate us. In dictatorships we have censorship, in democracies-manipulation. Everything is against the poor, defenceless man on the street. So, for example, when the media talks about itself, it substitutes the problem of content with the problem of form, and in place of philosophy, it puts technique. They say only how to edit, how to store, how to print. The topics of discussion are editing, the database, disk memory, etcetera. But what to edit, what to store and to print-silence. The deficiency in all these discussions is that the idea of "message" is replaced by the idea of "messenger"-that, in short, as McLuhan had already lamented, the medium is the message.

Here's another problem-probably the most important since the Cold War ended: poverty. Let's see how big television networks handle it. (Let me remind you that Swedish intellectual Gunnar Myrdal is the author of the unsurpassed work on poverty in the contemporary world, the trilogy, Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations, published in 1968.)

The first way that the media manipulates is by identifying poverty with the hunger disaster. As we know, two thirds of humanity lives in a state of permanent poverty which is the result of the unfair division of the world into rich and poor. On the other hand, hunger disasters explode only locally, from time to time, caused to a great degree by nature (like droughts and floods, sometimes by civil wars). Moreover, the mechanisms of eradicating immediate hunger function quite well-most often surpluses of food are directed from rich countries to areas struck by hunger. This is what the big television network most often shows us: how we eradicate hunger in Sudan, Somalia, and so on. However, how to eradicate or at least decrease global poverty-not a word.

The second way that the issue of poverty has been manipulated is by moving the topic to ethnographic and travel programs which show exotic worlds. Poverty is part of the exotic, its place is there. So poverty is shown as a curiosity, almost a tourist attraction. You can see it most often on shows like "Travel", "Discovery", etcetera.

The third way is by treating poverty as a static phenomenon, as a part of nature. Poverty is not a challenge because we can't do anything about it, just as we can't do anything about an ice storm or hurricane. It exists. We have to acknowledge and accept it.

The topic of my speech is "How does the media describe the world?" Well, unfortunately, it describes it in a superficial and fragmentary way, limiting itself to showing presidential visits or terrorist attacks, but even in this reduced version, it shows the world more and more rarely. According to Le Monde Diplomatique from August 1998, during the last four years the number of people who watched the news on the three big American networks fell from sixty to thirty-eight percent. As much as seventy-two percent of the headlines on these news programs are taken up by reports on violence, narcotics, assaults, rapes, etcetera. Foreign news takes up less than five percent of the time and often none at all. It's the same in the press. In 1987, TIME magazine dedicated eleven covers to international events, but ten years later, in 1997, only one cover. More and more often, the choice of information is determined by the principle, "If it bleeds it leads."

We live in a paradoxical world. On the one hand, it's been said that the development of communication has linked our planet into a uniform organism, that we are a global village, etcetera. On the other hand, international affairs are covered less and less often in the media, replaced by local, sensational stories, gossip, and all kinds of "News you can use."

But let's be fair and objective.

First of all, the media revolution is in the making. It's a new phenomenon in the history of the civilized world, too new to create effective antibodies against such illnesses as manipulation, corruption, arrogance, and the cult of trash. Literature on contemporary media is very, even devastatingly critical and that critique, sooner or later, will influence in part the direction of development of media. Second, let's be honest, many people seated in front of the TV want to see exactly what TV offers them. Already in 1930, the great Spanish philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, in his book, Revolt of the Masses, characterized mass society as a collective of people content with themselves, content with their tastes and choices. Third, the media is a complex and, above all, diverse world. This is the reality which exists and functions on different levels. That is why next to the trashiest media, next to the worst kitsch and lies, exist such wonderful TV programs, great radio stations, and terrific newspapers. And there are so many of them that anyone who in fact looks for good information, knowledge, and reflections will find them in the media in great and inexhaustible abundance. If only we had time and life enough to absorb everything. Because we also often blame the media in order to justify our own sleeping consciences, our lack of sensitivity and imagination, and our comfortable lack of desire to act.

And those bright sides of media exist because in newspapers, radio, and TV stations all over the world, work many wonderful, talented, sensitive people for whom the Other is a great value and for whom our planet is a fantastic place, worthy of knowing, understanding, and saving. These people often work with the greatest dedication and passion, depriving themselves of comfort and plenty, and even risking their lives in order just to give witness to the surrounding world and to show how it is full of threat, but also hope.

However, despite the progress in the area of information and media, people constantly feel lost and disoriented. Not long ago I was at the front of a civil war in Liberia. We sat in the hovel of one of the partisan leaders. He was called Dokie. It was a hot, tropical night.

"Where are you from?" Dokie asked me.

"From Poland," I answered.

"Poland, Poland," Dokie repeated. "But where is Poland?"

"Poland is in Europe," I explained.

"Europe!" he called out triumphantly. "This I know. Europe is in China!"

But after awhile, he asked again, "But where is China?"

"Where is China?" I repeated helplessly. Because Dokie so confused me with his geography that, for a moment, I wanted to answer, "I'm sorry, Dokie, but I really don't know where China is!" 

(Copyright retained by Ryszard Kapuscinski.)


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