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John Doyle: Television

Sheen isn’t Gadhafi, and Facebook isn’t journalism Add to ...

And another thing: Equating Charlie Sheen’s addled and deluded statements with those of Moammar Gadhafi is not funny or cute.

There’s been a craze for this gimmick recently. A genius somewhere discovered that if you present statements made by both men to somebody who hasn’t been following the news closely, they’ll probably be confused about who said what. Hilarity ensues, is the idea. Hey, check it out – two wacky numbskulls spouting weird stuff!

But it’s not amusing at all, is it? The problem is that the news is thus reduced to a sideshow aimed at inciting giggles. Gadhafi becomes a wacky guy in a funny outfit making weird statements. Just as Charlie Sheen’s very real problems are reduced to a joke, the authentic crisis in Libya is reduced to goofy entertainment.

The basic idea behind the Sheen/Gadhafi quotes-joke is that both men are absolutely denying the existence of the reality that everybody can see. Yet the sad truth is that by making a joke of it all, we the viewers and consumers, the media and television in particular, are also guilty of mindlessly denying the existence of a brutal reality.

What is unfolding in Libya is a blood-soaked, protracted end to a dictator’s lengthy regime. And the manner in which it has been covered on television is shockingly imprecise, often erroneous and sometimes utterly fatuous. An illustration of the failings happened on Sunday, when Christiane Amanpour, now with ABC News, appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources to talk about Libya coverage with host Howard Kurtz. (Ironically, the piece on Libya ran after a lengthy discussion of media coverage of Charlie Sheen.) Kurtz started by pointing out that Amanpour is the only American journalist to interview Gadhafi during this crisis, that the man seems deluded about the situation and he asked her, “How do you deal with that?”

Amanpour shifted the topic immediately and was at pains to point out that what she found in Tripoli was not what she had been led to believe by media reports. “One of the things that I was worried about when I landed in Tripoli, amongst the first group of journalists to do so into the Gadhafi area, was I felt very afraid, because I had been listening to the media reports coming out, and I honestly thought that I was going to be confronted with marauding bands of mercenaries machine-gunning whoever walked in front of them, aerial bombardments and the like. And when I landed there, I quickly found that that was not the case. Yes, some protests had been met with live fire. It’s appalling. But the more hysterical reporting from there turned out not to have been corroborated.”

Her point was two-fold and possibly too subtle for both Kurtz and his viewers. Yes, she explained, Gadhafi is disconnected from reality and surrounded by flunkies who tell him what he wants to hear. Simultaneously, she suggested, a lot of the TV coverage of Libya – and by extension, Egypt and Tunisia – has been delusional. “The reports that were coming out were not from journalists on the ground, they were from local residents and others who were calling Al Jazeera,” Amanpour said. “And that's why I was really desperate to find out what really was going on, on the ground. That's what we do. That's what we have to do. And corroborating information these days has become almost like a quaint exercise, and that stuns me because I operate in fact-based reality with objective facts.”

When Kurtz suggested that it was difficult to get the facts straight in a war zone, Amanpour said. “We're journalists. We go there and we tell the story. And we have to find the facts, because otherwise the story is told by rumour, by activists, by social media, that's uncorroborated and unconfirmed.”

This is a fair point, and one glossed over in much coverage of the uprisings in the Arab world. The idea that Facebook and Twitter are key components of revolution is an easy sell, especially to a Western audience. Everybody on Facebook or Twitter feels that they, too, are part of some important dynamic that’s changing the world. To believe this in the context of the Arab world revolutions is to be as delusional as Gadhafi. Ease of communication always helps populist movements, but social media is as easily manipulated by those with a bias as state media is manipulated by dictators.

Amanpour’s point is simple enough – we assume an accurate picture can be gleaned from the harvesting of social media by both Western and Arab news channels, in lieu of actually having reporters and cameras on the ground. But it’s not the case. So much coverage – Al Jazeera included – amounts to anonymous impressions, unchallenged and uncorroborated.

Most viewers want to believe in the veracity of a phone call, a Tweet or a Facebook entry by an ordinary person. It would be really nice if everyone were a good citizen journalist. It’s not true, though. Neither is it true that Gadhafi is a wacky curmudgeon. What he says isn’t funny, even if his comments, translated, sound vaguely like Charlie Sheen’s ramblings.

Gimmicks. Giggles. General impressions gleaned from social media. Enough already. We have nothing to gain from seeing only cuteness everywhere.

 

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