Travel presents you with new and broadening experiences. My road trip to the East Coast has done that for me: staying with family in Newfoundland for a few days, I have been watching television news, mostly CBC, for several evenings in a row. Go hiking during the day, then watch the news in the evening, that has more or less been my routine.
Watching ‘The National’ on CBC, as well as some local news programs, is proving to be an interesting experience. I haven’t lived in a house with TV for more than 15 years, and hadn’t watched TV news for many more years before that, so I come to this experience as a more-or-less naive outsider. I do follow ‘the news,’ by subscribing, out of habit, to a (lousy) daily newspaper (The Toronto Star), and prowling a rather large selection of websites, mostly alternative and left, but also including sites such as Al Jazeera, CBC.ca, and RT. But television news is a whole new experience.
On The National, “the flagship nightly newscast of CBC News,” there are only three topics these days – Afghanistan, COVID, and the federal election – so it may be that I am getting a limited idea of what “The News” is normally like. But in any case I’m noticing the packaging more than the content.
Front and centre in every “newscast,” I have learned, are a number of actors who play the roles of “anchors.” They are supported by a number of other talking heads who, we are asked to believe, are “analysts,” and “experts”. These people spend a lot of their time chatting and asking each other questions with obvious and pre-determined answers. The anchors seem quite interchangeable. I presume they all went to the same acting school – er, broadcast journalism classes – where they learned how they are supposed to look and sound.
They usually have a stack of a few sheets of paper in front of them. They never look at the paper, which likely doesn’t actually have anything written on it anyway, but at the end of a segment, they pick up those sheets of paper and straighten them in a decisive way to indicate they are done. I have come to enjoy that little gimmick.
What has changed is that there has been a great move to ‘diversity.’ I’m in favour of diversity, of course, but I find it odd that all the diverse anchors and journalists and analysts talk the same and have the same opinions. Still, it’s progress: instead of a propaganda system where it is exclusively white men who mislead us and tell us what to think, we now have diverse professional narrative managers misleading us and telling us what to think.
Progress in diversity isn’t limited to the media. For example, in the bad old days in Afghanistan, when a drone hovered overhead and then dropped a bomb on your wedding party, it was overwhelmingly likely that it was a white man dropping that bomb on you. Now, it could well be that the bomb that kills your family is being sent by a woman, or a person of colour. If that isn’t progress, what is? But I digress.
As someone who hadn’t watched television news for a long time, it strikes me that narrative control has become more total. The media have always been about narrative control, of course, but there was a time when newspapers, formerly the dominant providers of news, used to at least pay lip service to covering ‘both sides’ of an issue. The pretense of balance was of course largely an illusion. For one thing, there are more than two sides to every important issue, so reducing it to only two sides sweeps aside many of the complexities. And the ‘two sides’ that were presented were often in fact variations of the same mainstream view, while anything that was outside the mainstream was deemed not to exist.
Nonetheless, those days seem like a golden age today, when even the pretense of two sides has been dropped in favour of imposing a narrative that may not be deviated from.
As far as I can make out, there is now always an understood narrative for each important story. All coverage must adhere to this predetermined framing. Even the pretense of presenting ‘both sides’ has been dropped.
This certainly applies to COVID-19. There is a great deal of discussion and debate, including among scientists and health professionals in different countries, about the value of measures such as lockdowns, generalized masking, and vaccine passports. Those scientific debates and discussions simply don’t get covered in the official news, like the CBC’s newscasts, because the media’s narrative managers have decided the public should not be exposed to any perspectives except those which they deem acceptable. The public can’t be trusted to think for themselves.
Whereas those who considered themselves liberal or left used to share John Milton’s opinion that the surest guarantee of the truth of our views is to expose them to criticism, now the shared attitude of both the neo-liberal opinion managers and the neo-liberal left (which is to say, most of the left these days) is that dissenting opinions should be suppressed.
So more and more people turn to other sources of information because they can see that the mainstream media are not honest and can’t be trusted. Of course, many of those alternative information sources are even worse than the mainstream media, but on the other hand, some of them are much better. (See www.connexions.org/CxLibrary/Docs/CxAlternativeMediaList.htm for some of my personal recommendations.
The pre-determined framing for coverage of what is currently happening in Afghanistan is – of course – based on the unquestioned and unquestionable assumption that “we” are the good guys. “We” means the United States of America and its so-called allies (vassals might be a more accurate word) who together constitute the American free world team.
Within that unquestioned narrative there is some room for discussion: For example, are “we” doing enough to demand that the Taliban “respect human rights?” How “we” might back up that demand, given that “we” just lost the war and are fleeing Afghanistan as fast as “we” can, is never stated. Nor is the fact that countries that have been bombing and occupying another country for 20 years have lost the moral standing to lecture anyone about human rights, not even the undeniably nasty Taliban.
The fact that the American invasion of Afghanistan ended in a decisive defeat is not something that can be openly mentioned in polite society, such as on a newscast. Nor can the reasons that the U.S was unable to win the hearts and minds of most Afghans be honestly discussed, because that would involve mentioning two basic facts:
1) People don’t like it when you invade their country.
2) People don’t like it when you drop bombs on them.
Those are my thoughts based on a few days of watching television news. And now, it’s time for The National. Stay tuned.
August 27, 2021