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Watching the Watchdog: 50 Years of Journalism & It's all the Same

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Tim Knight
writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

Once upon a time I wrote a book with a very long and very arrogant title: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About How to be a TV Journalist in the 21st. Century but Didn't Know Who to Ask or Storytelling and the Anima Factor.

(Anima, just in case you're not up on your Jungian theories, is the feminine side of a man.)

Today, the book's in its second edition, up there in the clouds on Lulu and Amazon.

Anyway, I was leafing through its pages last evening, wondering if I'm masochist enough to sweat through writing a third edition, when I stopped at the chapter The Less Things Change ...

It's about my time, 50 years ago, working as reporter/anchor at a startup TV station in Zambia. The chapter starts by describing how we got our foreign news film back there in the 60s.

"The bags fly in once a week. From some other planet. But only when the weather is good.

"When there are thunderstorms in Central Africa, the planes don't fly. So there are no strips of black and white negative news film from BBC and ITN and CBS, wound tight on yellow, plastic cores, held together with rubber bands and little, white, printed labels.

"No news film from the outside world. No news from the other planets."

Here's my slightly edited description of what was on those black and white negative film strips we broadcast to puzzled Zambians so long ago. All of it proving that behold, very little has changed in these 50 years.

  • Important, pompous, old white men in important, pompous, three-piece suits, lords of the known world -- presidents, premiers, politicians, popes, potentates -- climb out of airplanes and limousines while bands play and flags fly, say banal, meaningless words into microphones, drive off to play private power games in private power rooms and the world is a wonderful place and no doubt much the better for their presence.
  • Unimportant, scared men -- mostly young, mostly black or brown -- wearing tattered old camouflage uniforms, carrying shiny new guns, run around some unknown country shooting unseen enemies for unknown reasons.
  • Politicians of all colours call on us to tighten our belts, put our noses to the grindstone, work hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder for the sake of the nation, and warn us against spending more than we earn because the world (which must be left safe for our children and our children's children) doesn't owe us a living, is a dangerous place and worth the lives of many of our young men.
  • Ubiquitous, iniquitous, interchangeable white experts play "on the one hand ... but, of course, on the other hand ..." with whatever is threatening to destroy the world this week -- to the bafflement of viewers and, likely, each other.
  • Elections are held -- or not held -- in a country nobody ever heard of and only the BBC can pronounce.
  • A stinking rich man who plundered planeloads of money from widows and orphans and destroyed the lives of thousands of ordinary people is canonized/knighted/elected/sentenced/jailed/paroled/hanged/buried while accomplices speak of him with awe and mourn that we shall not see his like again.
  • Rescue workers (where do they suddenly come from? What do they normally do?) sift through the wreckage after a plane crashes in Tierra del Fuego, a train crashes in Outer Mongolia, the market crashes in New York, a celebrity crashes into a tree, there are many casualties, and the community mourns.
  • Rescue workers sift, floods ravage, fires raze, police probe, politicians deny, billionaires deplore, businessmen lament, sources reveal, farmers bankrupt, buses plunge, movie stars couple, poor people riot, marines (particularly grim-faced marines) storm ashore, and that's the way it is.
  • "Just the quietest, nicest kid you ever could meet" is shown in a slow-motion perp walk (means he's guilty as hell) and charged with cutting his family up into little pieces and serving them with ketchup and french fries, at the local fast-food joint.
  • Humungously rich young men run and jump and throw and catch and swim and hit and kick and win and lose for enough money to feed all of Zambia for a dozen lifetimes.
  • Movie stars and rock queens smile unsmiling smiles behind unlikely hair and even less likely breasts and the world is a wonderful place and their mothers must be very proud.
  • Celebrities of all colours and genders celeb.
  • Pandas are born in zoos.

(Since then, we've learned from non-journalists who earn considerable amounts of money telling us how to do the news, that our audiences are really, really into crime committed by poor people and weather. Since both are cheap and easy to cover, crime committed by poor people and weather have been added to the list of news priorities.)

The chapter, based on my 50-year-old notes, goes on:

"Even then we believed that the world shown on those strips of black and white negative news film from BBC and ITN and CBS, wound tight on yellow plastic cores, held together with rubber bands and little, white printed labels, wasn't the real world.


"But who the hell were we to question? We worked in Zambia, the end of the known world, for god's sake. Anyway, we needed film. Any film.


"And who knew? Maybe it was real somewhere."

Well, it wasn't real then. And it isn't now. Even after all these years, that list pretty much sums up the stuff broadcasters dish out to us today. It's a fantasy world, designed for the profit and convenience of the people who own/run broadcast organizations. And for the greater glory of their beancounters.

Which is one of the main reasons general interest TV news (a.k.a. mainstream) is losing viewers.

And the whole concept of journalism as public service slowly fades away.

The less things change ...