Friday, December 01, 2006

Spectator Sports ... Lebanon Style

Here in Lebanon they have a particularly bizarre spectator sport for tourists: demonstration watching. It's not particularly exciting, but there's always the chance of something extraordinary happening. At least they occur relatively frequently and are free as well, a major plus in this relatively pricey country. The latest demonstration was portrayed by the Western media as a Hezbollah, pro-Syrian one trying to topple the anti-Syrian government. Whilst that makes simple headlines and allows people to believe that they understand what is happening in a faraway land, the reality is very different. First of all the majority of people at the rally whose political affiliation I could easily identify (luckily most parties in Lebanon have their own colour) were not actually supporters of Hezbollah, but instead followers of the liberal, secular Free Patriotic Movement (particularly popular among Lebanon's educated young Christians). In fact, doing my own reading into the matter has made me intensely sceptical about the news that we are fed through our media. If respected channels such as CNN and the BBC managed to give such a distorted view of the events (just so that they could fit it into their programming or make it easy enough to digest for the ordinary viewer) as to completely alter the reality on the ground, how can we trust anything they say? I'm not saying there's a great conspiracy of deliberate obfuscation or anything like that, but we rely on the media to be impartial, objective and informed, as it is our window on the world. And since most of us do not have the opportunity to witness news events in person we implicitly trust the news to be correct. But instead of explaining complex political situations we get simple soundbites that end up bearing no resemblance to reality. Today is a bit like the day I watched a popular science programme (that I used to really enjoy watching) about genetics after I had done my degree, and found out that although superficially true, many important caveats and details had been omitted to sensationalise and simplify the topic, thereby giving a false picture. Since then I've found it very difficult to watch science documentaries as I have a nagging suspicion that I'm not being given the entire picture. I doubt that I'll stop watching the news though, but it makes me feel somewhat cheated.

Hmmm, that's not a positive note to end on: I've complained and criticised but given no viable alternatives. The only thing I can recommend is for people to read more, rather than relying on TV news. Newspapers, magazines and books have more room to give detailed explanations that such subtle situations deserve. And although it's impossible to read detailed reports about every news event, we should try and do it for those that at least interest, or affect, us. In today's multimedia world the written world is still the most powerful form of communication.

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