It is no secret that newspapers and magazines are losing their economic viability. Advertising budgets have been slashed due to numerous factors, from consumer skepticism toward conventional advertising to the new and innovative, tech-oriented channels and the recent trend in experiential marketing where consumers interact with products. Traditional ink on paper is living its last days, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the large staff required for quality news gathering.
Part of the decline is due to the resistance of the modern consumer toward top-down messages. Eventually, newspapers and magazines will become elitist, intellectual tools for the select, information-rich few, leaving the masses and the middle class in front of their screens — mainly their television screens. This is where the values of democracy are most at risk: the more people watch TV and the more they become mass media-rich, the less information they actually get.
On the face of the matter, all TV models draw from the American model. Around the world, we see the same Hollywood (or Hollywood-style) films, the same soap operas, the same comedy shows, the same sexy announcers with emphasis on youth and beauty, the same sporting events, etcetera, and therefore we come under the illusion that globalization is at work, right down to the very core of journalism.
Western journalism is, and traditionally has been, at a distance from politics because it emanates from societies that fervently value the separation of journalism from political interests. While total independence is hardly ever achieved, the problem is significantly less acute than in the Arab world, where, behind every TV station, newspaper and magazine, there is a man of immense political and/or financial power and influence, or even a whole country with a heavy political agenda. In such climates there cannot be independent journalism. In most Arab countries, the typical citizen has gone straight from a lack of information (from state-generated and operated media) to what he or she now sees as freedom of information. In fact, what we are seeing is nothing more than diversity of manipulation.
Make news, not war
The presence of multiple agendas, even contradictory ones, is no guarantee of truth. They all serve to maintain an illusion of transparency and freedom of speech. In fact, TV stations have replaced the party system in the Arab world, and, to some extent, sects and religions as well. We are still waiting for real investigative journalism.
Traditionally, they say wars make TV stations: the Gulf War made CNN, the second invasion of Iraq made Al Jazeera. But look around: we have reached a stage where our stations are making the wars, not the other way around. And in today’s terms, that makes them a smiling, young, sexy Big Brother.
Things are a little different on the Internet, which has spawned a distinctive form of journalism, or rather anti-journalism, through the form of blogs. These do-it-yourself statements usually state unchecked facts that generate unfounded opinions, cluttering the air — and our minds — with rubbish. The Internet steadily undermines journalism and its values, encouraging the spreading of rumors without any investigation. It can at times serve as a voice of the people, but if people are already contaminated or even brainwashed by Big Brother in a society where journalism is still captive, corrupt and/or clouded by bias, it is merely a reflection of mediocrity.
If democracy is to put down lasting roots in our region, we have to start by separating political and confessional interests from journalism as much as we can. The job of the news media is to hold public figures to account, not to promote certain ones and/or tear down certain others. Real journalism cannot be part of either the government or the opposition; it has to be impartial and independent — or it ceases to be journalism. And without journalism, there can be no genuine democracy.
Philippe Skaff is the chief executive of OB-3 and former CEO of Grey Group MENA