News stories with conflict generally stir more interest than those without. That’s why top news stories are wars, murders, scandals, intense disagreements and the like.
One problem with this is that news professionals emphasize, accentuate, exaggerate and even sometimes deliberately aggravate differences and conflicts to make their stories more gripping. In the end, we may see polarized perspectives that bear little resemblance to reality. This can be entertaining or upsetting, but it doesn’t help educate the public or solve any social problems.
Consider August’s raft of heated articles, letters to the editor, radio phone-ins and TV coverage about panhandling hurting Victoria tourism. All of that erupted from a Times-Colonist story about a man who’d written to the Empress hotel, indicating he’d never hold a conference here because of the “homeless people” constantly “hounding” him.
One catch: The letter had been misquoted. Monday Magazine‘s Russ Francis ran a more complete version, revealing that the man had indicated he might nevertheless bring tours here. That’s like quoting someone saying, “I’m leaving you”, and cutting, “but I’ll return soon, honey.”
And the man had actually complained about our “countless homeless children”. T-C writer Kim Westad and Empress manager Roger Soane gave me different explanations for how “people” surreptitiously replaced “children”.
“I didn’t change the quote,” Westad said. “That’s how it was read to me.”
Soane said he never read anything to Westad. “When she phoned me, off the top of my head… I said look, it said something like this, and I didn’t go root out the letter.”
Soane dismissed it as “splitting hairs” about “how you define children”. But is it all the same whether a political leader called his party’s teenage and adult female members “women”, “girls”, “chicks” or “babes”? Word choices can reveal a lot.
In this case, when the writer conjurs images of hordes of child beggars chasing him, one wonders if he’d visited Victoria or Calcutta. It provokes questions: Is his opinion, like many people’s, based partly in irritable, fearful, even slightly delusional exaggerations about panhandlers’ intrusiveness and impacts?
But these undermining and moderating elements were pruned out and left undiscussed. The result painted a more polarized picture demonizing panhandlers that grabbed attention and stoked public hostility.
So this kind of careful misquoting and misrepresenting can have goals other than just providing entertainment. That becomes clearer when we examine coverage of middle eastern affairs.
You’ve probably heard that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared “the Holocaust is a myth” and Israel should be “wiped off the map“. These quotes miraculously became ubiquitous in news stories about Iran shortly after the U.S. started proposing military strikes to prevent Iranian nuclear energy development.
However, metaphorical phrases like “wiped off the map” rarely translate directly. Shout “It’s raining cats and dogs!” in German to Germans, and you’ll see on their faces what I mean. Meanwhile, “myth” has several different meanings. I wasn’t the only person, therefore, who immediately started wondering how accurate the translation from Persian was. Various language experts began debating on the internet and in alternative magazines (see here, here, and best of all here for starting points), and recently the BBC, New York Times and others issued (largely ignored) clarifications and corrections. The consensus is that Ahmadinejad said something more like the following (I summarize and paraphrase):
In some minds, the reality of the Holocaust has attained a mythical, almost religious status which is often used to justify horrendous injustices against the Palestinians.
The current government in Israel is a corrupt occupying force and should vanish from the arena of our times, as have the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Soviet Union vanished.
Perhaps still objectionable to some, but far from Holocaust denials or calls for nuclear annihilation.
Similarly, numerous federal politicians and news stories have stated that our new official enemy Hezbollah declared they “want the genocide of all Jews”. No middle east experts I’ve consulted knew where that demonizing, utterly-false misquote originated.
Obviously, when the topic is war, journalists don’t need to juice up the conflict. So why are they doing it? The real wars are overflowing into wars of words. And our reporters and politicians, like we ourselves, want to demonize people with whom we’re in conflict. It makes us feel better about ourselves. If my girlfriend is an evil, lying, world-destroying witch, then it’s very good that I keep her locked inside, isn’t it? And in wartime, the ability for us to pump up public sentiments in this way must be as vigorously promoted and protected as the nation itself.
Indeed, I’d argue that’s one reason Israel, Canada and the U.S. started working to overthrow Hamas in Palestine, even before the duly elected Hamas had one hour in office to show how it might behave. Every day Hamas remains in power is another day more for it to dawn on ordinary people that, if they now represent a democratic nation-state, then Hamas’ right to virtually any type of violent, pre-emptive self-defense is as acceptable as Israel’s, the United States’ or anyone else’s. Suddenly then, the line distinguishing our noble “defense of nation” from their “terrorism” is completely gone, and our whole modern military crusade needs re-examination.
But that’s not about to happen. We might as well start referring to panhandlers as mobile charity workers offering us a real chance to contribute to a better city, and to most businesses as dressed-up beggars hocking ultimately worthless goods. That’s higher ground in the war of words which some people simply will not surrender.