Assembly Line News and Popular Movements

Posted on October 20, 2011

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City Hall's Long Time Rat Problem, Pacified by Radical Documentary Outdoor Television

In 2000 I was in Ramallah when the Intifada al Aqsa broke out and I would go daily to the clashes. Stone-throwing seemed to be a kind of heritage building exercise. In the short term, it was mostly useless, since it rarely inconvenienced Israeli soldiers, much less harm them. What I’m saying is, I threw stones like everyone else did, and its not a big deal. It doesn’t make me a hero, or terrorist, just one among thousands of men and boys who engaged in this practice.

What was created by the image of stone throwing, however, was a media spectacle. A public stage, whereby powerless people, such as Palestinians, could wrest control of the narrative of their conflict and use the distraction to tell their own story. The world’s media just loves images of kufiyaehd youth in mid throw, silhouetted against the brilliant red and black background of burning tires, and so they make the front story of print and broadcast regularly. But for Palestinians, utilizing that public stage to tell a cohesive story was nearly impossible. And the followng anecdote explains why.

One day, while I was at the border between Palestinian and full Israeli control at the edge of Ramallah, covered in tire soot, sweat and dust, a tv crew showed up asking if there were any of us there that could speak English. Someone that I’d been chatting with earlier in the day came and grabbed me by the hand, and told me that they wanted an English interlocutor. As I walked over to the anchor and cameraman, I didn’t know what I’d say, but I hoped that the words that came out of my mouth would reflect what I was seeing. That they would penetrate the thick American skull of indifference to imperialism, and would at least sound reasonably intelligent. That they could be sincere, factual and most of all, help.  As I wracked my brain, the anchor asked:

”What will happen tonight?”

Because, as I should have realized, the crew was not there to be informed about the issues facing Palestinians or to understand why, after 7 years of a so-called peace process which did little but increase the number of colonists, land expropriations , and Palestinian prisoners, that it was that Palestinians were exploding in rage and frustration. They were there to manipulate Palestinians into saying something about firing at settlements later, or wilding in the streets, or something that could be cut to make Palestinians sound like hyper-emotional savages. As I knew full well, what would happen that night is that we would all walk back to Ramallah and go our ways until tomorrow, while some of the Tanzeem would take potshots at Israeli settlements that never harmed anyone, to my knowledge.

I really had expected some kind of relevant question about all these issues I just mentioned. I just repeated the question once or twice in slack-jawed amazement at how stupid and meaningless it was. The anchor exploded in frustration. Wasn’t there anyone here who could speak English, she cried. And she walked away cursing at her failure to nab her soundbite, so that she could knock-off for the day and crack open a cold one at the hotel bar in Jerusalem.

I learned everything I will ever need to know about media in those brief minutes. The media’s role is not to investigate popular movements like the Palestinian Intifada, nor, in this case, Occupy Oakland–nor the issues that they’ve evolved to address. Rather, they are at the scene to manipulate people into statements that can be sensationalized; and to gather visually stunning and impacting video, with no regard to the context, meaning or underlying dynamics of the situations they are encountering. Don’t bother them. They have a deadline, they have a mean boss and an editor, they have forty-five minutes or an hour to get everything they need to create the boilerplated hysteria that will air later in the evening disguised as the relevant happenings of the day. They want to get promoted, make the big leagues. They have a reputation of news-gathering to protect. And so on. And, of course, there is the main rule: don’t piss off anyone more powerful than your boss.

All of these exigencies assure that news is quite literally made by news producers, and its even worse for broadcast journalism. News is a commodity, it is manufactured under specific guidelines so precise that it could very well to be said to roll out on a conveyor belt in a styrofoam-filled box every night, and opened in graphics frame on your tv screen.  They don’t have time for journalism. That would involve asking deep questions. Asking deeper questions would elicit difficult answers, answers that would have to be sifted through and analyzed. And there’s not enough time for that. Why isn’t there enough time? Because the broadcast owners need to make money, they need to make content every day to make that money. Keep that in mind when you watch news reports about Occupy Oakland. Or of anything for that matter.