This is a somewhat longer post than usual. I just think the topic is fascinating. And it seems to fall within the self-created remit of this humble blog. 😉
You may have heard by now how Liz Wahl, an American newsreader for RT-America, resigned on air as she was concluding her 5 PM newscast on Wednesday. RT-America is part of the larger Russia Today (RT) cable TV channel that is funded by the Russian government. (The channel is seen in the U.S. mostly on the internet.) Wahl quit so publicly following a report that stated Ukraine’s new government was composed mostly of fascists and neo-Nazis.
Here’s CNN’s video of Anderson Cooper’s interview with Wahl. (A “non-major media” video I had previously thought to use for this post has been removed from YouTube.) It includes the final portion of her resignation:
Unsurprisingly, Wahl’s resigning in the manner she did caught many people’s attention. Young journalists, and uncountable others, have been assailing each other on Twitter and elsewhere on the net…. over Russia Today, its Ukraine and other reporting, and TV news “bias” generally. She’s thoughtful and honest to some; she’s a disingenuous, imperialist tool to others. Etc., and so on….
The 28 year old Wahl has since defended her action, also stating it was not about self-promotion. And this post is not about arguing about the propriety of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. Rather it is about how this debate on TV news “bias” that was set off partly by Wahl’s resignation sounds (no pun intended) all too familiar.
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Those born in the 1980s and 1990s naturally would not remember it first-hand. But us (slightly) older folks recall we’ve been here before. Despite the major means for disseminating information having moved on, the fundamental issue is, essentially, much the same it has always been.
In 2014, “national opinion” is ubiquitous on cable/satellite TV, and the web – including sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. But before the web, in the long ago 1980s, capitalist West and communist East had their dueling national shortwave radio outlets. (Shortwave still exists on the fringes, but in the face of rapid technological change, coupled with budgetary constraints, it is being cut back or even eliminated.) Then, as now, English language broadcasting was the premier “battlefield.”
There was the BBC World Service, with its oh, so, very British correspondents and Big Ben grandly striking the hour. The Voice of America had its formal, authoritative U.S. announcers, and its jazz programs. The USSR had its Radio Moscow, which increasingly put articulate, friendly-voiced, Paris-born (of a French mother), New York-accented (having spent some of his youth there), Vladimir Posner front and center. Other East bloc states had their stations also. Czechoslovakia’s Radio Prague may have had the best-sounding group of female hosts…. some of whom must have been drafted into radio owing to an ability to imitate Marilyn Monroe doing a Czech/Slovak accent.
It was easy for listeners to grasp that East bloc broadcasters were looking to justify Marxism-Leninism, and perhaps win over some Westerners to it. So of course those East bloc stations were biased. The far more pertinent question was not their “bias,” or anyone else’s, but if the content was accurate?
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The BBC World Service said, “This is London.” The Voice of America told us, “This is VOA News, from Washington.” The USSR declared, “You are listening to Radio Moscow.”
Enter cable TV news. CNN International sought to position itself as “apart” from any state. With its English language anchors hailing from all corners of the globe (including, from the early 1990s, from the former East bloc), CNN was not Britain, not the U.S., and not Russia. CNN may have been based in Atlanta, U.S.A., but it was supposed to be somewhere unto itself: “This is CNN.” In the 1990s, CNN spearheaded the globalization of English language TV news.
What we are witnessing now, however, is state funded TV others having not embraced CNN’s professed “statelessness.” They have instead adopted old shortwave-like nationalist news models, plus a new twist: the employment of native English speakers in order to appear as “unforeign” as possible in their operations in (or directed at) English-speaking countries. Hence why an American like Liz Wahl would be working for an RT-America in the first place.
That new dynamic has naturally blurred “statist” broadcasting “battle lines.” Russia Today is hardly unique in putting Americans, and other native English speakers (like Britons), in on air roles. Al Jazeera America (AJAM) operates similarly in hiring American and native English speaking anchors. A milder version is seen at France 24 (spoken as “France vingt-quatre”). More widely available on U.S. TV (I believe it is on Dish) than RT-America, France 24’s English language service regularly uses native English speaking talent, but it does also utilize fluently English speaking French (François Picard immediately comes to mind) in major on air roles.
(The BBC is something of an outlier. Technically, it is not state funded. Also, on its World News America the broadcaster does not appear troubled about “British accents” – such as those heard from “frightfully British-sounding” Katty Kay and Laura Trevelyan. Notwithstanding Piers Morgan’s asserting he believes Americans do not want to hear a Briton expounding on U.S. issues like domestic gun violence, the BBC appears to hold that non-British English-speaking viewers expect a “British accent” from anything named “the BBC.” So a British accent is what they get.)
In comparison, most on East bloc, English language, shortwave radio in the 1980s were nationals of those states. Given relocation to Siberia or promotion to street cleaner awaited them if they stepped out of line, it was extremely unlikely a Russian or a Czech/Slovak broadcasting from Cold War Moscow or Prague would ever have “gone rogue” on air as the American Wahl did from the safety of her own U.S. In that sense, if RT-America had employed an English-competent, thoroughly vetted, expatriate Russian woman to read its 5 PM U.S. newscast instead of Wahl, ironically it would likely not have run into the on air trouble it did with her.
Yet would a Russian-accented anchor have come across to U.S. news viewers as being as American, and therefore as “unforeign,” as Wahl? A “local” gives it an instant credibility boost, while sounding like a foreigner probably doesn’t. Want to influence U.S. opinion? It appears the idea now is put an American in the anchor seat.
But as the “informational targets” in this likely never-ending “war of words,” we should never allow ourselves to be distracted – by accents, looks, or anything else – from the bottom line issue. For example, above are the covers of a book I still have that had been published by the communist, Soviet satellite, East German government in 1981. (The pics may be enlarged with a click on each.) As we know, less than a decade later the East Germany described in such glowing terms on that back cover thoroughly imploded.
So was that book “biased”? Certainly it was. Far more importantly, how “accurate” was it?
Hope you’re having a good Sunday….