Wednesday, August 13, 2014

(No.270) CNN -- promoting ignorance

"CNN (and some others) and the promotion of citizen ignorance"

by Alastair Rickard

Given the discouraging level of ignorance of both history and current affairs of many if not a majority of North American adults, it is hardly surprising to see popular media (cable news particularly) contributing to that ignorance by, for example, fastening on an event involving the deaths of a few people or even several hundred people, over-egging an event in order to have it appear to approach a level of almost unprecedented gravitas.

It's so much easier and more appealing in terms of television ratings to provide pictures of, say, family members of the deceased in their public grief than to pull back and provide some proportionality and factual context.

An example: in referring to the (murdered?) occupants of the Malaysian Airways flight 370 out of Singapore, some of whose passengers were Indonesians, it could have been apt to point out that in 1965-66 an estimated 500,000 Indonesians were murdered by their country's military government and its various proxies settling different scores. This anti-Communist pogrom has been called one of the great unpunished crimes of the 20th century, a bit grander a reference point than the fate of a single aircraft (q.v., Elizabeth Pisani, "Indonesia Etc.").

Or consider the fact that CNN, the American cable news network, has not devoted 1/1000th of the airtime it spent nearly 24/7 for two months on the March 8, 2014 disappearance of Flight 370 ( coverage presenting for week after week little more actual news than was known a couple of days after it vanished from radar) to the long standing and still occurring deaths of more than 2 million civilians in Africa's Congo wars.

But of course for ratings-driven news executives that's no reason not to fill the broadcast schedule with hour after hour of talking heads and their repetitive opinions and endless speculation involving the fate of fewer than 300 people.

After all, media executives are convinced that they know how interested (or not) potential viewers will be in the historical facts and context which provide definition and establish importance for news events if only because they expect interest will be determined in part by the level of knowledge viewers have with which to frame what they see and hear.

That knowledge level or its absence will involve not merely what the citizens of a country are taught of their own history and that of other countries but also (as in today's Canadian school system) whether they are required to be taught anything at all beyond a few politically correct platitudes and generalizations under the rubric of "social studies". Even in those Canadian provinces that still require high school students to take at least one history course in 4 years most will graduate inadequately informed about their country's history and political system.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian David McCullough refers to today's younger Americans as a generation of historical illiterates (I doubt Canada can claim any superiority on that score). Apart from public broadcasters in the U.S. the American commercial and cable news networks are not just not helping, they are a negative factor.

Another example: today the majority of Americans would if asked deny that their country for years operated as a European-style colonial power, one responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands. It is unlikely that they will as students have learned that the United States, having taken the Philippines away from Spain in 1899, faced a Filipino insurrection.

By 1902 the insurrection had been largely put down, a major military effort requiring the use of 3/4 of the U.S. Army at great cost in blood: the deaths of 4,200 U.S. troops, 20,000 Filipino fighters and an estimated 200,000 Filipino civilians who died from famine and other causes (q.v., Stanley Karnow, "In Our Image: America's Empire In The Philippines"; Doris Kearns Goodwin, "The Bully Pulpit").

Is it likely that an informed citizen would today argue that there is a significant qualitative difference between the U.S. suppression of the Filipino Insurrection and, say, the war waged by the French between 1954 and 1962 to keep its Algerian colony, a war that cost the lives of 400,000 Algerians and 35,000 French, an effort in which torture and execution were widely and freely used by the French before De Gaulle eventually pulled France out of Algeria? (q.v., Bejamin Stora, "Gangrene and Forgetting"; General Paul Aussaresses, "Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Algeria, 1955-57").

Today one encounters with depressing frequency the views of people who talk as if the world only began when they first appeared in it. Or that knowledge of anything that happened before last year is -- if not quite ancient history -- unimportant. Or that another survey of Canadians' historical knowledge  reveals (yet again) an alarming proportion of respondents who can't identify Canada's first prime minister and/or think that George Washington was somehow involved with Canadian Confederation.

Doubtless I belong to that group whose members are regularly described in certain media editorials as cynical but I have not forgotten the best defintion of a cynic: it is what an idealist calls a realist.




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