Today's guest post is by Peppercommer Carl Foster.
Like many international travelers, the first thing I do when I arrive in a foreign hotel room is switch on the TV and flick through the channels for some English speaking news. More often than not, the only such channel I find is CNN International, the global sibling of CNN, “the most trusted name in news.”
CNNi is a bit like CNN, but with more feature programming, something that is a nice change of pace from the usual rolling news. You would expect to think that this feature programming is editorially independent, right? Well, read on.
As reported by Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian, CNNi’s “Eye On” series, like “Eye On Lebanon,” is typically produced “in association with” the respective government of the country being featured. It takes some digging to find out exactly what “in association with” means. For example, for the “Eye On Lebanon” piece the “in association language” appears in greyed out text at the very bottom of the webpage (see screen grab).
Outside of the Middle East, CNNi continues to trade on its reputation. As reported in eurasianet, CNNi’s “Eye on Kazakhstan” ends with an "in association" disclosure that merely shows two unnamed corporate logos. Eurasianet reports that, “those logos are of agencies of the Kazakh government, though the average viewer would have no way of knowing this. The program also features an expert guest who, undisclosed to the viewer, is an employee of the Kazakh government.”
The CNN website describes its sponsorship policy, and claims that “at no stage do the sponsors have a say in which stories CNN covers, which people CNN interviews or how we present our editorial content” and that, “the editorial content is commissioned and produced solely by CNN editorial staff or external contractors approved by CNN editorial.” While this policy may stand up in court, it doesn’t ring true to the casual viewer. There may not be direct editorial control by sponsors, but if a major global news organization is producing editorially balanced features on countries such as Lebanon and Kazakhstan, I would imagine some reporting such as:
“When you arrive first arrive in Kazakhstan be sure to notice the NATO military transports shipping equipment out of Afghanistan,” or, “no trip to Lebanon is complete without a visit to the mine-riddled, Hezbollah-controlled southern border with Israel.”
A more worrying result of the blurred lines between church and state is CNNi’s refusal to broadcast an hour long documentary on the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain. The documentary, titled "iRevolution: Online Warriors of the Arab Spring” is a hard-hitting piece – you can see it here on YouTube. But it appears it is too hard-hitting to show on CNNi, even though it is perfectly suited to CNNi’s audience. Why? One could suggest that since 2008 and the drop in advertising revenue in the US, CNN has become less profitable, and so it looks to its lucrative international sibling to make up the numbers. Indeed, why would a news organization want to unnecessarily upset a sponsor, or potential sponsor, by broadcasting a documentary on one of the biggest news stories of the year?
The financial challenges that media organizations currently face are more than just a business issue; they are a challenge to freedom and democracy in all parts of the world. For sure, social media represents the future, and it has already played a significant role in democracy movements, such as the Green revolution in Iran. But we need publications such as the New York Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and Le Monde, who can speak with the authority derived from 100 plus years of publishing. Commercial pressures, no matter how acute, should not tarnish this authority and reputation.
Before I entered the big wide world of work, I taught English in Moscow. In one class I was discussing a news article with one of my adult students. His first question was, “who published it?” I looked at him and could see the suspicion of a man steeped in decades of Soviet totalitarian repression. We’re a long way from the old Russian saying about the two main Soviet newspapers, “In Pravda there is no news and in Izvestia there is no truth,” but as news organizations succumb to commercial pressures and blur the lines between church and state, we will all increasingly ask, “who published it?”