The Books of the Damned

Journalism and the Media in Eastern and Central Europe

By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.

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Written: February 5, 2000

"I have gone into the outer darkness of scientific and philosophical transactions and proceedings, ultra-respectable, but covered with the dust of disregard. I have descended  into journalism. I have come back with the quasi-souls of lost  data."
Charles Hoy Fort in "The Book of the Damned"

"Let me have the three major American networks and three leading newspapers for a year and I'll bring back public lynchings and racial war in the US."
Charles Simic quoting a Belgrade journalist

"We do not have censorship. What we have is a limitation on what newspapers can report."
Louis Nel, Deputy Minister of Information, South Africa

In the country of ex-Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim and current Nazi-sympathizer Jorg Haider, the xenophobic and anti-Semitic offering of local media come as little surprise. Austria, after all, contributed disproportionately to the Nazi death machine. But what seems to be a unique Austrian phenomenon is not. The media outlets in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe are easily interchangeable. In the same week of Austrian derision and paranoia, "Start", a trash weekly in Macedonia attacked the British Ambassador and the Americans for conspiring to dismantle Macedonia with the collaboration of its local, disloyal and haughty Albanian minority.

The media in the countries in transition is taxonomically not dissimilar to its brethren in the West. It, too, can be divided to five categories of ownership and agenda. What sets it apart, though, is its lack of (even feigned) professionalism, its venality and its tainted ulterior motives. I wrote about it elsewhere, in "The Rip van Winkle Institutions":

"And then there is the media - the waste basket of post communist societies, the cesspool of influence peddling and calumny. Journalists are easily bought and sold and their price is ever decreasing. They work in mouthpieces of business interests masquerading as newspapers or electronic media. They receive their instructions - to lie, to falsify, to ignore, to emphasize, to suppress, to extort, to inform, to collaborate with the authorities - from their Editor in Chief. They trade news for advertising. Some of them are involved in all manner of criminal activities, others are simply unethical in the extreme. They all have pacts with Mammon. People do not believe a word these contortionists of language and torturers of meaning write or say. It is by comparing these tampered and biased sources that people reach their own conclusions within their private medium."

The commercial media - the likes on "Nova" TV in the Czech Republic - are poor people's imitations of the more visible aspects of American mass culture. Overflowing with lowbrow talk shows, freaks on display, malicious gossip which passes for "news" and glitzy promos and quizzes - these TV stations and print magazines derive the bulk of their income from advertising. While ostensibly politically innocuous, they exert a subtle and cumulative influence on the numbed and dwindling minds of their spectators and readers. By conditioning their consumers to ever lower fare of pulp common denominators, they set a standard of no holds barred and no standards observed. They are the opium for the masses that religion once was, diverting potentially dangerous attention from real events and personalities to the staged alarms of public enemies and the artificial crises of bingo lotteries. No less persecutory than any totalitarian regime, these mass media are ominous symptoms of the social malaise of disillusionment with the realities of life and with more institutionalized modes of expression. They are escapism embodied, a dreamland, a scape of fantasy, the vale of telenovellas. Whole nations are in thrall. In Macedonia, the protagonist of a servant's saga, "Kassandra", was given a hero's welcome upon her visit to this impoverished and bitter land. Whole families consume hours of this visual Ritalin, hypnotized by cheap scenery built to resemble unattainable riches.

Then there is the mercenary media. These are groups of hired pens and keyboards - so called journalists who offer their services to the highest bidder. Their price is often pathetic: a lunch a month, one hundred deutschmarks, a trip abroad and a dingy hotel room. They collaborate with their editors and share the spoils with them. They are the whores of the profession, ever the hungry look, ever the hat in hand, ever the submissive and furtive glances of the serfs of capital. They often publish other people's self-serving communiqués without altering a word. I, myself, provided them with "interviews" which I, solely, have authored, questions and all. Too lazy to or embittered to invest in their profession, consumed by self-loathing and by general disdain - they let themselves be passively abused in the dirty intercourse of money and of influence.

The mercenaries often work in brothels known as "business-backed media". These are TV stations, daily papers and periodicals owned by the oligarchs of malignant capitalism and used by them to rubbish their opponents and flagrantly and unabashedly further their business interests. This phenomenon is most pronounced in this land of depredation and depravity, in Russia, where virtually all the media is now identified with and digested by business, mafia-like interests. Despite their infamous one-sidedness, they still claim neutrality and objectivity but these spurious claims are met with revolt by a hostile population, long trained to distrust the printed word and even the broadcast image. Thus the art of "reading between the lines" is flourishing again and the very language is distorted by its media rapists (see: "The Magla Vocables"). This - the abyss opening between the people and their language, the demise of true communication and the ensuing rupture in the social fabric - are the veritable damages of enlisted journalism.

Political vehicles are less pernicious in that their masters are well known and their itinerary clear. Always one sided, always half truthed, forever the righteous - these rags produce no riches and they preach to the converted, serving as bulletins and message boards rather than as media in any known sense. A rallying point, a flag, an emblem, a collective memory, the group's unconscious and conscience - these papers and TV channels are often widely read, even by rivals and adversaries. They are so self-absorbed, so narcissistic, so sickeningly partial that they make for fine amusement in dreary times. There are the coalition papers and the opposition papers, the left wing and the right wing and the centre ones. It is a colourful admixture of indignation and triumphalism, veiled threats and promises, trial balloons and drama, the daily equivalent of the romance.

Thus, Central, Eastern and Southern Europe do have daily papers and magazines and periodicals and television. What they do not have is media even remotely resembling the Western ideal. In some countries, this ideal is disparaged as a Western manipulative ploy or, worse, naive idealism. In others, it is a kind of holy grail to be pursued only in myths and narratives. Yet others view it with envy and aspire to it, but without much hope. To them, it is an ever-receding mirage. Perhaps that other phantasmagoria, the Internet, is the solution. In it, budding, fresh beginnings of irreverence and courage seem to coalesce into recognizable - though virtual - media. The small number of web surfers currently limits both their outreach and their survivability. But if Western trends are anything to go by, this is a temporary state of affairs. The Internet, this immaterial and ethereal medium might yet spawn the first real media and a return to reality. It might yet liberate the prisoners of all the telenovellas, foreign and domestic. It might yet win.

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