I’ve been watching the television coverage of the latest war this week. (It doesn’t matter which, they are all the same.) No matter which network I watch, with the exception of Al Jazeera or the BBC, the major world networks seem to be driving their correspondents to ever lower forms of journalism in the mad rush for the most sensational of stories. I’d be disgusted except I’ve seen this many times before, both as sinning journalist myself, and as a Spokesman/communications type for the United Nations and many other relief organizations in wars and disaster areas for more than 15 years.
I’d write something new about it but this piece from the days of Albania Kosovo that I published in the National Press Club Magazine, Scrum, really says it all, so here it is.
After six weeks in Albania I’ve come to agree with how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle characterized reporters in his book, “The Lost World”
The term he used is Porcus ex grege diabola — the Devil’s Swineherd.
I suppose the usual and politically correct Canadian disclaimer should be inserted here, “Not all reporters. . .only some. . . a few. . . and certainly no one working for the CBC, the Globe, etc and etc. But the truth is different.
The media scene in Albania is no different from what it always is in disaster areas, indeed in many cases it’s the same people who were in Bosnia, Rwanda, Somalia, Ethiopia, or any other Bang Bang arena, but it is the most recent.
Here are some excerpts from the SITREPS, or situation reports, that I sent back to the people who sometimes hire me to be a Disaster Tourist.
“Well, the ravening beast is in full voice. Reporters from everywhere are tripping over themselves in a desperate attempt to find something to report.
There’s been a lull in the refugee story. In fact the story is in desperate need of a strong verb. I’m getting pretty sick of hearing BBC news stories on shortwave that every day start, “In the heaviest night of bombing yet, NATO warplanes. . . . .” Essentially the 800 or so reporters in this country find themselves in the odd position of having to go out and dig up news themselves.
Let me give you an idea of how the media circus looks in Tirana.
First of all, and as always, the reporters have taken over the main hotels. The Hotel Tirana International and the Hotel Europark Rogner have been booked solid for the last month. As a result, the managements have been able to continue jacking up the room rates. A month ago it would have been possible to get a decent cheap room in either hotel for 50$US. Today the same room goes for 230$ and the bill must be paid every three days or armed security guards will forcibly evict the unfortunate.
The roofs of both hotels look like NASA space tracking stations with television network aerials and satellite dishes. Shoving matches have broken out between twee coiffured television anchors trying to use the best standup positions. I’m beginning to wonder whether hotel rooftops are now the only place where television correspondents can report from.
Of the several hundred reporters in town there is a significant number who rarely leave the hotels and do all of their reporting by stealing from the BBC and CNN. This is normal and one sees it worldwide but it’s disgusting none the same. The true Bang Bang artistes who go up-country every day and get their hands dirty doing real reporting are openly contemptuous of these wretches who for some reason are all male. They should be presented with white feathers.
They trade rumor for fact and gossip as news. A lot of stuff is simply made up.
The hot story possibility at the moment is the end of the millennium equivalent of the avenging archangels, otherwise known as the Apache helicopters.
You wouldn’t believe how excited some of the media are about the silly things. Despite the fact that there are serious doubts that such behemoths of the air can actually contribute anything of significance to the war effort there are a lot of reporters who think that the arrival of the helicopters will be a defining moment in the history of the century.
The worst offenders are the CNN people. Despite being universally chided by their colleagues, American and otherwise, for being so relentlessly American centric and toy obsessed, they continue to devote huge resources to a story that may never happen.
An entire team of shooters and producers is on round the clock death watch at the airport. Another is rooted into the native habitat of CNN, the rooftop of a five star hotel, also 24 hours a day.
Any tiny rumor that the Apaches have landed anywhere in the country will cause grown men and women to vomit with excitement.
The other day, one of the pygmy giants of small J journalism pulled off another in his series of lifetime reporting achievements and garnered predictable derision by announcing the actual arrival of the Apaches. The problem was that dear old irresponsible Geraldo, standing on the roof of a five star hotel, thought that the regular, bog-standard, milk-run helicopter that passes over Tirana ten times a day was an Apache.
That’s like confusing a minivan with a Greyhound bus.
I now understand what Shakespeare meant when he warned, “Beware yon Cassius, he is a lean and hungry man.” or words to that effect.
What prompts this is a bizarre and revealing conversation I had with a freelance writer and photographer yesterday evening in the Rogner Hotel. The Rogner contains the main gathering place, (read boozing place) for the international media in Tirana.
I’ve taken to wearing a CARE armband as a form of identification for getting past the plethora of busybody guards which infest every government and private building of consequence in this town. Last night I forgot to take it off before entering the “gathering place” and since there was no one I recognized I found myself on my own. It only dawned on me much later that the reason why no one was inviting me to their table or willing to continue a conversation past a few words was the damned armband. Wearing it in a crowd of more or less off duty reporters in their private domain has the same effect as the presence of an insurance sales agent at a private party.
So there I was, standing alone at the bar, when this twenty something wanders up wearing the de rigeur multi-pocket vest stuffed with film rolls, pens, scabrous bits of paper, and draped with a shiny new Nikon. Young freelancer on the make. He might as well have been wearing a sign.
“Are you with CARE?”
Oh boy, I think. This will not be a high quality media contact for sure.
“Yes I am.” Introductions follow and. . .
“Any chance of getting out to the refugee camps?”
“You bet. There’s one just down the road near Dures.”
“No.What about in Kosovo?”
“Nobody is in Kosovo except refugees and Serbs.” I’m puzzled already.
“Well why not?
Why doesn’t CARE have any camps in Kosovo?”
“Because the Serbs control Kosovo, there’s a war on, and no one is allowed in.”
“Well I’m an American and I’m sure I can get in. If CARE is American why aren’t you in Kosovo?”
“It doesn’t matter if you are American, you might as well be from Alpha Centauri, the country is at war and if you did get in you’d be shot because Serbia is at war with the U-S along with the rest of NATO.”
“Look. I’m an American citizen and I pay taxes and I have the right to ask a government agency under the First Amendment to give me the information I need in order to inform the public. The American People Have the Right to Know buddy.”
This guy is a wingnut freshly polished by some minor state second rank journalism school. “CARE is independent of government. It is an international organization. We have no operations in Kosovo. I can’t help you.”
“Don’t you realize that you need the media? I can cause a lot of trouble in the states for you.”
“Just out of curiosity, how long have you been in Albania?”
“Hit the ground running this afternoon, I should get into Kosovo tomorrow if I can get some help out of people like you.”
“Well I wish you luck. Tell you what. See that guy over there with the cane, the guy in his sixties? He can help you. He’s a senior officer with the Kosovo Liberation Army. I’m sure he can lay on a helicopter for you to Pristina.”
With that, the dumb dork went over to the KLA representative who like me, but only when I’m wearing an armband, is shunned by the reporters.
I stripped off the armband and the rest of the evening passed in conviviality.
As for the freelancer. Look for him being the lead correspondent on your neighborhood weekly shopper newspaper.
Journalist to Relief Worker. “Are there any dead kids around?”
“Why aren’t there? You had some in Somalia.”