TV news. It's effects are subtle. Because we are adults, we feel as though we can watch it with little consequence. Despite the fact that we rarely act on anything it presents besides the weather and the traffic, we still seem to find utility in it. Our children, however, may need some help by way of background information, analysis, and commentary. But not us. We are free-thinking adults. The TV news doesn't exert any untoward effects on us. Besides, the TV news comes through a television. Like other things in our homes, we can turn it on and off. We can change the channel. We are in control.
Filler for Commercials
With most of us being decent human beings, more often than not, we like to assume the best. So, for example, we tend to think that insurance companies exist to assist us in times of need. We like to think that pharmaceutical companies are working diligently to produce needed medicines for the sake of improving quality of life and relieving illness. And, most of us are of the opinion that the primary function of television news is to provide the public with information.
While these may indeed be the intentions of some individuals in these various industries, these are by no means their primary functions. Maybe secondary. Maybe tertiary, but certainly not primary. These industries exist to make money. And while most of us might say, "Well, yeah, of course," it is still a concept worth reflecting on. News is merely filler for commercials.
Television is made up of abrupt changes in scenes, pictures, and sounds. These changes are quite intentional and serve to keep our attention. If we continue watching, we are more likely to purchase the products aired on the commercials.
Conceptually, we are forced to move from one issue to the next, with commercials in between. In a matter of seconds, our thoughts might go from what is happening in Jerusalem to which toppings we want on our pizza. Then we hear about collateral damages in Afghanistan, quickly followed up with the latest sports news. Our thoughts become disorganized and we fail to see order in what is portrayed as chaos. We feel horror and shock at the beginning of the program only to have it followed by a lighter segment of "news" about a dog show or the latest charity fundraiser. And when that is all through, we get a little taste of the newscasters joking back and forth with the meterologist. The structure of news programs does not lend itself to analysis.
How can we make sense of it all?
How-and-What vs Why
Whether we are conscious of it or not, the information portrayed by television news is very clearly focused on the "what" and the "how". The "why", however, is often absent.
When the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya were bombed, the news coverage spent an inordinate amount of time on the exact goings-on of what color the van was, what the security guard was thinking when he saw the van, what class of explosive was used, etc. Elaborate three dimensional computer-generated images were displayed, zooming in and out, with voice overlay describing what the person looked like and which group was likely the responsible party. This went on ad nauseum. Never was the question asked, "Why would someone do this horrible act?" Or, "Why bomb the US embassies? Why not someone else's?" Only how they did it, and what happened.
Why did they do it? I may not know, but at least ask the question. If the question is asked, it may get probed further. If our journalists sought answers to this question as vigorously as they sought the answers of how and what, they might discover a people discontented with US imperialist and oppressive activities overseas. If the American people hear what the US and her allies are perpetrating overseas, they may stand up against it. They may change their vote. They may finally side with the oppressed.
The same basic question can be applied to the October 2000 killing of three Israeli soldiers during the Palestinian uprising. If you recall the event, four soldiers found themselves in Ramallah and were taken into Palestinian police custody. The people broke into the police facility and killed three of the soldiers. Every intricate detail was noted on the news. How they got in, what was said when one of the Palestinians answered the cell phone of one of the soldiers, etc. Never was the question asked, "Why did they do it?" Any free-thinking logical human being would realize that this is the result of war and oppression. The Palestinian people have been suffering through atrocities for over fifty years at the hands of Israel. And, they were not killing children. They killed soldiers...men of war...during war. Furthermore, the "why" question was never pointed at the media itself. Why did the outcry over the death of three Israeli soldiers overshadow the death of over one hundred Palestinian civilians? Were we to answer this question, we might begin to question our source of information.
Lies, Illusion, and Politics
Allah Subhannahu Wa Ta'aala warns about the fasiq (liar, evildoer, etc):
O you who believe! If a fasiq comes to you with any news, verify it, lest you should harm the people in ignorance, and afterwards you become regretful for what you have done. Holy Qur'an 49:6
CBS and ABC reported in 1990 that a Kuwaiti refugee gave testimony before congress as an eye witness to Iraqi troops pulling babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals. Did this have any role in helping to convince the US congress and public to accept a war with Iraq? Probably so. It was not until months after US bombs began to fall that it was revealed that this "witness", herself a daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador, was coached by a public relations firm. 20/20 and 60 Minutes both aired specials in which Kuwaiti doctors denied such events ever occurring.
This was a case of lies being used to stir public opinion into fervor. Now for a case of timing. It was surely no accident that the strikes against Afghanistan were announced to the nation ten minutes before NFL kickoff on Sunday (12:50pm). This caused a delay in some of the games to allow the crowds time to watch the President's speech. Many were reported to start chanting "U-S-A U-S-A!!" And anyone who remembers CNN's coverage of the Gulf War remembers the football analogies. Why do the speeches of the players after winning a game sound strikingly similar to the interviews with US generals in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is war just a game? Is news entertainment? Should we not consider the news to be a fasiq?
Let's put aside quality for a second. The number of words said in a half hour news program will all fit onto one page of a newspaper. One page. And this makes sense when we consider the time involved. In one half-hour news program there is approximately eight minutes of commercials, leaving twenty-two minutes of "news". Now, were we to further eliminate the time consumed by introductions, closings, sports, and weather, we would find about fifteen minutes of airtime. Is this enough time to report information and couch it in any kind of historical context? We are formulating opinions based on fifteen minutes?!
Diarrhea of the Mouth & Constipation of Thought: A Society of Opinions
Having worked in a large institution for quite some time, I have come to notice a phenomenon that I find to be quite troubling. That is, oftentimes, people merely regurgitate what they hear on the news. Whether it is about OJ Simpson, the World Trade Center, who wore what to the Grammy's, or some national leader's latest dance with the Shaytaan, it does not matter. Everyone has an opinion. And now that the US media is concentrated in the hands of only ten companies, who's opinion would one guess we regurgitate?
Regurgitating what the news media has to say about a particular issue opens us up to grave sins. Backbiting, slander, wasting time, and vain, useless talk are all sins which lead to the Fire. The Prophet (peace be upon him) warned us that most of the dwellers of the Hellfire will enter it because of their tongue. Allah Ta'aala says:
Do not backbite each other. Would any of you wish to eat the meat of your dead brother?! No, you would abhor it. Holy Qur'an 49:12
The Muslim, then, must beware. The Prophet (peace be upon him) defined backbiting as saying something about your brother that he would not want you to say. When his companions asked him, "What if what we are saying is true?" His response (peace be upon him) was that even then, it constitutes backbiting. If it is not true, it is slander. These are both horrendous sins.
So my recommendations are as follows:
Recommended Readings & Sources:
Web Author: Abu Aasiya