Seeing is Not Believing

Is NBC ever red in the face. First it was the GM truck fiasco: A story on consumer safety showed a truck exploding. Turned out, the explosion was rigged; a sparking device had been taped to the truck to make sure it blew up. Then it was the Idaho fish fiasco: A camera showed nets full of limp fish, with a voice-over saying they'd been killed by pollution. Turned out, the fish weren't dead; they had just been stunned by electroshock. We expect news to be objective, to give us the facts. But today the networks are often more interested in supporting their favorite causes. The GM truck story wasn't objective information; it was a crusade against Big Business. The Idaho fish story wasn't news; it was an attack on logging companies for supposedly despoiling the wilderness. Modern newscasters treat news as a way of putting across a point of view. And if that sometimes means staging an event, what's wrong with that? Of course, most newscasters wouldn't put it quite so bluntly. There's been no end of handwringing over NBC's rigged footage. The president of NBC News has even been forced to resign. But the problem runs deeper than any one individual or network: It's endemic to the medium itself. As the late British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once explained, people tend to think, If I saw it with my own eyes, it must be true. But on television what you see with your own eyes may be highly contrived. I witnessed an example when I worked in the Nixon White House. Anti-war protesters once blocked traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue and a television cameraman arrived too late to film the event. Undaunted, he began setting up barrels in the street: He would have his traffic jam if he had to create it himself. Later I saw the footage on the evening news. Even when scenes are not deliberately rigged, in normal editing the images are chopped up, rearranged, sped up, slowed down, and finally reassembled to reflect what the reporter wants you to think. As Muggeridge said, "It's very nearly impossible to tell the truth in television." What troubles me is that some newscasters don't even see a problem with all this. When NBC got into hot water for its simulated truck explosion, one columnist—Richard Reeves—actually came to the network's defense. The old ideal of literal truth doesn't apply to TV, he argued. TV reporters see news as merely a lower form of entertainment. If trucks don't explode on cue, or fish don't die when they're supposed to, television reporters see nothing wrong with staging it. Commentators are calling the NBC episode a lapse in journalistic ethics, but it's much more than that, says Reeves. It's "the end of the old ethics" of truth and accuracy—which he calls hypocritical anyway—and the beginning of "a new non-linear information form." Well, it may be new but it sure isn't information. Staging events to advance a cause is what we used to call by its real name: propaganda. Today, more than ever, Christians need to be discerning about what we see and hear. The screen has become theater—and we need to watch it with a very critical eye.


Chuck Colson


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