Stay calm, but watch what you watch

by Ant Katz | Jan 05, 2016

Careful what you consume on news channels and save yourself being as angry as I was today!

Anyone who has ever known a journalist, knows that any newsman worth his or her salt lives, breathes, eats and sleeps the news. It’s on their car radios, their TVs, their daily and weekly reads – and come Sunday, oh Sunday, when one can read a variety of titles, often in various languages, and see what the story-behind-the-stories of the week have pulled out of the woodwork.

Then there are the opinion and analysis pieces that come with the weekend. Yep, each journalist has their own choices of reads – but you’ll never find them in a bank queue or  playing games on their phones. Oh no, not at all – as if they hadn’t had enough of it elsewhere, even in their most personal of moments they are checking the apps, tweets and newsfeeds to see who is saying what.

We journalists never quite agree on anything when it comes to “what media…” - much like our associates: The columnists always have different opinions; the analysts reach vastly divergent outcomes despite analysing the same data; and we all trust different sources and pundits to call upon on the issues of the day.

One of the things most quarrelled about by journos over a beer, however, is which international news channel is the most trustworthy.

16 India homeOf course, this issue doesn’t have a single answer. It’s more like a plethora of answers. Each has ‘better’ coverage in different areas – depending on their representation there at the time and their editorial policy.

This tends to follow where the channels viewers are – like SA Jewish Report Online has more foreign readers in the US and Israel, and hence more resources to deliver them news local to them – and less in India.


Despite my career-long understanding of these dynamics, one news channel really made me cross today!


Personally, my general viewpoint is that BBC World is the most balanced overall, both in terms of coverage and editorial slant. The latter would be, say, if there is an incident between Israel and Hezbollah, who (and whom) gets interviewed and more face time.

Of course, however, they have a tendency to be sympathetically home-boys on issues where British soldiers or sports teams are involved. Although state-owned, they are completely separated in policy by numerous laws that are vigorously enforced. They also spend way too much time where their viewers are and less on world news per se.

RT and CCTV can be written off for what they are, state-owned Russian and Chinese propaganda channels – except when reporting about areas where they have little interest – and even then they would therefore have no resources and rely on Reuters, AP, AFP or similar wire services.

Sky News often offers the most professionally unbiased reportage of issues. Remember 9/11? But they tend to be very parochial – of the view that their international viewers are mainly British. They also have far too much about wealthy and populous Commonwealth countries. No bulletin would be complete without mention of Australia, India, etc.

CNBC is very much a business news channel, and gives us anything that could affect the business climate. It’s often interesting and certainly informative, both for its target audience and, depending what the issues of the day are, it’s good for those of us who aren’t in the financial service industry too. Given the day...

So, what is SA Jewry really left with?

Three channels that are worthwhile, and one of which is invariably running in my house, are CNN, Enca and AlJazeera.

I generally check if there is something of value at headline time on Enca, otherwise it is more the sport and weather slot I like to follow daily. Their coverage of the Middle East is generally well-balanced, something they are often at pains to ensure.

That leaves CNN International/English and AlJazeera English/Europe and Africa. These two media houses are the giants of independent international news broadcasting and both run multitudes of channels tailored for specific markets.

Since AlJazeera managed to get their hands on Al Gore’s channels in 2014 – and thus beat the collusive efforts to keep them out of the US and Canada – what was already their good English offering suddenly became great! The more viewers, the more resources one can afford to bring to the party.

Prior to 2015 I had generally toggled between CNN and Al Jazeera. Except when there were big Middle East issues at play, then I found CNN more honest and objective (despite an ongoing cacophony of Zionists who seemed to expect the channel to be the mouthpiece of the Israeli State and always complained it was biased against Israel.)

Generally, however, I have increasingly found AlJazeera to be more objective in its Mid-East reportage – maybe that is because of its newfound US/Canadian market of both users and advertisers.

Sure, they run a lot of special historical programmeJ of the Israeli/Palestinian question. And yes, these tend to be what we would call biased against Israel. But then, the Israeli history we hear is surely also biased. After all, they say, all history is written by the victors.

What does annoy me about some of the AlJazeera specials is that many are originally made for Arab-speaking audiences and run with subtitles. That means I have to ‘watch. Them when a lot of my TV news consumption consists of ‘listening’ more than watching.

Time to separate the men from the boys

However, in any media organisation, the real separator between boys and men comes over the last week in December and the first week of January.

Each and every year, 24-hour news purveyors are challenged to their limits. Each one is affected by the same factors, albeit in different proportions:

  1. Less news happenings - as every facet of life, globally, shuts down;
  2. Fewer consumers – they’re on holiday, overworked or nothing is happening;
  3. Lower-grade staffing – better staff get first dibs on holidays and in a time of less many media houses insist that senior staffers take off while consumption is down;
  4. Less staff available – because the taking of leave peaks at this time; and
  5. This leaves one reliant on a small, often under-skilled workforce should an unexpected major news event occur.

How do they deal with this?

Different news organisations deal with this situation in different ways. Incidentally, the first 24-hour news channel, Cable News Network (or CNN) was started for just this reason. They offered the many local news channels in the US a service which provided national and international news – thus effectively sub-contracting the news for smaller channels when local news was thin.

FIRSTLY: many news media providers simply close for the period. Time and Newsweek and many other news magazines, for example, have a bumper double-issue full of old news packaged into lists – the Top-Ten of this and the Top-20 of that – which is produced and updated through the year. This allows them to literally close down for two or three weeks.

Small-staffed local or niched news organisations also tend to have only one person who can perform each task and so they tend to close, so everyone gets their leave over at once – and is present for the remainder of the year.

Similarly, news and general-interest monthly titles tend to publish early in December and late in January – for the same reason. There is more demand for their product in early December and no money to pay for it in early January.

SECONDLY: news organisations that have to provide news around the clock will operate with smaller staffing over this period, throughout the delivery chain. Reporters, presenters or subs, producers, editors, or photographers, all facets of the organisation is reduced to allow the operation to continue producing and delivering the same amount of news with a very much smaller staff.

Another decision that the major players have to make is that they have to keep some staff on stand-by, in case a newsworthy disaster strikes or their internal resources are flooded, suffer fire damage or something of that ilk. It is normal that stand-by staff are paid a retainer or credited with some additional leave as they are not able to travel as freely, etc.


Making this all happen properly

(Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten the purpose of this blog, I am just setting the scene. We’re nearly done.)

That’s the strategic decision dealt with. Then, the question facing the media executives before they go off on their own holidays, becomes: How to tackle this challenge tactically?  

Their options are basically to leave a poor, sometimes rather mediocre or skilled skeleton staff behind in each area of activity. Not an easy decision as one doesn’t want technical glitches, trainee presenters or the wrong thing being in the wrong places (be it pics in a print product or video on TV). That is the tactical issue facing them during the time of lower consumer demand: much less advertising and huge demand for leave by their staff.

16 IndiaSo, now we get to the tachlis, the operational decisions each makes. And this is the subject of my blog, too. As I am the skeleton staff for SAJR users (and our numbers actually go up in this time – but that’s a subject for another blog), I elected to house-sit for my son’s family and so I have been working in his dining room on his wifi for several weeks now – with news TV running in the background.

With my much higher than normal consumption of electronic media, I noted that CNN and AlJazeera had taken two very different decisions – on the front end of things, which all I can see, anyway.

AlJazeera’s presenters have consisted of many faces I have never seen before. And they have been backed up by inexperienced technical teams, too. I know this as I have seen several house adverts cut short, video material that didn’t correspond to the news item, and similar basic errors that I am not used to on the channel. In fact, if anything, I would score the ‘normal’ AlJazeera #1 for face and tech presentation.

Au contraire, I’d noticed that CNN International had kept a lot of their front-line presenters on over the holidays. They did have to shuffle them around the world a bit, and they do have to give more face-time than normal, but they are there. No newbees at all. I see very few of their main correspondents, however, as there have been few major breaking news events – but I am sure there are some on stand-by, with a good geographic spread . And I guess that production teams across their myriad channels are working together to have a high quality (but small) staff at the back-end too. Also with editors, etc, on stand-by should the big story come.

So what so annoyed me today?

An AlJazeera presenter whom I had never seen before last week, after interviewing a Palestinian politician on the charging of the Israeli Jews under terrorism laws for the murder of three Palestinians in a Duma, West Bank, firebombing recently.

After closing off the interview, the presenter then said something that, wether ad-libbed or scripted, was so unprofessional that I don’t believe it would have happened in a normal time. The presenter said something along the lines of: “Now there’s something we don’t see a lot. It is usually Palestinians who are charged with terrorism!”

I can’t remember ever hearing something that so infuriated me. At first, I thought my ears were deceiving me. I ran to the lounge, paused and replayed the item.

I had heard right. I found myself talking to the TV like it was an animate person. “Duh. Lady. When did you last hear of an Israeli Jew committing terrorism?” I shouted at her. “That was probably the last time a Jew was charged with terrorism!


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