Looking earnest and intense, CNN’s senior international correspondent Nic Robertson hunkered down in trendy London to tell viewers how Prince Harry’s trials are far from over, even as the third in line for the British throne returns from fighting the Taliban. Prince Harry, the senior reporter gravely tells the camera, faces fanatical Muslims for challenging Islam and the faithful in faraway lands, an insult that demands avenging. At any rate it certainly means more CNN installments.
The story is a hoax, a joint PR effort of the royal publicity machine in collusion with a pliant press corps. Even to untrained journalistic eyes it reeks of Buckingham palace’s spin. That’s what British royalty does, but what’s the media’s excuse for swallowing it hook, line, and sinker?
The masquerade includes the “outing” after ten weeks of negotiated silence by media and the makings of a B-line movi: prince travels to face bad Muslims guys in Afghanistan, transforms from boozing playboy to just another bloke serving his country, a young man who meant to do well until a media betrayal forces him to return to the palatial life he spurned.
By coincidence, of course, choice moments of the episode were documented with filmed footage showing the royal lad shooting his machine gun at no one in particular, musing about how, dear oh dear, he hadn’t washed in four days and citing the immense pride experienced by his father Prince Charles and grandma the Queen. A Hollywood-Mayfair production. The press was mildly reprimanded for breaking the secret, and then given full throttle to revel in every aspect. As Chris Horrie, author and co-author of ten books about British tabloid culture aptly summed in commentary: “a fantastic publicity coup for Buckingham Palace.” No kidding!
The problem resides not with celebrities royal or otherwise, but the lamentable condition of media and its abject surrender to innuendos, ideological sparring, and giddy humbug as substitutes to reporting without fear or favor.
A recent contribution was the New York Times’ front page layout of presidential candidate John McCain’s presumed love affair, a story worked on for four months by four senior reporters and countless editors that delivered no sex and no scandal, instead leaving a most eminent newspaper stranded with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. It spoke more of a relentless left-wing drift by a publisher and his senior editors, a decade-long dilution of all the news that’s fit to print, and a rising panic of a print media in decline. The sad result was another stumble of a national American patrimony long abused by its skippers.
The collapse of basic journalism is a global phenomenon that started well over two decades ago with all-the-news-all-the-time, 24/7 cycles that now substitute simple facts for “the best political team anywhere,” a bunch of talking heads rebutting another and attack bulldogs flaunting ideologies of religious right or enervated left.
Al Jazeera presents terrorists and suicide bombers as Islamic heroes and martyrs. On this side of the pond, Fox News dismisses global warming as a demented conspiracy. Cartoon characters on Islamist networks’ children’s shows are championed by cub lions and baby rats that martyr themselves for jihad against Zionist ghouls.
Added to it is the journalistic personality cult, a decades-long reconstruction of reporters and anchorpersons as stars in their own right, members of some elite club. First loyalties are to political persona, and overall ideological persuasions of views of their publishers and owners along with entertainment, a principal value.
Thus the prince’s spin is passable as in why spoil a good story with any real questions. Never mind the lad served briefly under watchful eyes of minders with staged episodes filmed for the moment of the outing and a green light to partake in the profit of mediocre fairy tale mongering.
We traverse a serious crisis of credibility and trustworthiness where news is served a willing suspension of disbelief. The propaganda of Al Jazeera emulates an American model of decades ago. Instead of transmitting templates of freedom of expression, the U.S. media is offering freedom from journalistic discipline. You reap what you sow.
Youssef M. Ibrahim, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times and Energy Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is a freelance writer and Mideast political risk consultant based in New York.