Stickman Readers' Submissions May 24th, 2010

The News Media Dilemma

Thailand has certainly earned its spot in the limelight again, and once more for unfortunate reasons. While events were unfolding during the escalation of the nation’s ongoing political crisis the international media delivered the latest developments onto the plates of millions of news consumers almost in real-time, putting a new spark into the discussion about media bias and the general quality of mainstream journalism. Open letters written by discontented and frustrated Thais made the rounds online, in a more or less feeble attempt to urge news producers to adopt a more balanced outlook, as well as to raise better awareness for the intrinsic complexities amongst its consumers.

CNN in particular, arguably one of the most dominating international news networks on this planet, found itself in the crosshairs of critics. Many Thais and international observers alike vehemently lamented its perceived shallow and lopsided reporting that in their eyes has had great potential to cause additional damage to Thailand’s internal state of affairs, economy, and the livelihood of its citizens.

One of those open letters that have been circulating was written by a young Thai lawyer, Ms. Napas Na Pombejra, who made a strong point in blaming CNN and its local correspondents for allegedly portraying the political turmoil in an unnecessarily sensationalist manner, negligent in resonating the often truly vile rhetoric of some of the red shirt leaders, and hardly showing the actions of the extremist branch of their followers who obviously took their messages to the heart. (e.g. “Not only should these soldiers die, the current government and army commander must die as well”, “If you see soldiers coming your way, I urge you to simply run them over with your vehicle”, “We will turn the city of Bangkok into a sea of fire” etc) All this while failing to adequately explain the Thai government’s point of view. For reference you can find her letter here: http://www.ireport.comdocs/DOC-446438

In yet another open letter, Mr. Somtow Sucharitkul, the famous Thai author, film director, and composer, has suggested that the root of all evil isn’t necessarily bad reporting, but mostly Western preconceptions about the legitimacy of a perceived just struggle of the downtrodden poor against a powerful and possibly oppressive state. He talks of the western vision of history as a series of liberations which he calls an inseparable part of the inheritance of western culture:

“Don't blame Dan Rivers, et al., who are only doing what they are paid to do: find the compelling story within the mass of incomprehensible data, match that story to what the audience already knows and believes, and make sure the advertising money keeps flowing in.”

You can find Mr. Surcharitkul’s letter here: http://www.somtow.org2010/05/dont-blame-dan-rivers.html

Media are almost always biased and more often than not misinformed. Unfortunately that is the nature of the beast, especially since news consumers have largely become used to sensationalism, ideally served in easily digestible bits of thrilling information, and exemplified by omnipresent and overzealous news alarms and bulletins. By and large news media are more concerned with being the first to break the news rather than deliver quality journalism, and most consumers crave their spoon full. Late Walter Cronkite’s last interview to Larry King comes to mind in which he lamented these developments and identified them as a cancer in today’s fast paced modern societies. The truth alone doesn’t necessarily make a good story worth telling. But what exactly is the truth anyway, and who ever claimed that you can expect it from the media in the first place? Any way you look at it, sadly delivering the so called truth is not always necessarily in the media’s best interest.

I work in a more or less opaque and inherently complex field of the aviation industry. Very few people outside of it have a good understanding about it, not even those who have similar professional backgrounds or work in related fields. On a regular basis the media dramatically fail to correctly interpret or explain incidents related to my professional field to the general public, yet its complexity is nothing compared to the many subtle nuances that occur in a volatile political environment like e.g. Thailand’s.

I appreciate open letters the likes of Zeze Na Pombejra, Somtow Sucharitkul, and others have written. I acknowledge their part in raising awareness and, most importantly, adding value to the discussion by giving food for thought. Their impact shouldn’t be overestimated though. Fact is that to most international consumers of news Thailand’s political plight has meant precious little as they haven’t been affected strongly enough. More importantly, most of the affected and unaffected alike have choices. Cancelling a vacation trip to Thailand may be inconvenient for some and a real hassle for others, but in the end there are too many alternatives out there for them to chose to really get seriously disrupted in their lifestyle and thereby forced to deal with the issues at hand more closely. Obviously there are exceptions.

Mr. Sucharitkul makes some very good points in his letter. On the other hand, when he writes about [quote] “the story is that it fulfilled a vision of history that is an inseparable part of the inheritance of western culture, that is so ingrained in western thinking that it is virtually impossible for an educated member of western society to divorce himself from it” [quote end] he does underestimate “western people’s” intellectual and analytical capabilities. It’s not that they are not capable of it, it’s that the vast majority of them are simply not affected and therefore don’t care much enough to really bother examining things closely and weighing opinions off against each other. To anyone living in Thailand or being in other ways connected to it, who obviously cannot ignore the circumstances and have to deal with its repercussions on a daily basis, this may seem unfair, but it doesn’t change the facts. Yes, the Thai government’s approach to PR was a blunder, and they could have done far better at explaining to the media and curious international observers alike. A stronger emphasis on highlighting the extremist elements, the hate speeches, and the deceptive reasoning and lies would have gone a long way. Of course that’s always easy to say with the benefit of hindsight.

Similar rings true for Mr. Sucharitkul’s argument about [quote] “in the western mindset, a deeply ingrained sense of the moral superiority of western culture which carries with it the idea that a third world country must by its very nature be ruled by despots, oppress peasants, and kill and torture people. It is because of this that Baghdad, Yangon, and Bangkok are being treated as the same thing. We all look alike.” [unquote]. I don’t think this is true. Also, most people are simply not affected enough to care. For the vast majority of the audience outside of Thailand their day to day problems, however small in comparison, are just much closer to home than Thailand’s political turmoil. This has precious little to do with feelings of moral superiority or racism, which may be a factor under some circumstances, but not in general.

People’s memories are generally short. Who thinks about Haiti these days which has been ravaged by the forces of nature in an almost unimaginably brutal way just a few months ago? Metaphorically speaking the rubble is still smoking yet people’s minds have already moved on. Haiti is at the US’ doorstep yet now there is an oil spill to worry about that’s far closer to home. I believe that if Thailand somehow manages to start a process of reconciliation the country will bounce back sooner than most people would expect, at least as far as the tourist sector goes. Of course, this is more easily said than done. Also, strategically operating companies with a business interest in Thailand are a different matter. For now let’s hope that we haven’t just entered the eye of the storm, but that the worst of it has already passed.

Stickman's thoughts:

I'm not going to comment on the excerpted complaints of those two Thais, suffice to say that in the last few years I have become much more choosy about where I choose to for "informed opinion". As far as international coverage of Thailand goes, CNN isn't great in my opinion and the BBC has gone downhill since Jonathan Head left. A shame, as he did a good job for the most part, I thought.

nana plaza