Watch, then learn

It’s feared – and it’s likely to play out – that the media circus will take down its tent and move on soon after the IDF unilaterally pulls out of Gaza and claims victory (which it has already started doing). It seems pretty obvious that next week, around the time of the inauguration, Obama will wade in on his white horse and the diplomatic machine will creak into action. Israel and Hamas will be made to scowl at each other across the diplomatic table and things will quieten down for a while. For the people of Gaza, and the relative few Israeli’s living outside the Palestinian ghetto, this will be a good thing.

The tragedy isn’t just that peace will likely remain a forlorn hope for the people of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, it’s that people who’ve been moved to mutter to themselves "oooh, isn’t it awful" before waiting for the snooker to get started will likely pay more blind patronage to the movements of the media as it makes it’s way to the next war zone. Right now some executive is spinning his globe, wondering where the next story will be breaking after the peace process stutters back to life and the ratings take a dive. It’s been a while since we saw Burma on our screens, he may think, remembering that it may be more heartening for viewers when you have a more obvious villain. Or maybe it’s time for Sri Lanka again, now that the resistance are in a full – and perhaps final – retreat? Or Darfur? Or Congo?

The problem with paying too much attention to the mainstream broadcast news media is that it acts with a herd mentality and has therefore no capacity to spread itself over a wide area. When one channel gets a sniff of some bloodshed that’s exclusive, the rest are programmed to follow. It isn’t just that we get the same subjects, but that they’re typically covered in the same way. There may be degrees of bias between the BBC and others (not much, it has to be said), but the tragic events of the present are rarely explained in any kind of meaningful context. Palestine is almost always portrayed as intractable, almost as if it’s "just the way things are", which isn’t only dangerously wrong, it serves to reinforce in the viewer a sense of helplessness. Gaza, Iraq, Sudan… it’s just one catastrophe after another, right? Yes, it does seem that way. Maybe the best we can all do is look out for ourselves, pay our taxes and generally be nice to people in the street. And watch more TV. (Or play games, in my case.)

It’s actually a lot easier to feel hopeful about things when you switch off the box and do some reading. Reading about issues (assume you’re reading the right books) provides the context that TV rarely delivers. And when you understand why things have developed as they have and why people are acting in such hateful ways to their neighbours, solutions begin to present themselves. Issues are only complex and intractable when you accept them as such by not seeking the knowledge that simplifies them. It’s often said that knowledge is power, and it is. The uneasy peace that will soon befall Gaza will be brokered by the US, and it may be some distance from being a lasting one, but the process will have been hastened by millions of people who have voiced an opinion fostered by understanding.

The irony is that the media of TV news is a necessary evil. The herding instinct does focus attention, as narrow as it often is. Without the cameras where they are right now, allowing us to rage against seeing the bodies of dead children arriving at under-resourced hospitals, there would likely be no firm foundation from which popular resentment can quickly grow as it has these past weeks. But when the cameras do move on and their gaze shifts to some other seemingly hopeless human tragedy based on greed or arrogance, we owe it to ourselves to take the time to educate ourselves in the void of the cameras leaving.

TV news is the kindergarten of understanding and it’s time people started graduating, or the tragedy of Gaza will forever be played out in endless repeats.

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