The Politics of Media Coverage

There are certainly better things to talk about than the shenanigans of Dutch journalists. However, the past week has seen a couple of disputes, involving several “high-profile” Dutch journalists, play out over questions of taste, decency, and ethics. At the centre of these disputes lie issues of masculinity, femininity, Otherness and the cult of personality. If anything, these arguments exposed the systems of power that are easily overlooked.

What had sparked off the discussion was a column written by Naema Tahir for the programme Buitenhof. In her piece Tahir makes a compelling argument for barring certain journalists from the Binnenhof – the inner sanctum of masculinity. She refers to “reporters,” like Rutger Castricum and Danny Ghosen of PowNews, whose journalistic style is best described as punking. Of course, enfant indécent Rutger Castricum did not take too kindly to Naema Tahir’s words. He and a camera man showed up unannounced at Tahir’s home where Andreas Kinneging, Naema Tahir’s husband, allegedly manhandled Castricum. Both Rutger Castricum and Danny Ghosen specialize in ambush journalism and manufactured conflict. Theirs is a world in which rules of moral and social etiquette do not apply. These dudes are notorious for taking their PowNews ambush technique, a mixture of rhetorical violence, humiliation, shaming and “humour,” to exasperating lengths in order to get footage of their favourite quarry (i.e. politicians) getting flustered in front of the camera. To the amusement of many Rutger Castricum showed that when the shoe is on the other foot the grand punker himself has trouble maintaining his poise.

Pownews does not offer any substantial insights in the general run of things in their reporting, nor do they differ much in style and content from De Telegraaf, Elsevier or, say, the Volkskrant. Most Dutch media outlets nowadays cater to the most mean-spirited and voyeuristic of human instincts: the desire to witness the suffering and humiliation endured by others. “Humilitainment,” the tendency for viewers to be attracted to spectacular mortification, is often presented as investigative journalism.

Yet, there are some who perceive a difference between those outlets and the rest of the civilized world. Jeroen Pauw and Paul Witteman – the self-appointed wardens of the civilized world – invited both Tahir and Kinneging to discuss Tahir’s column and the scrap between Kinneging and Castricum. At the table was also sat the confrontational Jos Heymans of RTL Nieuws who challenged Tahir’s and Kinneging’s defense of the curtailment of the freedom of a certain kind of press with a dogged viciousness. Apparently, journalists are not required to reflect on their journalistic practices, nor on whether there’s room for improvement in what they do and how they go about doing it. The current journalistic convention does not necessitate moral scruples; one can speculate, say or do anything – be it true, false or annoying – in order to achieve one’s goals, or elicit a reaction, without being held accountable.

In the bustle to obtain a scoop, Dutch journalists, like Jos Heymans, seem to forget that the influence of Dutch media on public conversations (the sphere of consensus) is considerable. The politics of media coverage cannot be ignored. Jay Rosen writes,

“[That] journalists affirm and enforce the sphere of consensus, consign ideas and actors to the sphere of deviance, and decide when the shift is made from one to another— none of this is in their official job description. You won’t find it taught in J-school, either. It’s an intrinsic part of what they do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.”

Instead of considering the ramifications of the current (?) trend of media outlets failing to reach the highest of editorial (not to mention ethical) standards the conversation in Pauw & Witteman spun around the concept freedom of the press – a conversation which itself is closely tied to the stilted “freedom of speech” debate.

What is lacking in both the “freedom of speech” debate and the current debate over press regulation and press ethics is a critical attention to social and moral accountability. Journalists need to be held accountable for their role in the creation of noxious ethical norms and for the intrusive journalistic practices that ratify said norms. Apparently, it escapes the likes of Heymans that uncritical presentations – by the media – of rhetorical violence not only facilitate the normalization of rhetorical violence they also, over time, license its presence and use. This normalization has led some journalists to praise the sclerotic, amoral attitudes of Geert Wilders and Pim Fortuyn, and use their sang-froid as a benchmark for other politicians.

Geert Wilders has spent a considerable amount of time crafting an image of a tough, stoic manly politician, at the expense of the supposedly inept (and symbolically feminized) Job Cohen, through the derision of expressions of empathy and worry. Wilders taunts and heckles his opponents until triumph is declared, usually by the media, over his “enemies.” He has made bullying, which is simply a means to affirm masculinity norms of toughness, dominance, and control, a valid and accepted device in political rhetoric. Cohen’s inadequacies were systematically played up by Rutger Castricum and company whilst his competencies were played down. In the end Job Cohen came to represent a crisis of leadership, i.e. masculinity. All the while the Dutch media lapped it up; losing popularity, it seems, had never been so popular.

The cult of personality, which unreasonably ascribes great importance of charisma and delivery to the performance of political leaders, operates as a major controlling discourse in politics, and society as a whole, whether folks are discussing Geert Wilders, Job Cohen, Nebahat Albayrak, or a contestant in The Voice of Holland.

What’s dangerous is the fact that most, if not all, Dutch commentators turn a blind eye to the rhetoric of violence, that is inherent in the act of looking, when engaging in critical discussions of media coverage. As Junot Diaz explains,

“The act of looking is a very violent act. You’re saying, I’m gonna map my shit over you—but to see is to actually receive information, to be engaged. And I think what happened to me was that I was always being taught to look, but one day I started to see. And it was because a lot of women in my life were refusing just to be looked at, to be this passive figure. That taught me that you can’t be a human without seeing.”

Pauw and Witteman, who suffer from the familiar problem of how best to differentiate the public interest from what interests the public, subjected Nebahat Albayrak to the violent act of “looking without seeing.” The gaze of both men was caked with a layer of sexism, racism, and objectification— their comments focused solely on Albayrak’s heritage and gender rather than her professional accomplishments. Pauw’s and Witteman’s interactions with Albayrak centred on taunting, mocking, and “a rhetorical shoving around” – their non-verbal cues, eye-rolling, sighing, and showing disinterest, only added insult to injury.

As the many derogatory comments of Pauw and Witteman show it is not only on the Internet that a woman’s opinion is like a miniskirt. The entire country was atwitter after the episode aired – as though what had transpired was exceptional – and the ensuing commentaries on Albayrak’s performance exposed rampant racism and sexism. Racism, sexism and objectification are always at play in gendered and racialized social interactions. Nebahat Albayrak was attacked because she was a woman and a non-Western Allochtoon; race, age, class and gender concurrently shape without fail the expectations of how certain men and certain women should behave, and the manner in which certain men and certain women are perceived and treated.

We live in a society in which folks of various ages, ethnicities and social classes are treated differently. However, whenever you express this blatant fact White Autochtoon Dutch folk look at you like you’re possessed. Those same White Autochtoon Dutch folks are also quick to deny that the image of a woman of colour evokes preconceptions of sexual, racial/ethnic difference or that pop culture in the  Netherlands still advances stereotypical notions of a woman’s proper role in society. Prejudice, of course, is not at all of consequence in the civilized, humane, open and informal Netherlands; equally, race is not a necessary category of inquiry, nor is the social framework of ideas about appropriate modes of behaviour for women and men.

At any rate, Femke Halsema, who was also present, did a failed attempt to come to Albayrak’s defense by expressing her “admiration” and highlighting the “vicarious pride” she experienced because Nebahat Albayrak had come so far and achieved so much despite her humble origins. And with that White Autochtoon Dutch femininity took centre stage yet again. The modicum of respect I had for Halsema vanished right there and then. What the hell did Femke Halsema think she’d achieve by claiming she vicariously experienced Albayrak’s success? Halsema’s so-called support attributed Albayrak the main task of being the poster child, through an imposed (since it’s Femke Halsema’s account) biographical narrative that mapped the transition from some “sketchy Allochtoonness” to a “composite successful Dutchness,” which was, in effect, spectral. In the eyes of Jeroen Pauw and Paul Witteman Albayrak’s miraculous, against-the-odds transformative narrative was irrelevant. The only thing that truly mattered was her Otherness – both as a woman and as a non-Western Allochtoon. Yet again, Halsema failed to grasp that in a racist and sexist (let’s not mince words here) society seemingly neutral concepts like “success” and “failure” are not only politicized, they are also racialized. Anyhow, Halsema only ended up singing back-up vocals to Jeroen Pauw’s and Paul Witteman’s sexist and racist invective.

The role of power – of systemic inequalities such as racism, sexism, and classism – and the politics of emotion – what Halsema employed – have to be taken into account in all conversations, from personal interactions to societal debates, involving immigrants. Systems of power and the politics of emotion are central and ever present elements in all social interactions. The discourses in society at large, politics and the language of the politics of emotion are simultaneously affecting media coverage and perception. Case in point: the PVV’s orchestration of public emotion, or the campaign surrounding Mauro.

After the programme, in which she had asserted her White Autochtoon Dutch femininity, Femke Halsema tweeted,

“Er waait een nerveuze testosteronwind: Van Nieuwkerk, Mulder, Pauw, Castricum, Kinneging. Ik vermaak me wel.”

(There blows a twittery wind of testosteron: Van Nieuwkerk, Mulder, Pauw, Castricum, Kinneging. I’m pleasantly amused.)

However, contrary to Femke Halsema’s assertion this posturing is a bit more than just male bravado. What has been largely overlooked in analyses, such as those on the Volkskrant website, is the influence of celebrity culture, or the “cult of personality,” which is not only the result of “vote-for-me” programmes like Big Brother, So You Think You Can Dance, but also of social media. Most people nowadays have this idea that anyone and everyone should be accessible, entertaining, and witty. Politicians need media training and have to create a “personality brand” in order to appear likeable.

Many critics of Albayrak’s performance suggested she should’ve assumed an attitude of good-humoured patience, and uttered softly and politely, of course, as befits a non-Western Allochtoon woman, a perfunctory word of displeasure. As soon as women assert themselves they’re painted as shrews and harpies.

I thought she stood her ground well, and if I were a member of the PVDA I’d vote for her.

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3 thoughts on “The Politics of Media Coverage

  1. So what happened to media watch programs?
    How come there aint no tv or radio programs analyzing media coverage from day to day?

    1. Media watch what? These are all legitimate questions. As far as I know there’s not such a programme on Dutch TV. To be honest, I don’t watch TV that often. We should have TV and Radio programmes that analyze media coverage; but I don’t see that happening in the near future. Even if such a programme were made, it would be made by the same people/journalists/programme makers who are setting the norm right now…

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