Friday, May 1, 2009



Barry Ronge
Apr 25, 2009

Some journos are so busy sniffing around for sensationalism, they forget what it means to be a real newshound

What constitutes news? What is the X-factor that separates mere tittle-tattle from useful information and transforms it into a universally fascinating and inspiring story that helps people to better understand the world in which we live?

I used to think I knew what news was, but as I write this, Mel Gibson’s divorce, Madonna’s latest adoption drama and Bo, the Obama dog, are all being flung at me from every news channel to which I switch, and I find it difficult to explain how much I do not care about any of them.

I understand that it’s all about context, like when my ancient apricot tree finally collapsed in a storm and blocked access to my driveway, my garage and the street outside. It was a day of turmoil and eventually, of great expense, but I did not issue a press release, call in photographers or even inform my neighbours.

So why do I currently know more about Portuguese water dogs than I do about Tokyo Sexwale’s post-election political strategies? The story of this damn animal has run longer than Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia or the escape of a captain from his ship that had been captured by Somali pirates, and that ain’t right.

It all began with Barack Obama’s election night promise that his kids would have a White House pooch from a dog shelter. The US media were instantly obsessed. The financial crisis was pushed onto the backburner and while Pres was trying to fix the moribund economy and register a presence at the G8 Summit, he was constantly asked about when the “First Dog” would be inaugurated.

Finally, Bo was delivered to the White House, and as I flicked through the channels, there was not a single station that dared to ignore this mutt. There were erudite dog scholars who traced the centuries-old heritage of the Portuguese water dog and how it was taught to dive for fish, and issued guarded warnings that it was an exuberant, physically imposing animal. Some of the show hosts actually brought dogs into the studio.

Others insisted that Obama had reneged on his promise to the nation. Not only had he chosen a foreign pet, but it had not been rescued from a shelter, as promised, and it was highly pedigreed. Their tone was hostile and the subtext was that this president does not keep his promises, he will always side with the elite and he puts the outside world ahead of the US.

Thank the Lord that Obama did not choose a Saluki, that glorious Persian greyhound, also known as the Arabian hound, as the First Dog. That would have proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he is in league with Osama bin Laden.

Then there was Madonna’s baby-shopping expedition in Malawi, the moral and legal pros and cons of which were pretty well dealt with during the first baby-grab, but we had to go through it all again, and the argument was not unlike the one about the First Dog.

Why could she not buy an American child? What is this Malawi fetish that she’s got? And does she really think that fame and money place her in a space beyond the law and public morality? The president says “No” and she says “Oh, let’s see what else I have in the bottom of my purse”.

It’s deplorable, but what was the media buzzing about? Not the morality, nor the questionable psychological motivation or the international legal issues.

Instead, several of the UK tabloids featured a black-and-white photograph of the singer, her radiant face uplifted, like a Renaissance Madonna, surrounded by the faces of many black children.

It was the most shameless piece of media manipulation I have seen in ages, but the editor’s decision to use it on the front page was even more shameless. But what were the journalists buzzing about? They all wanted to know if her face had been photoshopped, and if so, by how much?

There’s a child’s future hanging in the balance and all they want to know is whether Madge gave herself a digital facelift. How is that news? Does it even pretend to be news? Or is it just another example of what the Germans call “schadenfreude”, that secret mean delight we take in the misfortunes of other people.

The old Roman emperors also understood this principle. When the poor and angry masses grew fractious, they would stage a spectacle in a major arena, in which animals fought with each other, and so did gladiators — always to the death. Everyone who came to the arena was given free bread.

These brutal displays came to be known as the “bread and circuses” tactic, and to my mind, most of what passes for news these days is something Nero and Caligula would recognise at once.