Recently I argued that the death of news — caused by the viral disinterest of young people — will do no harm to our democracy. It may actually make things better. While news journalists portray themselves as the public’s watchdogs, in fact they are ignorant of the subjects they cover, and indulge in fiction and plagiarism with appalling frequency. Their demise will leave us innocent of many falsehoods, and thus closer to the truth.
But there are other ways by which journalists warp and confuse reality. The most cunning use a kind of trick with points of view: information gets presented in ways that, while not strictly incorrect, paints a false picture of the world. I offer as exhibit A this report from BBC News, the title of which rather startled me when I read it a few days ago: “Cuba begins its election process.”
Millions of Cubans have voted in municipal polls, starting an election cycle that could decide if Fidel Castro will officially stay Cuba’s leader.
The electoral process will culminate next March in the election of a new National Assembly.
The assembly will then choose the Council of State, which President Fidel Castro has led since the early 1960s.
Mr Castro temporarily handed power to his younger brother, Raul, for health reasons more than 14 months ago.
Cuban media reported that Fidel Castro, who last year had intestinal surgery and has not been seen in public since, cast his own ballot in private at the undisclosed location where he is recuperating
Voting is not obligatory but Cuban officials said they expected there had been a 90% turnout.
The communist government in Cuba describes its electoral system, which was enshrined in the constitution of 1976, as one of the freest and fairest in the world, where almost anyone can be elected to a municipal council or national assembly seat.
Only in the eighth paragraph do we encounter anyone who might think Cuba isn’t an improvement on Periclean Athens. These dour types are described as “critics.” In a brief aside, BBC characterizes the critics’ critique: “They say the electoral process in Cuba is merely a cosmetic democratic exercise.”
But these same critics are then said to have been wrong about predicting the collapse of the Cuban regime, after Fidel Castro turned over the government to his brother Raul. The article notes with palpable satisfaction that “the status quo has reigned in Cuba and there has been no sign that the ruling Communist party has lost its hold on power.”
So there we have it. On the one hand, BBC conveys the judgment of the Cuban Communists, who tell us in all sincerity that the system they rule with an iron hand is the best and freest in the world. On the other, critics who have been shown up by events. He said, she said.
We leave the article aware of two points of view, but pretty certain that the critics are yet again wrong. Nowhere does BBC choose to assert its watchdog duties. We are never told that the regime in Cuba is the longest-running one-man show in the world. Evidence on behalf of the two points of view is never mustered, much less weighed. BBC becomes a transparent medium here: point, counterpoint.
Is that the BBC style? Well, here is the BBC’s “quick guide” to the U.S. presidential elections:
The road to the White House is long, complicated and expensive. BBC News explains the process.
Suddenly we hear an assertive, opinionated voice. It is true that the U.S. elections are long, complicated, and expensive — but are those the best, most descriptive attributes? BBC says they are. The composite picture that emerges is that the Cuban elections may be the freest and fairest in the world — the Cubans told us so, and BBC never disagreed — while U.S. elections are long, complicated, and expensive — BBC, the gold standard, has so opined.
At no point in the proceedings was anything fabricated, yet the perspective resembles that of the wrong end of a telescope: big is small, and reality is a plaything for the journalist.