Sniffing out street comments is easy and cheap, but produces little in the way of wisdom

«Momentum» is the buzzword of the week while the adjective «new» is to be found in all declensions and clinging to a flock of nouns: Hence we have new ideas, new people and new policies. But the new televisual ethos prevailing in state and most private channels has prompted indignation, hilarity and boredom by turns and seriously harms political health. During the last few days, after ESR stepped in, and following the outcry by – and exhaustion of – citizens, some restraint is shown from time to time, but the general constituents of the pre-electoral media frenzy remain unchanged. Manic second-generation-lust first emerged in early January, with camera crews doing sentry duty outside Mr Papandreou’s residence at Kastri. There followed a leak (by a journalist on a television program) of poll results that were favorable to Papandreou – and which had not yet been published. Revue-type touches (jogging and sweets) were interpreted as heralding radical political developments, as symbols of a politics that would be as new. Reality show The straw that broke the camel’s back was the slow-motion coverage of the triumphant Kastri-Kalentzi long-distance car rally the Saturday before last. The day before, state television had announced that Mr Papandreou would drive the car himself. His departure, pit-stops for coffee and payment of toll fees were all shown live, garnished with a thick sauce of commentary. Flabbergasted viewers watched politics being degraded into a reality show – and the same would have applied if Karamanlis or any other politician had been in Papandreou’s shoes. Even the phrases used to describe the «manner and style» of political leaders sound as though they have been lifted from reality shows: «He is being himself,» «We see it just as it is,» «He is relaxed/at ease/simple/constrained/communicative.» Suddenly, the unbuttoned or buttoned collar of a politician, whether he wears jeans or a tie, a scarf or a baseball cap all acquire weighty significance, and send messages to be interpreted by televisual soothsayers (or chatterers, for the unbelievers). On January 15, a statement by Nikos Papandreou on «the return of vision to politics» acquired a leading slot on news bulletins, not because TV honors and respects writers, but because this particular one happens to be a member of The Family. In the same fashion, during the days when the reality-show frenzy was at its heights (to the point of sheer tedium), players’ relatives would often appear on news bulletins, accompanied by the subtitled clarification of «Mary’s Mother» or «Tsakas’s Fiancee.» We should be thankful that «G.P.’s brother» did not get added. A journalism of the streets, cafes and vegetable markets is on the rise, in which passers-by and patrons are called upon to deliver their opinion. What could be more democratic?, one might say. Here is where televisual «participatory democracy» and «local opinion polls» become reality. Except that we are seldom treated to distilled popular wisdom. This kind of reporting is the easy, comparatively cheap solution, a game of Chinese whispers transferred to television. The long-winded studio debates among a multitude of figures are the trademark of the times. Easy and cheap as well, they do not demand reporting and preparation. The success of the debate is not judged by the issue it highlights but whether it ensures the presence of the illustrious and well-known. But weariness and ennui ensue from the recycling of the same personalities and the same arguments, while the composition of the discussion panel is biased as a rule. The representatives of small parties are scintillating by their absence, while balance is maintained with an equal representation of journalists from pro-government and government-supporting newspapers. At the same time, quite a few reporters, anchormen and news presenters do not confine themselves to presenting developments and making their comments, but proceed with their psychological, not to say semantic, interpretation of Mr Papandreou’s movements. The cases are not rare in which journalist studio guests adopt the role either of government spokesman or public relations consultant to PASOK’s future president. Of course, journalists are not neutral; they are political beings and their passions, combativeness and even their obsessions are part of their personalities. But eulogies and hagiographies undermine the prestige of the press as a whole, without distinction. These phenomena are not restricted to private channels. One would expect state television to somewhat contain its enthusiasm over the «momentum» of change. But its one-sidedness is manifest in the subtitles that accompany news programs: «hope» (or «new hope»), the «new course,» the «new momentum» and «optimism for victory» and «we exist for change» are predominant when referring to moves by PASOK. In dealing with other parties, passions calm down, the adjective «new» beats a retreat and the titles become pedestrian and descriptive. Those acquainted with the people and inner workings of TV say that this excessive zeal is not due to the partisanship of ERT’s (Greek State Radio and Television) editors and administration but to direct pressure by Mr Protopapas, placed on the weakest links in the chain, on isolated employees. Spiritual reserves It’s a question of strategy, as reality-show players will tell you. Like Madam Sandra on «Survivor,» who, on her early departure from the island, expressed her grief because she would not be able to offer her fellow players the rich reserves of her spirit (those losing me don’t know what they’re losing), so Protopapas told a private channel, «I would be unhappy if PASOK did not continue in government to serve the interests of the country.» It’s early days yet. The problem of the pre-electoral «television culture» is not only quantitative, and is not dealt with by percentages and precise division of viewing time between parties. It is also a question of good taste and respect for the citizen’s stamina and intellect. The fact that similar misconduct has been seen in the past is not an excuse for its reappearance and perpetuation.

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