President Obama presented his new strategy in the fight against the Islamic State last week, and the reaction of American and Western media was just what one might have expected. The president ingratiated himself to almost no one. One side chided him that his decision to deploy military force came too late, that airstrikes aren’t enough, and that Obama constantly gives the impression of an indecisive president.
At the same time, according to others, he’s dangerously playing with the fire of war and is beginning to resemble his predecessor George Bush; it’s totally scandalous, they say, that he’s determined to proceed with possible intervention in Syria, even without requesting congressional approval.
Along with Obama, the role of the media has come under criticism. Voices have sounded that journalists, as in 2003, before Bush’s attack on Saddam Hussein, are once more contributing to the creation of war fever among Americans by uncritically taking up White House arguments on the growing danger from the jihadi.
An observer may notice how much simpler things are on the other side. In their camp, no one quarrels over any truth; no one in their movement criticizes their videos, in which they brutally murder journalists. In their world, the end justifies the means, and information and media are a continuation of war by other means. There is only one truth — ours.
Western media, by comparison, continuously examine whether information is balanced, whether or not they’re succumbing to the propaganda of politicians, whether they’re properly fulfilling their role as the watchdogs of democracy. The same applies to the other security crisis that Western and Czech media are trying to explain to citizens — the conflict in Ukraine. For journalists in Russia — as for 85 percent of the public, which is Putin’s current level of popularity — things are perfectly clear. Reality is what Moscow says. In the West, including the Czech Republic, we have no such certainty but the ubiquitous question: What is going on? To avoid minimizing our suffering, we even blame ourselves for our own loss. A fresh example can be found in the ruminations of Czech Radio director Peter Duhan, expressed before the weekend in a debate on our country’s media.
“I think that, with some small exceptions, the Czech media has simply failed,” Duhan rated journalists’ coverage of events in Ukraine. In his opinion, for the most part, “it has not been able to orient itself well in the current semblance of propaganda that is heard from the Russian and Ukrainian sides, as well as from the U.S.” And journalists justify this “failure,” according to Duhan, by reference to the idea that we are “part of a system of values and this value system has been attacked.”
It has been said recently, even in this column, that it is exceptionally difficult to orient oneself in the fragmentary information on the Ukrainian crises. The reality of an issue that the Czech public perceives very sensitively, and that a large majority approach with some peculiar opinion is magnified by the fact that the Internet and social media are totally equal partners of mainstream media sources. These days, everyone can find the pieces of information they’re searching for and believe them as facts, but when a journalist does that, it’s a professional failure — just as when they make their work easy and don’t bother to compare sources.
But Duhan’s musings, which are heard from some Czech politicians as well, are aimed elsewhere. One can read into these reservations the view that all sides lie equally, that Western propaganda doesn’t pale in comparison to Russia's, and therefore it’s necessary for reports and commentaries to meticulously monitor, weigh and give everyone, as far as possible, an equal hearing.
Agreed, the media should be independent; journalists should be skeptical, but does the Czech Radio director really believe that the Kremlin’s campaign — unfiltered by anything, to which there is practically no opposing, alternative voice in Russia because Moscow has silenced the vast majority of such attempts or censors them — is comparable to the open media atmosphere of the West? Does he really think that a journalist is supposed to levitate in a vacuum without anchoring in a concrete system of values because that’s the only way a professional journalist is recognized?
We wouldn’t have to make things that much easier for Putin. Otherwise, he might finally be right in saying that the West is a nihilistic culture in decline.