This piece is not written by the academic I should be, but by the citizen. It does not claim to have any scientific value.
Last week, I came across many friends complaining about the tyranny of discourse, of news, and they used this assessment in widely different contexts.
I had a Viber conversation with a friend from the US. He said people preferred to elect a dangerous and unknown candidate rather than a pathological liar who worked with an administration that may or may not have a decent legacy, but which systematically lied and who had the support of a lying media.
By the way, some 15 months ago, an American philosopher told me the Democrats’ media tried to focus on Trump’s candidacy, to help him win the Republican primary, thinking he would be easy prey for Hillary Clinton. He strongly disliked this “stupid calculation,” to use his own words.
Tuesday, I introduced two friends to each other, both being the top Egyptian specialist in their respective fields, and they assessed the present Egyptian situation. One of them told the other, “I totally support the regime and El-Sisi, but I’m appalled by their inability to handle the communication issue and the media. Their two or three main advocates are unpopular, hated and terribly bad at selling policies to the public. People forget the case and only see the lawyer.”
Wednesday, during a workshop, a well known Tunisian academic said Tunisian public opinion was fed up with the media, with talk shows, and were boycotting them, preferring watching movies, sporting events, anything but news.
The most unpopular profession in Tunisia is now the broadcast presenter. Those who still watch the news and talk shows do it to attack them on social media.
The dean of French political science, Professor Jean Leca, wondered, “In any other market, when you do not like the product, you boycott it. In the information market, this does not happen. This, for me, is a mystery.”
The Tunisian academic thought people needed to express frustration by hitting an easy target. My guess is people are now effectively boycotting most media sources. But another explanation is possible: you need news, and basically all the products available on the market are the same.
The same day, Professor Leca said it was now impossible to escape “discourse." It was present everywhere, at every moment. Now we were witnessing a new era: the one of short news, of short aphorisms, of short clichés. Very complex issues are summed up in a sentence or two. One minute and a half is a very long time in TV news.
Maybe even worse than oversimplification, ordinary people are literally under siege, receiving thousands of oversimplified news analyses. They do not need most, and when they are interested in a topic they find press coverage stupid and distasteful.
The need for succinct news introduces structural changes: more often than not, there is no room for grey. Everything, rather, is black or white. This leaves much room for ideological biases.
And it is easy to note the ideologies popular among journalists and not necessarily popular in public opinion. This does not mean journalists are always right or always wrong. I just state that most people do not like what they hear or read.
You can easily tell me this does not explain the huge unpopularity of talk shows. People watching them are complaining about endless talk, not about simplistic short stories. And you would be right.
I do not know if studies assessed the causes of the decline in popularity of this formula. A colleague who studies Arab media told me no study focused on the public.
My guess would be, first of all, everybody’s discourse is shaped by the need for shortness. When you talk for half an hour, you will not deepen your handling of an issue. You will evoke many ones.
Second, the talk show illustrates the gap between the “ordinary people” and the “oligarchy.” It strengthens the perception they live on a different planet, the globalised world versus the local one, and stereotypical elites are unable to understand the living conditions of ordinary citizens. Third, there is a credibility problem: if people do not like what they hear, they think the “expert” or the journalist is either a liar or incompetent, or both.
During the first months of the 2011 revolution, I was a permanent guest of French talk shows. It is easy to become addicted to the invitations. The TV staff is urbane and dealing with them is a nice experience. You become a well known figure, you do some lobbying and advocacy, you meet important people, you chat with politicians, you settle old scores with colleagues. You can easily convince yourself you are “enlightening public opinion.” And this might be true.
But there are snags. First of all, you cannot foresee the questions and sometimes they are not “the right ones." You have to train yourself. You are going to say this or that, regardless of the question. But it is not always possible. Second, you do not have the right to say, “I do not know.”
Third, you do not have enough time to develop complex reasoning. More often than not, you have to opt for approximations. Fourth, devoting time to this activity comes at the expense of your own research. Fifth, it is really difficult to say no to an invitation and to tell the journalist, “I’m no expert on this issue.”
Sixth, you easily get embroiled in an unhealthy competition with other experts. You then accept invitations not because you want to “enlighten public opinion,” but because you want to prevent a colleague from misleading it, or simply because you do not want to see him becoming “a member of the circus.”