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They are crowd-pleasing choices for Persons of the Year. The three people - Irish rocker Bono and the world's richest couple, Bill and Melinda Gates - are not only famous and fabulously wealthy, they are also compassionate people who dedicate an enormous amount of time to philanthropy and social action. These are good people deserving of genuine respect and honor.
However, I have a problem with Time magazine's choices for Persons of the Year. While Bono and the Gateses will leave their marks on history, there is no question that their choice as Persons of the Year is due more to their celebrity than to their accomplishments. And that alone is reason enough to consider them inadequate choices. The media have forgotten how to distinguish between a celebrity and a statesman, and so have we.
Indeed, the confusion between celebrity and statesman teaches us a lot about what is wrong with the media. Television news now dominates what is on the media's agenda. And due to fierce competition, television news is all about what makes good video. Even the print media are increasingly image driven; if it's not on the TV news, the print media ignore it as well.
A video-driven media follows the cameraman. American supporters of Israel have always wondered: Why do the smallest events in Israel get a disproportionate amount of coverage? Amotz Asa-El, a senior columnist for The Jerusalem Post, contends that Israel receives exceptional attention in the media because it is a place where television reporters can cover terrorism and military actions with ease, from comfy hotels in Tel Aviv, unlike the conflicts in Congo, Kashmir and Chechnya.
CONSIDER the virtual media blackout about Darfur. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the villain of Darfur, should be considered a serious candidate for "Person of the Year" (in the negative sense). Yet, despite the fact that the Darfur genocide is a catastrophe that has claimed 400,000 lives, and displaced nearly three million people, no one notices. The same media that lavished attention on the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina continue to ignore Sudan. Why? Because the Sudanese government has succeeded in keeping television cameras away from Darfur. As a consequence, Darfur is ignored because there is no video footage for the evening news.
An image-driven media not only omits critical stories, it distorts our perception of events. Images are inherently superficial, and distort our judgment.
The Hassidic commentator Sfat Emet (Yehuda Aryeh Leib of Ger, Poland, 1847-1905) explains that the Hanukka story is about the struggle of the Maccabees against a Hellenistic culture that valued beauty too much. The dazzling and entertaining became paramount. These Hellenists had allowed the superficial, the aesthetic, to supplant the spiritual and moral as the primary purpose in life. As result, they lost sight of life's deeper values.
A similar process is taking hold in contemporary news coverage. Compelling images are more influential than sober analysis. Indeed, news with a powerful video and a good story line will be snapped up, even if the story is far from true.
The death of Muhammad al-Dura, a 12-year-old boy killed in a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, quickly became a cause celebre. Because of a heart-wrenching video of his death, it was immediately assumed that this Palestinian boy was shot by heartless Israeli troops. Only years later, after intense investigation, we now know that he was probably shot by Palestinians. Why was it so easy to assume the Israelis had killed Dura? Because, inflamed by a painful sight, it is much easier to look for the convenient scapegoat rather than search for the truth. Dramatic video can distort our judgment.
The power of video is why covering celebrities is now news. www.beawitness.org notes that in June, TV news spent 50 times more coverage on the Michael Jackson molestation trial than it did on the Darfur tragedy, and it devoted 12 times the coverage to the tomfoolery of Tom Cruise than it did to Sudanese oppression. For similar reasons Americans have heard more "news" about the breakup of Nick and Jessica than they have about Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his push for nuclear weapons.
This would not have shocked the Sfat Emet; the inherently superficial nature of television has turned the news into an extension of entertainment. News is now news in name only. Which is why in June, the major networks in the United States devoted no less than 183 "news" segments about "the runaway bride." News programs are now about entertainment.
Choosing a couple of celebrities as Persons of the Year seems innocuous. Yet to me, it is a reminder of the forgotten stories. Unfortunately, Darfur fails in the media because it is not a TV-ready story. It is a victim of an entertainment-driven media that relies too much on the superficial and too little on the truth. And sadly, because of this failure, people will continue to die, and no one will notice.
The writer is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem synagogue in Montreal, Quebec, and a member of Edah, the advocacy movement for a modern and relevant Orthodox Judaism.