The Trompe l’œil of the Mass Media

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

Globalisation is a term that now forms part of our everyday vocabulary applied to economic, social or cultural contexts. But it is the mass media that respond best to the globalisation and to the present techno-economic civilisation in which all the cultures of the planet are immersed, whether they believe it or not. The experts who contribute to this number agree on the difficulty of communication and that, although images can help to enhance the potential of positive aspects, they can also exalt the negative.

How can we find the balance between criticism and empathy when we analyse societies distant from our own? It is clear that the perception of the “other” is determined by our own values and, in this sense, the analyst Francis Ghilès considers that the postures that, in order avoid racist labels, attempt to appear submissive before the ideals and culture of non-European peoples are paternalistic. For this author, this prevents them from distinguishing between good and evil. The reality is, therefore, subjective by definition, and we depend on the opinion and personal experience of the journalist.

McLuhan suggested that the medium is the message and predicted a worldwide culture. From this point of view, the audiovisual media are virtual bridges between cultures. The technology utilised by the media in a society determines the way that individuals reflect and behave, however reluctant the semiotic codes. In a study of the media in the Mediterranean, Michelangelo Conoscenti reaches different conclusions: he recognises that the audiovisual languages of many nations and television programmes contain common elements owing to the practice of “copying”. The author affirms that, when a person or an institution imitates another, something is transferred between them, and can be transferred again and again to the point of acquiring its own identity. But the dissemination of stylistic elements and stereotypes, whether positive or negative, not only depends on television, but also on other media and other experiences which are part of our daily life. Moreover, the production of images is not neutral, but the consequence of a culturally marked process. It is the result of the alternatives chosen by the creator from among the many combined options offered by the media code; consequently, the exclusions involved in the process are also significant. The use of options and exclusions is conditioned, in its turn, by socioeconomic and political factors that indicate complex selection mechanisms.

Are we, therefore, faced with a trompe l’œil, in which the optical illusion shows what we want to show or make people perceive? Trompe l’œil denotes the pictorial perspective technique used since the Renaissance and, above all, in the baroque. They are usually realistic paintings deliberately created to deceive the eye, creating confusion between reality and fiction. When we speak of audiovisuals, are we speaking of an optical illusion that gives us a false perception of reality? The optical illusion applied to audiovisuals serves us very well as a metaphor, given that this “illusion” is not subject to will and can vary from one person and another.

In this context, Cornelis Hulsman and Sawsan Gabra Ayoub Khalilshow us thatthe distortions that appear in the mass media are not innocuous, so that, although their initial effects may be small, we must not give them the opportunity to grow or make people believe in a division between the good and the bad which then results in a clash of civilisations. But is the trompe l’œil really so effective? Is everyone entranced by its magic? If we take into consideration studies carried out by the so-called information and communication sciences, the receivers of the messages are less malleable than what is believed, as they are capable of reinterpreting or rejecting the message if it does not correspond to their own codes. But, of course, there are arguments, codes or symbols which rest on a corpus of ideas and ways of thinking founded on a general pre-established belief. We can apply this both to Western channels and to the recent Arab channels.

Noha Mellor affirms that the great international Arab channels seek the pan-Arab market, whether national or of the diaspora, which is why these media tend to focus on regional politics before the local issues of the distinct societies. Thus, despite the difference between the Arab countries in terms of ethnic, religious, class and gender aspects, the regional news media and the satellite news channels try to target as wide an audience as possible, conceived as an “imaginary community”. The journalists do not deal with the local news or that which covers social aspects as they consider that it will not bring them fame so they give priority to political news, which does not require research. To be fair, says Mellor, the Western news media (whether European or North American), which have constituted the formative model of many Arab journalists of the new channels, do not provide a better example. Nevertheless, speaking of “Arab media” entails a generalisation and, as the Moroccan journalist Driss Ksikes states, this prevents us from having an idea of the complexity of a whole mosaic of media via satellite – Al Jazeera, Al Manar, Al Arabia, Al Hurra, etc. –, aimed at distinct audiences and at an increasingly wider market, given the numerous emerging realities that make up the current universe of people who speak or understand Arabic.

The mirror of the one thousand realities or the trompe l’œil seeks to show an exalted vision. In this sense, Maria Dolors Massana revises the saying according to which “a picture is worth a thousand words”, given that on television it is not always true: the American CNN and the Qatari channel Al Jazeera exploded the myth of the unquestionable superiority of the image when they provided two simultaneous graphic but radically different accounts of the Iraq war.

For this reason, we feel it appropriate to publish various analyses which not only concern the television channels but also the press, as in the case of the caricatures of the Danish newspaper Jylland-Posten. Alain Blomart comments on a survey of experts which makes clear the reactions provoked by the caricatures in diverse countries. Pedro Rojo analyses the vision of Spain held by the Arab world, which depends on the treatment of the political agenda by the media; the examples cited focus especially on the Moroccan press. Ibrahim Nawar, Tona Gusi, Virginia Montañés and Elena Zambelli reflect on the way in which the mass media – whether the printed press or audiovisual – approach gender issues. One of the advantages of women’s professional networks is that they allow analyses to be carried out by themselves in which different cultural perspectives and political realities converge, based on the sharing of distinct professional experiences. The meetings of the professionals of journalism confirm that, today, the visibility of women in the Mediterranean mass media is still low, highly stereotyped, and that their treatment is usually linked to more problematic aspects of integration, derived from immigration.

In this number of the journal, dedicated to the issue “Mass Media and Mutual Perceptions”, we could not overlook the different proposals that have been formulated, especially in recent years, and try to strengthen the Barcelona Process and its spirit. In fact, the visibility of Euromed has not been urgently imposed until the last few years. The need to compensate the lack of information and communication has led the European Commission to undertake a series of initiatives – talks, seminars, meetings – and set up a task force on the media, an informal framework of agreement and debate between the journalists themselves of both shores to develop operative ideas. The interview conducted by the journalist Hichem Ben Yaïche with Thomas McGrath, member of the Mediterranean Unit responsible for the information of the Euromed region, fully explains these objectives. Complementing this information is the journalist Domingo del Pino, distinguished Mediterranean expert, who has spent years devoted to dialogue between cultures, and outlines the hopes deposited in the task force, but is also critical of the time lost and the unnecessary misunderstandings. Shada Islam, Bettina Peters and Aidan White refer to the essential commitment of ethical journalism to avoid producing eternal misunderstanding between East and West, described by Tahar Ben Jelloun in his contribution.

As in previous numbers of Quaderns de la Mediterrània,the “Dossier” is complemented by the section “Overview of Recent Events”, focused this time on the direct testimonies of professionals who have lived in the hotspots of the Middle East wars. The testimony of the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, kidnapped in Iraq when she was covering the war, and the reflections of the diplomat Ignacio Rupérez and the journalist and television reporter Joan Roura, based on their personal experience, help us to understand the discontent which has been produced in relations between East and West as a result of the Iraqi tragedy.

In the section “Cultural Overview” we offer a brief monograph on Turkey, the hinge between East and West. Through historiography, Miguel Ángel de Bunes shows us how, above all in the 16th and 17th centuries, the stereotyped visions of East and West emerged, which still survive today. The expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the Modern Era creates the need to identify and differentiate on a popular level the emerging ideological sides. For this we felt it interesting to complement this work with that carried out by Alain Servantie, who has examined, with a view to Turkey’s eventual membership of the European Union, all the comics that reflect unconscious phobias and imaginary fears, typical of a Eurocentric education, rather than a measured appreciation of the current Turkish reality. The article prepared by Pablo Martín Asuero on the rediscovery of the Sephardis in Turkey by Spanish diplomacy during the 19th century, in which he describes the experiences they went through until the decree of admission of these Jews as Spaniards without patria in the second decade of the 20th century, makes clear the ignorance of this culture in the other extreme of the Mediterranean, and the subsequent exclusions and reunions. This brief monograph closes with a recent bibliography on Turkey and a review of the latest work by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner Orhan Pamuk. The number concludes with the usual sections on books, music, food and a selection of Internet resources linked to the monographic dossier.

There is no doubt that the virtual bridges represented by the mass media –radio, television channels (whether satellite or others) and Internet – can overcome the frontiers and generate an “intermediate” space, that is, a space of intermediation that is conceived and used – speaking in anthropological terms – as a moment of exchange with the “other” and, at the same time, as a place to experience common languages. Today, all the neighbours who share the Mediterranean need to understand that coexistence is possible, although there is diversity of languages, religions and customs. From this point of view, the media represent, without doubt, an opportunity, but also a challenge, as the youngest generation is much more inclined to absorb contents and ideas through audiovisual codes. Nevertheless, the blooming of television productions, especially when not preceded by appropriate education on the partiality of the audiovisual languages, can result in the proliferation of simple trompe l’œils.