Political journalism in Hungary
Sometime it’s outright uncanny that I write about a specific aspect of a topic one day and the next day I find a whole article on the subject. That happened to me just today. Yesterday I wrote about the hysteria the right-wing media has been creating of late and today, having a bit of time on my hands, I read some of the Hungarian weeklies, including Élet és Irodalom (Life and literature), perhaps the best publication dealing with politics and literature in the Hungarian language. I should mention here that most people refer to Élet és Irodalom simply as És, harking back to the time when this publication was nothing to brag about. Right after the defeat of the revolution when most writers were either in jail or refused to publish, this creation of the Kádár regime was a rather anemic literary effort. As people said: there is neither life nor literature in it. But that was a long time ago, and the publication today is first rate.
Anyway, going back to the media and hysteria. The author of the article that aroused my interest is Péter Bajomi-Lázár, a media sociologist. Or at least I think that is what his job is called. In any event, he studies the media. The title: "A vélemények makacs dolgok: Politikai újságírás Magyarországon." Or in English: "Opinions are stubborn things: Political journalism in Hungary." The title is a take-off on a Stalin quotation. Apparently he made the brilliant observation that "facts are stubborn things, comrades."
The first surprising fact I learned from Bajomi-Lázár is that in Europe as a whole 42% of people think that journalists do a good job and that their work is admirable. In Hungary and Slovakia only 3 out of 10 people have a good opinion of journalists. Thus, a significant majority of the Hungarian public doesn’t trust journalists and their newspapers. Bajomi-Lázár speculates that the problem may be that in Hungary "engaged or cause promoting" journalism is more prevalent than "neutrally objective" reporting. This is especially true about the right-wing papers where the norm is: "always say good things about our side and bad things about our opponents."
Bajomi-Lázár lists some of the most serious journalistic sins found in the Hungarian media. (1) Speculation. Surely it doesn’t increase trust in Hungarian journalism when a journalist writes about "possible intentions" or what the politician "might be thinking." I found a good example of that just today in, not surprisingly, Magyar Nemzet. "Demszky is pondering the possibility of resigning his membership on the board of directors of SZDSZ." Did they look into his head or just speculate? (2) Insinuation. Let’s assume that somebody is implicated in a corruption case and the journalist mentions that, by the by, years earlier this person was an advisor, assistant, what not of an important politician. (3) Recontextualization. In plain language, the journalist takes a sentence from a given context and puts it in another, giving the sentence an entirely different meaning. (4) Fabrication. This practice of citing nonexistent sources or interviews is not too frequent but apparently it has happened. I don’t know the inner workings of the Hungarian press to be sure which case Bajomi-Lázár has in mind, but unfortunately we know several such cases in the American press, including one mightily embarrassing The New York Times. (5) Second hand reporting. You could also call it faking. When a journalist writes about an event as if he had been there but actually his information is based on the reports of other people. I myself discovered such a journalistic practice on the left-liberal side about an antisemitic demonstration in front of Titok Rádió. (6) Overstatements. Often Hungarian journalists present insignificant events as if they were tsunamis and draw far-reaching conclusions. (7) Odd timing. Out of the blue, let’s say in the middle of a campaign, some old event is dredged up that had not been presented to the public earlier. The astute reader can rightly ask: Why now? What is the reporter’s agenda?
These "professional mistakes" are not restricted to Hungary, but unfortunately they are typical of the country’s journalistic practices. A rather sad, but unfortunately accurate description of the state of Hungarian journalism. And Bajomi-Lázár didn’t mention the annoying manipulation of the readership with misleading headlines. They really drive me up the wall. Unfortunately, I could climb that wall daily. Several times. And I don’t need that much aerobic exercise.