22. 11. 2005
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Britské listy

ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
22. 11. 2005

Brezina versus Zeman: 1 - 1

On PR articles and lack of journalistic idealism

Has Ivan Brezina been really bribed by ČEZ to write a positive article about Temelin, as Miloš Zeman publicly accused him of doing, years ago? This Monday, the Ústavní soud decided that Brezina can start again his case against the former premier.

Translation into Czech HERE

Corruption among journalists is not uncommon in the Czech Republic, but is not worse than in most countries, told me Christen Metz, an American female anthropologist who was working close to the local Transparency International for her doctorate thesis on the culture of bribery in former communist countries.

But each country has their own specifics. She could not find anything new about the Czech typical ways of bribing and being bribed that had not already been extensivelly written about, relating to the modes of behaviour that arose thanks to the past regime's influence. Here, she says, it is just "less of a tabboo" and "your family or friends will not ostracize you if they find out you took bribery", for they would as well or "at least they understand the issue of being bribed as being as natural as adultery, simply a part of life, being it right or wrong".

Journalists have the same understanding and acceptance of small corruption as do the average Czech. No surprise on that, many would say, for they are also Czech. But what many may not be aware of, is that in some other cultures, even those very corrupted, there is a more widespread sense of vocation in journalists - they embrace a core set of ethical standards. Although South American countries are very corrupted, journalists are seldom accused of having written PR articles.

Christen mentions that countries like Russia and Romania have much more extensive problem with paid-for articles. But that in ČR the phenomenon is characterized by not involving big sums, meaning the journalist will write a positive article in exchange for very little. She calls it the "typical Czech small oportunism", where one is corrupted not because of a substantial reward, but "for peanuts".

In contrast to the Czech Republic, idealism is a strong characteristic of those who choose to become a journalist in many Western cultures. Here, idealism is ridiculed as either superfluous or at least utopian and naive.

This strongly pragmatic nation disdains subjectivities. The early understanding that ideals, ethics or personal philosophies are rejected or diminished by society leads most people to join the chorus against such non tangible aspects of life already at a young age. With one of the consequences being that we later cannot find many journalists who take their profession as a sacred goal (or doctors, firefighters).

Few of them see themselves as watchdogs for society. To wear such a garb feeds the egoes of journalists the world over. Here, to take the work of journalism as a mission, as a weapon of truth, as a public service means to be joked about or looked down upon as a dreamer, not in touch with reality.

That is because Czechs are masters in destroying mythifications and turning formal situations or rituals into parodies. It is very interesting to watch how uncomfortable most Czechs seem to be at occasions where there is a pre-defined, expected behaviour to be practiced - be it in award ceremonies, political acts, religious rituals or even funerals. Quietly, everybody plays what is expected of them, feeling awckward, but silently feeling ridiculous. I particularly like this characteristic a lot, for I also have such trait in my understanding of ritualized situations. One of the many ingredients for ČR being the most secularized nation in the world comes from this rejection of the non-tangible and of ritualizations.

But that kind of cultural facet has the side effect of brewing less idealistic - thus more easily corruptible - journalists. The lack of a god who expects from you a certain behaviour and who sees you break an expected codex of ethics or morals adds to the fact that there is no personal pride in being a journalist, a fighter for truth.

Some started to write as an exercise of power, aiming at influencing people and even politicians. Mostly, it was not for being idealistic that they entered the profession, but for being dogmatic - misusing the media to blindly defend their beliefs. Those types were very common in the newsrooms during the first years after the November Revolution. So many were simply trying to trick the readers positively or negatively towards the left or right wing, in relation to their favorite or hated politicians etc. But that has almost disappeared, if for no other reason, at least because newspapers generally employ younger people (who can survive on the very low salaries offered) and the new generations are less engaged in political thinking.

Others who entered this profession tasted a feeling of power by seeing changes happening as a consequence of their articles. That can provoke enjoyable chemical reactions. But most find out rather quickly that the media can help shape sympathies and destroy reputations, but is not as powerful as many wish, especially in these days when there are so many outlets competing for attention.

But most go for it just like for any other job. That is why they so easily change jobs when offered a better salary - it is enough to look at the "mluvčí" of most government ministries or big companies: they are known former faces from TV. The latest is Veronika Sedláčková, moderator of Události, komentáře, who is leaving this important position, which reaches decision makers every evening, to work at the Česká správa letišť. No journalist, who chose that profession for vocation, would leave the chair of presenter of a news analysis program that is watched by hundreds of thousands of people to some airport function.

This lack of idealism and of taking very serious the understanding of journalism as a vocation, instead of as a temporary job, creates a more fertile field for corruptible journalists.

But has Ivan Brezina taken money from ČEZ or anyone else to write a positive article about Temelín?

I doubt it. Brezina is more like those activist journalists, who carry some flag, defend some dogmatic set of values. Sort of like a politician through media. He is the antithesis of Jakub Patočka. While this one misuses the pages of the legendary Literární noviny to publish only his ideologically-fit articles, Brezina adopted the image of the anti-environmentalism journalist. However, it is important to note, he writes about a much wider spectrum of issues.

When, as the director of the defunct newsweekly Redhot (from 2002 an erotic magazine took over the title), I decided to print an article of 8 pages about the good side of Temelin, I almost had a rebellion in the redakce.

The article had been very well written, showing, for example, that nuclear plants essentially produce no greenhouse gas emissions, nor air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrogen oxides or particulates. That the probability of an accident, as happened in Chernobyl, was statiscally lower than in any other energy producing plant. That it is easy to protest against Temelin without offering any viable substitute. And that it is easy to scream against the nuclear plant, while we all still have affordable electricity coming out of the sockets.

I offered an environmentalist from an organization that fought against Temelin space for his arguments. So he could add that the nuclear waste produced is dangerous for thousands of years, the consequences of an accident might be disastrous, about the high cost for decommissioning plants etc.

Nevertheless, the general mood in the redakce was "haven't read the article, but we cannot be in favor of Temelin". Why not? Peer pressure. It was more "in" to be against the plant. What later tilted the preferences a bit, paradoxically, were the Austrian environmentalist protesters. The mainstream folk antipathy against the Austrians, added to the fact that they provoked serious transportation problems at the border brought many people to the side of Temelin.

My job as a journalist (for vocation) was to publish both sides and leave my own opinion to the editorial or the pub table. I understand that my job is to let all sides expose their views in a balanced way.

That is not a common characteristic here. We have those who are using their texts to pursue their interests or those who have no interests, besides the salary in the end of the month.

Many got confused, looking for a way to fit my magazine into a category, like "leftist" or "pro-Havel" and the like. A mindset that is a leftover of the former regime, which made the world look black-and-white, where you were pro or against. The virtual murder of relativism by the communist regime has affected even generations that were not conscious beings back then.

Because many knew me as that journalist who wrote an article that made Vladimir Železný attack me for 3 Saturdays in a row, in his Volejte řediteli, it was expected of me to be pro-Lauder. When I published articles that showed the then former owner of TV Nova in a bad light, readers reacted, wanting to know "in which side" I was. Železný himself used to believe I had to be working for Lauder, if I wrote an article he called "very well written" exposing the manipulation tactics used in his weekly TV program. It was foreign to him that some journalist would write such a piece from his own will.

Former member of RRTV, Petr Žantovský, who is about to take Sedláčková's seat, for example, once wrote a criticism over an article I wrote in Redhot about globalization. He is widely seen by local media people as part of a group of commentators and journalists who are fans of Václav Klaus and Vladimir Železný, thanks to his numerous pieces defending them or attacking those "from the other side". Probably because I wrote in favor of the Czech rebels during the ČT crisis of 2000, he expected me to be some leftist, anarchist type. So, in his criticism of that article of mine on globalization it is obvious he did not read the whole text, for he basically accuses it of being some activist, anti-globalism piece. I actually said many bad things about anti-globalists, ridiculing them for their utopian fight. I even had tried to show their contradictions by featuring a picture of me in the front page, with a superimposed face of Che Guevara, but wearing clothes from globalized firms...

I even hired Marek Stoniš, a former TV Nova employee, who was obviously in favor of ODS, to balance out my own commentaries. And after my disagreements with Jana Dědečková became public in this BL, I made sure she was interviewed for my magazine. The result showed her in a human light at a time she was considered the Bad Witch of Oz by most people.

But I was put in a box, especially after the September 11th terrorist attacks, because I dared to not believe all that George W Bush was proclaiming. Well, many colleague journalists thought, "than he has to be a leftist, perhaps even communist!"

On the other hand, because I wrote against the Fidel Castro monarchy, tranvestited as communism, many got even more confused. Štěpán Kotrba even thought, for a moment, that I was working with the Freedom House, because coincidentally an article against Castro's false image of hero was published in this Britské listy the day before a protest against the Cuban regime was staged by the usual suspects, some with close ties to American institutions.

This need to separate people as if all subscribed to some tribe, to some ideological team, also leads to the misunderstanding that certain articles "have" to be PR pieces.

What was difficult for all of the above to understand is that I leave my personal sympathies at home, keeping them out of the workplace. As a journalist, I take pride in seeking neutrality where possible, balance always. My goal is to be an agent of truth in the name of society.

That meant, for example, that I ignored the personal interests of friends and the business interests of the places where I worked many times, which cost losing some friends and some jobs.

Like being cut off from the internal email communication from Blisty, for example, when I offered material to Filip Rožánek during the period in which Tomáš Pecina was involved in suspicions of mishandling the funds of BL. It was expected from me that I would be loyal to the members of this online daily as well as careful to not damage the existence of BL.

But I had to make a journalistic decision: I had access to something that pointed at the possibility of public money being misused, but that would discredit my own media outlet to many readers. I think I decided according to my idealistic understanding of what is expected of my profession.

Because almost no journalist in this country is willing to risk their jobs and reputations in the name of the ideals of journalism, and because the salaries are so low, the task of finding one to write about some special interest in exchange of money is easy.

And we should remember that it is the editor-in-chief or the owner who has to be bribed. For an article is not simply published, reporters do not have a column they fill up with whatever they want. All material has to be approved by the šéfredaktor. And a PR article can be recognized even easier from those who work in media. So, if Brezina would write an article in favor of Temelín, the chief at the outlet he published it had to be the one to be bribed. Or be too naive to spot a PR piece.

And I am a witness of the fact that owners do like to secretly sell parts of their magazines to paid-material. But these orders come from above, not from a reporter's initiative. He or she would need to be subtle enough and successful in pushing for the publication of an article openly in favour of someone's or some company's interests. It does happen, but it is generally from commercial brands or restaurants trying to get a recommendation.

But I wouldn't suspect Brezina exactly because he seems to be the kind who is dogmatic about his beliefs.

People with strong beliefs seldom sacrifice them. We have to fear those who do not have any.

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