The “feral beast”: the Hungarian press

It is well known that politicians on the whole dislike the media. Their reasons are obvious. But you don’t have to be a politician to have reservations about some of the media coverage of political events or the professionalism of the reporters. I might not call the media, as Tony Blair did, a "feral beast," but I think that even in countries with a long democratic tradition where journalism is a time-honored profession there are often serious problems with the information we receive via the air waves, in printed form, or through the internet.

In Hungary the situation is significantly worse. Let’s start with the traditional press. The first problem is that there are too many nationwide newspapers, each with very limited resources and a small circulation. Quickly counting, there are at least six daily papers. Because of the lack of money they really cannot afford to pay decent salaries. So their staff members often work for other media as well in order to supplement their incomes. Because they work for two or three papers (including weeklies) and television stations, they don’t have the time and energy to prepare themselves well. For instance, I encountered a reporter who sat down to interview an author about his new book which the reporter hadn’t read. The interview was therefore less than enlightening. Or I heard a reporter on a call-in show vehemently (and embarrassingly) argue with a caller who referred to a news item that appeared that morning in one of the leading Hungarian dailies. The reporter hadn’t even read the day’s news before he conducted a call-in show on the political events of the day! Incredible, isn’t it?

The other problem is provincialism. Mária Bonifert, a keen observer of the Hungarian scene who writes quite often in a political and literary weekly called Élet és Irodalom (Life and Literature), mentions in her latest piece that every time she returns to Hungary from abroad she is absolutely amazed at the narrow intellectual world of the Hungarian journalists. If, let’s say, a right-wing opposition politician comes forth with a Slovak example that happens to serve his party’s political purpose, his words are taken for granted. No one ever checks their veracity. If a conservative economist claims that President Reagan’s tax cuts created a fantastic economic expansion in the U.S., the journalist without further ado will repeat this assertion and argue vehemently with an MSZP politician who tries to explain that cutting taxes is not appropriate at the moment. (Well, he probably didn’t have easy access to the testimony of the two most recent Federal Reserve chairmen on this point.)

And now we come to perhaps the biggest problem. The journalists don’t ask questions; they make statements and present these assertions as their own. To make clear what I mean. A well seasoned western journalist will formulate a question by introducing a statement as if it belonged to someone else. For instance: " ‘Mr. Republican’ the other day said that the Department’s policy is based on wrong assumptions. He said that it should be done some other way. What do you say to that?" In Hungary it goes something like this: "The poor fruit growers lost their crop and they need the money now. What will they do until the fall?" What?, I said to myself, are these journalists are so ignorant that they don’t know that the compensation the farmers will receive after lost income can come only after the harvest? No, the answer is, of course we know this, but "we have to ask something." I tried to explain that indeed they have to ask something but not that way! So they know that their assertions (or accusations, one could say) are wrong but they feel that they have to take the opposite view. If they talk to an MSZP politician, they have to mouth the opposition arguments and vice versa. One is just sitting and watching this game: in the first ten minutes the reporter is a right winger and ten minutes later he is a left winger. A veritable ping pong game!

Of course, there are exceptions but there are very few really well informed journalists. Two of them spent a considerable amount of time in the United States as foreign correspondents. There is a third who is also very good, but even he is not always well acquainted with the facts. After the gay bashing he squarely criticized the police because they allowed the gay demonstration and the counterdemonstrators to cross paths. This was a serious professional mistake, he said sternly. Two days later I found out from the Budapest chief of police that the police did not have the legal means to deny the counterdemonstration. Again, this is just sheer sloppiness. People, perhaps foolishly, think that the reporter is well prepared. Even I, the skeptic, was shaking my head: "Indeed, this is terrible." Then it turns out that I was simply misled. And surely, I wasn’t the only one.

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Having done a degree in Linguistics I am now so sceptical about anything I read in the newspapers that at one point I felt like I had to stop reading them altogether. The situation in Hungary must be a lot worse than in Britain. I can’t decide what is worse – a journalist who doesn’t know the facts or one who does but tries to hide their own (or that of the party they support) agenda in a report.