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.

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Varangy
Guest

For once I agree with you, but let’s set some things straight.
Namely, ridiculously bad journalism afflicts the media of both Hun. Left and the Hun. Right. To maintain that one side is worse than another is silly. Both sides are catastrophic.
Also, to think that any Hun. news media outlet does not have a political slant is to lie to oneself.
Even arguably fair-minded (Left-leaning) HVG can be an utter disaster at times. Not even mentioning the fact that HVG tends to take and translate articles almost word-for-word from the previous week’s The Economist magazine without proper attribution.

Odin's lost eye
Guest
Journalism has always been full of the tricks and errors you have described. ‘Grub Street’ the reputed home of all journalists is renowned for drink and ‘pork pies’ (lies). In the eyes of the paper’s owners a reporter is only good when his reports increase circulation! Stalin is supposed to have said, “There was bad propaganda, good propaganda and the BBC”. Not any more, the BBC was caught out ‘faking’ phone-ins. May be there was a hollow laugh in the Kremlin wall – of wherever they planted the old ‘beggar’. There is a saying “Those who CAN – DO! Those who cannot (do it), teach (it)! And those who can do neither, (do or teach) become journalists and write about it!” This implies that journalists are at the bottom of the heap! Your point about manipulation is well known amongst newspaper readers and is why politicians cultivate news-hounds. What I despise these days is the use of ‘Spin’ and Spin Doctors (which was invented to help give New Labour a huge majority in the U.K. parliament) and the use of ‘Sound Bytes’ to dazzle the public as it is believed that people have attention spans of less that 5 seconds.… Read more »
Vándorló
Guest

Eva,
I finally got round to reading the article you linked to. It is, undoubtedly, a masterpiece of spite and manipulation. The images used, the framing of the them-vs-us question around which Hungarian society revolves (even defines itself) is all distilled down to a fine piece of scene setting. It does very cleverly mix together a lot of pet hates. The only thing missing was a reference to the Roma. A truly disturbing piece that shows what the readership wants and is willing to pay for.

kincs
Guest

Varangy: People have been making that accusation against HVG for years. And it’s true. But HVG has a contractual arrangement that allows them do translate and print Economist stories.

Varangy
Guest

@kincs
As far as I know, HVG and The Economist don’t have any sort of contractual agreement.
Perhaps with trans-EU law in place, The Economist MAY have forced some sort of content licensing agreement into place, but I am doubtful as that is not The Economist’s modus operandi, being that they value their content above all (no bylines etc etc) and having someone monitor the quality of the translation would be, in my mind, not worth the trouble for a few lousy Ft.

Buddy
Guest

“http://www.magyarhirlap.hu/cikk.php?cikk=144537 What kind of journalism is this?”
It’s not journalism, it’s an opinion piece by Zsolt Bayer, whose job it is to upset people. I would say he succeeded.

kincs
Guest

To her credit, Ibolya David has condemned Bayer’s article for the hate-mongering garbage that it is. It’s a shame that Orbán has never been principled enough to take a similar stand, ever. If he had, then he might have won at least one of the past two elections, and Hungarian political life wouldn’t be as unhealthy as it is.
For the story – in English – on David’s comments and the incredibly lame response of Magyar Hirlap’s sugar daddy Gábor Szeles, see http://www.budapesttimes.hu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=6558&Itemid=27

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