The US elections and the Hungarian media

For some time now the Hungarian media has been full of reports about the US elections. Just as in other European countries, Barack Obama is the favorite of the vast majority of Hungarians. This is an interesting development considering that Hungarians are not exactly free of racial prejudice. The spokesman of Medián in an interview this morning gave some details on this point. They polled 1,000 people and showed the pictures of the two candidates to half of the group (in case some of the respondents didn't know that Obama is African-American). Between the two groups there was some disparity, but even among those who definitely knew Obama's skin color he was still vastly more popular. Those questioned had only the vaguest ideas about the exact political differences between the two politicians. They don't really know the differences between Republicans and Democrats, but somehow the sound of the word "democratic" sounds better to their ears. Moreover, most likely on TV they see a young, energetic fellow and an old man, and some of the people make their choice on this basis.

I must say that foreign affairs in general don't make Hungarians' hearts beat faster. Foreign news is skimpy. Few newspapers have correspondents in foreign countries (Népszabadság is one of the few). MTV (Magyar Televízió) and MR (Magyar Rádió) do have correspondents in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, London, and Paris just to mention a few of the more important capitals, but most other organs simply rely on MTI (Magyar Távirati Iroda), the Hungarian Reuters or AP. Even more modestly, Internet publications often shamelessly copy news from other Internet sources.

Lately Népszabadság's Washington correspondent has been busy and gives fairly decent reports about the campaign and American politics in general. A sidenote to vent about one of my pet peeves–Hungarian headlines. While in Western papers the reader can decide on the basis of the headline whether he is interested enough in the subject matter to actually read the article itself, Hungarian headlines are puzzling. Like this one in today's Népszabadság: "Spring in November." What can that be? A weather report? Kind of. If one takes the trouble to read the article one finds out that the weather is very nice in Chicago and the Obamas already went and voted. Another article's title is "American Elections in Comfortable Shoes." Well, apparently the lines will be long and it is advisable to wear comfortable shoes.

Useless headlines are small annoyances. There are much worse sins committed by Hungarian journalists. One is the tendency toward sensationalism. Unconfirmed rumors are reported as the gospel truth. If for weeks on end the news is too boring, for example if poll after poll tells us that Obama leads by X percentage points, by golly enterprising Hungarian journalists will find the one poll that shows McCain leading. A huge sensational headline: McCain managed to get on top!

But I left the best to last. A few days ago a reporter was interviewing an American expert on Napkelte about the American election campaign. Our reporter suddenly came up with: "We just heard that in the last three days Obama's lead of 11 percentage points shrank to three. How is that possible? That fast? We here in Hungary are not accustomed to such sudden changes." The poor American expert looked puzzled at first and then realized what had happened. This hard-working and thorough reporter compared one pollster's high figure with another's low figure. What was really sad is that I don't think that even at the end of the conversation she realized what a ridiculous mistake she had made.

I mentioned this to a very good Hungarian journalist who is a foreign correspondent. I asked her: "Are these people too lazy to look up the facts or do they simply not know foreign languages?" She laconically answered: "Both."