Infotainment, the latest portmanteau coined by broadcast media journalists in America, is an expression that correlates the powers of both “information” and “entertainment” to maintain the balance of ideas disseminated. It is as such so that the significance of information can serve the frivolity of entertainment.
This playful description is not the fruit of mere linguistic preciosity. It is, instead, the outcome of a new spectacle that has held American broadcasting corporations captive: to make news entertaining. This is realized by expanding the range of information presented, from news stories to those relevant to art, and lifestyles. It is also realized by enforcing new methods of news presentation whereby hard-news is watered down and programs concentrate on guest appearances and the dramatic aspects of news stories in order to garner viewers’ sympathy and attention. Lastly and most importantly, they conceive such methods of news presentation and interviewing that do not draw on the information provided so much as they do on visual effects and the charisma of presenters.
An instance that can never be forgotten is when CNN broadcast an ad a few years ago , promoting newscaster Paula Zahn new show by using the expression “just a little sexy”. This, of course, was received with a surge of criticism until the ad was pulled mere days later. This new phenomenon’s main objective is to market the channel and its programs and to maximize ratings, which in turn, increases its profits.
Many big media names and reputable programs have recently fallen under the “Infotainment” category which critics have accused of eroding journalistic standards and gravitas thereby confining it to a role of commercialism and superficiality.
I write this in light of the recent Arabization of the phenomenon. Given the media and satellite boom in the Arab world, there appears to be an amazing correlation between information and entertainment in Arab media, as, of course, only Arabs can do it. Examples include such live debates where yelling and exaggerated theatrical performances are commonplace, or where certain media personalities make a farce of their programs, or what is especially prevalent today, where hard news is read by female anchorwomen who look like beauty queens, or what appear to be exotic gypsies as war correspondents, so much that grave mistakes are cast a blind eye. It is, of course, not restricted to female anchorwomen. Many trite male personalities have emerged of late in such numbers that it has become pathetic.
Lest my prose appear exaggeratedly serious or overly rigid, I would merely like to point out in this article that bringing this Western trend to Arab media is doing it great disservice. As in the West, while it is prevalent, it is not all the media offers. In the West, a democratic culture reigns, and there are specialized institutions and commissions whose sole purpose is to keep an eye on the media and its quality. It takes note of its every error and lapse, and subsequently punishes it for them. Most importantly it is used as a watchdog with which authorities’ misdeeds are made public and politicians are thus eventually held responsible.
In the Arab world however, the democratic experiment remains to tumble downward, so much that it is sometimes terrifying. The Arab media boom is one of the most rapid changes to sweep the Arab world, regardless of the debates that ensued. As important as it is, it nevertheless needs to prove itself as a forum of free expression before it too starts to use consumerist methods that don’t know the importance of maintaining a serious approach and the horrible outcome of triviality.