The Media as a Chinese Whisper Machine

In his book (based on a public lecture) on Television, Bourdieu uses a good concept to describe how information is produced within the news media: he calls it the “circular circulation of information”. In a nutshell, the main idea is that, despite its function as a window open to the world, the media actually work in a relatively closed setting. The main source of information for journalists are the media themselves, journalists have their own implicit rules about what is interesting (scandal, exclusivity, being the first on a story), and the most avid readers of newspapers are… journalists in other newspapers. The Daily Mail talks about something because the Telegraph talks about it, Channel 4 prepares its headlines after watching what the BBC has done, and so on and so forth. Competition creates a lot of uniformity. This makes for a fairly closed mechanism of production. As for analogies, you could think of a mass enterprise in Chinese whispers, or a giant echo chamber where a relatively small sample of news stories gets distorted, modified and amplified at each stage of the process, while others are ignored.

There is a great example today about – again – Oprah Winfrey’s experience in a Swiss shop, where a shop assistant allegedly refused to show her a super-expensive bag, saying it was – precisely – too expensive. Oprah said it was a case of racism, which the owner of the shop has denied. On Sunday, the Sonntagsblick has interviewed the shop assistant who served Oprah to have her version. Here’s what she said

“Was haben Sie getan?
 Ich ging zu einer Vitrine und zeigte ihr eine dieser Jennifer-Aniston-Taschen, die sehr populär sind. Ich erklärte ihr, dass es diese Taschen in verschiedenen Grössen und Materialien gibt, so wie ich das immer tue. Sie blickte auf ein Gestell hinter mir. Weit oben. Darauf aus­gestellt war die 35000-Franken-Krokotasche. Ich sagte ihr, dass es dieselbe Tasche sei wie die, die ich gerade in der Hand hielt. Nur dass sie viel teurer sei. Ich könne ihr gerne noch andere Taschen zeigen. Oprah Winfrey behauptete im US-Fernsehen, Sie hätten ihr die Tasche aus rassistischen Gründen nicht ausgehändigt.
 Das ist absolut nicht wahr! Ich fragte sie sogar, ob sie die Tasche genauer anschauen wolle. Frau Winfrey hat sich nochmals im Geschäft umgeblickt, aber nichts mehr gesagt. Dann ging sie mit ihrem Begleiter in den unteren Stock. Mein Kollege hat ihnen noch die Tür aufgehalten. Sie waren nicht einmal fünf Minuten bei uns im Geschäft. Warum macht Oprah Winfrey dann solche Anschuldigungen?
 Das weiss ich nicht! Sie ist so mächtig, und ich bin bloss eine Verkäuferin. Ich habe niemandem etwas zuleide getan. Ich verstehe auch nicht, weshalb sie das so gross im TV ausschlachten muss. Hätte sich alles so zugetragen, wie sie behauptet: Warum hat sie sich dann nicht am nächsten Tag an der Hochzeit von Tina Turner bei Trudie Götz beschwert? Meine Chefin war ja dort ebenfalls zu Gast. Ich verstehe es nicht. Sie hätten zu ihr gesagt: «Sie wollen diese Tasche nicht sehen. Sie ist zu teuer. Die können Sie sich nicht leisten», sagt Winfrey.
Das stimmt nicht. Das ist absurd. So etwas würde ich zu einem Kunden nie sagen. Wirklich nicht! Gute Manieren und Höflichkeit sind das A und O in diesem Geschäft. Was würden Sie Oprah Winfrey sagen?
Ich würde mich entschuldigen. Es war ein Missverständnis. Ich habe Frau Winfrey sicher nicht absichtlich beleidigen wollen. Ich hoffe, dieser Albtraum ist bald zu Ende.

For non-German-speakers, she says that she started showing her Jennifer-Aniston bags, and then Oprah asked about the crocodile version, and the shop assistant answered it was the same, just much more expensive. The journalist says that Oprah Winfrey has affirmed that she was not given the bag because of racial prejudice, which the shop assistant vehemently denies. She also says that she has never said that Oprah “could never afford” the bag, that politeness is the most important in this trade. She doesn’t know why Oprah tore her apart (ausschlachten) like that on TV. When asked what she would tell Oprah, she says that she would apologise, that it was a misunderstanding, that she didn’t want to offend her. She wants this nightmare to be over. As stated in the title in German, she “hasn’t been able to sleep for days”.

The story has been taken up by the Daily Mail. There are direct translations from the original Sonntagsblick article and the content is similar (even though pushed to emphasise that Oprah may have lied), but the title has radically changed. From “I haven’t been able to sleep for days”, it is now “‘Oprah’s a liar’: Sales assistant in Swiss racist handbag row denies telling TV host that she could not view item because she couldn’t afford it”. Now, what you need to know is that people who write headlines and titles in newspapers are not the same who write the articles. Besides the “Chinese whisper” phenomenon across news outlets, it also happens within news outlets. For  a headline, you don’t want nuance, you want a punchline, and for that you emphasise conflict, or drama.

Finally, the website Gawker has re-used the story of the Daily Mail – and some Google translation of the original Sonntagsblick article – with a new title: “Swiss Shop Clerk Says Oprah “Cannibalized Her” With Racism Charge”. Now the term “cannibalized” seems to be a translation of the German “aussschlachten” of the original article (but ausschlachten is also used for cars). The difference between “cannibalized” and “tore apart” is that the former reinforces the racist picture that has been constructed for this shop assistant, as if she talked about Oprah Winfrey as a cannibal just like those African tribes in Allan Quatermain’s movies. So this is how you transform an interview where the shop employee says she cannot sleep into one where she calls Oprah Winfrey a Liar and a Cannibal.

One response to “The Media as a Chinese Whisper Machine”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: