Media Voodoo, Primitive Sympathetic Magic And Our Television News

By Norman Berdichevsky

The latest misnamed “demonstrations” across Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and in twenty Muslim majority countries underscores the unholy alliance with the media.

Most notably television, with its penchant for visual representation of the “news” that capitalizes on the public’s desire for understanding of significant information and instead provides macabre entertainment highlighting blood and mayhem like dozens of Hollywood Grade C horror movies.

The visual media of television is much more distorted than newspaper or radio reportage. The time deadline is the most compressed to “get out a story”. Given a choice between two types of news events;

1.  Where television cameras are present for on the spot visual coverage  OR

2.  A spontaneous unplanned event in which reporters happen to be present but without the visual coverage needed by television;

The Unwritten Law is always to give Type 1 PREFERENCE, no matter how artificial, contrived, and intentionally designed to convey a political message.

Type 1 events are almost always loud, noisy, provocative “demonstrations” with signs (preferably in English – already prepared) carried out by a mob always claiming to be aggrieved on account of some “injustice” whether it is real, imaginary or self-inflicted, usually involving the complete disruption of normal activities of business, education, and traffic and a normal working day and routines in which mayhem is featured resulting in blood, injuries and preferably deaths.

Compare this with the much more prosaic and therefore for a television news program, much less interesting event – a Type 2 unplanned happening at which reporters happen to be present or arrive late on the scene without the ability to film the “action” thus requiring an actual informative report to explain the What, Who, Where, How and Why background of the event.

The result requires excellent journalistic skills to get to the bottom of the story, interview witnesses and explain how and why it happened and the possible consequences – all of which demand research and skill in questioning. Even when the information obtained is profound – without the visual accompaniment of the camera – it will inevitably be accorded much lower consideration for inclusion in a nightly television news feature.

Norman Berdichevsky

If the same event were to be reported in a newspaper, the readers expect to spend considerably more time reading about the event over several days and learning what insight the reported gained when there may be only a single photograph or none at all to provide visual evidence of the event.

Probably the most consistently showed sequence of a type 1 event includes the mirror image of scurrying cameramen absurdly filming each other as they jostle for a close up to capture a mob and in so doing, follow the crowd that has been incited to violence and mayhem to “make the evening news”.

What seems to fascinate the cameramen and the demands of their producers for a newsworthy event involves a trait common to primitive societies everywhere – a belief in what anthropologists call “sympathetic magic” that “like produces like” so that trampling upon or burning a flag (most preferably, America, British, or Israeli) or ripping apart in effigy a dummy or doll made to portray Uncle Sam, or a similar representation of a Western country, or trashing a fast food western chain restaurant like McDonalds, Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken will somehow through the magic of media “voodoo” and religious frenzy be made to occur in reality against the actual country, business firm or national leader.

The reporters thus have no difficulty in explaining that the mob is “venting its anger” on its evil enemies and that their grievances are therefore somehow newsworthy and “authentic”.

It is then often a small step for the sponsors of such events to incite the mob to try to transfer their anger to the real flesh and blood objects of their hatred and frenzy instead of rags and dolls.

We thus have the most sophisticated mass communication technologies of the 21st century catering to primitive mob behavior. Ideally, a responsible press, which has, in the case of newspapers, enough preparation time to try and determine if the “demonstration” was simply made for them or was a spontaneous manifestation of some pent up frustration.

It is clear from the many made for TV film presentations of the news where Muslims, who are illiterate in their own languages, are carrying signs with slogans in English.

Interviews with the “man in the street” are hardly reliable. In many third world countries, they are either unwilling or unable to act reliably for fear of retribution. Often, the camera crews are wholly ignorant of the local languages and unaccompanied by interpreters.

In any case, no realistic journalist would expect that interviewing on the spot witnesses in authoritarian societies would produce reliable evidence of what happened and why. The viewers of today’s televised have been raised on appreciating (with their own eyes) visual images as the most reliable form of news.

Unlike the previous generations of newspaper readers, they do not dispose of the same leisure time to carefully wade through and weigh the facts and follow-up reporting that may take days or even weeks to clarify events. Without an analysis of the significance of an event, the news becomes an arena in which to compete for attention and the most outlandish, shocking, offensive, bloody or bizarre is often regarded as the most newsworthy.

Another area of visual media distortion that was not so acute when the media was largely limited to the power of the written is now practiced universally on television by editing  out  interpreters – almost always an “invisible” person. The interpreter frequently used in television interviews is cut out by manipulating camera angles so as to convey to the audience that heads of state or “the man in the street” are actually conversing with each other or the reporter.

Today, the old adage that “one picture is worth 10,000 words” is simply wrong. It may well be that a few words are worth much more than a misleading or fabricated picture created by digital photography or it may be that we really need 10,000 words to understand what we see and be aware of what we do not see or has been hidden from the camera.

With today’s computer generated images, pictures can be made to show anything the designer wants and make it look believable.  Anyone who has seen ‘Forest Gump’ (played by actor Tom Hanks) must remember the comical buffoon of a shrimp boat captain as a guest in the White House showing a wound in his rear end to President Johnson.  It is presented as if it were an actual newsreel.

It should be the responsibility of the press to bring light instead of heat to the news so that we can distinguish between real and stage-managed events. We all honor and respect “Freedom of the Press” but it can only be of value when it adheres to the highest ethical principles, is aware of its own limitations and does not attempt to take “shortcuts” to “save time.

Likewise, a free press should make it a sacred duty not simply to “cover” what is most visibly shocking but to penetrate areas where cameras are usually forbidden to go and provide analysis of the backgrounds and people behind events.


Norman Berdichevsky is a native New Yorker who lives in Orlando, Florida. He holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (1974) and is the author of The Danish-German Border Dispute (Academica Press, 2002), Nations, Language and Citizenship (McFarland & Co., Inc., 2004), Spanish Vignettes; An Offbeat Look into Spain’s Culture, Society & History (Santana Books, Malaga, Spain. 2004), An Introduction to Danish Culture (MacFarland, 2011) and The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011). He is the author of more than 200 articles and book reviews that have appeared in a variety of American, British, Danish, Israeli and Spanish periodicals such as World Affairs, Journal of Cultural Geography, Ecumene, Ariel, Ethnicity, The World & I, Contemporary Review, German Life, Israel Affairs, and Midstream. He is also a professional translator from Hebrew and Danish to English and his website is here.




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