“Your mom told me to pray for you when you went to Turkey,” said my dental hygienist when I walked into the office.
This was the morning after a 13-hour flight home from a service trip with UC Berkeley Hillel. Turkey isn’t exactly the type of place one might assume would conjure prayers for safe travels, but the hawkish behaviors of Turkey’s police force a week before my flight had left my parents, my friends, my friend’s parents, my extraneous relatives and others (see: dental hygienist) hesitant about my departure. The trip had roused the sort of unsolicited advice generally reserved for expectant parents or a newlywed couple: that which is imposingly and self-righteously well intentioned.
My aunt told my mom to take Zoloft.
The night I left, a family friend called my mom
“You actually let her go,” she said.
“Yes,” my mom said.
“I hope she comes back.”
Their concern was reasonable. Reports on Turkey made it seem as though the country was in visible turmoil. After a corruption probe that implicated four ministers in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, Erdogan has been supervising Turkey’s judiciary with authoritarianlike control. When the law is on Erdogan’s side, he seems appeased. But when it clashes with his agenda, retribution blinds his sensibility. Since the probe incident, Erdogan has taken measures to reduce the power of Turkey’s judiciary — a highly politicized endeavor. Such despotic behavior explains the air of dissatisfaction the Turkish people hold. My tour guide referred to Erdogan as the “Crime Minister.”
“He’s a spoiled little man,” she declared as our tour bus teetered down the windy streets around the Galata Tower.
Accordingly, the Economist compared Erdogan to Russia’s president, autocratic Vladimir Putin, and decreed that “In another era, tanks might now be on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul.” The Washington Post alluded to Turkey’s “democratic decline.” Marc Champion of Bloomberg News wrote that the Prime Minister assumed a “megalomaniacal approach.” BBC News pondered, “A state crisis in Turkey?
A few things are objectively clear: Turkey’s current Westernized government is deeply troubled, the judiciary is not independent but buffeted by politics and the country is mired in economic distress. But what was left out from these reports is how and whether these events have filtered into everyday life.
When I visited in early January, Turkey’s Galata Bridge was jam-packed with boisterous street venders and stolid seasoned fishermen, casting their baits into the depths of the Golden Horn River. The men bantered with one another, accustomed to the bustle of mothers lugging tots in strollers and tourists gawking at the seasoned beauty of Istanbul — coy and striking in the glaring sunlight of early afternoon. This was an anthem of mankind: centuries of civilization as intertwined as the spice smells in the Grand Bazaar. Down the coast, in Izmir, bars resounded with the shouts of townies playing their umpteenth game of backgammon. The scene was comfortable, ordinary.
Perhaps, as a visitor, I gleaned only the unperturbed surface of an otherwise distressed world: the placid movement of a duck whose furious paddling is invisible to the untrained eye. But the fact remains that my Turkey was not in the state of utter disarray — bordering chaos.
Professor Christian Christiansen noted that in popular media coverage on Turkey, “Details and context were low and emotive, exotic imagery high.” Indeed, it is difficult for Western news sources to report on a matter inherently alien to majority of their readers, because most don’t have a context for the information. Expecting an audience to extrapolate meaning about something that it has little perspective on begets ignorant conclusions.
The danger of a sensationalized bias in media is the stories don’t always accurately portray the effects of a situation at hand. Newspapers do have a responsibility to report on stories that may be inherently dramatic. But would it be underplaying a deteriorating situation to begin a report with mention that life, for the most part, appeared to resume usual activity? Should such information be found in a less publicized report? I suspect it may be just as hard to understand or predict back-and-forth effects between the average Turk and the monolithic government. But clearly, there is interplay between any government and its constituents: Their behaviors are linked. There must be some inclusion of the ramifications of an event to give context to a story.
The question is whether news can manage to report on a specific situation while also including the larger reality. Perhaps sensationalism in news is unavoidable, as professor Mitchell Stephens points out. “We humans are wired, probably for reasons of natural selection, to be alert to sensations, particularly those involving sex and violence,” Stephens said. Biology aside, the media can only cry wolf so many times before its pleas become banal. If everything is dire, then nothing really is.
And yes, I did make it home.
“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.
Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].