What do journalists do when they can’t write about the news?

What do journalists do when they can’t write about the news?

Oscar Wilde is quoted as saying “the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” Recently, for some reason, Turkish journalists have been taking this duty upon themselves.

Why? Well, to begin with, it is safer. All the protagonists are dead, so no one can complain, or call your editor, or call you a terrorist, or sue you, or put you in jail. It is like a soldier staying at home and playing World War II games all day. You can die as many times as you want without any of the real consequences: Cheap thrills without any of the responsibility. That’s why rewriting history should be the number one item in “The Journalist’s Guide to Survival under Unseemly Circumstances.” Find documents, and if there are no documents that’s what Photoshop is for.

Turkey’s daily Yeni Şafak took the prize in this category last week, with a news story about how Atatürk was allegedly murdered by İsmet İnönü. İnönü became the second president of the recently established Turkish Republic in 1938, right after Atatürk’s death. Yeni Şafak printed a story with “new evidence” unearthed by an anonymous journalist “proving” that Atatürk was heinously poisoned by İnönü. The documents cited by the article (which can be seen on their website) appear to be printed on yellow, old-timey paper covered in water marks. But whoever wrote them presciently used a language that the average Turk in 2015 can easily understand, in a font that – as other journalists discovered – was actually a Microsoft Word font. The Ottoman Empire might have been a latecomer to the printing press, but it turns out we were in fact way ahead of the curve on digital communications.

Yeni Şafak asked Professor İlber Ortaylı about his views on the alleged documents, and was baffled when the renowned historian said he thought the matter was idiotic. He seemed to think journalists should focus on writing news and leave history to professional historians. “Newspapers do this all the time. They think they are establishing a new Turkey. Like hell they are,” he said (according my rough translation). To Yeni Şafak’s credit, they did publish what appeared to be the genuine conversation with the historian, even if it was with the headline “İlber Ortaylı exceeds his limits,” alongside the claim that he “couldn’t handle” the new evidence.

Alas, this story is only one example of a developing trend in Turkish journalism. What is really worrying about this trend is the morbidity of all of the stories. Why does it always have to be murder and deceit?
The obvious answer is the catchy headlines this gives. But does it have to be so weird or kinky? As a 50-year-old-plus veteran citizen of this country, I am worried by the amount of poison, sex and conspiracies that I am exposed to in the news on a daily basis.

The erosion of quality in mainstream news might have something to do with the environment journalists find themselves in today. Turkey, after all, was the world champion in the number of journalists jailed in both 2012 and 2013, incarcerating more than 40 journalists every year. In those years, we triumphed over other pioneers of freedom of the press and expression, such as China and Iran. Since 2014, however, Turkey no longer holds this venerable title - though it is still among the top 10 countries for jailed journalists. With seven journalists jailed in 2014, Turkey was 9th in the list, putting it above Bahrain and below Azerbaijan. But journalists know that their country could climb back up that ladder, thus putting them in a dilemma: Either write about people who still shape events and risk trouble, or write about dead people. It’s a tough profession.

But there still seems to be some who don’t know what’s good for them. One look at the latest Amnesty International Bulletin this week had two pieces of news about Turkey. The good news first: The prosecutor of Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, who was tried this week for allegedly praising the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), asked for her acquittal. The bad news: Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya are to be tried for publishing excerpts from the Charlie Hebdo magazine. They should have read their copies of the “Journalists Guide to Survival under Unseemly Circumstances” more carefully. It would have been the safer thing to do.

Of course, in some instances, rewriting history might not only be about safety. Orwell put it best when he said, “whoever controls the past, controls the future, and who controls the present, controls the past.”