GUEST LENS MEDIA ALERT: A COMPARATIVE REVIEW OF FLAT EARTH NEWS AND NEWSPEAK – PART 1 By Jonathan Cook

18 November, 2009 — MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

Introduction

Jonathan Cook has been covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from Nazareth, Israel, as a freelance reporter for the past eight years. Before that he was a staff journalist at the Guardian and Observer newspapers. His latest books on the conflict are ‘Israel and the Clash of Civilisations’ (Pluto, 2008) and ‘Disappearing Palestine’ (Zed, 2008). His website is www.jkcook.net

In the two-part Guest Media Alert that follows, Cook attempts the truly Herculean task of dissecting and comparing the key arguments in Nick Davies’s book ‘Flat Earth News’ and our own recently published ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century.’ The results are enthralling but demanding – even hardened media analysts will require a plentiful supply of tea and biscuits throughout.

Please do not underestimate the unique nature of the analysis Cook is offering. While Davies’s book was discussed, reviewed, and applauded, far and wide in both print and broadcast media, our own book (published in September) has so far limped to just two, largely dismissive, reviews in mainstream outlets, in the Guardian and Times Higher Education (THE), totalling exactly 1,000 words. Our previous book, Guardians of Power (2006), has never been mentioned, let alone reviewed, in any mainstream national UK newspaper.

The truth is that dissident media analyses are consistently ignored in this way – it is not just us. And so Cook’s comparison of Davies’s mainstream view of the media with an analysis based on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s “propaganda model of media control” is a vanishingly rare event. As ever, Cook’s experience as a professional journalist adds a fascinating additional dimension to his analysis.

Cook produced this mega-review – nearly 10,000 words of it – completely free of charge. It is an extraordinary act of generosity from a fine and thoughtful journalist. We would like to express our sincere thanks to him. If you would like to thank him or otherwise comment, you can write to him here: mail@jkcook.net

The Two Books:

Nick Davies, Flat Earth News, Vintage 2008, pp. 420

David Edwards and David Cromwell, Newspeak in the 21st Century, Pluto Press 2009, pp. 299.

Rules Of Production

With the internet’s rapid growth and an associated flourishing of alternative journalism, the traditional disseminators of information to western audiences – our print and broadcast media – have come under scrutiny as never before. There is a growing sentiment, particularly on the left but also to be found elsewhere, that mainstream journalism is failing us, even if a variety of reasons are proposed for this failure.

One of the more influential recent analyses has been put forward by Nick Davies, a journalist with Britain’s Guardian newspaper, in his book Flat Earth News. Many working journalists, myself included, would agree with his conclusion that the media are ill-equipped to realise their stated goal of truth-telling. His dissection of the causes of this failure – his 10 “rules of production” – should be studied by anyone aspiring to work in the media and any reader interested in inoculating him or herself against many of the media’s worst excesses. The rules describe in a very convincing fashion some of the main practical reasons why mainstream reporting ends up distorting or misrepresenting real events. But do his rules of production provide the complete picture of media failure, as Davies claims and most of the book’s reviewers have accepted? That is much less certain.

Davies argues that, following the takeover of our major newspapers by large corporations, the media have become concerned solely with profit. In this cut-throat commercial environment, news reporting comes to be treated no differently from car-making. Efficiency on the assembly line of the “news factory”, like that of the car factory, demands constant cuts in staffing and overheads. As a result, claims Davies, overworked journalists are deprived of the time and resources needed to search for truth.

The consequence, Davies argues, is felt in limitations – which he groups together as “rules of production” – on the ability of journalists in a commercial environment to aspire to truth-telling. The rules, which encourage journalists to play safe by avoiding troublesome or time-consuming stories, include: running non-controversial stories that are unlikely to attract public criticism; relying on official sources and adopting the line of powerful lobbies to avoid the danger of legal challenges; basing stories on consensual assumptions, whatever their validity, to avoid incurring unwelcome scrutiny; artificially balancing stories with a he said-she said approach that strips them of their true significance; trivialising news, pandering to common prejudices and stripping out complexity in the hope of increasing circulation; and promoting unsubstantiated “moral panics” to prevent readers deserting to rivals.

“Journalists who are denied the time to work effectively,” he concludes, “can survive by taking the easy, sexy stories which everybody else is running; reducing them to simplified events; framing them with safe ideas and safe facts; neutralising them with balance; and churning them out fast.” Most journalists want to do good, to change the world, to be Woodward or Bernstein, but the limitations imposed by their working environment rarely make achieving this ideal possible. They sacrifice the needs of journalism for the easy gratification of “churnalism”. Faced with commercial pressures, under-staffed newsrooms and unsympathetic bosses, and under pressure from government officials and the public relations industry, journalists make bad choices.

There is an obvious problem with Davies’ reading of journalistic intentions. He assumes, with what appears to be a mixture of naivety and professional self-delusion, that journalists are basically idealistic individuals whose desire to do good is inadvertently crushed by the corporations who run our media. The free-spirit journalist is cast as Cinderella, labouring unappreciated by her abusive and dominating corporate sisters.

But why should we believe that journalists are motivated primarily by the common good? Are they not like other professionals, a mix of good and bad? Is it not likely that many journalists do not care about truth or doing good but about staying employed, advancing their careers or enriching themselves? (Interestingly, in this regard, Davies ignores the wealth of evidence provided in his fascinating chapter the Propaganda Puzzle that the intelligence services, especially the CIA, have secretly financed media organisations in many foreign countries and infiltrated publications in the US to place journalists whose job it is to spread misinformation).

Reading Davies, one longs for a return to the golden era of an incorruptible and conscientious media. But did such an era ever exist? Strangely, Davies devotes almost no space in his book to examining the history of journalism or to testing his implied hypothesis that journalists were once successful at truth-telling.

This weakness in Davies’ argument, however, does not substantially undermine the significance of his chief observation that the media as a whole is failing. Even if journalists are driven by a variety of goals – some good, some bad – the result is still a uniformly poor performance by the corporate media. How do we explain the inability of the good journalists to make much of an impression on the media they serve? Again, Davies finds succour in his rules of production. The need of journalists to submit to commercial pressures has ideological consequences, he argues, reflected in the media’s adoption of a conservative worldview. The rules of production, he writes, “tend to favour the status quo. All of them, furthermore, are reinforced by the impact of PR which… is primarily a tool for the powerful.”

In other words, the problem of journalism, in Davies’ view, is one of consistent cock-up.

Conspiracy Theories

Davies rejects other explanations for the failure of journalism, especially what he terms “conspiracy theories” promoted by media outsiders. Corporations may have taken over the media, but Davies is unwilling to concede that their interests have any noticeable influence on the agenda or ideology of our media. The argument that rightwing or corporate bias in our media reflects the influence of either advertisers or proprietors is dismissed as describing a phenomenon of only marginal significance. From his conversations with fellow journalists, Davies relates, he and they ascribe “only 5% or 10% of the problem” to such interference.

Davies argues that in 30 years of working in the media he has never come across an instance of an advertiser influencing an editorial line. “Nor can I find any other journalist who has ever known it to happen. And nor, as far as I know, can the critics who promote the idea.” Well, let me offer an example. Al-Jazeera’s English-language channel has been unable to secure a proper cable distribution deal in the US, where it might attract a significant following among disillusioned Americans keen for a different perspective, particularly on the Middle East. All the indications are that this is because Washington and corporate America have jointly made clear that they will not support the channel.

Interestingly, exactly the same problem afflicts Al-Jazeera Arabic, which has never been profitable, and has to be heavily subsidised by the emir of Qatar, even though it is the most popular news channel in the Arab world. Western analysts usually ascribe Al-Jazeera Arabic’s problems to the fact that it is an independent broadcaster trying to operate in the undemocratic environment of the Middle East. What does this suggest about Al-Jazeera English’s problems?

Clearly, any fledgling commercial media organisation – if it did not already understand the commercial imperatives facing a broadcaster in the West – would have been able to draw obvious conclusions from Al-Jazeera English’s treatment. In fact, one could plausibly argue that Al-Jazeera is starting to draw the right conclusion itself, toning down its own coverage to ensure it does not sound too much like its more “controversial” Arabic sister channel. And it may yet choose to make further compromises in the hope of gaining entry to the US market.

Similarly, it seems naive on Davies’ part to reject outright the idea that the corporate owners of much of the British media, most obviously at the popular and widely read end of the market, create a very strong climate of bias in favour of their own interests.

During a libel case in Britain over the summer it emerged that Richard Desmond, owner of the nationally read Express and Star newspapers, had once punched a senior editorial executive with whom he disagreed in the stomach in full view of the newsroom. Presumably, proprietors rarely need to strong-arm their staff to that extent. On the issue of editorial interference, Desmond told the court: “If I ordered the editors or the reporters to write a feature they would not do it.” Maybe not (though I doubt it), but any career-minded journalist on the Express, or other British newspapers, should not need to be told what to write by their proprietor – they already know.

Furthermore, one would not need to be psychic to work out what Desmond is likely to think on a host of political and economic matters. Helpfully, like other proprietors, he regularly gives voice to his opinions. Thus, we know that he thinks that corporation-friendly British prime minister Gordon Brown is using tax to “squeeze the middle classes out of existence”; that “it’s not fair” that immigrants come into the country; and that he regards himself as a socialist because he understands socialism to be a political creed that gives poor people the freedom to get filthy rich, as he has done – or, in his words, to achieve “the redistribution of wealth [with] no privilege for the upper classes”. Maybe ensuring his journalists understand his worldview is what he meant when he referred to his role at his papers in the following terms: “The editors are the chefs and I’m the owner saying, ‘Why not just put a cherry on the cake?’”

Is Desmond an aberration? That seems unlikely. Can there really be any doubt that other current and former corporate owners of the British media, from Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell to Conrad Black and the Barclay Brothers, have not had the same kind of controlling influence as Desmond on their staff? If a proprietor like Murdoch needed to be courted by a prime minister like Tony Blair in a desperate bid for the tycoon’s support, are journalists really likely to be any more principled? Owners like Murdoch, after all, have the power to make or break a journalist’s career.

The Propaganda Model

A rival model for explaining media failure is the theory that its much-prized independence is in truth a facade and that in reality it is organically tied to elite interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, Davies reserves particular disdain for this argument, casually dismissing it as one made by those either ignorant of newsroom practices or in thrall to radical leftwing agendas. Noam Chomsky, one of the most trenchant critics of the modern western media, is presumably the chief object of his scorn, though Chomsky’s name appears nowhere in Davies’ book – an unforgivable omission in a work claiming to offer a no-holds-barred analysis of journalistic failure.

Chomsky himself would probably not be surprised that the dustjacket of Davies’ book is adorned with enthusiastic reviews from the great and the good of British journalism. The mostly warm reception of Davies’ book by fellow journalists will doubtless not be accorded to the latest book from two of Chomsky’s most astute students on media matters, David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of the British website Media Lens. Their book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, published in August by Pluto Press, garnered praise from only one journalist, John Pilger, the leading dissident reporter of our era.

Pilger, it should be noted, is also enthusiastic about Davies’ book, and with good reason. Together these works – one by a media insider and the other by two media outsiders – should be read as companion analyses, both offering highly critical accounts of journalistic behaviour but from opposing perspectives. An understanding of the media’s failure is broadened and deepened by reading them together.

Edwards and Cromwell adopt the “propaganda model” – developed by Edward S Herman and Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent – to argue that the failure of the media is neither cock-up nor conspiracy, but rather structural and therefore systemic. Like Herman and Chomsky, they claim that media organisations rarely need to intervene directly in journalists’ decisions; instead the media “filter” out unwelcome ideas through, in Herman and Chomsky’s words, “the selection of right-thinking personnel and by the editors’ and working journalists’ internalisation of [elite] priorities and definitions of newsworthiness”.

On this view, the media’s goal is not truth-telling, as Davies maintains, but the presentation of a view of the world, often distorted, that promotes the interests of the powerful corporations that have come to dominate our societies. That is the mainstream media’s rationale, even if their staff are unaware of it. Journalists do not need consciously to choose to serve corporate power to be useful to its goals. At their website, Edwards and Cromwell invite visitors to help dissect instances of media failure as they occur, often challenging by email the journalists responsible. Reading the journalists’ defensive – and invariably baffled – responses is enlightening.

A possible reason why a journalist like Davies appears incapable of considering the arguments for the propaganda model, let alone rebutting it, was explained by Chomsky during an interview in 1996 with another senior British journalist, Andrew Marr, then of the Independent newspaper and today of the BBC. Marr and other senior journalists, said Chomsky, had risen to their present positions precisely because their work did not challenge the corporate interests they served. A discomfited Marr maintained that he had never self-censored and that there were lots of “disputatious” people in journalism. Chomsky replied: “If you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

To journalists like Davies and Marr, this sounds like conspiratorial nonsense. Surely, for the propaganda model to be true, some group must be policing journalism to ensure that anyone found to be violating the rules is dismissed. How could such a cabal be kept secret from the journalists themselves?

Edwards and Cromwell, however, retort that no conspiracy is needed, no rules have to be imposed. The media’s own lengthy selection processes weed out journalists who do not subscribe to the profession’s core value, which is supporting a world subordinated to corporate power. Dissenting journalists are excluded from positions of influence in our mainstream media – though a token dissident or two, they admit, are usually incorporated into the more liberal publications, usually in their commentary pages, in an attempt to give the impression of diversity and pluralism. A truly dissident corporate journalist is, in their view, as rare as a Trotskyite banker, and for much the same reason.

Edwards and Cromwell offer an interesting analogy. “When a shoal of fish instantly changes direction, it looks for all the world as though the movement was synchronised by some guiding hand. Journalists – all trained and selected for obedience by media all seeking to maximise profits within state-capitalist society – tend to respond to events in the same way.”

Conformist Journalism

In a recent alert on their website, Edwards and Cromwell set out what they see as the problem of professional journalism. Western journalists “+do+ consistently promote the same propaganda obscuring the same crimes in defence of the same vested interests. Most journalists manage to misperceive the world in an identical, system-supportive, career-furthering way.”

Davies’ book offers a wealth of factual information about the media that appears to back such a conclusion, even if he himself is unable to reach it. Edwards and Cromwell have no such inhibitions. The pair would doubtless agree with Davies that his rules of production provide serious practical limitations on a journalist’s ability to accurately and fairly cover news. But to these 10 rules, they would add an eleventh, more important one that subsumes the other 10:

“The corporate media system, while masquerading as an honest, independent source of unbiased news and views, has in fact evolved to protect the powerful corporate and political interests of which it is a part. The corporate media is not owned by big business, as is often claimed – it +is+ big business. It does not watch over concentrated power – it +is+ power. The media system does not fail in its task of guarding the people against power – it +succeeds+ in its task of protecting power at the expense of people and planet.”

Power is protected domestically, they argue, by a media whose role is “brainwashing under freedom”. Journalists are there to reassure us that we live in a morally superior universe. Western leaders “are presented as sober, dignified and rational – serious people who have ascended (with a little divine inspiration, and perhaps even intervention) to the summit of a meritocratic and benevolent social order”. By contrast, journalists invariably portray foreign leaders who challenge the interests of Western power as enemies, “both foolish and menacing”.

Journalists manage to serve power without being aware of their complicity, argue the pair, because they are “able to perceive only that which allows them to thrive as successful components of the corporate system”. Edwards and Cromwell point to the extensive psychological literature on self-deception and “groupthink”. They quote psychologist Daniel Goleman: “when one can’t do anything to change the situation, the other recourse is to change how one perceives it.” In other words, there is nothing self-conscious or cynical in the way journalists promote power; they believe what they write, even when it is easily refuted or obviously distorts reality.

Davies and others, however, point to the BBC and the Guardian as proof that the corporations do not control all our media. After all, they note, both the BBC and the Guardian are run by trusts while the BBC is funded by a licence fee levied on the British public. That is a red herring, Edwards and Cromwell counter. The BBC is organically tied to powerful elites through its government-controlled funding and its oversight by directors and a trust comprising individuals drawn from corporate Britain. Likewise, the Guardian’s Scott Trust is dominated by business leaders, while the newspaper itself, like all the Guardian Media Group’s publications, is heavily dependent on advertising.

In a revealing chapter on manifestations of journalistic self-deception, Edwards and Cromwell highlight the implacable refusal by corporate journalists to accept that the media’s absolute dependence on proprietors and the advertising industry influences its agenda. In particular, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, twists and turns as he concedes in an interview with Edwards the obvious reality that newspapers are susceptible to the pressures of advertising and owners but still balks at the inevitable conclusion that the media cannot therefore be truly independent, let alone the watchdogs of power they profess to be.

A Dissection Of Media Failure

Rather than taking on easy examples of media failure, such as coverage of the millennium bug that supposedly threatened the world’s computers or stories about the royals, as Davies tends to do, Edwards and Cromwell tackle some of the most important issues of our time. The pair take an especial interest – as they did in their earlier book, Guardians of Power – in the coverage of two long-running major news stories: Iraq and climate change.

Regarding Iraq, the pair concentrate on British and American journalists’ consistent refusal to make reference to the most probable death toll of Iraqis as a result of the 2003 invasion of their country by the US and UK. The significance of this topic is that a high death toll would undermine both the moral case made for the war against Iraq and the media’s assumption that western forces are waging the “cleanest” fight possible in difficult circumstances. Much of the legitimacy of the war, at least for supporters who claimed it would end a savage tyranny and bring western-style democracy to Iraq, therefore hangs on the question of the numbers killed in Iraq.

The most credible academic study of the deaths caused by the invasion – published by the world’s leading medical journal the Lancet and already three years out of date – put the most likely total at 655,000. Instead journalists uniformly rely on the very limited assessment made by a group known as Iraq Body Count that tots up Iraqi deaths reported by the western media and a few reliable local sources. Their figure has been much lower, at about a tenth of the academic study’s.

Even using Davies’ 10 rules of production, it is difficult to account for this consistent failure by journalists. The well-publicised carnage in Iraq makes a very high figure credible, even commonsensical; a respectable study offers insurance against criticism, ridicule or legal action; the unpopularity of the war (particularly among many liberals) means few readers of newspapers like the Guardian and Independent would object; and there has been plenty of time for journalists to familiarise themselves with this aspect of the Iraq story. One of Davies’ rules – that of balance – should at the very least encourage journalists to mention this figure at the same time as they cite the Iraq Body Count’s numbers.

In addition, most journalists’ professional training should enable them to understand that in an anarchic and war-torn country like Iraq there is little hope that most deaths are being reliably recorded by the media. To most correspondents trapped in the relative comfort of the Green Zone, it must be obvious that the Iraq Body Count’s figures are only a fraction of the real death toll. Edwards and Cromwell quote James Forsyth, online editor for two magazines, the Business and Spectator, making just this point: “Iraq is the most difficult conflict in any of our lifetimes to report… Much normal reporting is simply impossible.”

So why do journalists still turn, just like the White House and Downing Street, to the Iraq Body Count for their death toll figure? For Edwards and Cromwell the answer is to be found in a corporate interest in promoting the legitimacy of the war and its aftermath. Big business has much at stake in continuing to be allowed to pillage a war-torn Iraq, exploiting its oil resources and creating new markets vulnerable to western penetration. In addition, corporate capitalism needs to create a facade of western moral sensitivity in the treatment of Iraq to prop up the assumption in media coverage that our governments have only the interests of the Iraqi people at heart.

Assessing the media’s coverage of another topic, climate change, is possibly the most significant gauge of the strength of Edwards and Cromwell’s argument. According to the proponents of a truly free press, even one hampered by the limitations enumerated by Davies, our media should revel in the chance to report on a simmering threat that may in the not-too-distant future wipe out the human species – climate change is the ultimate moral panic. But for critics of this theory such as Edwards and Cromwell, climate change is more likely to create the ultimate clash of interests for a media that, on the one hand, is faced with the irrefutable science of imminent catastrophe for which evasive action needs to be taken and which, on the other, depends for its own survival on the need to generate the very consumption destroying the planet.

If Edwards and Cromwell are right, we ought to see a great deal of equivocation and evasiveness from the media on climate change. In fact, on the basis of their argument, we ought to see the media dealing with climate change very similarly to the corporations: that is, by acknowledging the threat of climate change but at the same time adopting a variety of strategies to downplay its significance so that we, the customer, continue to consume as eagerly as ever.

Which theory fits the reality of the media’s coverage of climate change?

Edwards and Cromwell’s contention is: “The mainstream media do report the latest scientific findings on climate change … [but] the content of these reports and related commentary comes with gaping holes. The material surrounding them also serves to powerfully dissipate their impact.” The pair look at the role of the Independent newspaper, widely regarded as the champion of environmental issues in the British media. They examine, for example, its coverage on the day it published probably the boldest frontpage on climate change ever adopted by a British newspaper. The banner headline of December 3 2005 read “Climate Change: Time for Action” and listed the likely scenarios facing humanity: “killer storms, rampant disease, rising sea levels, devastated wildlife, water shortages, agricultural turmoil”.

Deserved as these scare tactics were, Edwards and Cromwell point out that the coverage was framed by dozens of pages of “relentless propaganda promoting mass consumption”, including adverts for Vauxhall cars; PC World’s X-Box game consoles; “1p flights” from flymonarch.com; Dior Christal watches; British Airways London-Malaga return flights for £59; Canon offers on cameras, camcorders and printers; Citroen cars; and so on.

Statistics show that the Independent, like other newspapers, survives economically only because of the many millions of pounds of revenue it receives each year from advertisers promoting luxury products. That may explain why the only practical advice the paper offered its readers to avert the doomsday predicted on the front-page was “10 things you can do at home”, including turning off electrical appliances not in use. Similarly, an editorial warned that individuals should take responsibility by cycling or walking rather than driving. “A failure to act now,” it concluded, “will not be forgiven by future generations”.

Even in the best-case example – the Independent of December 3 2005 – argue Edwards and Cromwell, a whole set of vital issues concerning climate change were simply incapable of being discussed, such as: the legal obligation on corporations to prioritise profit over human welfare and the environment; the goal of advertising to generate artificial needs and thereby promote unsustainable consumption; the collusion between corporations and western governments in installing compliant dictators in client states to exploit their resources; and the use of loans and tied aid to trap poor countries in debt so that the West can control their markets and development.

In 2006, on a rare occasion when precisely these types of concerns were raised by the Commons all-party climate change group, their proposals for “turning established principles of British economic life upside down” were aired seriously only in an Independent news report. A commentary by the London Times ridiculed the parliamentary group as a “cream-puff army”, while the rest of the British media averted their gaze. Revealingly, none of the media used the group’s findings as an opportunity to explore or investigate these issues further.

Edwards and Cromwell conclude that, despite the media’s stated concern that readers would be bored by endless discussion of the detailed reasons for climate change, “the same journalists go on repeating the same empty blather about ‘the need for all of us to act now’.” The media’s message is that “something must be done”, but the argument never progresses beyond admonitions to cycle and recycle more, and turn off electrical appliances. “Journalists and editors, and perhaps much of the public,” they say, “fail to notice that the discussion on climate change has somehow managed to stay on ‘square one’ for the past 20 or 30 years. Our point is that the media are structurally +obliged+ to remain on square one. After all what can a corporate business like the Independent possibly say about the impact of corporate advertising of mass consumption on environmental collapse, on the stifling of change?”

In both these cases, Davies’ theory is put severely to the test. He argues that most journalists want to search for truth but are usually constrained by practical pressures resulting from the commercial environment in which they work. This, possibly, might explain why the majority of journalists – especially those working for the most commercial outfits, such as the tabloids – fail to cover stories like climate change or the Iraq death toll in a convincing way. But it can hardly explain why almost all journalists, even on the most serious newspapers, fail in this task. Surely, according to Davies’ reasoning, there ought be exceptional journalists, especially specialists and those with tenure in the liberal papers, who consistently get it right. How can it be that the Guardian and Independent’s Middle East correspondents cite the unlikely Iraq Body Count figures as regularly as the hacks of the tabloid Daily Mail?

Part 2 will follow shortly…

Email: editor@medialens.org

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Our earlier book, ‘Guardians of Power: The Myth Of The Liberal Media’ (Pluto Books, London), was published in 2006: www.medialens.org/bookshop/guardians_of_power.php

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