20 November, 2009 — MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
News As A Science
To Davies’ credit, he does not fall back on the conventional defence for journalistic conformity, one that might account for the media’s failures even in cases like the Iraq death toll and climate change. Many modern journalists try to insinuate that the strangely consensual worldview of our media reflects the fact that it is now a professional media. The professional journalist, they suggest, is trained to seek out facts from which he or she constructs an “objective” news report. On this view, journalists select facts in the same way that, adopting an analogy used by Edwards and Cromwell, a geologist collects rocks for research. “Geologists have no emotional attachment to their rocks – journalists should be similarly disinterested.” This view of journalism has become increasingly prevalent both inside and outside the trade.
Rightly, however, Davies joins Edwards and Cromwell in dismissing the idea of journalistic objectivity as nonsense. He points out the obvious truth that all reporting involves selection – of the subject matter of a report, of the tone in which it is narrated, of the values that inform the reporter’s research, as well as of the facts included, the people interviewed, and the quotes used. The process of selection is governed not by objective criteria but by the assumptions a journalist or his news organisation brings to a story. Davies usefully illustrates this point with several examples of consensual wisdom from other periods of history, including sympathetic reports from mainstream US newspapers about Ku Klux Klan activities in the pre-civil rights era.
But if journalism is not about objectivity, but rather about adopting a viewpoint, then newspapers ought to be a cacophony of competing and conflicting views. Davies tries to explain the stultifying atmosphere of consensus with his 10 rules of production. He is helped by the fact that he has so many different rules that it is easy to find at least one that covers every example of mis-reporting he unearths. But how plausible is it that these rules are solely responsible for distorting media coverage?
His argument might be more persuasive if journalistic failure occurred primarily in the case of breaking news and fast-moving events. That is when journalists are most vulnerable to a whole range of pressures: from the reliance on official sources and the fear of making costly mistakes, to the danger of not being first with the news. But Davies appears to want his rules of production to serve as a tool for explaining long-term reporting failures too, such as the Iraq death toll or climate change, even though, as we have seen, they appear inadequate to the task.
Even more significantly for Davies’ theory, it is difficult to see how the rules of production can account for the fact that a whole array of opinions are largely excluded in the commentary of our “quality” media. Reporters hunting in packs for royal scandals are one thing, but why are the same kinds of group-think evident in the comment pages of the broadsheets, even of the so-called liberal papers? Although a broad range of opinions can be entertained in our most liberal media, there are nonetheless many reasonable, persuasive and sometimes plain commonsensical views that is all but impossible to get published anywhere in the mainstream.
Why have there been no op-eds arguing, for example, that Tony Blair and George Bush are war criminals, no different from Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, who need to stand trial at the Hague? And why does that very suggestion make me automatically sound like a “radical leftist”, as Davies would dismiss those he disagrees with, or as a Trot, crackpot or loony as the talkbackers who dominate the websites of liberal media like the Guardian describe those espousing progressive opinions.
Is Comment Really Free?
One of the problems for dissident journalists that very effectively excludes them from expressing an opinion of this sort in the corporate media is what might be termed a manufactured “climate of assumptions”. This climate of assumptions is shared by all western media whatever their ostensible political orientations. Thus, the Guardian, like the rightwing Telegraph or Mail, holds that western governments are led by those who have the best interests at heart not only of their own people, but of other peoples around the globe and even of the planet itself. In Iraq, Tony Blair and George Bush made mistakes – they thought there were WMD when there were not; they misread the intelligence; they misunderstood international law – but they did not act in bad faith or actively pursue goals that they knew to be illegal, immoral or damaging to the delicate fabric of global relations. They are not war criminals, even when all the evidence shows that this is precisely what they are.
Edwards and Cromwell make a useful point about the media’s vital role in reinforcing a set of assumptions that “our” leaders are morally superior to “their” leaders. “Controlling what we think is not solely a matter of controlling what we know – it is also about influencing who we respect and who we find ridiculous. Western leaders are typically reported without adjectives preceding their names… The leader of Venezuela, by contrast, is ‘controversial left-wing president Hugo Chavez’.”
In practice, this means that, although the British liberal media have run commentary hugely critical of the Iraq war and of Blair, the criticism is almost entirely restricted to the government’s handling of the details of the war rather than questioning the war’s goals or the motives of those who led it. Jonathan Steele has been one of the war’s harshest opponents in the Guardian but has always maintained that Blair and Bush, and their neocon advisers, wanted to bring democracy to the Middle East. They were badly advised and unrealistic in adopting that position, says Steele, but they were never less than idealistic. They may have used immoral means (doctored intelligence and so on) but they never pursued immoral ends. Or as Edwards and Cromwell argue, “balance” in the commentary pages “tends to involve presenting a ‘spectrum’ of views ranging from those heavily supportive of state policy to those mildly critical”.
I have experienced this climate of assumptions myself when trying to write op-eds about my specialist interest, Israel and the Middle East. There are many rational positions that cannot be adopted on the regional conflict in either the British or American media. It is impossible, for example, to question the media consensus that Israeli concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (assumed, of course, to be military ambitions) are rooted in a justified fear that Tehran wants Israel’s destruction. The far more likely explanation for Israel’s panic – that it might lose its regional monopoly on nuclear weapons, and consequently its dominant and exclusive military alliance with the US – is considered unsuitable for discussion.
Nor is it possible to cover the vigorous debate in Israeli academia on whether Israel can be classed as a democracy when it is a self-declared ethnic state. Equally, there is no hope of being allowed to argue that all the evidence suggests that all Israeli leaders have been in bad faith in the so-called peace process, not just Benjamin Netanyahu, and none has wanted to reach an agreement on a viable Palestinian state.
Also, for most of the time since the occupation began in 1967 it has been forbidden to suggest that Israel operates a system of apartheid in the occupied territories (let alone inside Israel). Thankfully, there are the first signs that this traditional taboo has been dented by publication of Jimmy Carter’s recent book ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.’
The climate of assumptions is essential in ensuring that there is no danger of a free marketplace in ideas – a cacophony of opinions – in our liberal media. Strikingly, there are a whole host of progressive voices – some of them the greatest thinkers of our age – who simply cannot get into print. Where are the op-eds by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, for example?
Similarly, there are other voices – people eminently qualified to speak on topical issues at the time when they most need to be heard – who are denied space, too. Where, for example, was Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq, during the build-up to the Iraq war? At that time, his opinion ought to have been one of the most sought-after for the global media. Not only was he not contacted by reporters when compiling their news stories, but he was relegated to writing commentaries on obscure websites. How do Davies’ rules of production explain the failure by “truth-seeking” journalists in our liberal media to invite an indisputable expert to comment on Saddam Hussein’s arsenal in the build-up to war?
Edwards and Cromwell, at least, do provide an answer: “an opinion barely exists if it doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t matter if it is not voiced by people who matter. The full range of opinion, then, represents the full range of power.” In other words, Ritter’s voice was excluded because his outspoken views on the lack of WMD in Iraq challenged the US and UK’s case for war. Similarly, influential intellectuals and public figures in the West who speak out in dissident ways are rapidly neutralised by being mocked by the media for their political views, which supposedly reflect a flaw in their character. Edwards and Cromwell highlight the campaigns of ridicule heaped on figures such as John Le Carre, Chomsky and Harold Pinter: “if even high-profile dissidents can be presented as wretched, sickly fools, then which reader or viewer would want to be associated with them?”
That thinkers like Chomsky and Zinn are rarely given a platform in the corporate media is often ascribed to the fact that their ideas either sound like conspiracy theories, as Davies suggests, or are difficult for ordinary readers to grasp. This is a self-serving argument, and another way of describing the power of the climate of assumptions. This climate is manufactured by our media through its consensual presentation of a certain view of the world. If western governments are always shown to be pursuing laudatory, if occasionally erroneous, goals, then critics of western power who challenge that assumption sound like conspiracy theorists, or – in the language of the talkbackers – like “loonies”.
If Davies ignores the fact that there are many critical thinkers excluded from our media, he still has one trump card up his sleeve. How do those who support the propaganda model explain the existence of dissident writers in the British liberal media? If Chomsky’s theory is right, how is it that Seumas Milne and George Monbiot write for the Guardian, Robert Fisk does so in the Independent, and John Pilger has a platform in the small magazine the New Statesman?
It should be noted that this list is almost exhaustive. Genuine progressive writers are extremely thin on the ground, even in the liberal media. (Rightly, I suspect, Fisk would not want to be included alongside these other progressives. His key concern, justice for the peoples of the Middle East, is not unrelated to fairly traditional liberal Arabist positions long adopted by officials in the Foreign Office, though ignored by other branches of the British establishment. He is certainly on the extreme margins of this group, but closer to them than he is to Pilger or Milne.) In fact, the inclusion of a few progressive thinkers in the liberal media, it can be argued, actually serves its corporate interests. Using the propaganda model, it is possible, I would suggest, to identify several goals newspapers like the Guardian and Independent achieve by including occasional dissident voices.
First, they gain extra circulation by attracting a small but still significant readership of progressives. In doing so, they also diminish the danger that these readers might search elsewhere for more consistently progressive news and commentary. A trend that, if realised, might eventually lead to the emergence of more prestigious radical internet publications, or to the development of different kinds of new media that could challenge the power of the corporate media. A fringe benefit, at least for the corporate interests behind our media, is that progressive readers who are persuaded to buy liberal newspapers because they include a Monbiot or a Milne are likely over time to have their views tempered simply from being constantly bombarded with the non-progressive news and views contained in the rest of the paper.
Second, the existence of dissident writers in the liberal media usefully persuades its core readership that their newspaper of choice is genuinely liberal and tolerant, and that it offers a platform even to those who subscribe to heterodox opinions. It reassures the bulk of readers that the newspaper is upholding the values it espouses. Importantly for the liberal readership it offers what might be termed the “smugness factor”: I do not agree with you, but I’ll defend to the death your right to be wrong.
And third, the inclusion of a few progressive voices – and the extra readers they buy the paper – actually comes at very little cost to the corporate interests the media represent. The arguments adopted by dissident writers challenging the goals of western power sound so alien to readers daily tutored in the manufactured climate of assumptions that they are hard to stomach for most readers. The very “strangeness” of such views simply highlights the extent to which they have been excluded in the first place. Because Monbiot or Milne’s columns appear in an ideological vacuum, because they remain isolated dissidents surrounded by more conventional opinions, their arguments appear to most readers as extremist, driven by conspiracy theories, or crackpot, and are therefore easily dismissed.
The boundaries of legitimate discourse are set by the acres of conventional commentary; by stepping outside those boundaries, dissidents sound no more reasonable than their opponents on the far-right. The “sensible centre” precludes Monbiot and Milne just as easily as it does the British National Party and David Duke. By being pitted against the climate of assumptions, progressive dissidents are forced into a battle they are likely to lose from the outset.
With that said, it should be noted that this situation is far from static. The corporate media in the West is facing a crisis both of financial viability and of legitimacy that could yet destroy it. As readers look to other media for their information, such as the internet, Monbiot and Milne sound increasingly credible to a growing number of readers. That sets up a demand for more such writers that it will be hard for the liberal papers to ignore if they are to survive. The media have so far held shut the floodgates but it is not given that they will continue to do so. Dissident writers in the liberal media may in the end play a significant role in destroying such media from within.
Watchdog Or Lapdog?
Because Davies simply dismisses the assumptions of the propaganda model, he makes no serious attempt to defend his own theory against it. Which requires me – presumptuously – to try to make the case on his behalf against those I shall refer simplistically to as the “Chomskians”, or supporters like Edwards and Cromwell of the propaganda model, in an effort to test the value of their respective arguments.
Davies could try to defend his theory by pointing to the media’s track record of exposing establishment malpractice. He could highlight, for example, the media’s extensive coverage in recent months of the expenses scandal involving Britain’s elected representatives. He could likewise point to revelations by his own newspaper, the Guardian, over the summer that Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid paper the News of the World illegally hacked into hundreds of private phones to dig up dirt on MPs, cabinet ministers, royals, actors and sports stars, and then covered its tracks by paying at least £1 million to those victims who threatened to expose its crime spree. Does this not prove Davies’ contention that the bottom line for the corporate media is guaranteeing profits rather than supporting the powerful? Scandal sells papers, and the powerful are often the victims of such exposes.
But for a Chomskian these examples fall far short of making Davies’ case. It is interesting that the revelations about the British MPs emerged in the immediate wake of a far more important scandal involving the banks’ extortion of western governments to save themselves from liquidation, and the later feathering of their own nests from public finances. Whether it was the goal or not, the trickle of reports of parliamentary graft over several months very effectively distracted attention in Britain both from the banks’ shocking behaviour and forestalled a tentative debate about the profound crisis facing corporate capitalism.
In addition, a Chomskian might suspect that the timing of the attack on our elected representatives, using information leaked to the establishment’s favourite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, had a beneficial consequence for the embattled finance sector. With their own integrity in question, British MPs and ministers lost the moral high ground and with it any hope, admittedly already feeble, of turning on the bankers. With the parliamentary system in crisis, the banking system faced little threat of significant reform, which would have required an unprecedented assertion of political will.
Even efforts to make the banks more accountable lost momentum during this period. In fact, while our elected representatives were being flayed by the media, the bankers quietly went back to business as normal. By personalising the issue of graft and directing popular anger at a few individuals – at first, the most visible bankers and then many MPs – the economic system itself was given a reprieve from a serious debate about its merits and failings.
Another possible line of defence by Davies might concern the media’s relentless pursuit of embarrassing stories involving wealthy celebrities, including the Guardian’s revelations that the News of the World hacked into private data concerning football managers, actors, politicians and models. The Murdoch paper even targeted members of the wealthiest family in Britain, the royals. How does the hounding of the royal family, for example, square with Edwards and Cromwell’s theory that the media serve power? The royals, after all, are powerful – in fact, they are the heart of the establishment.
But again, Davies’ theory looks weaker once this incident is examined. For the British media, the royals are chiefly celebrities. In a post-monarchy society, nothing is left of their role apart from providing spectacle. Without it, one might wonder how long the House of Windsor would survive. For Chomskians, the media’s endless cat-and-mouse games with wealthy individuals already in the public eye – whether actors, politicians or royalty – are part of the distraction from far more important issues that, if properly covered by the media, might bring into question the moral basis of our political and economic systems. The press’ persecution of the royals gives the misleading, but useful, impression of an independent media that refuses to be cowed even in the face of great wealth.
In fact, it could be argued that the obsession with royal-baiting substantially weakens Davies’ case. His rules of production, with their presumption of the media’s dependence on official sources and of its fear of angering the rich, who might retaliate with costly legal action, should make the royals untouchable. But the opposite is true. Is that because Davies fails to distinguish between types of power in a corporate society, as well as types of scandal? And, if so, is this failure not a sign of his and the media’s own inability to unmask the real centres of power? These are questions we will return to shortly.
There is another aspect of the News of the World’s data-hacking that is worth highlighting. The police, it seems, had been aware of the Murdoch paper’s illegal activities when the incidents occurred several years earlier. To prevent legal action, Murdoch had paid off the victims. As the new revelations mounted, it became clear that the police had failed to investigate these incidents properly at the time they first emerged apart from in the case of a single reporter, and that the prosecution service and courts had been happy to ignore the affair too.
As the Guardian dug deeper, the police continued actively colluding with the Murdoch tabloid in an attempt to avert the threat of the investigation’s scope being expanded. Why were the police high command so keen to distract attention from the full implications of the News of the World’s systematic law-breaking, seemingly approved by its senior management? By misleadingly suggesting that this was a misdemeanour committed by one rogue reporter – again, by personalising the story – the police assisted the law-breaking paper.
For a Chomskian, the cover provided by the police to the news organisation might look suspiciously like one part of the system of corporate power – the rule of law, embodied by the police – demonstrating its inherent sympathy with another part of the same system – the manipulators of popular perception, the media. Interestingly, Davies’ book is replete with examples of the police and courts protecting the media from the legal consequences of their transgressions, though he draws no conclusions from this.
One aspect of the story, the Guardian’s tenacious investigation, appears more difficult to explain. Should the paper not have sided with its corporate sister and kept quiet? Nonetheless, the Guardian’s determination can be explained too. The broadsheet has its own commercial imperatives, including its interest in discrediting a more powerful media rival. But more significantly, at least for a Chomskian, the investigation not only failed to threaten the corporate system to which the Guardian belongs, it actually reinforced the system’s credibility. The Guardian’s self-declared liberal values were entirely consistent with an attack on law-breaking by journalists at the News of the World. For the Guardian’s journalists and readers, the paper’s investigation was proof of the veracity of its – and the wider media’s – claims to being accountable as well as independent. The role of the media as enablers of corporate power was never threatened by the investigation.
For a Chomskian, the episode illustrates the fact that, while corporate journalists can debate some values, such as what constitutes immoral or illegal behaviour, all still believe without question in the moral superiority of the corporate society to which they belong. For the Guardian’s journalists, its revelations concerned a story of failure by individuals. The story certainly did not raise questions about the media’s relationship to corporate power.
Interestingly, when the Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, was summoned before a Commons committee to explain his paper’s investigation – paradoxically, alongside Nick Davies – he was at pains to highlight his opposition, not only to increased regulation of the media, but also to the law’s enforcement against the News of the World’s senior editors. Questioned about the Guardian’s motives in pursuing the story, he told MPs: “It wasn’t a campaign to reopen the police inquiry, or to call for prosecutions or to force anybody to resign. We have not called for any of those.”
In other words, a Chomskian would argue, this was an example of grand corporate hypocrisy. Rusbridger supported the investigation in so far as it both helped boost the newspaper’s circulation and revenues and reinforced the credibility of the corporate media of which his paper is a major component. But he opposed the legal consequences of the investigation in so far as it threatened that same system with greater scrutiny, regulation and safeguards. It is interesting to note that all British newspapers favour without question the continuing self-regulation of the media even when, as is the case with the Guardian, they admit that such self-regulation has woefully failed.
The Electric Fence
The most revealing of Davies’ rules of production is number 3, which concerns what he calls an “electric fence” sealing off certain topics from debate. Davies highlights one issue – Israel – above all others as being taboo for the western media. The pro-Israel lobby, he writes, is “the most potent electric fence in the world”, its mission to crush all critical debate of Israel. Interestingly for such a controversial – and, for most non-journalists at least, counter-intuitive – remark, Davies makes no effort to explain why. His confidence that his conclusion is self-explanatory is misplaced. As a journalist who has spent many years reporting from Israel, and suffered more than most at the hands of its lobby, I want such a statement justified.
What is it, does he think, that makes the Israel lobby so powerful and able to exert such absolute control over its favoured cause? How is this lobby capable of exercising so much influence when the size of Britain’s Jewish population is so small and Israel’s significance to the UK relatively marginal? And if the pro-Israel lobby can shape British (and western) media coverage so decisively, why does Davies not presume that other more obviously important lobbies – particularly the banking and finance lobby, and the military industries lobby – are able to exert at least as much, if not more, influence?
Is it not possible that the reason Davies can identify the phenomenal power of the pro-Israel lobby is precisely because it has to work so hard and openly to get its way? Could it be that this lobby’s very dependence on the other powerful lobbies mentioned above makes its influence so visible? Journalists “feel” the weight of the Israel lobby precisely because it has to resort to intimidating the media to stop coverage of its otherwise only too obvious activities.
Conversely, could it not be argued that the ability of the finance and military industries lobbies to cover their tracks more effectively than the Israel lobby is a sign of their greater power?
Unlike the Israel lobby that imposes its will on behalf of a cause few people share, these other lobbies have created a presumption – through the media – in favour of their cause that almost no one questions. We may now despise the bankers for their behaviour, but who wants to see the end of the current banking system, or of our savings and pensions? We may oppose wars, but who wants tens of thousands of workers laid off from the industries that depend on western military adventures? We may worry about climate change caused by the extravagant needs created for us by corporations, but who wants to see a reversal of growth in our economies, let alone their collapse? We may worry about the evidence of global warming, and fret for the polar bears, but who wants to eschew air travel or to live without a car?
And here lies the crux of the problem with Davies’ theory. In promoting a view of journalistic failure that can be explained only by laziness, cost-cutting and public relations pressures he grapples with the visible but marginal problems of our media. The much larger structural issues – the media’s selection processes, its ideological strait-jacket, its profound connectedness to the interests of a corporate capitalist society – are invisible to him. Our media cannot engage in a debate about the merits of the current orthodoxy – that corporate capitalism represents the summit of human material and moral achievement – precisely because its very rationale depends on the maintenance of that orthodoxy.
There is much that Davies’ and Edwards and Cromwell’s books share: both view the media as essentially a corporate media; both dismiss the idea of objective journalism as a nonsense and agree that journalists must, and do, take sides; and both regard the media’s reporting as an unreliable guide to what is really happening in the world. But on the issue of the causes of this wholesale failure, a gulf separates them.
One day we may not need newspapers – certainly we may not need ones tied to corporate interests that depend on advertising and our ever-greater reliance on air flights and luxury cars that are destroying the planet. In an era of profound economic and ideological crisis, our media’s inability properly to address these problems makes Davies’ book begin to look like an excessively indulgent excuse for this failure. Edwards and Cromwell’s book, by contrast, seems to have much greater power to explain the strangely consistent blind-spots from which our media suffer.
I was once a journalist of the Davies’ school, believing that our media enjoyed an inalienable freedom both to get it right and, as often, to get it wrong. The disturbing conclusions reached by Edwards and Cromwell are easier for me to accept today in part because I have spent so long in Israel, an overtly ideological and ruthlessly colonial society whose leaders have so transparently co-opted their own media. Israeli journalists, even of the most liberal variety, have been recruited to the task of mobilising local Jewish public opinion in the pursuit of racial goals, such as maintaining Israel’s ethnic purity, that are shocking to an outsider but go unquestioned by the overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews. Israeli journalists are as blind to the idea that they are manufacturing consent for an aggressive ethnic state as journalists like Davies are to the idea that their role is to prop up a political and economic system that benefits corporate power.
It is precisely Davies’ intimate familiarity with the British media that makes him a fascinating but ultimately unreliable companion as he surveys the media’s role. In this case, outsiders like Edwards and Cromwell prove the more useful guides.
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