I am sending you this intriguing piece from David Cromwell, one of the Greens' most prolific writers on current affairs. Maybe one of you on the list want to join in his experiment. Best wishes and a happy new year to all of you from the Green Party, may it be a fruitfull year for us all. Ingo
An Unholy Trinity: Truth, Market Forces and the Media
By David Cromwell
Are you a regular newspaper reader? If so, you'll have noticed that many journalists and columnists include an email address at the bottom of their articles. They surely crave your feedback! So here's a fun experiment. Fire off an email to the commentator of your choice asking: 'To what extent can we learn the truth about the world from the mainstream media, your own newspaper included?' OK - let's flesh out the challenge a bit. Draw attention to the media's concentrated ownership, its need to attract advertising, the use of corporate 'flak' to maintain a business-friendly media, the sourcing of media 'news' from centres of political and corporate power, and the demonisation of the 'enemy' (Communists, Galtieri, Gaddafi, Milosevic, Saddam,...).
Point to abysmal media performance on any number of issues: western intervention in Indochina; the sanctions against Iraq which kill up to 200 children under the age of five every day; the machinations of business lobby groups in Brussels, Washington, London to further a 'deregulated' corporate-shaped global economy; the obstructionism of even mainstream business - such as the US Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers - in the face of global warming; and the attempt of the 'greener' oil companies like Shell and BP to keep the emerging technologies of clean and renewable energy out of community hands. In other words, mass media performance - its omissions, biases, distortions, deceptions - reflects the fact that the mass media is itself part of the same power structure that plunders the planet and inflicts human rights abuses on a massive scale.
Armed with such arguments, courtesy of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's 1988 landmark book 'Manufacturing Consent' (and other sources), email some mainstream journalists - keep the tone polite, of course - and see what response you get. Prepare for silence, curt dismissal, mild interest -- perhaps even complete agreement.
We could do worse than start with the British newspaper columnist of the year, Deborah Orr of The Independent. 'Yes, the media is awful', she replied to my email. 'Narrow, self-serving, lazy, manipulative, cynical, and terribly, terribly set in its ways'. Well, it would be difficult to argue with any of that. But consider further that 'self-serving' tag. Is that as far as her criticism goes? What about the bigger truth that the media serves powerful elite interests - governments, transnational corporations, international investors?
Orr continues: 'The organisations with the best PR (like Nato) are the ones who get their facts across most effectively'. But how exactly +do+ organisations like Nato manage to convey 'their facts'? By relying on largely compliant journalists, as The Independent's Robert Fisk pointed out recently. Fisk, who had been critical of Nato throughout the Kosovo bombing, expressed scorn last year at the almost universal acceptance by his fellow reporters of the Nato line spun to them: 'Most of the journalists at Nato headquarters were so supine, so utterly taken in by Nato's generals and air commodores that their questions might have been printed out for them by Nato in advance.'
Returning to Orr: 'If you get papers coming out on the same day going back years and look at the content, you'll find that it's amazingly similar'. In other words, the big news story of the day is the same across virtually all the newspapers, and the additional stories to boot. Of course, it's not a conspiracy, just a reflection of the editorial need to follow state-corporate power or the fear of looking stupid by going out on a limb chasing the 'wrong story'. Moreover, each big story is approached from the same 'hard-hitting' journalistic angle which is marked by asking tough questions about peripheral issues, but leaving the structure of society unprobed. Orr's apparently scathing criticisms of the press actually avoid the fundamental reality - that elite interests shape the mass media agenda and that the media is complicit in global human rights and environmental abuses. She focuses instead on symptoms of the underlying malaise. In one phrase, Orr unwittingly sums up the relationship between the media and the vested interests which shape it, and of which it is a crucial component: 'no one wants to bite too hard at the hand that feeds it.' And so the real world of western state intervention, propping up of terror regimes, and environmental abuses goes unreported. 'It's not that The Independent is so different to the rest, but at least it is the best of a bad bunch in these respects.' Is it?
As a self-avowed 'liberal' free-thinking newspaper, is The Independent - or The Guardian, for that matter - really better than blatantly reactionary papers like The Times and The Telegraph? Ostensibly centre-left newspapers mark the limits of acceptable and decent debate just as much as the right-wing press while maintaining the illusion of a vibrant fourth estate.
At least Orr had the good grace to respond to my email challenge. Nine out of the eighteen journalists I contacted didn't reply at all despite, as I said earlier, boldly printing their email addresses. That still means that fifty per cent of this relatively small sample +did+ reply. At the more dismissive end of the spectrum of responses came The Independent's Michael Brown who wrote: 'your arguments are very similar to the self-styled "libertarian socialist" Noam Chomsky who lectures anyone prepared to listen on how the media is effectively an instrument of nasty capitalists exploiting humanity'. This is a standard unthinking media response: to reject criticism of the mass media as the ravings of conspiracy theorists. It's not that the media is 'an instrument of nasty capitalists' - in other words that it is +controlled+ by elite interests - but that the media is part of the same elite interests. The media industry is not controlled by big business, it +is+ big business. But Brown is one of those journalists who fails to see how that might conceivably compromise professional integrity.
At the other, more honourable, end of the spectrum of journalists' reactions lies complete agreement. In response to my leading opening question: 'To what extent can we learn the truth about the world from the mainstream media?' Greg Palast of The Observer shot back, 'You can't ... that's why I'm on the Board of www.MediaChannel.org which is attempting to bust open the media monopolies.' (Regular readers of ZNet daily commentaries will have seen Danny Schechter highlight MediaChannel and its excellent work.).
During last year's wrangling over whether General Pinochet should be extradited from Britain to Spain on charges of human rights abuses, Palast was one of the few journalists in the British media to highlight the role of the west in the installation and propping up of Pinochet's despicable regime in Chile. So there +are+ journalists working within the mainstream media who are not only perfectly aware of its generally appalling record of subverting the truth, but who are attempting to find positive ways of rectifying that.
Polly Toynbee of The Guardian could also see what I was getting at: 'Yes, the media is responsible for a huge amount of evil and we have the worst in the western world.' Toynbee, who has also worked at the BBC, then remarked: 'The trouble is, what's to be done?' Well, how about reporting the truth? Toynbee's response is a shocking but common indication of resigned dejection amongst insiders - a virtual shrugging of the shoulders at the awfulness of the mass media. I had the same reaction from other prominent journalists. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, the only Independent columnist to write of the impact of economic sanctions against Iraq +and+ identify the US and UK as the prime culprits, wrote revealingly: 'So much of what you write is depressingly true and believe me there are days when I want to have two baths to wash away my sense of disgust that I am part of the media industry.' Here is someone who is a frequent TV 'talking head' and high-profile journalist saying that 'what I do disgusts me'! Why do such people carry on playing the role of truth-seekers? 'Some of us do our best against the odds', she continues, 'but what effect can we really have?'
There is this constant refrain of what can +I+ possibly do or - worse - it's got nothing to do with me. John Naughton of The Observer responded bluntly, and self-servingly, 'I don't, alas, have any influence over editorial policy.' There must be a whole army of journalists out there in media-land who believe that they have 'no influence over editorial policy'. As journalist John Pilger, a courageous exception to the norm, once wrote: 'journalists are the essential foot soldiers in a network devoted to power and propaganda'.
That such topics as we have presented here are rarely - if ever - raised by any major newspaper or broadcaster is damning. Wouldn't a truly free media examine itself - its own biases, assumptions, prejudices and omissions? No doubt many editors and journalists are aware of this but are afraid of bucking the system. Who wants to have one's career blocked or lose one's job? And so media debate is restricted within tightly constrained parameters that serve power, but not democracy. The Independent's David Aaronovitch, who refrained from participating in my polling of journalists, despite several invitations to do so, wrote recently in one of his articles that 'in the age of the media, what we have is the most complex possible relationship between politics, public, perception and power'. But Aaronovitch and most of his cohorts never scratch the surface of this relationship. And so the poor majority of the world are trampled upon, environmental and human rights abuses mount up, and 'democracy' is moulded to the specifications of centralised power, even as a frenzy of trivia dominates the airwaves and newspapers. Welcome to the age of the media.
David Cromwell is an oceanographer and writer based in Southampton, UK. His first book, "Private Planet", will be published next year by Jon Carpenter (Charlbury, UK).