An Unholy Trinity: Truth, Market Forces and the Media
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?'
- 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,...).
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
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
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
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?
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.'
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.
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?
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.
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
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.).
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.
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.
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?'
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'.
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).