Professional Servility And How To Overcome It
We live in strange times. Day to day, journalists are seriously debating whether a single omission in a dossier on arms, or a single failure to open a door within two hours, justifies launching a massive war against a broken Third World country with a force of upwards of a third of a million troops. There is occasional dissent in the comment pages, asking why this is happening now when the target country has done nothing but suffer, sicken and starve for over a decade, threatening no one.
But generally there is respectful silence - the media has assigned itself the role of 'weather forecaster of war', predicting if and when war will come, as though addressing an act of God (or perhaps, as they see it, an act of +the+ Gods). The idea that it might be the media's job to do all in its power to prevent the mass slaughter of innocents by a small group of patently cynical and ruthless men and women is dismissed as cringe-making 'committed journalism'. On current performance, it is reasonable to assert that the media would always adopt this servile stance no matter how corrupt the interests driving war.
A further remarkable feature of media coverage is revealing. While there has of course been endless speculation on possible violent conclusions to the current crisis, we at Media Lens have seen literally no mention of the possibility of what might happen in the event of a peaceful resolution.
What if UN investigators were to give Iraq a clean bill of health on weapons of mass destruction? We may have missed it, but we have seen literally no journalist asking whether non-military sanctions, or indeed all sanctions, might or should then be lifted? We can speculate on the reasons for this silence, but it seems clear that whereas war and the maintenance of sanctions are favoured establishment aims, the lifting of sanctions without 'regime change' is desired by no one who matters.
In some 60 Media Alerts published this year, we have shown how media performance overwhelmingly promotes the views and interests of established power in this way. It might seem curious that we have also consistently argued that this happens in the absence of any conspiracy, with minimal self-censorship, and with even less outright lying. This seems to fly in the face of common sense, as Channel 4 newsreader Jon Snow observed in his interview with us:
"Well, I'm sorry to say, it either happens or it doesn't happen. If it does happen, it's a conspiracy; if it doesn't happen, it's not a conspiracy." (Interview with David Edwards, January 9, 2001. See Interviews: www.medialens.org)
In his remarkable book, Disciplined Minds, American physicist and writer Jeff Schmidt shows how professionals throughout society, journalists included, come to promote the agenda of the powerful without awareness. Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19 years, points out that professionals are trusted to run organisations in the interests of their employers.
Clearly employers cannot be on hand to supervise every decision, and so professionals have to be trained to "ensure that each and every detail of their work favours the right interests - or skewers the disfavoured ones" in the absence of overt control. Thus, the whole process of selection, training, and even qualification, Schmidt argues, has evolved so that professionals internalise the basic understanding that they should "subordinate their own beliefs to an assigned ideology" and not "question the politics built into their work". Schmidt continues:
"The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical, subordinate one, which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their employers and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today's most highly educated employees is no accident."
(Schmidt, Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look At Salaried Professionals And The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, p.16, http://disciplinedminds.com)
This is a brilliant summary of how mainstream journalists create, innovate, experiment and theorise, but within the ideological 'box' delimited by the requirements and goals of established power. Schmidt describes this perfectly as "adjusted curiosity".
Thus, despite being a socially-approved form of mass insanity, it is simply understood by journalists that it is not their business to "question the politics built into their work" by the fact that their broadsheets depend for 75% of their revenues on big business advertisers, by the fact that wealthy business moguls and giant parent companies with fingers in any number of corporate pies have the power to hire and fire journalists reporting on corporate activity, and so on. Journalists may even attempt to justify their failure to challenge media corruption on the grounds that their particular media entity is somehow free of the compromising pressures that dominate all of society. Even if we were to take this seriously, it hardly explains their silence on the media system as a whole that indisputably +is+ compromised by such pressures.
For us, this kind of discussion is like an intellectual maze in which every turn leads to ever more refined and convoluted versions of unreason bordering on madness.
Similarly, liberal journalists sincerely believe that echoing the words and claims of politicians without comment constitutes 'objective' journalism. Thus Ed Pilkington, foreign editor of the Guardian, recently told Media Lens, "We are not in the business of editorialising our news reports." (Email to Media Lens, November 15, 2002)
To give only the establishment view of the world must be 'objective', after all, because the journalist has thereby refrained from giving his or her own personal view! The point being, as Schmidt writes, that "refraining from questioning doesn't +look+ like a political act, and so professionals give the appearance of being politically neutral in their work". (p.35)
But of course not questioning +is+ a political act. In fact nothing could be less neutral than echoing yet another Downing Street deception on Iraq without comment, thereby bringing closer a cynical war and the mass death of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent people - it could not be clearer that this 'neutral' act is morally monstrous.
It doesn't matter that all the media professionals in the world refuse to recognise the myth of 'objective' echoing - the real world of cause and effect, of lies and manipulated public support, of moral responsibility for mutilation and death nevertheless +does+ exist.
The result of this widespread subordination to 'standards of professionalism' - that is, to power - is a culture in which critical thought and honest questioning have come to be feared, and in fact hated, as unprofessional, dangerous and wrong. We at Media Lens meet fear all the time in our dealings with journalists - they are afraid of appearing irrational by denying obvious facts, but they are afraid of revealing truths that might cost them their columns, their respectability, their jobs. They are also, even more significantly, afraid of the implications of what we and our readers have to say for their sense of who they are. Bertrand Russell explained this with great force in an essay published in 1916:
"Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth - more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages...
But if thought is to become the possession of many, not the privilege of the few, we must have done with fear. It is fear that holds men back - fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be." (Bertrand Russell, from Principles of Social Reconstruction, 1916. Quoted Erich Fromm, On Disobedience and Other Essays, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, pp.34-5)
Nothing is more fearsome to liberal journalists than the possibility that they might not be the noble defenders of justice and truth they have always imagined themselves to be, and on which image they have built a lucrative, prestigious career. The problem is that liberals want it both ways.
They want to be respected and rewarded by a hideously corrupt media system with the power to demonise or embrace them, but they also want to be seen as defenders of the powerless and suffering who are so often the victims of that very same media system and its state-corporate allies. One option is to ignore the obvious role of the media system in human misery, but that is simply absurd.
This is why so many liberals accuse Media Lens and its readers of 'personal attacks'. And yet we have made no personal attacks against any journalists - we are interested in challenging ideas, not in attacking individuals, for whom we feel no animosity whatever. But in truth our arguments +do+ have personal implications for how journalists see themselves.
Schmidt cites a comment by Noam Chomsky on the reception he generally receives from liberals at Harvard University as opposed to conservatives at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
"By conventional measures, the Harvard faculty is much more liberal, in fact left-liberal. MIT faculty are very conservative often, even reactionary. I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it's as if Satan himself had entered the room." (Chomsky, quoted, Schmidt, p.14)
Readers may recall the tale of the little girl who, playing by a deep well, drops her golden ball into the well, whereupon it is rescued and offered to her by an ugly frog. American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell described the significance of this repulsive character, which appears in different forms in fairy tales and folk tales throughout human culture and history:
"The disgusting and rejected frog or dragon of the fairy tale brings up the sun ball in its mouth; for the frog, the serpent, the rejected one, is the representative of that unconscious deep... wherein are hoarded all of the rejected, unrecognised, unknown, or undeveloped factors, laws and elements of existence... The herald or announcer of the adventure, therefore, is often dark, loathly, or terrifying, judged evil by the world; yet if one could follow, the way would be opened through the walls of day into the dark where the jewels glow." (Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, pp.52-53)
Chomsky is just such a frog! And Media Lens, too, we hope!
David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at http://www.medialens.org
Part Two coming...