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An Unholy Trinity: Truth, Market Forces and the Media


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).

 

 

 

 

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