Chemistry teachers have long delighted students by showing how near-perfect symmetrical structures can be produced by pouring a large number of small balls into a square box, whereupon a perfect pyramid is inevitably produced. The balls either land in a pyramid-building position, bounce into such a position, or bounce out of the structure. The resulting pyramid – like crystalline structures found in the natural world – looks for all the world like it has been carefully designed; in fact it is merely a consequence of the random flow of small round objects over a square framework.
We believe that the flow of journalists in and out of the framing structure of the mainstream corporate media accounts, in a roughly analogous way, for the remarkably uniform patterns found in mainstream reporting. As we have shown in earlier Media Alerts, the corporate media is structured in a way that protects and furthers the interests of state-corporate power in the absence of any conspiracy, or even overt interference. The uniformity of reporting simply follows from the interaction of human nature with the framing structures of state-corporate capitalism – journalists with the correct views, priorities and goals ‘fall into place’ in the media pyramid, while others bounce (or are bounced) out.
This does not mean that there is no dissent in the mainstream; on the contrary the system strongly requires the +appearance+ of openness. In an ostensibly democratic society, a propaganda system must incorporate occasional instances of dissent. Like vaccines, these small doses of truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media freedom. The honest dissident pieces which occasionally surface in the mainstream are quite as important to the successful functioning of the propaganda system as the vast mass of power-friendly journalism. Dissidents (a tiny number of them) also have their place in the pyramid – the end result, however, is an overall performance that tends to mould public opinion to support the goals of state-corporate power. Consider, for example, the remarkable conformity of mainstream criticism of dissident output.
In the Guardian, columnist Roy Hattersley recently reviewed John Pilger’s latest book, The New Rulers of The World. Hattersley wrote:
"But, although his descriptions are vividly coloured, his judgments are predictably black-and-white. The notion that those he exposes and denounces might have any merit has never entered his head." (Hattersley, ‘In the right, but irritating – Roy Hattersley on John Pilger’s judgmental journalism’, the Guardian, July 20, 2002)
Nothing odd in this, we might think. But now consider the only other review of Pilger’s book to have appeared in the national mainstream since publication on May 20. In the New Statesman, Stephen Howe writes of Pilger:
"There is very little light and shade in his world-view. No situation is morally ambiguous, no history is complex and contested. There are only heroes (the title of one of his previous books) and villains." (Howe, ‘A bitter pill’, The New Statesman, June 24, 2002)
Joe Joseph of the Times takes a similar view of Pilger’s output:
"The world, according to Pilger, is pretty much black and white: his journalistic retina doesn’t recognise shades of grey." (Joseph, ‘Views of Iraq from the moral high ground’, The Times, March 7, 2000)
Channel 4 newsreader, Jon Snow, sheds further light:
"Some argue the ends justify his means, others that the world is a more subtle place than he [Pilger] allows". (Snow, ‘Still angry after all these years,’ February 25, 2001)
Of course it is possible that these views merely reflect the rational consensus – this could be a conformity based, not on framing conditions, but on common sense. Turning elsewhere, however, we discover a review of one of Chomsky’s recent books by Steve Crawshaw. The title of Crawshaw’s piece is strangely familiar:
"Furious ideas with no room for nuance". (Crawshaw, the Independent, February 21, 2001)
Crawshaw perceives an odd contradiction in Chomsky’s work:
"Chomsky knows so much, but seems impervious to any idea of nuance."
Like Pilger, then, Chomsky suffers from a "black and white" view of the world. Lambasting his criticism of the NATO bombing of Serbia, and echoing Hattersley and Howe, Crawshaw expands:
"Misguided isn’t enough [for Chomsky]; the policy must be plain evil."
Writing in the Guardian, Martin Woollacott observed of Chomsky:
"Those who direct American policy… are allowed no regrets, no morals, no feelings, and when they change their policies they appear to do so for entirely Machiavellian reasons… [Chomsky] seems to deny the complexity of human affairs by setting up too rigid an antithesis between an inherently amoral elite and an inherently moral mass." (Woollacott, ‘Deliver us from evil’, The Guardian, January 14, 1989)
Pilger again shares the same disability, as Hattersley notes:
"Pilger can never end his criticisms and condemnation at the point when most people would think it reasonable to stop."
Implicit (and often explicit) in these reviews is the suggestion that both Pilger and Chomsky are victims of the blinkering effects of anger: Chomsky with his "Furious ideas"; Pilger, "still angry after all these years", with arguments that are "longer on anger than on analysis". (Howe)
Another of our prominent dissidents, Harold Pinter, is afflicted by these same curses. Writing in the Observer, Jay Rayner quotes Timothy Garton Ash:
"He [Pinter] has this terribly imaginative vision of the world and everything has to fit it." (Rayner, ‘Pinter of discontent’, The Observer, May 16, 1999)
Again anger is to blame: "Late Pinter is all about sound and fury", Rayner notes.
Time and again, with remarkable consistency, ‘liberal’ journalists follow the same line – dissident writers have much merit, but their work is fatally marred by their blinkered, angry, black-and-white view of the world.
Why do journalists continuously reproduce this pattern? Again, it could simply be that they are right. But anyone who has read Pilger and Chomsky is surely struck above all by the calm and powerful rationality of their analyses – vitriol is certainly added, but often humorously, or for effect (as a way of waking us up from our mainstream slumber) – there is never any sense that their basic rationality is distorted by anger.
What dissidents like Pilger and Chomsky have to say is so completely contrary to what most people believe, and to what many people would +like+ most people to believe, that they would be instantly dismissed as lunatics by public and critics alike but for the fact that they present extremely powerful arguments. Dissidents, of course, know this only too well, which is why their standards of reporting are generally far higher than the crude productions of the hacks who, as one media insider told us, "really just bash it out". Mainstream journalists promoting the interests of the powerful and privileged have nothing to fear – they know they can get away with journalistic murder.
The real explanation for the apparent contradiction in mainstream reviews is found in the fact that writers like John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, Gore Vidal et al are telling the truth, but they are telling truth that conflicts with the "necessary illusions" of society, media society included. The problem for the "journalists of attachment" is that dissidents write with undeniable rationality, their arguments are backed up by, and indeed often based on, a vast array of highly credible sources. For this reason their work simply cannot be dismissed as nonsense.
Thus Hattersley writes: "The brilliance of John Pilger’s reporting is, or ought to be, beyond dispute." Thus Crawshaw writes of how "Chomsky knows so much". Thus Woollacott writes of Chomsky’s "rare combination of moral vision and intellectual rigour".
There is also the fact of Chomsky and Pilger’s popularity with the public – the public the media is supposed to serve. Chomsky is the world’s best-read writer on international politics. His book 9-11 has sold well over 100,000 copies, despite the endless smears and neglect of his work. Pilger’s latest book has been on three best-seller lists – the Guardian’s own included – despite having been reviewed, and smeared, just twice in the national media. Journalists have to recognise these achievements if they are to retain credibility.
But the structural demands of the mainstream are such that it is sheer folly for reviewers to be seen to fully endorse those who powerfully expose the deceptions on which the mainstream itself depends. Thus in an apparently stunning self-contradiction, Hattersley talks of Pilger’s brilliance but then writes, "Reading The New Rulers [sic] makes it easy to understand why so many people say: ‘If Pilger’s for it, I am against it.’" This, Hattersley explains, is because Pilger is "right but irritating".
It’s worth examining just what is being argued here. Leaving aside the question of just which opinion polls Hattersley is referring to when he talks of "so many people" rejecting Pilger’s work (he actually, of course, means the political and media elites he mixes with) consider that Pilger is all but unique in the UK mainstream for the depth and breadth of his criticism of ruthless power. Pilger has, for example, tirelessly reported Western responsibility for genocide in Iraq, while the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent, the BBC and ITN, have all but turned a blind eye.
Given that Pilger has been one of a tiny number of journalists willing to communicate credible accusations of our responsibility for genocide, what sane individual would respond to his efforts with the observation that he is "right but irritating"? If on September 10, a lone individual had burst into FBI offices presenting highly credible evidence for an impending terrorist attack against thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre, what would we have made of someone who responded that he was "right but irritating"?
We would assume that they were completely alienated from the reality of human suffering and the idea that we might be responsible for doing something about it. But Pilger has long performed a comparable role in warning of infinitely greater horrors that are being perpetrated +now+, in our names, in Iraq, and all around the world.
To keep their place in the pyramid, mainstream journalists have to cast doubt on the ‘irrational’ and ‘extreme’ views of those who are notable precisely for their rationality and objectivity. They have to admit there is merit in dissident work, but they also have to provide a bolt-hole for editors and other journalists who treat dissident work with contempt. ‘Yes, Chomsky has merit, but it’s over the top – we can’t keep publishing that kind of distorted view.’ ‘Yes, Pilger is brilliant, but it’s so irritating – we can only stomach so much.’
Despite his enormous popularity with the public, Pilger has appeared just four times in the Guardian since 1999, once in the Observer, and not once in the Independent. Recently, to the shame of the ‘serious’ broadsheets, Pilger has begun reaching an enthusiastic audience through a tabloid, the Daily Mirror.
Chomsky is all but ignored by the Guardian/Observer, with four articles published by them since September 1998 (with just one of these published since October 1999). He has appeared once in the Independent since January 1999, and is ignored by BBC TV, ITV and Channel 4. Figures like these make a mockery of the idea that we have a free press. Other major writers like Edward Herman and Howard Zinn appear to be completely unknown to the British mainstream.
Let’s be clear that the likes of Chomsky and Pilger are brilliant because they are supremely skilled at marshalling and presenting evidence supplied by highly credible sources. Open-minded readers find that this evidence demolishes the illusions propagated by state-corporate power – the personalities and emotions of dissidents are side issues beside this fundamental achievement. The perennial abusive caveats are a lie, a rationalisation, a necessary smear imposed, ultimately, by the framing conditions of the corporate media functioning within state-corporate capitalist society.
David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at www.medialens.org