The American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote:
"Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board." (Thoreau, Walden And Civil Disobedience, Penguin, 1986, p.379)
How often, dear reader, do we go away hungry from the media board, and for the same reasons? What a dismal experience it is to spend twenty minutes leafing through a two-inch wedge of newsprint on a Saturday morning, finding almost nothing of human interest but plenty that offends and grates.
Why is the media, for all its high-tech sophistication, wealth and power, +so+ bland, so empty, so dull?
The answer is that its capacity for sincerity and truth is fundamentally compromised by the profit motive at its heart. What can a system based on unrestrained greed possibly have to say about a world crucified by greed? How can it afford to make sense, to talk about what really matters? Does the corporate system want us inspired, enlivened, mobilised? Or does it want us trudging around in the same old circles of relentless production and consumption, with the promise of satisfaction always just up ahead, just one more purchase away?
The average journalist may mean well. But the average journalist is inevitably diminished by the profit-making media Moloch, as Norman Mailer has observed:
"There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable… The unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine." (Norman Mailer, The Time Of Our Time, Little Brown, 1998, p.457)
Newly retired CBS news anchor Dan Rather can now talk openly about this moronic inferno:
"It’s fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions. One finds oneself saying: ‘I know the right question, but you know what, this is not exactly the right time to ask it.’" (Greg Palast, ‘Dan Rather conks out,’ Noseweek, April 2005)
Alas, while still inside the system, Rather infamously declared:
"George Bush is the president, he makes the decisions, and, you know, as just one American, he wants me to line up, just tell me where." (Quoted, Howard Zinn, Terrorism and War, Seven Stories Press, 2002, p.58)
Anyone writing for the mainstream simply knows that certain things are not allowed. It is as though an invisible force were cramping the mind – we know we +can+ write this or that if we like, but we know what the consequences will be. It takes one slip to be labelled ‘extreme’ and written off. A journalist friend wrote to us recently:
"You must see the reaction in a newsroom when one mentions Chomsky or Pilger. They run the other way, and I can see they are afraid by the look on their faces. Fact is that once you understand and admit what you are doing, you can’t continue with it. When I mentioned Chomsky, one person commented, ‘Oh, he’s way out there.’ ‘Way out where?’ I asked." (Email to Media Lens, July 8, 2005)
And there is always a long line of people willing to take our place and to respect the boundaries (‘What nonsense! No one has ever told me what to write!’). And remember, leading commentators are paid vast sums for doing very little. How else are they to make this kind of money? How much better to let someone else ask the tough questions and instead seek job security in bland observations, trivia and obfuscation.
Senior media figures on the mainstream ‘left’ are where they are because they know how to play this game. The idea is to talk a good fight, to elicit applause from the ‘left’, but also quiet nods of acceptance from the media gatekeepers, the people they are supposed to be challenging. A key talent is to appear passionately radical while subtly indicating that one is not ‘extreme’, that the rules of the media club are accepted. The first rule of media club is: Don’t talk about the inherent contradiction of a corporate ‘free press’. The second rule: Rule one does not exist. The third rule: Do not discuss the existence or non-existence of rules one and two.
Our society often has minimal respect for systems of thought produced by much older, non-Western cultures. But these philosophies often provide acute insights into the art of being honest. How many modern professional journalists would recognise the crucial importance of the following advice?:
"As if they were stones on a narrow slippery path, you should clear away all ideas of gain and respect, for they are the rope of the devil. Like snot in your nose, blow out all thoughts of fame and praise, for they serve only to beguile and confuse." (Geshe Wangyal, The Door of Liberation, Wisdom Books, 1995, p.88)
Signalling The Gatekeepers
In a high profile piece for the Guardian’s comment section, John Kampfner, recently appointed editor of the New Statesman, sends all the right signals:
"Shortly after 9/11, I laid a wager with a colleague about when the serious media would tire of the new seriousness. It did not take long – I think it was a couple of weeks before the broadsheets (or whatever they are called now) were publishing in-depth pieces about Nigella Lawson and domestic deification. The national conversation had resumed." (Kampfner, ‘Challenge, don’t emote,’ The Guardian, July 26, 2005)
This is the kind of banter that normally fills the media sections of newspapers, being written primarily for fellow journalists. It is critical of the media, but not in any serious way. Poking gentle fun at the broadsheets as loveable rogues signals that Kampfner is ‘nuanced’, ‘measured’, ‘balanced’. To focus on the tired old complaint that even the broadsheets like to wallow in trivia is an alternative to focusing on real issues – the fact that the corporate media system is inherently corrupt, irresponsible and dangerous. After all, Noam Chomsky’s opening comments on the same theme might be along these lines:
"A properly functioning system of indoctrination has a variety of tasks, some rather delicate. One of its targets is the stupid and ignorant masses. They must be kept that way, diverted with emotionally potent oversimplifications, marginalised and isolated." (Chomsky, Deterring Democracy, Hill and Wang, 1992, p.369)
But then Chomsky (here paraphrasing comments made by elite intellectuals) is describing exactly the effect of Kampfner’s article, the opening paragraph included.
Equally vital for success on the mainstream ‘left’, Kampfner declares a passionate commitment to truth, radical challenge and change:
"One of the great challenges of anyone who seeks change – journalist, politician or other – is to deal with anger and frustration, to know when to turn up the temperature and when not… good journalism of the left (I apply the definition in its widest ‘liberal’ context) must always challenge. It should never accept the status quo or take answers from officialdom at face value."
Is dealing with anger really one of the "great challenges" of anyone seeking political change today? Or is this a banal diversion, a liberal herring to replace serious analysis of concentrated power and the problems it creates?
Kampfner insists the status quo should never be accepted at face value. But he presents this as a kind of clarion call to "good journalism", with the implicit suggestion that it might be heeded. There is no sense whatever that Kampfner is writing about and from a fundamentally mendacious system of media power that has evolved precisely to filter +out+ serious challenges and good journalism. Imagine if a Soviet journalist had written in the newspaper Pravda under Stalin: "Soviet journalism must always challenge. It should never accept the status quo or take answers from officialdom at face value."
Would we not have considered this a sham, at best an irrelevant denial of reality?
Kampfner explains the kind of challenges he has in mind:
"At a time of high anxiety, how should the less pliant end of the media behave? It is easiest to define first what its role should not be – bland reassurance. My impression of the past couple of weeks is that some newspapers have adopted several of the characteristics of the prime minister himself. They have known when and how to emote, to good effect. They have allowed a combination of hubris and naivety to get the better of rational judgment…"
Anyone looking for coherent argument flowing from the need to challenge the status quo now finds themselves lost in trivia:
"Public transport-using readers and listeners are more open about expressing their fears than car-driving media commentators. The stoicism that was largely a media-political construct is already turning to frustration."
Kampfner recognises some of the achievements of the New Statesman under his predecessor, Peter Wilby:
"We reported before, during and after the war the misgivings of the senior intelligence operatives, police chiefs, military chiefs, diplomats and politicians. This was based on evidence, not on the anti-Americanism of which we were accused."
This was mostly down to the articles written by John Pilger – courageous and honest work surrounded on every side by media title-tattle.
Having declared his radical credentials, while instantly muddying the waters, Kampfner now sends the all-important signals to the gatekeepers. Blair’s refusal to engage in a serious debate about "what went wrong in Iraq" has prolonged the problem, he insists:
"Voters were not as ready to ‘move on’ as he claimed. And yet both sides bear their responsibilities for the dialogue of the deaf."
This again communicates ‘nuanced’ and ‘measured’ to the people that matter. What could be more ‘balanced’ than recognising the ‘failings’ on both sides – that is, on the side of war criminals responsible for mass killing, and of the anti-war opponents who tried to stop them?
Last August, Kampfner went further still, writing in the Guardian that "a truce" should be called over Blair’s "botched war":
"Blair has belatedly to acknowledge some mistakes over Iraq. His critics should then agree, as the boss would say, to ‘move on’." (Kampfner, ‘Brown blew it. So stop moaning and start talking,’ The Guardian, August 23, 2004)
In his latest article, Kampfner says of Blair:
"Sure, most level-headed people around him would now privately accept that the Iraq war was a terrible mistake, but they would ask, quite reasonably, in which circumstances it would be justified in the future to take military action against a sovereign state either for humanitarian or security reasons. These debates have yet to be engaged in properly."
After all the lies, all the cynicism, all the unrelenting misery and carnage, the invasion of Iraq was a "mistake". Not a vast crime, not an atrocity, but a mistake. As Chomsky observed many years ago: "+their+ terror and violence are crimes, +ours+ are statecraft or understandable error". (Chomsky, op. cit, p.380)
The real issue, then, is not how on earth Blair can still be in office rather than in jail, or what this tells us about our ‘democracy’. It is not how to stop the diabolic slaughter in Iraq, how to replace the illegal US-UK occupation with a solution acceptable to Iraqis. Instead, the "level-headed people" around Blair – state officials also complicit in major war crimes – ask, "quite reasonably", when it might be proper for them to launch another attack in the future.
What could be more vital than a debate of this kind, when popular opinion has so recently and so casually been dismissed as utterly irrelevant by our political masters? This from the editor of the country’s premier ‘left’ magazine.
All around the country the gatekeepers will have received Kampfner’s message loud and clear.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to John Kampfner, editor of the New Statesman
Email: [email protected]
Ask him why he wrote that Blair’s war on Iraq is a "terrible mistake", rather than a terrible crime, or a terrible atrocity.
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Email: [email protected]
Please send copies of all emails to us at: [email protected]
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