Media Mendacity and The Art of Self-Deception


On 27 January 1986, the O-ring task force of Morton Thiokol met to discuss the likely consequences of a proposed Space Shuttle launch the following day at a temperature of 18 degrees Fahrenheit. O-rings are designed to take up the slack in the Shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, expanding to plug gaps between rocket segments as they ignite. If both primary and secondary O-rings fail to seal in the required time, hot gas will escape and cause a catastrophic explosion. The problem, Thiokol’s engineers argued, was that the colder the temperature, the slower the O-rings would expand and seal. O-ring failures at temperatures higher than 18 degrees Fahrenheit had come perilously close to blowing up previous Shuttle flights.

Earlier that day, O-ring team leader, Bob Ebeling, had been asked by a programme manager if he would be concerned at such a low temperature launch. Ebeling recalls his exact words in reply:

"’+What!+’ Because we’re qualified to only 40 degrees. I said, ‘What business has anyone even got +thinking+ about that? We’re in no-man’s land, we’re in a big grey area."

The O-ring task force came to a swift conclusion on launch at 18 degrees: "Practically to the man," Ebeling says, "we all decided it was catastrophic."

Although unable to launch against its contractor’s recommendations, Nasa was not convinced of any correlation between low temperature and O-ring failure. After a heated teleconference between Thiokol and Nasa, Thiokol managers asked for a five-minute recess. Engineer and O-ring expert, Roger Boisjoly, quickly sensed what was happening:

"As soon as the button was pressed on the teleconference to sever us and mute us between us and Nasa, our General Manager said in a soft voice, ‘We have to make a +management+ decision’. It was obvious that they were going to change the decision, or attempt to write things on a piece of paper to justify changing it from a no-launch to a launch decision to accommodate their major customer."

Boisjoly and his colleagues were outraged, insisting that the proposed launch was 20 degrees outside their operating experience, and emphatically not worth the risk. In an extraordinary statement, Boisjoly recalls how he tried to convince Thiokol managers of the disastrous course of action on which they appeared set:

"I thought +surely+ the photographs I had in my possession will +certainly+ change this whole caucus. I placed those photographs down in front of the managers – and I was told after the meeting by one of my colleagues that I was literally screaming at them to look at the photos and not ignore what they were telling us. It’s very simple: the more black you see between the seals, the lower temperature launch, and the closer you come to a disaster. It’s as simple as that. I couldn’t get them to even look at the photographs."

Having refused to even look at Boisjoly’s evidence, Thiokol’s managers informed Nasa that they had changed to a launch decision.

The next morning, Thiokol’s engineers were in no doubt about the fate that lay in store for the Space Shuttle on the launch pad: Challenger:

"I didn’t want to see the launch," Boisjoly says. "I didn’t want to see the failure… When they ignited and the vehicle cleared the launch tower, I turned to Bob [Ebeling] and whispered, ‘We have just dodged a bullet.’ Because my expectation – as was my colleague’s – was that it would blow up right in the pad."

In the event, through sheer good fortune, rocket booster debris temporarily blocked the hole left by the failed O-rings. Challenger cleared the launch pad before exploding four miles above the earth, as severe turbulence shook the debris loose.

It is not always possible to see the universe in a grain of sand, but sometimes we can identify critical factors in human relations: the refusal of Thiokol’s managers to recognise the obvious truth of what Boisjoly, Ebeling and the other Thiokol engineers were saying, or even to look at the photographic evidence, is indicative of just such a factor. Many of the worst horrors of our world are the result of +precisely+ this ability of human beings – for example, state and corporate executives, and corporate journalists – to avert their attention from what they do not want to see.

The same phenomenon struck the Harvard psychologist, Stanley Milgram, during a series of experiments designed to test levels of obedience to brutal authority in the 1960s. The experiments involved a ‘teacher’ – a member of the public – issuing electric shocks to a learner, who in reality was an actor, on the command of an ‘experimenter’ dressed in a grey lab coat. The avowed aim of the experiment was to conduct a study of the effects of punishment on memory and learning. The ‘learner’ was taken to a room, seated in a chair, strapped to prevent excessive movement, and an electrode attached to his wrist. He was told that would receive electric shocks of increasing intensity. At 74 volts the learner feigned a grunt. At 120 volts he complained verbally; at 150 he demanded to be released from the experiment. His protest continued as the shocks escalated, growing increasingly vehement and emotional. At 285 volts the response took the form of "an agonised scream".

Milgram and his team were amazed to find that ordinary individuals showed horrifying levels of obedience:

"To our consternation, even the strongest protests from the victim did not prevent many subjects from administering the harshest punishment ordered by the experimenter… Of the 40 subjects, 26 obeyed the orders of the experimenter to the end, proceeding to punish the victim until they reached the most potent shock available on the generator."

In a way that eerily recalls the Thiokol managers’ refusal to look at Boisjoly’s photographs, Milgram noted, ". subjects show a reluctance to look at the victim, whom they could see through the glass in front of them. When this fact was brought to their attention, they indicated that it caused them discomfort to see the victim in agony. We note, however, that although the subject refuses to look at the victim, he continues to administer shocks."

With Milgram’s research very much in mind, I recently interviewed leading members of the ‘liberal’ British corporate media on the subject of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model of media control. Beyond the detail, the basic subject was: ‘In a world dominated by corporate power, is it a problem that the press is a corporate press – part of that same corporate system?’ As with Boisjoly, my argument was "as simple as that": does 2+2 = 4?

I had no illusions about receiving honest answers from interviewees; I took it for granted that it would not be possible for senior corporate journalists to discuss their roles honestly. Rather, my intention was to test the capacity of ‘liberal’ journalists to deny obvious truth. It seemed to me that this was an extremely useful exercise; after all, many people assume that ‘liberal’ journalists are vigorous defenders of freedom, truth and democracy: if they are not, then who in the press +is+?

Milgram leaves us in doubt about the importance of the version of reality imparted by respected authority in determining the actions of individuals:

"Control the manner in which a man interprets his world," he said, "and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behaviour."

Women too! Here is part of my exchange with Roger Alton, editor of the Observer on 20 December, 2000. Readers should bear in mind that Alton is editor of what is probably the most liberal and open British newspaper:

DE: "When I think about all of these issues – the fact that the media are corporations, they’re profit-oriented, they depend on advertisers, they’re vulnerable to corporate flak machines, and then there are the wealthy owners and parent companies – I’ve never seen a systemic analysis in the media in this country, that examines the implications of these facts for democracy, for the freedom of the press. Have you seen anything?"

RA: "No. 

DE: "Why’s that?"

RA: "Er, because, in this country… I haven’t seen one. I mean there might well be one. I mean there’s the Glasgow Media Studies Group, they’re always researching this sort of thing."

DE: "I mean in the mainstream press, like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent."

RA: "But what would you…? You’d analyse commercial… proprietorial, commercial pressures on the press as being corporate organisations?"

DE: "The whole range: the profit motivation, advertiser influence, and so on…"

RA: "Well I think that’s a +very+ interesting idea. I think it is something that one could look at."

DE: "Isn’t it crucial for democracy to have that kind of discussion?"

RA: "You seem to be suggesting there is a tremendous amount of sort of pressure on journalists to sort of conform to some kind of editorial line – not the case."

DE: "I just wonder why it’s never been discussed."

(6 second pause)

RA: "Um, well, it’s a good… probably… Well I’m sure it has been discussed in academic arenas."

DE: "But I’m saying in the mainstream press. I’ve never seen it, even though we’ve got media sections in newspapers and this seems absolutely +fundamental+ to democracy."

RA: "What would the headline on the piece be? I’m trying to get an idea of the piece you think we should do, because if it’s good we’ll do it…"

DE: "Well, you know, ‘Is a corporate press a free press?’"

RA: "Yes, um, ‘How free is our press?’ I mean, it’s an interesting idea. I mean I think you would end up saying it’s pretty free. We have the greatest variety of papers of anywhere, in my view, in the English-speaking world."

Alton was either unwilling or unable to consider the truly glaring problem of a corporate press reporting on a world dominated by multinational corporations. Like Thiokol’s managers, Alton simply will not look at the problem.

In his book, Vital Lies, Simple Truths – The Psychology of Self-Deception, psychologist Daniel Goleman explains how individuals come to build their idea of reality around frameworks of understanding, or schemas – mental ideational structures which we then defend from conflicting facts, experiences and ideas:

"My belief is that people in groups by and large come to share a vast number of schemas, most of which are communicated without being spoken of directly. Foremost among these shared, yet unspoken, schemas are those that designate what is worthy of attention, how it is to be attended to – and what we choose to ignore or deny… people in groups also learn together how not to see – how aspects of shared experience can be veiled by self-deceits held in common."

Alton’s struggle with what he chooses "to ignore or deny" is clear in his references to obscure media outlets and academia, when it is quite clear that an honest discussion of press freedom should be a staple of mainstream media discussion. When confronted with this obvious truth, Alton says, "Yes, um, ‘How free is our press?’ I mean, it’s an interesting idea," strangely suggesting that he has never considered the problem before, even though he seems to be aware of discussions by the Glasgow Media Group and academia. When I again insist that it should be a major theme of mainstream reporting, he denies the problem by suggesting there really isn’t one: "I mean I think you would end up saying it’s pretty free. We have the greatest variety of papers of anywhere, in my view, in the English-speaking world."

This, again, is completely beside the point. My point was that in a society truly committed to the free expression of ideas, the press would be continuously made to incorporate in-depth analysis and criticism, and this never happens.

Milgram noted that moral concerns could be shunted aside quite easily by a "calculated restructuring of the informational and social field." A favoured mechanism, he wrote "is the tendency of the individual to become so absorbed in the narrow technical aspects of the task that he loses sight of its broader consequences".

In my interviews, I found it all but impossible to shift attention from these narrow technical specifics to obvious broader issues and consequences. For example, all interviewees were happy to decry the performance of the US press, the right-wing British press, the tabloid press, and so on, while affirming the integrity of the specific media outlets by which they happened to be employed – by happy coincidence! Hugo Young, the Guardian’s chief political commentator, for example, said: "One can see in American television the pernicious effects of the links of ownership between the main networks and large corporations."

Jon Snow, Presenter of Channel 4 News, took the same view, but insisted, "we don’t look to the United States for quality journalism" – as though the corporate system controlling politics, media and culture in the US was substantially different to the corporate system controlling politics, media and culture in Britain.

Interviewees focused laser-like on their own oases of alleged honesty. Even if we took their claims at face value, they would still be trivial beside the broader fact that the overwhelming majority of media is hopelessly compromised. Had they really been committed to press freedom, my interviewees would surely have focused intently on this far more significant and extremely disturbing issue. Why ignore the important issue to make a trivial, self-serving point: ‘The Titanic might be sinking, but my end of the ship is afloat!’?

In Part 2 – Interviews with the Guardian and Channel 4 News



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