Dumb Is Not The Word…!

“And the main headline this lunchtime: Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles have appeared as a couple, in public, for the first time.” (ITN 1 O’Clock News, 29.1.99)

Very occasionally the corporate media subjects itself to some self-analysis. In a two-page spread in the Guardian on April 1, 1996, headlined, ‘News You Can’t Use’, James Fallows, Washington Editor of the Atlantic Monthly, focused on ‘How the media undermine American democracy’.

With a title like that, rational human beings eagerly anticipated incisive examination of the way giant media corporations, often owned by arms, oil and other parent companies, undermined political parties, ideas and value systems threatening to corporate interests. They awaited discussion of the significance of the fact that broadsheets are 75% dependent on advertising revenue, and of how this must shift support, profits, power and outreach towards business-friendly media and away from honesty.

Instead, Fallows began by arguing that the press should stop “portraying public life in America as a race to the bottom, in which one group of conniving, insincere politicians ceaselessly tries to out-manoeuvre another.”

Too much negativity is bad news, Fallows continued, “If an awareness of the parts of life that go right is not built into an enumeration of what is going wrong, the news becomes useless, in that it teaches us all to despair.” Similarly, what is really irksome is that media celebrities like to make themselves “the centre of attention” by making “fun of the gaffes and imperfections of anyone in public life”.

In short, the press is too hostile to power, too willing to grab attention at the expense of imperfect politicians. A more up-beat press should present American public life with more respect and less cynicism. Fallows’ arguments were subsequently described as a “fierce attack” on the American press in the Guardian.

The Guardian returned to the issue last week, with an article by Rod Liddle, editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. This is what Liddle had to say:

“When we allege that TV has ‘dumbed down’, what exactly do we mean? Certainly not that it is dumber than it used to be – because clearly it isn’ t. More like it’s dumber than we are, or dumber than we like to think we are. Meaning the rest of the population, those people who settled down, uncomplainingly, to watch acres of the stuff every evening are – comfortingly – our intellectual inferiors. We are complaining about what other people want; not about television itself.” (Rod Liddle, ‘News to me’, the Guardian, 19.11.01)

To complain, then, that 10 minutes, or thirty percent, of the BBC’s 6 O’ Clock News on January 26, 1998, dealt with the Queen Mother’s fall and fracture of her left hip, is simply to be an intellectual snob. Dissidents, at least, do not accuse the TV of ‘dumbing down’, we accuse it of moral meltdown. Our government has been accused by senior UN diplomats of genocide in Iraq. It is supporting the US government (ie, US big business) in wrecking climate treaties. It has embraced a Russian government responsible for huge massacres of civilians in Chechnya. Failure to report this, and much else besides, is not ‘dumbing down’; it is moral collapse.

In conclusion, Liddle drew up a “hate-list”:

“· Deepscreen narcosis: the inability to turn off the television even when you loathe what you’re watching and, worse, despise yourself for watching it.”

The editors of Media Lens suffer from a related complaint: Broadsheet narcosis: the inability to stop reading trivial points made by ‘liberal’ commentators in response to grave and urgent issues such as press freedom. Liddle had more serious points to make:

“· Brevity and banality: the assumption, which is unfortunately correct, that we will grow bored or exhausted by intelligence presented in any depth or at any length.”

Do we really grow bored or exhausted by “intelligence presented in any depth”? Or do we grow bored with deceptions, superficiality, half-truths, distortion, omission and deliberate obfuscation? Liddle’s own article is an example of the problem he is discussing: arguments which do not penetrate illusions to reveal important truths, arguments that do not help people to understand the world, but instead side-track them and bewilder them with trivia, are naturally of no interest. Following John Pilger’s documentary, Death of a Nation, on East Timor, British Telecom registered 4,000 calls a minute to the ‘helpline’ number displayed at the end of the programme – an enormous response, according to BT. After a unique televised debate between Andrew Marr and Noam Chomsky on media control, the producer, Simon Finch, was “inundated” with a flood of letters the like of which he had never seen.

Commentators like Liddle seem to associate “intelligence” with complexity and difficulty. Nothing could be further from the truth: honesty is often clear and simple; it is the convoluted, deceptive arguments of the corporate mainstream that are difficult and complex. Liddle’s comments recall the words of John Milton: “They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.”

Liddle continues:

“· The deification of the celebrity: usually in inverse proportion to talent or virtue of the celebrity in question.”

Another trivial point.

“· Standardisation of thought: partly a result of political correctness,
partly a lack of imagination.”

Economic correctness is the problem, not political correctness – journalists careless of corporate sensitivities do not last long in the corporate media. The standardisation of thought and lack of imagination, quite obviously, are the result of the standardisation of media control: giant corporations +are+ the mass media, and giant corporations all have vested interests in promoting the same ‘muzak’ and public passivity.

“· The great god television: an overwhelming belief that television is the single most important thing in all of our lives, and that an appearance on TV, even if it is merely to be humiliated, is the acme of our existence.”

A third trivial point. Focusing on the weaknesses and foibles of the public is preferable to analysing the horrific institutional corruption of a state and corporate controlled mass media system. The public desire for TV fame is not responsible for allowing corporations to wreck the climate and to devastate the Third World for short-term profit – corporate control of the media is.

Media Lens has also drawn up a “hate-list” to add to the comments above:

* TV news consistently reports less of the truth of Western crimes against people and planet even than the ‘broadloids’ (broadsheets and tabloids). Richard Falk, professor of international politics at Princeton, has explained how Western foreign policy is promoted by the media “through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen with positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence”.

* TV journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters automatically turn to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, various business associations and military experts. Such reliance on official sources gives the news an inherently establishment cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or is not ‘news’. Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, warns: “This is precisely the opposite of what a functioning democracy needs, which is a ruthless accounting of the powers that be.”

* The mainstream media plays a large role in the demonisation of western ‘enemies’: Qaddafi, Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The standard strategy involves arming and nurturing the monsters-to-be, covering for their human rights abuses, and then publicising those crimes as geopolitical interests dictate. This is vital for justifying violence in the cause of state-corporate interests around the world, while mollifying home-based critics of such behaviour. The creation of an ‘evil empire’ of some kind – as in post-war Western scaremongering about the ‘Red Menace’ or earlier talk of the ‘Evil Hun’ – has been a standard device for terrifying the population into supporting arms production and military adventurism abroad – both major sources of profit for big business. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein has been a useful bogeyman for US arms manufacturers who have notched up sales of over $100bn to Saddam’s neighbours in the Middle East. The mass media also demonises ‘anti-globalisation’ protesters – often described as ‘rioters’ – and anyone else perceived as a threat to free-market ideology.


Write to the Guardian editor (alan.rusbridger@g…) and Rod Liddle (rod.liddle@b…) and ask them to provide serious analyses of the economic and political forces that compromise press freedom.