How the Media Promotes Obedience to Authority

In a departure from the usual format of media alerts, we are providing Media Lens subscribers with a preview of the following article. A slightly edited version will be published (under a different title) in the opinion section of the Times Higher Education Supplement this Friday (7 September, 2001). There will also be an accompanying short article by a THES reporter about ‘alternative’ internet news sites.


by David Cromwell

‘What is being reported blandly on the front pages’, wrote the US linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, ‘would elicit ridicule and horror in a society with a genuinely free and democratic intellectual culture.’

And yet press freedom is considered one of the defining features of libertarian western democracy. According to historian David Chaney, ‘the British press is generally agreed to have attained its freedom around the middle of the nineteenth century’. Presumably it has never been lost since. Many would concur with Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor, that journalism is a ‘crusading craft’, full of ‘disputatious, stroppy, difficult people’ keen to get to the heart of matters, even to the extent ofrbringing down a president, as in the Watergate affair.

But this benign view of the media as guarantor of democracy is not shared by all. U.S. journalist Danny Schechter observes: ‘I became a journalist to help spotlight the problems of the world. It is now clear that global media is one of them.’ No wonder. The media is big business, tied into stock markets and the globalised economy. Media owners are wealthy people with many fingers in many business pies, and are dependent on the support of advertisers. How likely is it that anyone challenging the status quo – whether environmentalists, human rights activists or opponents of the arms trade – will be granted a level playing field by corporate news organisations? How much more likely is it that the corporate media will reflect establishment priorities?

A standard reaction on meeting this argument for the first time is a mixture of incredulity and scorn. Author Tom Wolfe once scoffed, ‘[this is] the old cabal theory that somewhere there’s a room with a baize-covered desk and there are a bunch of capitalists sitting around and they’re pulling strings … I think this is the most absolute rubbish I’ve ever heard.’ But Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky, who introduced the ‘propaganda model of the media’ in Manufacturing Consent, rejected the notion that big business controls news outlets through conspiratorial means: ‘We do not use any kind of “conspiracy” hypothesis to explain mass media performance. our treatment is much closer to a “free market” analysis, with the results largely an outcome of the workings of market forces.’

Two of these market forces derive from the media’s concentrated ownership as well as the imperative to attract business advertising to survive in a fiercely competitive market. There are other powerful constraints too. Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, notes that: ‘Professional journalism relies heavily on official sources. Reporters have to talk to the PM’s official spokesperson, the White House press secretary, the business association, the army general. What those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate.’ Whereas, ‘if you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protesters, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you’ve become an advocate and are no longer a “neutral” professional journalist’. Such reliance on official sources gives the news an innate conservative cast and gives those in power tremendous influence over defining what is or isn’t ‘news’.

In-depth media analysis of the environment or human rights is increasingly hard to find, especially in the broadcast media. Journalist Andrew Rowell, formerly of The Guardian, notes that: ‘All too often environmental issues are ignored as editors fight for a quick popular head-line.’ Under increasing pressure to boost ratings and readerships, editors, producers and station managers counter with ‘the public gets what the public wants’. This is a view refuted as ‘patronizing and arrogant’ as long ago by the 1962 Pilkington Report on British broadcasting: ‘to give the public what it wants is a misleading phrase… it claims to know what the public is but defines it as no more than the mass audience, and it claims to know what it wants, but limits its choice to the average of experience.’

Recently, I canvassed the opinion of a number of prominent journalists about the state of the British media. I received some surprising responses. Was the mainstream media complicit in abuses of Western power, I asked, citing the Nato bombing in the Balkans and US/UK support for devastating sanctions against Iraq? The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee was unequivocal: ‘Yes, the media is responsible for a huge amount of evil and we have the worst in the western world’. Toynbee, a former BBC correspondent, concluded: ‘The trouble is, what’s to be done?’ Her resigned dejection at the parlous state of even the liberal media is shared by other high-profile commentators. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown of The Independent admitted, ‘So much of what you say [about media complicity in human rights abuses] 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’.

But elsewhere there is a commitment to changing the nature of reporting. In response to my question: ‘To what extent can we learn the truth about the world from the mainstream media?’ The Observer’s Greg Palast shot back, ‘You can’t … that’s why I’m on the Board of which is attempting to bust open the media monopolies.’ MediaChannel is one of many internet resources – IndyMedia, ZNet and SchNEWS are other major sites – that provide ‘alternative’ perspectives on world affairs. People are increasingly turning to such sources, not just for honest accounts of ‘anti-globalisation’ protests in Genoa and elsewhere, but for coherent and rational analysis of the underlying issues: Third World debt, business obstructionism on climate change and the unaccountable tyranny of state-corporate power.

Let’s face it. Wouldn’t a truly ‘free’ media examine itself rigorously – its own assumptions, prejudices and omissions? Instead, there is virtual silence. Market forces coupled with obedience to authority is a powerful mix. As George Orwell once remarked: ‘The sinister fact about literary censorship … is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban’. The result? Media debate is restricted within narrow parameters that serve capital, but not democracy.

David Cromwell is an Associate Director of Media and the author of Private Planet (Jon Carpenter, £12.99).


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