On December 8, 2001, Media Lens issued a Media Alert: Dissidents Dismissed As Angry, Deluded Egotists.
The Alert focused on an article written by Rory Carroll of the Guardian (‘We don’t know where we’re going’, the Guardian, 6 December, 2001). Media Lens received this reply from Carroll on 11 January, 2002:
Thanks for the email and sorry about tardy reply, just out of five weeks in Afghanistan where I’d no access to this email address. Some of your points about the corporate nature of media and how that corrodes independence I agree with. Some of the coverage out of Afghanistan and Pakistan since September has been shameful. But your main point, that the Vidal piece I wrote fits into a broader conspiracy to smear such intellectuals, is wrong. No one told me what to write nor was there an unspoken agenda or expectation on the part of the commissioning editor that I knew of. What I wrote matched what I thought of the man. You appear to share many of Vidal’s views, I don’t, and that came across in the piece since I’m paid partly to report my impressions. But I also reported his views accurately. You’re entitled to consider my opinions dumb and naive but dismissing them as part of a corporate smear sails close to what you accuse me of.
We are grateful to Rory Carroll for his response. We agree that “Some of the coverage out of Afghanistan and Pakistan since September has been shameful”, but believe the comment has little meaning – no matter how honest and accurate media performance might be, personal opinion will always ensure that individuals find some coverage “shameful”.
What is meaningful, we believe, is analysis of media performance as a whole based on comparisons of reasonably well-matched examples. The Guardian, including Carroll, has produced some informative reports on events in Afghanistan. However, when the Guardian’s coverage of civilian victims in Afghanistan is compared with coverage of civilian victims in Kosovo, a very different picture emerges.
As we have reported (Media Alert: Media Ignores The Mass Death of Civilians in Afghanistan, January 3, 2002, the Guardian has afforded a tiny fraction of the coverage it gave to victims in Kosovo to Afghan victims of a disaster for which the West bears considerable responsibility. But this is no isolated case. On the one hand, the Guardian, like the rest of the corporate media, consistently, over many years, provides massive coverage of the crimes of ‘enemies’: Nazi Germany, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, Iraq under Saddam (in the 1990s), Serbia under Milosevic. On the other hand, these same media have provided minimal coverage of crimes for which we bear some or all responsibility: Chile under Pinochet, Guatemala under Armas, Indonesia under Suharto, Iran under the Shah, Iraq under Saddam (in the 1980s), Afghanistan now, Turkey now, Colombia now, etc.
Individual “shameful” articles aside, this basic pattern reveals that the ‘liberal’ Guardian, like the corporate mainstream generally, functions as a de facto propaganda system promoting and protecting state-corporate interests. This is no academic issue; the corporate propaganda system is a vital component allowing the mass slaughter of innocents in the Third World to proceed all but unseen and unknown in the West. In recent weeks the U.K. mass media has, quite simply, and with staggering brutality, turned its back on the suffering of millions of starving and bombed people in Afghanistan.
But this absolutely does +not+ mean that we are proposing any kind of conspiracy. Carroll writes that we are accusing him of producing a piece that “fits into a broader conspiracy to smear such intellectuals”. He even suggests that we imagine he might have been fed a line on what was wanted, or that the commissioning editor might have had expectations based on some hidden agenda. All we can say is that we find such suggestions completely outlandish, we made no mention of a conspiracy in our Media Alert and none will be found on our website. This is Carroll’s own (mistaken) interpretation of what we wrote.
We regularly meet this ‘straw man’ dismissal of our work. As U.S. media analyst Edward Herman notes, “Left criticisms of the media have always drawn the accusation of conspiracy theory, because media personnel and defenders of the media establishment are either too lazy to examine closely the case made by left analysts, can’t understand it, or are pleased to resort to a smear tactic.” (Herman, ‘Nuggets From A Nuthouse’, Z Magazine, November 2001)
When Media Lens interviewed Channel 4 presenter, Jon Snow, he said of our arguments: “It’s so much easier for hacks to be able to blame some corporate conspiracy that prevents them from discussing these matters… I can tell you if somebody rings me up from Pepsi-cola – and I must say I don’t think I’ve ever been rung by any corporation, would that I was! – I’d give them short shrift!” (Interview with David Edwards, January 1, 2001)
When we assured Snow that we didn’t believe for a moment that media bias was a conspiracy, or even conscious, he replied:
“Well, I’m sorry to say, it either happens or it doesn’t happen. If it does happen, it’s a conspiracy; if it doesn’t happen, it’s not a conspiracy.”
A salient example of what Herman calls, “comic book level analysis” (Herman, op. cit.,). Similarly, in the famous ‘Rumble in the Media Jungle’ encounter, in which the former Independent editor, Andrew Marr (now the BBC’s chief political editor) interviewed Noam Chomsky, Marr said:
“The idea that Orwell’s warning [about thought control and propaganda] is still relevant may seem bizarre.” (BBC2, The Big Idea, February 14, 1996)
Marr asked his audience to consider whether it were possible that the media was “designed to limit how you imagine the world?”
Yet Chomsky’s whole point is that thought control in democratic societies does +not+ happen through conspiratorial, Big Brother-style mechanisms, but is the result of free market forces. Marr continued:
“What I don’t get is that all of this suggests… people like me are self-censoring.”
“I don’t say you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is, if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”
What Marr, like Carroll, ‘doesn’t get’ is that dissident arguments do not depend on conspiratorial self-censorship, but on a filter system maintained by free market forces – bottom-line pressures, owner influence, parent company goals and sensitivities, advertiser needs, business-friendly government influence and corporate PR ‘flak’ – which introduce bias by marginalising alternatives, providing incentives to conform and costs for failure to conform.
This is all we are suggesting of Rory Carroll – we are sure he is sincere in what he writes; we don’t believe for a moment that he is dishonest, or conforming to a conspiracy. We are not trying to smear him. We are suggesting that he is part of a corporate media system that strongly selects for certain editors, certain journalists, certain beliefs, certain facts, certain victims and certain crimes against humanity.
This system has selected for Rory Carroll, Timothy Garton-Ash, Steve Crawshaw, Jay Rayner, Jon Snow, David Rieff, Charles Jennings, Joe Joseph et al. This is why – despite ostensibly writing from the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the media spectrum – they present remarkably similar accounts of the alleged mental defects afflicting dissidents like Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, John Pilger and Harold Pinter: blinding anger, bloated egotism and a self-serving black-and-white view of the world.
All we’re saying is, if they believed something different they wouldn’t be sitting where they’re sitting.