Chaining The Watchdog, Part 1 – How Systemic Media Pressures Keep Us From The Truth

“The thoughts of wealth and glory that arise first are like poison ivy: they harm merely by a touch, enchanting and paralysing the mind.” (Leaves of the Heaven Tree, 11th Century)

Hell, The System Works Just Fine!

Gary Webb is a typical example of the kind of journalist who dismisses Media Lens-style analyses as so much extreme conspiracy theorising. Webb was an investigative reporter for nineteen years, focusing on government and private sector corruption, winning more than thirty awards for his journalism. He was one of six reporters at the San Jose Mercury News to win a 1990 Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories on California’s 1989 earthquake. In 1994, he was awarded the H.L. Mencken Award by the Free Press Association, and in 1997 he received a Media Hero’s Award. Webb describes his experience of mainstream journalism:

“In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under rocks. I didn’t get any death threats that worried me. I was winning awards, getting raises, lecturing college classes, appearing on TV shows, and judging journalism contests. So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn’t work, that it was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine, as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+ muckracking.”

Alas, then, as Joseph Heller wrote, “Something Happened”:

“And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I’d enjoyed such smooth sailing for so long hadn’t been, as I’d assumed, because I was careful and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn’t written anything important enough to suppress.” (Webb, ‘The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On’, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)

In 1996, Webb wrote a series of stories entitled Dark Alliances. The series reported how a US-backed terrorist army, the Nicaraguan Contras, had financed their activities by selling crack cocaine in the ghettos of Los Angeles to the city’s biggest crack dealer. The series documented direct contact between drug traffickers bringing drugs into Los Angeles and two Nicaraguan CIA agents who were administering the Contras in Central America. Moreover, it revealed how elements of the US government knew about this drug ring’s activities at the time and did little, if anything, to stop it. The evidence included sworn testimony from one of the drug traffickers – a government informant – that a CIA agent specifically instructed them to raise money for the Contras in California.

The response to the first instalment of Dark Alliance was interesting – silence; the rest of the media did not respond. Normally this would have been the end of the story, but Mercury News had placed the report on its website, which was deluged with internet visitors from around the world – 1.3 million hits on one day alone. This attention generated massive public interest “despite a virtual news blackout from the major media”, Webb writes. Protests were held outside the Los Angeles Times building by media watchdogs and citizens groups, who questioned how the Times could ignore a story of such obvious importance to the city’s black neighbourhoods. In Washington, black media outlets attacked the Washington Post’s silence on the story. It was at about this time, Webb writes, that “my reporting and I became the focus of scrutiny”. (p.305)

The country’s three biggest newspapers – The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times – focusing on Webb rather than on his story, all declared the story “flawed”, empty, and not worth pursuing. Webb comments:

“Never before had the three biggest papers devoted such energy to kicking the hell out of a story by another newspaper.” (p.306)

Webb’s editors began to get nervous, 5,000 reprints of the series were burned, disclaimers were added to follow-up stories making it clear that the paper was not accusing the CIA of direct knowledge of what was going on, “even though the facts strongly suggested CIA complicity”, Webb notes. Despite a lack of evidence or arguments, the story was quickly labelled “irresponsible” by the media. Ultimately, Mercury News backed away from the material, apologising for “shortcomings” in a story that had been “oversimplified” and contained “egregious errors”. Webb quit Mercury News soon thereafter.

As additional information subsequently came to light, Webb recognised that he had indeed been in error:

“The CIA’s knowledge and involvement had been far greater than I’d ever imagined. The drug ring was even bigger than I had portrayed. The involvement between the CIA agents running the Contras and drug traffickers was closer than I had written.” (p.307)

Despite the press condemnation, Webb writes, the facts became more damning, not less – but they were never seriously explored. Instead the story was permanently tarred as “discredited”.

So why did the press turn on the story and on Webb himself?

“Primarily because the series presented dangerous ideas. It suggested that crimes of state had been committed. If the story was true, it meant the federal government bore some responsibility, however indirect, for the flood of crack that coursed through black neighbourhoods in the 1980s… The scary thing about this collusion between the press and the powerful is that it works so well. In this case, the government’s denials and promises to pursue the truth didn’t work. The public didn’t accept them, for obvious reasons, and the clamour for an independent investigation continued to grow. But after the government’s supposed watchdogs weighed in, public opinion became divided and confused, the movement to force congressional hearings lost steam…”. (p.309)

Once enough people came to believe that the story had been exaggerated or distorted, it could be quietly buried and forgotten.

This story resonates strongly with a query that was posed to us recently by one of our close friends:

“If it’s really true, as you claim, that Iraq had been fundamentally disarmed of weapons of mass destruction [WMD] by December 1998, and that any retained WMD was likely to be ‘sludge’, how come I didn’t read about this +anywhere+ in the media before the war? How come +nobody+ talked about it? I just don’t understand how this level of silence could be achieved.” (Friend to Media Lens Editors, The Giddy Bridge public house, Southampton, April 17, 2003)

It’s a good point. Edward Herman explains:

“The readiness with which the media and intellectuals adapt to and serve their leaders’ rampaging surprises many who don’t grasp the extent to which the corporate media are a part of the imperial enterprise and structure, and how naturally the intellectual community accepts and works within the parameters fixed by imperial needs. If the structure of imperialism gives the United States the power to impose its will in many foreign locales, its institutions and intelligentsia will, as a matter of course, normalize and support the ensuing projection of power.” (Herman, ‘Nation-Busting Euphoria, Nation-Building Fatigue’, Z Magazine, December 2002)

In the above account, Webb provides an important aid to understanding how “dangerous ideas” and “dangerous” journalists are filtered from the mainstream media – a very heavy ‘stick’ awaits all who seriously step out of line by exposing issues that are perceived as threatening by a wide range of establishment interests. What is so important about Webb’s account is that he worked courageously and honestly as a journalist for 17 years without the slightest knowledge of the existence of this ‘stick’. This suggests to us that journalists are indeed sincere in their belief that they are free and independent. As Webb himself writes:

“I had a grand total of one story spiked during my entire reporting career… I wrote my stories the way I wanted to write them, without anyone looking over my shoulder or steering me in a certain direction.” (p.296)

This is the account we hear time and again from journalists, who often think we are ‘completely over the top’ and ‘extreme’ in our views. Indeed, because we are trying to draw attention to comparatively ‘hidden’ phenomena – such as the ‘stick’ that hit Webb – phenomena that are often invisible to them, journalists assume we must be driven by some kind of mania: perhaps a deep hatred of journalists, or an addiction to criticising people. In an interview, Channel 4 news reader, Jon Snow, told us:


We believe this complacent view would radically change if, as Webb writes, Snow were to report anything “important enough to suppress”.

We believe, further, that journalists are selected on the basis that they are unlikely even to attempt to report “dangerous ideas” of this kind – troublemakers are quickly identified and filtered out as ‘committed’, ‘biased’ and ’emotionally involved’. By contrast, successful journalists, with rare exceptions, are happy to remain within the ‘acceptable’ parameters of debate, echoing government opinions without challenge, presuming the essential benevolence of state-corporate power, focusing on non-threatening problems, interpreting crimes as mistakes, and so on.

It might seem odd that professional journalists should be so willing to conform. But in fact much the same is true of +all+ professions, not just journalism, as Jeff Schmidt, former editor of Physics Today magazine, writes:

“The qualifying attitude, I find, is an uncritical, subordinate one, which allows professionals to take their ideological lead from their employers and appropriately fine-tune the outlook that they bring to their work. The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorize, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today’s most highly educated employees is no accident.” (Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.16)

You’re Nobody Unless You’re In Six Figures

Selecting for conformity and massive punishment are two of the ‘sticks’ distorting the mainstream media – there are also plenty of ‘carrots’ rewarding disciplined behaviour.

Amid all the accusations and black propaganda directed at Labour MP George Galloway last week, we learned one interesting piece of information – Galloway has been earning around £70,000 a year for his column in the Daily Mail. For most of us, this represents an awful lot of money for doing very little.

In an article in the New Statesman in 2000, Nick Cohen reported that Lynda Lee Potter, also of the Mail, was thought to earn about £250,000, with nearly all Mail columnists receiving £100,000-plus: “You’re nobody here unless you’re in six figures,” a friend on the paper told Cohen (Nick Cohen, ‘Hacking their way to a fortune, the New Statesman, May 22, 2000). Most Fleet Street political pundits earn a minimum of £70,000 and often far more.

The hosts of the BBC’s main TV and radio news bulletins typically earn at least £150,000 a year. A ‘magic circle’ of high-profile reporters, who are not actually BBC employees but contractors, are able to turn themselves into companies for tax purposes. Examples include a company set up for “artistic and literary creation” by former Ten O’Clock News presenter Peter Sissons. Anna Ford & Co was formed by the lunchtime news presenter, while former BBC1 News presenter, Michael Buerk, set up Slipway Productions Limited, a company which listed its business as “radio and television activities”.

The BBC’s “attack dog” Newsnight interviewer, Jeremy Paxman – who “would make the Weakest Link dominatrix look like Mary Poppins”, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer (March 25, 2003) – also had a company, Cohen reported. Cohen estimated that Paxman and Trevor McDonald (ITN) had salaries of between £750,000 and £1m. Kirsty Wark, also a Newsnight presenter, had agreed a £3.5m-plus package with the corporation to present and produce programmes for the following three years.

Editors often earn far more, of course. Max Hastings told the Observer in 2000 that “money was an incentive” when he switched from a £185,000-a-year editorship of the Telegraph to the £400,000-a-year editorship of the London Evening Standard. When Jonathan Holborow was sacked from the Mail on Sunday in 1998, his salary was reported to be £300,000. Journalists at the Independent say that editor Simon Kelner receives about £250,000 – roughly £50,000 more than his predecessors Rosie Boycott and Andrew Marr. As editor of News of the World, Piers Morgan was on about £140,000 according to “conservative estimates”. After moving to the Mirror, staff guessed his new package was worth somewhere between £250,000 and £300,000.

The basic point is that the most influential and important mainstream journalists are paid vast amounts of money to do what they do – tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds is an extremely high level of remuneration for typing out a few hundred or thousand words every week. It’s easy to understand why competition is so fierce for this kind of work.

Imagine a situation where we are being paid, say, £100,000 to report, or comment, for a major newspaper. We know that our media organisation is heavily tied into the establishment through big business owners/managers and parent companies, and through a range of connections with business and government – stocks and shares, advertisers, think tanks, formal and informal links (elite schools, clubs, societies, universities), revolving doors of employment, and so on. And so we know (or perhaps sense) that pressures of the kind that quickly destroyed Gary Webb’s career can easily and rapidly be applied to anyone who ‘rocks the boat’. And we know that to be tarred as ‘extreme’, ‘biased’, or responsible for “egregious errors” can rapidly destroy our reputation in the media industry. And as former CNN producer and CBS reporter Kristina Borjesson writes, this is a career killer:

“It often has a fatal effect on one’s career. I don’t want to mix metaphors here, but a journalist who has been through the buzzsaw is usually described as ‘radioactive’, which is another word for unemployable.” (Borjesson, Into The Buzzsaw, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.12)

This means the loss of a big salary together with its prestigious and comfortable lifestyle. Journalists are naturally very keen to secure and maintain long-term contracts with major media – freelance journalists are paid a pittance – and so it is not at all hard to understand why they have an enormous incentive to ‘play safe’ in their reporting.

As soon as the pressure is perceived to have eased off, editors and journalists may well feel more able to discuss truths that might previously have been deemed “dangerous”. In the aftermath of the Iraq war – and now that it doesn’t much matter – a spate of reports have begun to appear in the media on the possibility that Iraq never had any weapons of mass destruction at all. What is so remarkable is that in the weeks leading up to the war – when such revelations might have swung public opinion decisively against the war and might even have brought down the government – such reports simply did not appear. Martin Woollacott, for example, wrote in January of Iraq’s WMD:

“Among those knowledgeable about Iraq there are few, if any, who believe he [Saddam] is not hiding such weapons. It is a given.” (‘This drive to war is one of the mysteries of our time – We know Saddam is hiding weapons. That isn’t the argument’, Martin Woollacott, The Guardian, January 24, 2003)

And yet today, Richard Norton-Taylor tells us in the Guardian:

“What is now clear, and admitted by all sides, is that whatever weapons of mass destruction Iraq did possess, they were not a threat, not even to British and American forces, from the time the UN inspectors went in.” (Norton-Taylor – ‘An insult to British intelligence’, the Guardian, April 30, 2003)

But the point is that credible sources, all but ignored by the Guardian and the rest of the media, were insisting that this was equally clear +before+ the war. Even now, when the lack of an Iraqi threat is “admitted by all sides”, we find (April 30) that former chief UNSCOM arms inspector, Scott Ritter, has been mentioned in 12 articles in the Guardian/Observer this year out of 5,767 articles mentioning Iraq. Former UNSCOM chairman Rolf Ekeus has been mentioned in two articles. Cambridge academic Glen Rangwala has been mentioned three times. These sources have been casting very serious doubt on the government’s claims about Iraqi WMD for many months, and even years.

We are not at all accusing journalists of dishonesty or self-censorship. In His book Vital Lies, Simple Truths – The Psychology of Self-Deception, psychologist Daniel Goleman describes the human capacity for “group think”:

“Instead of hiding a secret… the group simply cramps its attention and hobbles its information-seeking to preserve a cosy unanimity. Loyalty to the group requires that members not raise embarrassing questions, attack weak arguments, or counter soft-headed thinking with hard facts.” (Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths – The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury, 1997, p.183)

It is easy to imagine how political and economic pressures, both within and beyond media corporations, act to promote a particular version of “cosy unanimity” – one that discourages journalists from challenging important interests on which media corporations are dependent, and of which they are a part.

Part 2 will follow shortly…