On July 8, we published a Media Alert, Debunking Buncombe. In reply we received this further email from The Independent’s Andrew Buncombe on July 26, 2003:

Dear Davids,

Thank-you for the reply to my recent letter regarding your alert ‘Biting the Hand that Feeds’. From the flurry of emails I have received from your readers it’s clear that the ability of the mainstream media to think for itself and avoid institutional bias is an issue that interests and concerns a lot of people. I am writing to you now largely as a result of that interest and while I have tried to respond individually to those people who emailed me, I apologise to those who did not get a direct reply.

It strikes me that your view of the mainstream media and your conviction of the ‘inevitably distorting effects of market forces’ with which they are inextricably linked, relies on a rather crude Marxist analysis. Your belief – drawn, as you say, heavily from Chomsky and Herman’s ‘propaganda model’ – that journalists working for the mainstream media are ‘ideological fanatics’ who are only there because they hold the ‘correct views’ and are incapable of thinking outside the narrow confines of the system in which they operate, overstates the capability of capital and its attendant philosophy to reproduce itself.

It’s a rather depressing world view – reminiscent of Althusser, who few people now take seriously – and ultimately it’s not that helpful because it doesn’t allow any analytical wiggle room to differentiate between various elements of the mainstream media.

Are we really all just ‘placemen’ of the system, fulfilling a role of which we are unaware, but nevertheless will inevitably act out?  In your view, for instance, someone working for the Guardian or the Observer would seem to be ultimately no different to someone working for the Daily Mail or Fox News Channel. The work they do achieves the same result: the reproduction of an existing ideological consensus that disingenuously uses dissent, celebrates dissent even, as a way of masking its own crushing power. So ‘true’ criticism never gets a look in and ‘real’ alternative viewpoints are never heard.

Let me again say that I don’t think the situation in regard to bias, story selection or story promotion within the British and US media is even close to ideal. We could both cite endless examples of stories that have been spun, hyped, ignored, got wrong, spiked or even fabricated to suit the editorial whims of a particular organisation. There is no such thing as a mainstream news organisation – and probably not any of your beloved ‘alternative news sites’ – that is entirely ‘independent’.

That should be the starting point of our conversation. I realise that The Independent, for instance, is unlikely to biting my hand off  with breathless anticipation if I wanted to write a highly critical article about its owner, Tony O’Reilly.

But does that mean that everything else the paper prints cannot be trusted or cannot be believed? Does it mean that the paper is unwilling to upset advertisers or government officials or sources, or any of the others constraining influences cited by Chomsky? I simply don’t think it does. I think that what it means is that if you want to read a story criticising Tony O’Reilly, you should read the Guardian or a paper other than The Independent. That’s just common sense. No-one pretends that a solitary media outlet should be someone’s sole source of news: that’s what a pluralist press is so important and that’s why it is correct that the FCC plans to allow media groups to expand their ownership in the US, is finally being challenged by parts of Congress.

Many of your readers, for instance, mentioned a number of ‘alternative news sites’ – where ‘I would get the real news’. Znet – which one of you write for – was among those mentioned. And what do I find when I get to these web sites? What I don’t find, by and large, is any original reporting, or information or content gathering. By and large I find a series of links to stories published in the mainstream press, including very often, The Independent.

I presume these links are included because people find them interesting, insightful and perhaps even reliable. Perhaps they are there because they support the views and opinions of the person who has set up the news site. (But that wouldn’t be very independent, would it? Would those same mainstream sources be quoted if they published an article that did not support that world view?)

My own take on it, is that the system in which we operate is less hermetically sealed than you would have us believe. I believe there is real variety within the mainstream press – why for instance, do your alternative sites never carry links to stories published by the Daily Mail or broadcast by Fox? How does the propaganda model account for this discrepancy?

How too, does your model account for the current scrutiny that has been taking place over the fabricated ‘evidence’ used by the British and American governments as they made their case for war? According to your model, we would be reading nothing of this in the press, and the only thing we would hear about is the government’s line that ‘Regime change was worth it regardless of whether we find WMD’. Why is the ‘servile’ media choosing to dedicate so much time and energy on this issue? ( I fear you might tell me, that this simply helps achieve the image of a free press. I dismiss that, entirely.)

I find it sad that you think journalists working in the mainstream are only there because they think the ‘right’ thoughts and say the ‘right’ things. It is certainly true there are constraints imposed by the very nature of working for a mainstream newspaper – deadlines, the length of an article, the format of news – but that doesn’t mean people don’t think for themselves.

A small but hopefully telling example: last week, while in Washington, Tony Blair’s people were talking up the chances of getting concessions for the British prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. Some reports you will have read talked of ‘high hopes’ within Downing Street, etc. My assignment from the news desk of The Independent were for ‘600 words’. That was it – no discussion about what ‘angle’ might be required. Now, anyone who has been following the story of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners knows that the British government couldn’t care less about the nine Brits down in Cuba. The piece I wrote was very sceptical in tone and questioned whether this was any more than PR stunt by Blair. Now, who was pulling my strings then? Why was I given the freedom to write what I felt was the actual situation when there was clearly a viable alternative ‘angle’ for me to choose?

It seems that, unlike many on the right, you don’t grasp the way in which ideas compete and fight for circulation within the forum of the media. Here in the US, the right has the Fox News Channel. The view of Media Lens seems to be that the only option for those on the left is to leave the system and give it up all together because it’s a lost cause.

Against that hermetic vision of a world where ‘authentic’ dissent is impossible, I would counterpose a vision of the media as contested, open, terrain. This terrain is not flat. Think of Yeovil’s famous old sloping football pitch. I accept that in the media, unorthodox, alternative views are playing uphill all the time as they attempt to achieve a place in public discourse. Of course power is real. Of course ownership counts. Of course an existing consensus limits the possibilities of what is usually said by the mainstream. But the limits are flexible, moving and negotiated. That is how history happens and societies change and can be changed.

‘We are faced with a kind of Pascal’s wager: assume the worst and it will surely arrive:  commit oneself to the struggle for freedom and justice, and it’s cause may be advanced.’ [Noam Chomsky. Deterring Democracy]

Few of us may manage to make truly serious advances. But to stop trying – as you would have us do – is the worst of all outcomes.

Best regards,

Andrew Buncombe
The Independent
(Washington DC)

Media Lens Response (August 15):

Dear Andrew

Many thanks for taking the trouble to reply again; we very much appreciate your sincerity and candour.

We do not rely on, and have never so much as referred to, any Marxist analyses of the media. Our critique of the media is much closer to a free market analysis. Much of what we say is deemed uncontroversial by mainstream academics. In Culture, Communications and Political Economy, for example, Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch acknowledge that “government and business elites do have privileged access to the news; large advertisers do operate as a latter-day licensing authority… and media proprietors can determine the editorial line… of the papers and broadcast stations they own.” (Peter Golding and Graham Murdoch, in Mass Media and Society, Arnold, 1996, p.15)

In Taken By Storm: The Media, Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy in the Gulf War, W. Lance Bennett and David L. Paletz discuss the failures of media coverage to offer substantive criticism of official policy during the 1991 Gulf War. In the concluding chapter, Paletz writes:

“Insufficient dedication to the freedom of the press, fear of provoking governmental outrage, shared frames of reference with governing elites, and the pursuit of sales ratings are among the factors that can help explain the acquiescence to government curbs, no matter how reluctant, of media executives.” (W. Lance Bennett and David L. Paletz, eds., Taken By Storm: The Media, Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy in the Gulf War, The University of Chicago Press, 1994, p.284)

No one would suggest that these are Marxist analyses of the media, and yet these views are very much in agreement with Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. You write that our analysis “overstates the capability of capital and its attendant philosophy to reproduce itself”. We have never argued that capital is able “to reproduce itself” through the media and in fact have no idea what this might mean.

The issue of whether an analysis is depressing or not is hardly relevant. As Noam Chomsky once responded to an interviewer who had made the same point: “It’s not my job to cheer you up.” But anyway, from our point of view, the analysis is far from depressing because it helps us to better understand the world around us, explaining how and why the media distort their coverage in favour of powerful interests. Curiously, you seem to agree with much of what we write: “Of course power is real. Of course ownership counts. Of course an existing consensus limits the possibilities of what is usually said by the mainstream.” But you seem reluctant to acknowledge or account for the consistent patterns of bias in media reporting that are in fact explained by precisely these and other factors and pressures.

Our analysis does allow “ideological wriggle room”, if by that you mean an understanding of the different roles played by, say, the tabloid and ‘quality’ press. The Australian academic Alex Carey pointed in the direction of an explanation for these differing roles when he wrote:

“There is evidence from a major wartime study that, for the best results, one side only of an issue or argument should be presented to poorly educated people. Two-sided presentations, however, are more effective in influencing better educated people and those initially opposed to the desired view.” (Alex Carey, Taking The Risk Out Of Democracy, University of New South Wales Press, 1995, p.159)

This helps explain the role and performance of, say, the Sun on the one hand, and the Observer on the other. Both do indeed serve to protect the status quo but in very different ways. The Sun produces crude, emotive propaganda mixing a set of right-wing views with light-hearted distraction from serious issues. The Observer offers an apparently wide-ranging debate which is actually constrained within boundaries of thought that do not seriously challenge established interests, with many key facts, ideas and voices excluded. Norman Solomon, Executive Director of the US Institute for Public Accuracy, describes how “scattered islands of independent-minded reporting are lost in oceans of the stenographic reliance on official sources”. (Solomon,  Target Iraq: What The News Media Didn’t Tell You, Context Books, 2003, p.26)

The role of the ‘liberal press’ is to impose a power-friendly view of the world on Carey’s “better educated people” in a way that convinces them that real debate has taken place, when often it has not. A good example of this propaganda role was provided recently in the title of an Independent editorial, which read:

“The Americans are trying to build a prosperous, democratic Iraq, but they cannot do it on their own.” (Leader, the Independent, August 9, 2003)

This is one of the country’s two leading liberal papers making the quite astonishing claim that the United States is genuinely trying to create democracy in Iraq. In other words we are to believe that the US will have spent an estimated $58 billion for the nine months from January through September (with some estimates projecting final invasion/occupation costs of $600 billion), with the loss of 258 US dead so far, to create conditions in which the Iraqi people would be free to reject all further US political, economic or military involvement in the country. That, after all, is what democracy must be able to mean.

A more fantastic view of great power politics can hardly be imagined. The Independent, in fact, is stating as bald fact a purity of US motivation that is without precedent in all history and represents a level of generosity, altruism and self-sacrifice that is almost beyond belief. We can only conclude that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle et al are in fact bodhisattvas bent on achieving the welfare of the world regardless of the costs to themselves or their country. Curiously, from this point of view, the US appears to be far more focused on protecting Iraqi freedom than it is on protecting Iraqi lives. Last week, International Relief Teams reported:

“The war in Iraq may be over, but the children and families who survived find themselves in greater humanitarian need than before… In the aftermath of this latest conflict the health care system is in ruins and many of the health facilities, especially in Baghdad, are lacking even the most basic of medicines and supplies to treat their patients. This lack of basic medical care hits hardest at children, expectant mothers and the elderly.” (International Relief Teams, ‘IRT sends critically needed medicines and medical supplies to Iraq’, August 4, 2003)

It seems amazing that anyone could so casually assert that the US is motivated by high moral purpose – the creation of Iraqi democracy – when it was largely responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Iraqi people under sanctions, and when it has shown such brutal disregard for post-war planning, including the failure to supply hospitals with “even the most basic of medicines and supplies to treat their patients”.

You suggest that we are arguing that “‘true’ criticism never gets a look in and ‘real’ alternative viewpoints are never heard”. This is a common objection but it’s not what we’re saying. We are arguing that genuine criticism +is+ heard but that it acts as a fig leaf obscuring the naked power-friendliness of much journalistic reporting. Yes, there is Robert Fisk and John Pilger. But in a country our size there should be dozens of Fisks and Pilgers. Herman and Chomsky answer your point well:

“It is well recognized… that the various parts of media organizations have some limited autonomy, that individual and professional values influence media work, that policy is imperfectly enforced, and that media policy itself may allow some measure of dissent and reporting that calls into question the accepted viewpoint. These considerations all work to assure some dissent and coverage of inconvenient facts. The beauty of the system, however, is that such dissent and inconvenient information are kept within bounds and at the margins, so that while their presence shows that the system is not monolithic, they are not large enough to interfere unduly with the domination of the official agenda.” (New introduction to Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent. Email from Edward Herman to David Edwards, August 10, 2002)

You write that “There is no such thing as a mainstream news organisation – and probably not any of your beloved ‘alternative news sites’ – that is entirely ‘independent’. We agree, no one is independent of everyone – we all have friends and loved ones that we would be reluctant to subject to public criticism, for example. But there is a big difference between institutionalised corporate dependence on powerful interests for survival, and alternative websites’ emotional dependence on the support and admiration of, say, fellow writers.

Media Lens, for example, is non-profit and in fact largely non-revenue generating, and so has no reason to fear upsetting advertisers and government sources. We have no wealthy owners or parent companies recruiting and paying us and evaluating our performance. Unlike media businesses, profits are not our bottom line and so are not a consideration in influencing who we criticise and what we write. Our goal is to try to understand and communicate the true causes of, and solutions to, human suffering. We therefore have every incentive to try to accurately report these true cause and solutions to people with the power to do something about them – the public. A corporate media business +has+ to accommodate itself to the realities and pressures of a state-corporate system which subordinates people and planet to profit – we do not.

You write that “We could both cite endless examples of stories that have been spun, hyped, ignored, got wrong, spiked or even fabricated to suit the editorial whims of a particular organisation.” That’s right. We could also cite endless examples showing how this spiking, hyping and fabrication consistently favour the propaganda needs of established power. The problem is that the bias is overwhelmingly in the same direction.

Prior to the war, for example, the key UK government claim was that the Iraqi regime had always foiled attempts to achieve peaceful disarmament so that military intervention was a tragic necessity. What was so astonishing was that in all the thousands of articles and news reports on Iraq, there were almost literally no attempts to verify the truth of this claim. How successful had the earlier inspections regimes actually been? What level of success was achieved? To what extent did the Iraqis cooperate? Why did inspections break down after so many years? Was peaceful disarmament feasible? These questions were almost never asked.

In relation to this, it is also amazing to reflect on a central feature of the government’s claim: that a wily political survivor like Saddam Hussein was deliberately rejecting a peaceful solution that would have left him in power, and was instead choosing to go up against history’s premier military superpower in a war that would guarantee his overthrow, and almost certainly his death, rather than abandon a few primitive battlefield biological and chemical weapons that clearly had the capacity to deter no one, and were of, at best, extremely limited military use. It just didn’t make sense and yet the government claim that this was what Saddam was intent on doing was allowed to pass almost completely unchallenged.

You write, “if you want to read a story criticising Tony O’Reilly, you should read the Guardian or a paper other than The Independent”.

You seem to be accepting that the media are indeed reluctant to report on issues that are damaging to them. The point is that the media share a reluctance to report the truth on a wide range of important issues that are damaging to all corporate media, indeed to all corporations. Where would we go for an analysis of the impact of advertisers, parent companies, wealthy owners and bottom line goals on media performance? It has never appeared in the mainstream. Where would we go for an analysis that exposes US/UK establishment (including UK media) involvement in vast crimes against humanity in the Third World? Where would we go for an analysis of US-UK party politics, which explains how all options are approved by, and in the pockets of, big business, so that democracy is in fact a sham? The media are deeply tied into the corporate capitalist system – they have no interest in undermining the power structures of which they are a part.

As you point out, there are excellent articles published in the mainstream, we have never argued anything else. In particular, the propaganda model predicts that there will be substantial coverage of important issues where elite interests are divided. The classic example is Watergate, where powerful elite groups showed they were very willing and very able to defend themselves against Nixon’s machinations. There were also enormous divisions among elites over war on Iraq in politics, the intelligence services and academia. High-level resignations, and massive dissent within the intelligence services, forced these issues onto the agenda where government responses then guaranteed they would stay. What was nevertheless shocking was the absence of debate exposing government lies +before+ the war.

There were far fewer establishment divisions over the 1999 Nato assault on Serbia. Predictably, although the attack was based on similarly fraudulent pretexts – claims of a Serbian “genocide” in Kosovo – the media did almost nothing to expose the fraud. Even now, with the government’s lies on Iraq obvious for all to see, we have seen literally no attempts to re-evaluate Blair’s claims justifying the Kosovo intervention.

You mention operational pressures such as deadlines and length of articles, but these don’t account for the consistent distortion of the media favouring powerful interests. Journalists face the same time and space pressures whether reporting, for example, on Palestinian or Israeli atrocities. And yet, as the Glasgow Media Group has shown, reporting consistently presents the Israelis as ‘retaliating’ in response to Palestinian attacks.

Your article on the Guantanamo Bay prisoners is interesting. You write: “anyone who has been following the story of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners knows that the British government couldn’t care less about the nine Brits down in Cuba”. You add that this was the “actual situation” that you were free to write. And yet in your published article you wrote merely:

“Quite what concession the British officials hope to obtain is unclear, and despite the desire of Downing Street to be seen as having secured an important victory, all they have obtained is an agreement to talk. Repatriation of the two men to face British justice is unlikely because of the poor chances of a successful prosecution.” (Andrew Buncombe and Robert Verkaik, ‘US halts terror hearings of Britons in Guantanamo tribunal’, the Independent, July 19, 2003)

This was as close as you came to asking “whether this was any more than PR stunt by Blair”. It is interesting that you describe your published version as “sceptical in tone” – i.e. you did not feel constrained by conventions of neutrality (your article is a good example of how sources used and facts highlighted in ‘news reporting’ communicate personal views in much the same way as overt ‘editorialising’) – so why did you not actually write that the government doesn’t give a damn and is engaged in cynical PR, if this is what you believe, given that you were free to write what you wanted?

Isn’t this, in fact, a good example of how internalised rules and external pressures influenced you, no doubt unconsciously, to tone down your report until you were barely hinting in the direction of what you actually believe? Why is it acceptable to be “sceptical in tone” in ‘neutral’ news reporting but not damningly critical? Is it more ‘neutral’ to hint that the government is engaged in a cynical PR exercise than to say so openly?

Your final point about our suggesting that people stop trying to improve the media is remarkable. We believe the media +can+, and in fact must, be dramatically changed and improved – that is why we are doing what we are doing. The only way it will be changed, however, is by large numbers of people recognising the structural constraints on honest journalism and working to remove them. Our point is that as long as media structures and objectives remain fundamentally rooted in profits and power, the media’s consistent pattern of bias will continue more or less unchanged. For journalists serious about participating in the struggle for freedom and justice, telling the truth about how the media is structurally prevented from reporting honestly – even anonymously, even through the alternative media – is the obvious place to start.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell
Media Lens


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent of The Independent

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