Towards A Compassionate Mass Media

In considering the development of honest media, we begin from the premise that truth telling should be motivated by compassion for suffering rather than greed for wealth, status and privilege.

We assume that human motivation has a dramatic impact on the capacity for honesty and rationality. It is clear that the presence of a self-serving, greedy motivation tends to distort reason, filtering facts and ideas that obstruct selfish goals. On the other hand, an authentic desire to remove the suffering of others provides a powerful incentive for rationally identifying the real causes of problems and real solutions in response to them.

Motivation is important because human beings are supremely prone to self-deception. In his book on the subject, Vital Lies – Simple Truths, psychologist Daniel Goleman writes:

“The defences – our bastions against painful information – operate in a shadow world of consciousness, beyond the fringes of awareness. Most often we are oblivious to their operation and remain the unknowing recipient of the version of reality they admit into our ken. The craft of teasing out and capturing defences in vivo is a tricky endeavour.” (Goleman, Vital Lies – Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury 1997, p.123)

The problem is illustrated brilliantly in the poet Aryasura’s story, The Ruru Deer. Here, Aryasura depicts the mental turmoil of an individual deciding whether he should repay the kindness of a benefactor who saved his life, or betray him for money:

“What should I do – follow Virtue or Fortune? Should I uphold the promise to my benefactor rather than the duty to maintain my family? Which is more important, the worldly existence or the heavenly one? Which code should I follow, that of the pious or that of the worldly? Should I taste glory or the modest joy of the anchorite?… Should I strive for riches or the good cherished by the virtuous?

“At last his mind, overcome by greed, came to this conclusion: ‘Once I have obtained great wealth, I shall be able to honour my kin and my friends, guests, and beggars; I will gain not only the pleasures of this world, but also happiness in the other.” (Aryasura, The Marvelous Companion, Dharma Publishing, 1983, p.253)

These altruistic thoughts might strike us as admirable. But as Aryasura makes clear, they are a lie, a classic self-deception – in fact the man has been “overcome by greed” and his ‘compassionate’ thoughts are merely a salve to his conscience. In these few lines, Aryasura – writing many hundreds of years ago – exposes what is completely hidden to many journalists making big money ‘trying to change the system from within’- as they try to convince themselves, and us.

It is this capacity for self-deception – for lying without consciously realising we are lying – that ultimately lies at the heart of the propaganda system afflicting modern democracies.

When we refer to a compassionate motivation, we do not mean someone who merely holds to intellectual concepts of ‘equality’, ‘justice’, and ‘human rights’; nor do we mean someone primarily motivated by anger at existing inequalities and oppression. We do not even mean someone who has great sympathy for the suffering of others. Instead, we are referring to individuals who act out of the conviction that 1) the suffering and happiness of others are of equal importance to their own, 2) that the suffering and happiness of innumerable others are of greater importance than their own, and 3) that compassionate concern for others is of immense benefit both to the recipient and generator of compassion. For us, an ideal journalist is someone who understands along with the Buddhist monk Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche:

“To wish happiness for others, even those who want to do us harm, is the source of consummate happiness.” (Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, Shambhala, 1992, p.39)

This, in our view, should be an ethical point of departure for journalists.

People who have some sense that concern for the well being of others is also the best strategy for achieving their own well being are more likely to be able to resist the seductions of wealth, power and status that corrupt and distort so much journalistic output.

Alas, both dissident and mainstream journalism stand mouth agape before such bizarre mentions of kindness, compassion, love and concern for others. Is this really an accidental or natural feature of journalism, or is it a function of power? The American comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell noted of the 20th century:

“The main awakening of the human spirit is in compassion and the main function of propaganda is to suppress compassion, knock it out. Well, it’s in public journalism all the time now, too.” (Quoted, Phil Cousineau, ed. The Hero’s Journey, Harper & Row, 1990, p.220)

Is it any surprise, then, that propaganda has ‘knocked out’ compassion in both the mainstream and dissident media? Both are heavily male-dominated, indeed macho – how many high-profile female British media critics can we name?

Exploitative power has a vested interested in smearing concern for others as ‘naïve’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘weak’ because it benefits from the promotion of greed, hatred and ignorance. A system that needs us to seek isolated satisfaction in selfish desires, to consent to the destruction of official enemies on command, to disregard the impact of our corporate activities on the environment and the Third World, can clearly have no truck with compassion.

Cooperative efforts to relieve suffering – no matter how successful or inspiring they might have been in the past – must be presented as futile gestures indulged by dysfunctional misfits. The fact that a tiny number of American students forced the fate of East Timor onto the international agenda is not allowed to exist. Though, last year, millions of people around the world marched against a war that had not yet even started, the public must forever be declared ‘selfish’, ‘indifferent’ and hopelessly ‘apathetic’.

In response to one online challenge, Observer foreign editor Peter Beaumont told one poster: “piss off” and “get a life”. (Observer online debate, June 12, 2003)

David Mannion, former editor of ITN News, once sent this email swaggering through our inbox: “If you misrepresent us I’ll have you on toast.” (Email to Media Lens, May 7, 2003)

Journalist John Sweeney told us:

“On Von Sponeck, has he never heard of garbage in, garbage out? I don’t agree with torturing children. Get stuffed.” (Sweeney, Email to Media Lens, June 24, 2002)

Psychologist Peter Collett notes that “displays of anger are frequently interpreted as a sign of strength. This explains why people in positions of power affect an air of perpetual grumpiness – it makes them look dominant!” (Collett, The Book Of Tells, Doubleday, 2003, p.37)

This is so commonly assumed to be what journalism is all about: tough, macho, cynical, aggressive (it is de rigueur to appear stern and unsmiling in photographs, and even to wear severe black or steel-rimmed glasses – there is a recognisable ‘media style’) – that many dissidents also have come to believe it. Indeed, mainstream and dissident journalism are often joined at the hip when it comes to aggression – anger and vitriol are often well to the fore, while talk of love and kindness are about as welcome as a woman in a war movie. It is hardly a surprise that many women feel alienated by the prospect of mainstream rams butting with their dissident counterparts. The predominance of aggression over compassion in the mainstream is a function of power and corruption, not truth. Dissidents should reject this naïve ‘realism’ out of hand.

One notable early feature of the Media Lens message board was the surfeit of angry male posters and the absence of female voices. The imbalance was so noticeable that we raised it for discussion on the board. Fortunately, we now have several excellent women posters – who, for whatever reason, rarely spit abuse in the reflexive way of some male counterparts – but they are still vastly outnumbered by men. We can only assume that fashionable aggression and machismo deter more women from having their say on political issues. It hardly needs stating that this silencing of one-half of the population is a disaster for society.

Honest, Compassionate, Non-Corporate

The issue for us, then, is: what kind of media system would be most likely to promote compassionate/rational journalism while allowing such reporters to reach a mass audience?

Clearly, a media corporation legally obliged to maximise returns for shareholders – a corporation run by owners and managers precisely employed to achieve that end – is the last place we would expect a compassionate motivation to thrive. If there is a clash between the need to address important problems of human and animal suffering, and the risk of damaging the interests of owners, parent companies, shareholders, advertisers and government news sources, then managers are all but obliged to subordinate compassionate impulses to profit.

Green activists, in particular, are fond of reminding us of the humanity of journalists, pointing out that they, too, have children, mothers, and so on. They tell us that individual journalists ‘really do care’. This might almost be described, with only some irony, as an Anthropomorphic Analysis of media performance. Noam Chomsky explains the reality:

“The chairman of the board may sincerely believe that his every waking moment is dedicated to serving human needs. Were he to act on these delusions instead of pursuing profit and market share, he would no longer be chairman of the board.” (Chomsky, Necessary Illusions, Pluto Press, 1991, p.19)

Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney, notes that corporate law ensures that the people who run corporations “have a legal duty to shareholders, and that duty is to make money”. Failing this duty, Hinkley writes, can leave directors and  officers open to being sued by shareholders:

“Corporate law thus casts ethical and social concerns as irrelevant, or as stumbling blocks to the corporation’s fundamental mandate. That’s the effect the law has inside the corporation.” (Hinkley, ‘How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility’, Business Ethics, January/February 2002)

These pressures flow down and throughout all media corporations. An honest, compassionate press, then, would have to be a not-for-profit, non-corporate press.

Ideally, the organisation as a whole would be independent of advertisers – it is clearly absurd for a newspaper like the Guardian to be dependent for 75% of its revenue on corporate advertising promoting greed. What could more clearly compromise the honesty of media reporting?

Media should be primarily dependent on individual subscribers providing for minimum overheads, perhaps funding from large corporate organisations should be disallowed. This is obviously a problem for large print media as printing and distribution costs are high, necessitating reliance on wealthy owners, parent companies, again firmly tying the media into the corporate system. Thus, mere restrictions on advertising would have a minimal effect in liberating media from the other pressures mentioned in Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model: ownership, flak, dependence on state-corporate news sources and so on.

Would it be possible for a corporate media entity to reform itself to a significant extent? Could it refuse to take, for example, fossil fuel advertising? This goes against the whole ‘reason for being’ of a corporation – the maximisation of profits. A step of this kind would alienate owners, parent companies, advertisers generally. It would also generate corporate flak both from corporations, and from the left and right wings of the dominant Business Party: Labour/Tories, Democrats/Republicans. The paper and its editors would doubtless be labelled ‘eco-fundamentalists’, ‘left fanatics’, ‘Marxist-Leninists’, while advertising would haemorrhage to rivals, so raising the dissident paper’s cover price while allowing rivals to lower cover prices, entice customers with special offers, and so on.

Other businesses would likely attack the rogue paper by withdrawing advertising, and so on. The paper would be put at a disadvantage and perhaps out of business. There are plenty of precedents to this effect.

It is conceivable that limits could be placed on advertising for serious news media, or that media could be state-funded in the way of charities. We asked Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of the classic work, Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media, for his views:

“BBC and other public service corporations in the media field obviously constitute a different model, but not a ‘business’ model [BM]. They are all in decline and moving toward the BM, but the result is a more or less corrupt media, with great variations (and the Guardian is surely in the high rungs in BM quality). But if the BM is essentially problematic, we have to keep criticizing it and showing its deep flaws, and pressing it to do better. But obviously we have to try hard to bring forth a non-business model of quality. That is tough given the competitive power of the BM media.

“We must support all the new non-BM media in print, broadcast, and Internet as best we can in the hopes that they will find a route to mass audiences. With a real political democracy we could hope for a resuscitation of public broadcasting, and even a mode of government support of independent media with the government’s hands strictly off. Getting that real democracy in place is pretty tough, especially with the BM dominating the flow of information to the public.” (Email to Media Lens, February 16, 2004)

Such changes are far off – depending, as they do, on the creation of powerful popular political movements and parties. Our energies are at present best spent, we believe, in joining, forming, funding and supporting real democratic media initiatives +now+ through internet websites and blogs.

The Media Is Not Just Another Issue

It is important to bear in mind that reforming the media is not comparable to reforming worker’s rights in a standard corporate business. The stakes are much higher in the media. The façade of modern democracy depends on the idea that we +already+ live in a free and open society – the media are a central plank of this “necessary illusion”. The maintenance of this deception is vital if elites are to continue manipulating the public to fight wars and to wreck the environment for profit. Turning the illusion of media freedom into a reality carries unimaginable costs for elite interests.

The issue is indeed so threatening that it is almost never discussed even by society’s most liberal media. The Guardian, for example, has mentioned Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model – which brilliantly exposes why and how the corporate media are not open and independent – on one occasion since 1988. How much less likely is the media to seriously address actual proposals for reform based on a propaganda model analysis?

Therefore, in our view, significant reform of the corporate media would only be possible in the event of massive, progressive change in the political and general culture of this country, and perhaps globally, perhaps evolving out of internet-based dissent. Enormous and sophisticated democratic activism is required to generate political movements capable of legislating to institute and protect non-corporate mass media from market pressures and flak. The Catch-22 problem has always been that the mass media have the power to promote or suppress such widespread cultural changes. In other words, we cannot change the mass media until we change the culture, which cannot change until we change the mass media. The point being that the internet +does+ constitute a revolutionary change in the mass media – the power of non-corporate journalism has increased by orders of magnitude in the last ten or fifteen years.

It is easy to forget just how enormous the change has been. Ten years ago, for example, our main access to dissident ideas was via radical books attained from the AK Press catalogue ordered from Edinburgh (often taking weeks or months), from Books For A Change on Charing Cross Road, from Z Magazine sent every month or two from the United States, from the monthly Ecologist, from John Pilger’s articles in the New Statesman, and from one or two other tiny magazines. We read Edward Herman or Noam Chomsky’s take on current events many weeks after they had happened, or years later in books.

Now, our inboxes are flooded on a daily basis with instant responses by dozens of brilliant mainstream and dissident journalists all over the world. Informed and articulate posters provide instant commentary on our message boards generating vibrant debates and floods of emails to the likes of David Aaronovitch, Melanie Phillips and Nick Cohen. This, frankly, is the worst nightmare of state-corporate propagandists seeking to control the public mind.

Given this astonishing change, it is remarkable that more serious effort and funding have not gone into building alternative media to take on the mainstream – the opportunity is quite clearly there and has not yet been taken. A genuinely compassionate mass media promoting human and animal welfare over profits, truth over “necessary illusions”, is unquestionably within our grasps. But the emphasis is on +our+ grasp – it is up to us and no one else. +We+ can make a compassionate media a reality. To make it happen we need to do three things.

The first is to +do+ nothing. We need to reflect deeply on the benefits of working to remove others’ suffering – not just for them but for ourselves, also – and on the utter catastrophe of unrestrained selfishness. Second, we need to decide that a compassionate media is worth working for, sacrificing effort, money and time for. We need to focus clearly on the untold benefits of increased mass media challenges to greed, anger, hatred, violence and ignorance. We need to focus on the increased honesty and rationality of journalism motivated by concern for others rather than by concern for wealth and status.

Finally, having reflected on the clear benefits of compassion, and of a compassionate media, we must act. To repeat: finally, we +must+ act.