In Part 1 we described how the notion of “professional” journalism was developed precisely to obscure the significance of the fact that corporate power had gained a monopoly over the mass media.
“Professional” journalism accepts that powerful interests – the political and economic allies of the corporate media – should be allowed to set the news agenda. Reporters are to channel the words of officialdom without expressing their own personal opinions. To express criticism of the powerful in news reports is deemed “unprofessional” – that is, “crusading”, “committed”, “polemical” and “radioactive”.
Curiously, the myth of professional “objectivity” exists alongside the clear fact that expressing +support+ for the claims and actions of the powerful is not considered unprofessional. After publishing Part 1 of this alert, we sent the following email to Paul Harris of the Observer:
Dear Paul Harris
In today’s Observer, you write:
“An embattled President George W. Bush sought yesterday to shift the focus away from a host of domestic political crises by calling for the American people to back the struggle for democracy in Iraq.” (‘Bush turns to Iraq to
deflect critics,’ Observer, October 30, 2005)
Surely this should read:
“An embattled President George W. Bush sought yesterday to shift the focus away from a host of domestic political crises by calling for the American people to back ‘the struggle for democracy in Iraq’.”
“An embattled President George W. Bush sought yesterday to shift the focus away from a host of domestic political crises by calling for the American people to back what he claims is a struggle for democracy in Iraq.”
Alternatively, would you be willing to report bin Laden’s celebration of the “righteousness” and “justice” of the September 11, 2001 attacks without the use of inverted commas?
David Edwards (October 30, 2005)
We have received no reply.
Harris’s words need to be considered in context. When the government claimed that sovereignty was being handed back to Iraqis in June 2004, the media (including the Observer) did not merely represent this as a claim, they affirmed it as Truth. When the government claimed the January 2005 elections in Iraq were democratic, the media also reported this as Truth.
When the government claimed that UN weapons inspectors had been “thrown out” of Iraq in December 1998, the media reported this as an accurate version of events despite having themselves reported at the time that inspectors had been withdrawn.
The media hailed the rapid fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003 as a major triumph for Bush and Blair, rather than as the culmination of the ultimate war crime – starting a war of aggression.
The conclusion is clear – journalists who assume official interests have the right to set the news agenda, also tend to accept that those interests have a right to be +believed+.
Australian media analyst and academic Sharon Beder summarises:
“A story that supports the status quo is generally considered to be neutral and is not questioned in terms of its objectivity, while one that challenges the status quo tends to be perceived as having a ‘point of view’ and therefore biased. Statements and assumptions that support the existing power structure are regarded as ‘facts’ whilst those that are critical of it tend to be rejected as ‘opinions’.” (Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.205)
“Professional” news reporting, in other words, is a fraud. It is a system of institutionalised bias favouring the powerful interests of which the media are a part and on which they depend.
It is certainly remarkable that this fundamental, consistent bias appears to be all but invisible to so many journalists. Equally remarkable is their willingness to seriously claim that news reporting without the overt expression of personal opinion can be “objective”. The historian Howard Zinn indicates the irrationality of the argument:
“There was never, for me as teacher and writer, an obsession with ‘objectivity,’ which I considered neither possible nor desirable. I understood early that what is presented as ‘history’ or as ‘news’ is inevitably a selection out of an infinite amount of information, and that what is selected depends on what the selector thinks is important.”
Zinn adds: “Behind any presented fact, I had come to believe, is a judgement – the judgement that this fact is important to put forward (and, by implication, other facts may be ignored). And any such judgement reflects the beliefs, the values of the historian, however he or she pretends to ‘objectivity’.” (The Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.16)
Comment Sections – Hooked Up To Power
But wait a minute – what about the comment sections of newspapers? Surely, here, ample space is made available for free-ranging thought on any number of controversial issues – such as responses to the political and media demolition of the Lancet report.
First, consider the term used to describe the function: these are ‘comment’ sections. But what are they commenting on? They are of course intended as commentary on the news agenda – the same agenda set by “important, influential” people, as accepted by the “professional” press.
A key demand made of comment authors, then, is that their pieces link, or “hook”, to issues featured in the news. When our readers asked senior Independent leader writer Mary Dejevsky if the paper would consider running a comment piece on our Lancet debates, she responded:
“The people you have to convince are the specialist reporters in this case – not the comment writers, as it is they who would put the subject back on the agenda.” (Forwarded to Media Lens, September 6, 2005)
In May 2000, one of us (David Edwards) approached leading liberal newspapers – the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Independent on Sunday – with an article based on an interview with former UN assistant secretary-general, Denis Halliday, on the genocidal effects of sanctions on Iraq. Halliday’s comments were devastating. He told us, for example:
“I’ve been using the word ‘genocide’, because this is a deliberate policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I’m afraid I have no other view at this late stage.”
Nothing as damning or detailed from Halliday had ever appeared in the press. And yet comment section editors responded by asking: “What’s the hook?” Without it, we were told, the piece could not be used. One section editor told us: “What you need is for there to be a major shake up in government policy to create a hook for the piece.”
Once again, because it is accepted that powerful interests should set the agenda, our comment piece was considered worthless unless it addressed that agenda. The fact that a senior UN official was claiming that hundreds of thousands of innocents were then dying as a result of our government’s policy did not constitute “a hook” because it did not link to the latest news agenda dominated by officialdom.
The same is true of the Lancet report – Media Lens has been publishing the first serious, detailed debates between the report’s lead author and its woefully ill-informed and cynical critics in mainstream politics and press. But this is not ‘news’ because the initiative has come from mere human beings who care about the mass killing of civilians. We are not government officials, army chiefs of staff, chief executives of powerful corporations – so not only are the debates not news, there is no “hook” by which they might even qualify for a comment piece. This often means there is no natural place in any section of any newspaper for such a piece. When we approached comment section editors in the Guardian and Independent – Seumas Milne and Adrian Hamilton – we did not even receive a reply.
This is remarkable, is it not? It means that an unprecedented, authoritative debate that would be of interest to large numbers of people, on a subject of supreme importance – our government’s responsibility for the mass killing of innocent civilians – is effectively barred from newspapers bulging with adverts, tittle-tattle and gossip. This is entirely sane by the logic of the professional media, but it is completely insane by the standards of human morality and compassion for suffering.
Of course occasional honest comment pieces and editorials +do+ appear – we, ourselves, published an article in the Guardian last December that was highly critical of the paper. But this was a Herculean task that began in August 2004 and took four months of relentless prompting – including endless unreturned calls, answer phone messages and emails – of the elusive comment editor, Seumas Milne.
In reality, honest comment pieces constitute a tiny proportion of the total content of even ‘quality’ newspapers. ‘Balance’ in ‘liberal’ press commentary generally means occasional, honest pieces surrounded by the voluminous product of elite, pro-establishment regulars: Jonathan Freedland, Timothy Garton-Ash, Michael Ignatieff, Thomas Friedman, Philip Hensher, Howard Jacobson, Andreas Whittam-Smith, et al. But even this fraudulent version of ’balance’ is not replicated in the right-wing press.
Moreover, honest commentary constitutes a tiny drop in the ocean of overall mass media performance. Recall, after all, that serious political discussion is completely unknown in most magazines and tabloids. As a result, even the most credible and important evidence – like the Lancet report – can easily be smeared, dismissed and buried.
In the age of the corporate media monopoly, journalists have systematically subordinated people and planet to profit. But in the age of the internet, there is no reason why the public should continue to swallow this corporate junk news. It is up to us to build non-corporate media alternatives rooted in compassion for suffering rather than greed for profits.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Guardian comment editor Seumas Milne
Email: [email protected]
Write to Independent comment editor Adrian Hamilton
Email: [email protected]
Write to Paul Harris at the Observer
Email: [email protected]