Who’s Watching the Media?
By: Antony Loewenstein
Media writer for the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz, recently argued that the Washington press corps was suffering its greatest crisis in living memory. Aside from uncritically accepting Bush Administration spin on Iraq’s supposed WMD, Kurtz argued that far too many reporters were getting ‘cosy’ with Administration sources and ‘retailing their version of history,’ ‘pulling their punches with the White House because of concerns about losing access’ and ‘meeting secretly with the President while taking a vow of silence about the off-the-record chats.’
Kurtz warned that establishment media — of which he is a central figure — was in danger of forgetting its primary mission, namely, holding governments to account.
But what if the corporate media is structurally incapable of achieving this goal? Media Lens is a UK-based group aimed at challenging ‘the distorted vision of the corporate media.’ Their new book, Guardians of Power (Pluto Press, 2006) is a riveting analysis of the failures of contemporary journalism.
Authors David Edwards and David Cromwell ignore the conservative press, including the tabloids and pro-war Murdoch titles. Instead, they focus on the supposedly ‘liberal’ media, such as the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent (UK), and discuss the reporting of Iraq, East Timor, Kosovo, Afghanistan, climate change, Haiti and Western crimes in Latin America. The authors interviewed many of Britain’s supposedly leading journalists to discuss omissions, objections and corrections, and discovered a mostly dismissive group, many of whom didn’t believe they should be accountable to the public.
In his introduction to the book, John Pilger writes:
They have … concentrated on that sector of the media which prides itself on its ‘objectivity,’ ‘impartiality’ and ‘balance’ (such as the BBC) and its liberalism and fairness (such as The Guardian). Not since Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s Manufacturing Consent have we had such an incisive and erudite guide through the media’s thicket of agendas and vested interests.
Guardians of Power acknowledges that the presence of advertising in the corporate media compromises their ability to accurately and fairly report the news of business and government. Furthermore, the authors explain how reporting on environmentalism is compromised because editors are afraid of offending certain advertisers. How, for example, can the Sydney Morning Herald talk passionately about the dangers of climate change and environmental degradation, while accepting advertising from oil and pharmaceutical companies — and not feel at least partly compromised? And how can they legitimately complain about the rapid rate of deforestation around the world yet still publish a massive collection of classifieds every Saturday on dead trees?
Climate change hypocrisy is just one of the subjects tackled by Edwards and Cromwell. Robert McChesney, a professor of communications at the University of Illinois who is quoted in the book, reminds us that corporate media rely heavily on ‘official’ sources, and that
what those people say is news. Their perspectives are automatically legitimate. If you talk to prisoners, strikers, the homeless, or protestors, you have to paint their perspectives as unreliable, or else you’ve become an advocate and are no longer a ‘neutral’ professional journalist.
Every mainstream Australian media outlet is determined to ingratiate itself with those in power. The Australian, for example, proudly states that it maintains an intimate relationship with the Howard Government.
At the March launch of the Murdoch-produced The Howard Factor (Melbourne University Publishing, 2006), on 10 years of the Howard Government, Howard praised the newspaper as having made a ‘remarkable contribution’ to national debate. The paper reprinted the Prime Minister’s comments the next day. Some newspapers would be embarrassed to receive such endorsement from any government, no matter what its political stripe. It is a sign of the incestuousness between officialdom and journalists that such a relationship is regarded as worthy.
Edwards and Cromwell have spent many years examining the spurious claims given by governments, and accepted by the media, as pretexts for invading and occupying Iraq. They focus on the Oil-for-Food program implemented by the West and its disastrous effects on the Iraqi people. UN Assistant Secretary-General Denis Halliday, and his successor Hans von Sponeck, both resigned in disgust at the program well before the 2003 war, and claimed the West was committing genocide in Iraq through its use of sanctions. Virtually none of this was ever reported in our media, and an alternative narrative emerged: Saddam was the ‘officially approved’ enemy, ‘our own government’ was benign and ‘we’ had no responsibility for the death of up to one million Iraqis during 12 years of sanctions.
Guardians of Power explains how history dictated by corporate elites is dangerous — because it reveals the true nature of the Establishment. It must therefore be hidden, changed or refined by the media elite.
What, then, of journalistic accountability and responsibility? Columnist for The Observer, Nick Cohen, a supposed Leftist who opposed the Iraq war, wrote in March 2002:
I look forward to seeing how Noam Chomsky and John Pilger manage to oppose a war which would end the sanctions they claim to have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of children who otherwise would have had happy, healthy lives in a prison State (don’t fret, they’ll get there).
Four years on, Cohen’s position – that Western intervention in Iraq was humanitarian – looks embarrassing. According to the lead author of the Lancet study, as many as 200,000 Iraqis may have now been killed since ‘liberation.’
The vast majority of corporate journalists see themselves as an extension of the establishment, not a challenger of it. Besides, how many journalists would dare risk their job in the cause of reporting a story?
Guardians of Power reminds us that the corporate media’s role is one of servitude to power. Those searching for the truth should look elsewhere.
About the author
Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist and author. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Sydney’s Sun-Herald, The Bulletin, Znet, Counterpunch and others. Melbourne University Publishing will release his book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question, in August. Random House will publish his next book, on the Australian media, in 2007.
His blog can be found here.