Review In The Hoot

Though it bares media failure and under-performance, it has hardly been reviewed in mainstream media after it was published in January.


Guardians of Power: The myth of the Liberal Media by David Edwards and David Cromwell, published by Pluto Press, London and Ann Arbor. 2006. Paperback $15.

Dasu Krishnamoorty

Guardians of Power is a wake-up call to audiences who unquestioningly absorb the contents of corporate media, to be alert to the hidden agenda that informs their dissemination and to call the media to account for their selective salience and silence. The book by David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of Media Lens, focuses on media’s poor record of accountability for obfuscating corporate crime and collaborating with anti-poor and anti-ecology forces. It is about how the liberal media made out a case for the invasion of Iraq, how they passed over avoidable mass hunger and malnutrition deaths in Afghanistan, and how they under-reported the rape of democracy in Haiti. The authors tell the story of media betrayal without importing emotion or rhetoric into their narratives.

This work brings to mind Manufacturing Consent, the joint work of Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. Recently, Bob Kohn and Bernard Goldberg also brought out similar titles critical of liberal media in the US. The book unmasks the real driving force behind the liberal media that in the end determines their news and editorial focus and how as a result, they fail their constituency on crucial issues and deny space to alternative voices. Cromwell is a Scottish oceanographer, writer, activist, ZNet commentator and Edwards is a ZNet commentator. The book is mostly based on media alerts that appeared on Media Lens website.

The giant corporations have a profit-maximizing agenda and the media they own manipulate information flows to help the corporations to blackmail the state on the one hand and narcotize the public on the other. The corporations solely exist for making money and this central aim defines their global operations and ownership of media helps them achieve these ends. Employing the myth of professionalism, reporters and editors help their corporate bosses in their anti-people pursuits. Guardians of Power published by Media Lens throws up glimpses of the nexus between corporate goals and media performance. The authors refer to Jeff Schmidt, American physicist, to show how journalists further the agenda of the powerful with almost no awareness of the role they are playing.

The title is an allusion to the British liberal newspaper Guardian and other fellow travelers. Just as the world believed that Saddam had stored WMDs, it also believed that Saddam threw out UN inspectors. The authors argue empirically that media reporting or failure to report sustained the illusion of Iraq’s expulsion of UN weapons inspectors as proof of storing WMDs. This excuse was necessary for George Bush and Tony Blair to go to war. The liberal media reports faithfully manufactured the rationale necessary for such invasion. But the fact is: the inspectors were withdrawn on the request of the Clinton administration to save them from Operation Desert Fox air strikes.

There is a reference to a FAIR report about the way a Washington Post editorial (4 Aug. 04), accusing Iraq of expelling the UN inspectors, clashed with its own story (18 Dec. 98) that claimed that UNSCOM head Richard Butler had ordered his inspectors to evacuate Baghdad in anticipation of a military strike. Guardian too carried reports clashing with each other. In the end, they successfully sold the story of Saddam’s ‘villainy’ to their readers.

Since the inception of Media Lens in 2001, the two editors have been monitoring reporting in British liberal media and pinning down both reporters and editors on contradictions in their stories and their tendency to skip facts that would annoy their corporate bosses. Through a system of media alerts, the authors ask their readers to exercise their right to know by e-mailing journalists, seeking illumination on omissions and contradictions in their reports. It is one such engagement that grated the nerves of Guardian public editor Ian Mayes who described Media Lens as a lobby before abruptly closing the correspondence with Noam Chomsky on contextual discrepancies that crept into his interview Guardian had published.

Alternative voices are suppressed in India too with greater freedom in the absence of effective media watch and research. The ability of journalists themselves to tell the truth is limited by the need not to tread on the toes of their sources, generally state agencies, and corporate bosses. Freedom of the press has boiled down to freedom to do the corporate or private owners’ bidding. What is surprising is the reluctance of eminent editors to tell the public the truth about the degree of freedom they have enjoyed. Behind the exit of editors like Arun Shourie and Vinod Mehta, there is a story that needs to be told so that readers will know who the real boss in the Indian press is and how that fact conditions the content of the newspaper.

The book, baring media failure and under-performance, has hardly been reviewed in mainstream media after it was published in January. When one of Britain’s leading historians, Mark Curtis, volunteered to do it for Independent, ‘Not this time, thanks,’ responded its literary editor Boyd Tonkin. When Edwards inquired Tonkin if he had someone else in mind to review the book, Tonkin asked another discarded reviewer to respond to it. Books by Mark Curtis himself met with the same fate in the liberal media. When it becomes inevitable to review, say a book by John Pilger, well-known documentary maker and media tormentor, one of his bitterest critics was assigned to do the review. The book contains texts critical of Roy Greenslade’s journalism, the man chosen to review the book.

Aptly, John Pilger says in his foreword, “Not since Noam Chomsky’s 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.” This book is not the first of its kind. In the eighties, Herbert Schiller wrote a media classic Culture Inc. But it is different in format and focus, depicting as it does the corporate takeover of public expression. The uniqueness of the book under review lies in its artistry in stringing media alerts and responses to them into a convincing critique of the media generally and liberal media particularly. The conservative press does not figure in the book because it barely pretends to be objective.

In this gloom, the authors make a cheery reference to the emergence of the Internet as a challenge to media hegemony, opening up a limitless platform for free and alternative expression. We can already see how anybody who has something worthwhile to say or reveal has now dozens of net avenues hosting his/her views. As the authors feel, the ability of the mainstream media to impose an agenda has already begun to erode and a true era of democratization as envisaged by the MacBride Commission has arrived. They cite the example of South Korea where 70 per cent of households have broadband connections making it the most online country in the world. A relatively nascent Internet service OhmyNews played a major role in returning a relatively unknown Roh Moo Hyun as president in the 2002 election. In a country of 40 million people, OhmyNews averaged 14 million visits a day, providing a peek into the future.

Media houses today are extremely wealthy and nourish a natural desire to constantly add to their wealth through rapid expansion and diversification. Look at Ramoji Rao’s empire of newspapers, magazines, film studios, TV channels, chit fund network etc. or Kalanidhi Maran’s TV gold mine. Today’s media owners are mostly builders, liquor magnates, beedi barons etc. To believe that they pay their journalists to spread prejudice against a system of which they are a part is pure naiveté. However, the very freedom that the internet promises contains the seeds of a free-for-all, denting the credibility of its contents. It will take along time for the net media to speak in a single voice. But conventional media are already heavily investing to acquire the commanding heights in the web world. Guardians of Power is the kind of book that journalism schools in the country need to incorporate in their curriculum.

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