In Part 1 of this alert, we noted how journalists who threaten their employers’ interests – and the interests of their key political and corporate allies – tend to be unceremoniously dumped. We also described how the force of the law can be deployed to silence dissidents seeking to expose chronic media bias.
In Part 2, we hosted journalist Jonathan Cook’s splendid analysis in response. Cook’s main point was that media managers rarely have to take such extreme measures because few journalists “make it to senior positions unless they have already learnt how to toe the line.”
An interesting question arises, then, in the age of the internet: To what extent will these same ultra-sensitive media companies tolerate public criticism? For example, will they allow visitors to their websites to post material that is critical of their journalism, and perhaps even damaging to their interests? Last month, we tested the limits of dissent on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free (CiF) website.
On September 20, we posted a message on CiF in response to an article written by Guardian journalist Emma Brockes. Brockes had commented wryly on Tania Head, a 9/11 survivor, “of whom it has been alleged that she was not on the 78th floor of the South Tower on September 11th as she claimed, but may have been in Spain at the time…”
“But well below the level of mental illness a lot of low-level fakery is actively embraced and rewarded.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/ 2008/sep/20/uselections2008.usa?commentpage= 1&commentposted=1)
We posted the following comment:
“This is from the same journalist [Brockes] who wrote in October 2005:
“‘[Noam] Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.'”
In our post, we described Chomsky’s outrage at the suggestion that he had denied that the Serb killings of Bosnians at Srebrenica in 1995 constituted a massacre. In 2005, Chomsky wrote to us of Brockes’s article:
“Even when the words attributed to me have some resemblance to accuracy, I take no responsibility for them, because of the invented contexts in which they appear… her piece de resistance, the claim that I put the word ‘massacre’ in quotes. Sheer fabrication.”
Chomsky described his treatment by Brockes and the Guardian as “one of the most dishonest and cowardly performances I recall ever having seen in the media.” (See our media alert: ‘Smearing Chomsky’.)
We were interested to see how these comments would be received by the Guardian website. In the event, our message remained in place for 48 hours but was then deleted. The site moderator explained in an email:
“The article that Medialens replied to was about emotional fakery and its role in American political culture. The comment that was removed did not address this topic but instead raised a past journalistic error by the author.” (Email to Media Lens, September 23, 2008)
In fact, while Brockes had discussed emotional fakery, focusing on “self dramatisation”, she had also written: “fakery no less shameless goes on every day in the political debate and the way we the audience internalise it. McCain flatly contradicts himself within the space of a single day.”
Political fakery and self-contradiction were exactly the themes of our post, but it was deleted as “off topic” by the Guardian gatekeepers.
Only a handful of comments had been posted in response to Brockes’s article. When we and one or two other people posted messages protesting the deletions, these were also deleted and someone called the Community Moderator shut down the debate, writing: “This discussion will now close, as it has mostly been off topic.” A final message appeared: “Comments are now closed for this entry.”
The website shows five messages deleted alongside just nine posts remaining. Other posts had been removed altogether: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/ sep/20/uselections2008.usa?commentpage= 1&commentposted=1
Self-Deceits Held In Common – Groupthink
We have seen how the propaganda system is filtered by a range of carrot and stick pressures: professional training, selection for obedience, promotions and demotions, sackings, legal pressures, and the rest. The final piece of the jigsaw is much more elusive and mysterious.
In his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, psychologist Daniel Goleman examined the human capacity for self-deception. According to Goleman, we build our version of reality around key frameworks of understanding, or “schemas”, which we then protect from conflicting facts and ideas. The more important a schema is for our sense of identity and security, the less likely we are to accept evidence contradicting it. Goleman wrote:
“Foremost among these shared, yet unspoken, schemas are those that designate what is worthy of attention, how it is to be attended to – and what we choose to ignore or deny… People in groups also learn together how not to see – how aspects of shared experience can be veiled by self-deceits held in common.” (Goleman, Vital Lies, Simple Truths – The Psychology of Self-Deception, Bloomsbury 1997, p.158)
Goleman concluded: “The ease with which we deny and dissemble – and deny and dissemble to ourselves that we have denied or dissembled – is remarkable.”
Psychologist Donald Spence noted the sophistication of this process:
“We are tempted to conclude that the avoidance is not random but highly efficient – the person knows just where not to look.” (Ibid, p.107)
This tendency to self-deception appears to be greatly increased when we join as part of a group. Groups create a sense of belonging, a “we-feeling”, which can provide even greater incentives to reject painful truths. As psychologist Irving Janis reports, the ‘we-feeling’ lends “a sense of belonging to a powerful, protective group that in some vague way opens up new potentials for each of them.” (Ibid, p.186)
Members are thus reluctant to say or do anything that might lessen these feelings of security and empowerment. In this situation, even pointing out the risks surrounding a group decision may seem to represent an unforgivable attack on the group itself. This is ‘groupthink’. Individual self-deception, combined with groupthink, helps explain why journalists are able to ignore even the most obvious facts.
In our September 16 Media Alert, we wrote that the Independent had devoted 153 words in the first two weeks of September to the flooding catastrophe in Haiti. By that time, 1,000 people were reported killed with 1 million made homeless out of a population of 9 million.
In response, the Independent’s former Washington correspondent, now Asia correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, wrote to us:
Dear Davids, Hello and best wishes. Hope all is well. Your latest alert about Haiti is as thought-provoking as ever but I think there are a couple of clear errors you’ve made that ought to be cleared up. Firstly you say The Independent did not report the hurricanes raging down on the country and that “the Independent has not mentioned Haiti since September 5. But the paper has at least helped explain its own prejudice”. That simple point clearly is not true. Guy Adams filed on September 7 a page lead pointing out the chaos facing untold thousands. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/ americas/haiti-in-crisis- after-tropical-storm-claims-more-than- 500-lives-921716.html
But beyond that you also claim “This indifference has led to an appalling level of non-reporting, not just of the latest floods, but also of the killing of unarmed civilians by United Nations forces (Minustah), the Haitian National Police, and death squads”. You say a raid in Cite Soleil in July 2005 was reported only by a few US newspapers but that is not the case. The Independent reported on the raid and revealed evidence collated by Kevin Pina that unarmed civilians were killed.
This was followed up in Feb 2007 by more details of civilians being killed by UN troops.
You’re correct in saying that Haiti does not get as much coverage as the US but your claim that the paper has not reported on Haiti, its problems and its ongoing challenges is not true. A simple search on Google for articles about Haiti over the last few years would quickly show that. Best wishes, Andy Buncombe
We replied on September 21:
Many thanks for your email. You’re right about Guy Adams’ September 7 article. For some reason, that wasn’t picked up by our LexisNexis search. We note, though, that the piece devoted 360 words to the disaster in Haiti. At the time we wrote the alert, that figure could have been added to the 153 words mentioning Haiti in the paper that month. That would have totalled 513 words for a 16-day period when perhaps 1000 people died and utter catastrophe befell the island.
“You say a raid in Cite Soleil in July 2005 was reported only by a few US newspapers but that is not the case.”
In fact we weren’t commenting on UK reporting in that section. We were describing research presented in Dan Beeton’s report on +US+ media performance: ‘Bad News From Haiti: U.S. Press Misses the Story.’ We wrote:
“… only a few US newspapers mentioned the incident. These mostly portrayed the incident as a successful UN attempt to eliminate gang members – reports of civilian deaths were ignored.
“The US press has given similar treatment to atrocities committed by the Haitian National Police.”
We thought it was clear that we were referring to Beeton’s analysis solely of the US press, but perhaps we could have been clearer.
It’s hard not to reflect on the deeper significance of your response. You’re right that the Independent devoted 513 rather than 153 words to the devastation of Haiti from September 1-16. But, really, so what? Would you be focusing on this tiny difference in assessing the Independent’s performance if you were not working for the paper? Wouldn’t a dispassionate, rational observer join with us in criticising the Independent’s appalling indifference to the disaster this month rather than arguing that “your claim that the paper has not reported on Haiti, its problems and its ongoing challenges is not true”? We did not argue that the Independent has “not reported on Haiti”. We argued that its performance, particularly this month in offering a few hundred words – less than one word per death – was pitiful. We have a great deal of respect for you. But isn’t your response on this occasion an example of a kind of corporate ‘groupthink’?
David Edwards and David Cromwell
It is painful for a journalist to be aware of both his or her employer’s shortcomings and his or her powerlessness to remedy them. As Daniel Goleman has noted, “when one can’t do anything to change the situation, the other recourse is to change how one perceives it.” (Goleman, op. cit, p.148)
This, finally, is the key human trait that enables “brainwashing under freedom” – journalists are able to perceive as important only that which allows them to thrive as successful components of the corporate system. The price is high, as Norman Mailer noted:
“There is an odour to any Press Headquarters that is unmistakeable… the unavoidable smell of flesh burning quietly and slowly in the service of a machine.” (Mailer, The Time of Our Time, Little Brown, 1998, p.457)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Matt Seaton, editor of the Guardian’s Comment is Free website. Ask him why he rejected Greg Philo’s excellent piece.
Email: [email protected]