The Mass Media – Neutral, Honest, Psychopathic
Another helpful attitude is one of deep distrust. Since most of what we hear is either plainly untrue, or half true and half distorted, and since most of what we read in the newspapers is distorted interpretations served as facts, it is by far the best plan to start out with radical scepticism and the assumption that most of what one hears is likely to be a lie or a distortion. (Erich Fromm, The Art of Being, Continuum, 1992, p.44)
Pulling the Other One – The Corporate “Free Press”
Even the word ‘media’ is problematic. It is the plural of the word medium, which can be defined as ‘the intervening substance through which impressions are conveyed to the senses’. Air, for example, acts as a medium for the transmission of sound – it is a neutral, disinterested carrier of energetic vibrations. News organisations would have us believe that they transmit information in a similarly neutral, natural way. They represent themselves as self-evidently dispassionate windows on the world. Thus, while there is plenty of discussion about what appears in these windows, there is next to no discussion about who built them, about what their goals and values might be. One might almost think that the mass media had always existed in their current form; that they were simply facts of life, even God-given.
And yet consider two salient facts: 1) much of the contemporary world is dominated by giant, multinational corporations; 2) the media system reporting on that world is itself made up of giant corporations. Indeed, media entities are often owned by the same giant corporations they are tasked with covering. How young would a child have to be before it failed to recognise a problem here? And yet this is a realisation that escapes close to 100 per cent of professional journalists, at least if their public utterances are to be believed.
The complacent media silence surrounding the oxymoron that is ‘the corporate free press’ is not indicative of an honest, rational consensus in a free society; it is symptomatic of an all-pervasive media corruption, of a deep cultural malaise. The silence, quite simply, is a lie.
In this book, we will argue that the corporate mass media – not just the right-wing Tory press, but also the most highly respected ‘liberal’ media – broadcasters like the BBC, and newspapers like the Guardian, the Observer and the Independent – constitute a propaganda system for elite interests. We will show how even the most obvious facts concerning even the most vital subjects – US–UK government responsibility for genocide, vast corporate criminality, threats to the very existence of human life – are distorted, suppressed, marginalized and ignored. In what lies ahead, readers will encounter rational mainstream discussion and forensic analysis – and then sudden, inexplicable silence. We will encounter confident, reasoned debate – and then weird irrationality.
For readers subjected to the corporate media version of the world over several decades, the above claim may well seem remarkable, even outlandish. The natural response is to insist: ‘Sorry, but we do see honest reporting and commentary in the media. We read Robert Fisk in the Independent, Seumas Milne in the Guardian and John Pilger (and Media Lens!) in the New Statesman. The government has been widely criticised and challenged on its conduct in the build up to the Iraq war. Corporations are subject to robust censure and investigation – look at the Enron scandal, for goodness sake!’ Alas, all is not as it seems. As ever, the devil lies in the detail. He is also highly visible one step back from our common-sense presumptions – when we are able to recognise, with psychologist Erich Fromm, ‘the pathology of normalcy’. Then we will see that the media system is less a window on the world and more a painting of a window on the world.
Correcting for the distorted vision of the media begins with an understanding of just how and why that vision has been distorted. It begins, in fact, with an understanding of the fundamental structure of that curious abstract entity – the corporation.
Outlawing Social Responsibility
In his book, The Corporation, Canadian law professor Joel Bakan notes that corporations are legally obliged to maximise returns for shareholders. Company executives are literally compelled to subordinate all considerations to profit: The law forbids any motivation for their actions, whether to assist workers, improve the environment, or help consumers save money. They can do these things with their own money, as private citizens. As corporate officials, however, stewards of other people’s money, they have no legal authority to pursue such goals as ends in themselves – only as means to serve the corporation’s own interests, which generally means to maximise the wealth of its shareholders. Corporate social responsibility is thus illegal – at least when it is genuine. (Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, p.37) This ban on social responsibility has been established in legal judgments over hundreds of years. In a key nineteenth-century court case, for example, Lord Bowen declared:
charity has no business to sit at boards of directors qua charity. There is, however, a kind of charitable dealing which is for the interest of those who practise it, and to that extent and in that garb (I admit not a very philanthropic garb) charity may sit at the board, but for no other purpose. (Quoted, ibid., pp.38–9)
The inevitable consequence, Bakan writes, is what are known blandly as ‘externalities’: the routine and regular harms caused to others – workers, consumers, communities, the environment. This, Bakan notes, makes the corporation essentially a ‘psychopathic creature’, unable to recognise or act upon moral reasons to refrain from harming others (ibid., p.60). Robert Hinkley, who spent 23 years as a corporate securities attorney advising large corporations on securities offerings, mergers and acquisitions explains:
When toxic chemicals are spilled, forests destroyed, employees left in poverty, or communities devastated through plant shutdowns, corporations view these as unimportant side effects outside their area of concern. But when the company’s stock price dips, that’s a disaster. The reason is that, in our legal framework, a low stock price leaves a company vulnerable to takeover or means the CEO’s job could be at risk. In the end, the natural result is that corporate bottom line goes up, and the state of the public good goes down. This is called privatising the gain and externalising the cost. (How Corporate Law Inhibits Social Responsibility, Business Ethics, January/February 2002)
Businessman Robert Monks adds:
The corporation is an externalising machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine … There isn’t any question of malevolence or of will; the enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed. (Quoted, Bakan, The Corporation, p.70)
This seems a world away, does it not, from the smiley, affable, high-tech output of the corporate media? Adverts are full of humour and fun, television presenters beam with smiles and personal warmth. Can this really be the product of some kind of psychopathic system? It is a deeply troubling notion – we grew up with the media, we are used to viewing it as a normal part of our lives. And yet consider that the US media watch site, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), described how media executives ‘worry that the flood of grisly images flowing into living rooms from Iraq and elsewhere will discourage advertisers’. Sure enough, a General Motors spokesperson explained that her company ‘would not advertise on a TV programme [just] about atrocities in Iraq’, while an advertising executive advised ‘you don’t want to run a humorous commercial next to horrific images and stories’ (quoted, Peter Hart and Julie Hollar, Fear & Favor 2004 – How Power Shapes the News, March/April 2005). This helps explain why a typical half-hour US local TV news broadcast devotes 6 minutes 21 seconds to sport and weather, while a typical half-hour national newscast devotes 38 seconds to US foreign policy including the war in Iraq (Time, February 28, 2005). What the West has done to Iraq is almost beyond belief – we have imposed vast slaughter and suffering on an already impoverished Third World country. And yet we see only glimpses of the truth on our TV screens because burned and blasted bodies obstruct the selling of cars and toothpaste! If that does not reflect a psychopathic set of values, what does?
This is the first part of David Edwards’ and David Cromwell’s introduction to Guardians of Power: The Myth of the Liberal Media . Used with kind permission of Pluto Press .