What Happened To Academia? Part 2

In our reply to Piers Robinson, below, we try to show how ‘objective scholarship’, like ‘objective journalism’, all too often filters out what really matters. Moreover, as in journalism, the scholar’s obsession with objectivity tends to promote the interests of power. Why? Because mainstream academics and journalists are deeply and unconsciously biased. They notice subjective opinion that hurts power because power is on hand to make them aware, in no uncertain terms, with high-level complaints, legal threats, political flak and other attacks. When subjective opinion promotes power no-one notices because peace reigns supreme. 

A superb example was provided in John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See. The BBC’s Head of Newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, told Pilger: “it’s the BBC’s duty to scrutinise what it is that people [leaders] say; we’re not there to accuse them of lying, though, because that’s a judgement…”

And this would be fine, but for the fact that the BBC clearly is willing to laud these same leaders to the skies! Nobody notices that this also constitutes “a judgement” because people with the ability to hurt the media stay silent. This is a major reason why ostensibly objective journalists and scholars so consistently drift towards “the centre-left ground” (to use the polite term). It is a key issue in academia, as in journalism, and needs to be discussed. We replied to Piers Robinson on December 14: 

Hi Piers

Thanks for your response. This has been an interesting, if somewhat lengthy, journey for us. We were prompted to write to you after reading comments on Journalism.co.uk where Joel Gunter cited you as arguing that the UK benefits from an “admirably wide range of coverage” with the media including a “strongly anti-war element”.

This and other comments sparked a hectic display of facial fireworks here as eyebrows rose even as brows furrowed. Why? We devoted our lives to studying media reporting of the pre-invasion and invasion periods in the first half of 2003. The patterns and limits of media reporting, the unspoken rules, were so clear to us – they could hardly have been more obvious.

Far from offering an “admirably wide range of coverage”, the media facilitated an audacious government propaganda campaign while offering a strictly enfeebled version of dissent. Obvious facts and sources that had the power to derail the government case for war were essentially nowhere to be seen. (See our books, Guardians of Power and Newspeak for details. See, also, John Pilger’s new film, The War You Don’t See, to which we contributed, and which is being broadcast tonight on ITV)

The unwritten rule seemed to be that journalists would raise questions about the war, but not in a way that might throw a spanner in the works of the war machine. This was clearly viewed as going too far: in a democratic society it was not the job of the media (including Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent) to seriously obstruct an elected government bent on war.

We know this was the case because we and many other people raised these issues with large numbers of editors and journalists in the year prior to the invasion. Derailing arguments did exist, they were convincing, and the media did know about them – they simply chose to ignore them. This was a form of structural opposition to truth in deference to power. It was the result, not of a conspiracy, but of a kind of corporate herd behaviour. So we were interested to investigate the nuts and bolts of your report to see how an ostensibly scientific study could provide such a flawed result.

The late historian Howard Zinn described how the desire to work for progressive change “gets tangled in a cluster of beliefs so stuck, fungus-like, to the scholar, that even the most activist of us cannot cleanly extricate ourselves”. Zinn blamed the obsession with “disinterested scholarship” which fed on “the fear that using our intelligence to further our moral ends is somehow improper. And so we remain subservient to the beliefs of the profession although they violate our deepest feelings as a human being…” (The Zinn Reader – Writings on Disobedience and Democracy, Seven Stories Press, 1997, pp.502-3)

Your study recalled Zinn’s “rules that quietly lead the scholar toward trivia, pretentiousness, orotundity, and the production of objects: books, degrees, buildings, research projects, dead knowledge”. (ibid., p.504)

How harsh that sounds! But a million human beings have died in Iraq since the media reporting of 2003 which made those deaths possible. This is a harsh subject.

Questioning whether the Journalism.co.uk article had misrepresented your study, we began to look deeper. We found this PR release on your own Manchester University website, which repeated the claims:

“‘Our study has shown that some parts of the UK media can be proud of its record on war reporting,’ said project leader Dr Piers Robinson from The University of Manchester.

“‘Its vibrancy is down to a culture of independent thinking, professional autonomy as well as the nationally-based, commercial and highly competitive nature of its press.

“‘In part because it is partisan and opinionated, there are higher degrees of independent journalism than is often found in other countries, particularly the US.'”

Compare this with your latest response to us:

“We are clear that most coverage fell in line with the coalition and that the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive. We are also clear that, whilst some outlets offered negotiated and oppositional coverage, they were also bounded by the humanitarian warfare ideology and the ‘need’ to support ‘our’ troops as well as being suckers for the WMD claims.

“But, the key point we make is that some outlets did a far better job of challenging coalitions claims than others, even re substantive issues. In total, obviously there were not enough media outlets behaving in this way to produce a meaningful challenge as the invasion occurred. But to ignore those outlets is to misrepresent what happened during those three weeks.”

To argue that “most coverage fell in line with the coalition” and “the key areas of criticism tended to be procedural, not substantive” is not the same as arguing “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage which includes a strongly anti-war element”.

Your latest study also differs from an earlier study in 2006, when you wrote:

“Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq.”


“Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive. But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.”

Again, a very different emphasis: four years ago, you failed to find “strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous”; in 2010, “the British press continues to display an admirably wide range of coverage”.

Codified Empirical Research – And Defining “Reasonable”

Your report works hard to give the impression that it constitutes an objective, scientific study of media reporting. You write of “systematic, reliable and codified empirical research” in which you “theorise, define and operationalise an analytical framework which can provide for a systematic and rigorous analysis”. But your conclusions, indeed your whole analysis, are based on deeply subjective views. For example, you write that the 2003 Iraq war “can be distinguished from interventions during humanitarian crises, such as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo (1999), which rarely involved the deployment of troops in major combat roles and where human rights, rather than matters of national interest, have been argued to be of chief concern”.

Argued by whom, exactly? In fact, many serious commentators have explained that it is logically impossible for the Kosovo intervention to have been motivated by concern for human rights – Western politicians and generals knew, indeed publicly predicted, that military intervention would generate a massive increase in atrocities and suffering, as happened. To argue that the invasion of Iraq “can be distinguished” from the Kosovo intervention is highly subjective and very questionable.

We notice that the same word kept popping up in your latest reply, “unreasonable”:

“the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so)”.

“using post invasion casualty counts as a way to criticise the media coverage during the invasion is an unreasonable test of media independence”.

Thus, we asked you how often journalists had used, rather than reported the use, of the word ‘illegal’ to describe the invasion. You replied:

“… using this as a key measure of media autonomy during the phase we looked at, it is probably setting an unreasonably high expectation of journalists. Given that Blair got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal, and the information for that was not fully available (and still is not), it is not surprising that journalists had little ammunition with which to challenge along these lines”.

As your response makes clear, while ostensibly presenting a neutral analysis, you have here adopted a classic mainstream position on the media. You are affirming that it is the role of the media to depend primarily on mainstream authority figures. So, given that Blair “got the Attorney General to sign off the war as legal” journalists had “little ammunition” to challenge the claim.

Our equally subjective view is that it is not the job of journalists to defer to obviously compromised authority figures, and so abandon common sense and critical thinking. Journalists are moral human beings first, and it is the task of all of us to think rationally, for ourselves. It could not have been clearer in early 2003 that the US-UK invasion of Iraq was an illegal war of aggression. Even a glance at international law – at the UN Charter, for example – reveals that this was the case.

In March 2003, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) in Geneva expressed its “deep dismay” that a small number of states were “poised to launch an outright illegal invasion of Iraq, which amounts to a war of aggression”. According to the ICJ, such “a war waged without a clear mandate from the United Nations Security Council” would be “a flagrant violation of the prohibition of the use of force”. (‘Iraq – ICJ Deplores Moves Toward a War of Aggression on Iraq,’ International Commission of Jurists, March 18, 2003)

Why did this not constitute “ammunition” for challenging the Blair government’s lies? After all, as Noam Chomsky observed, the invasion was “almost a textbook example of the ‘supreme international crime’ of aggression condemned at Nuremberg, which ‘contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole,’ in the words of the Nuremberg Tribunal, including the huge death toll, the destruction of Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, and all the other atrocities”.

And yet you argue that journalists lacked “ammunition” for describing the invasion as “illegal”. You write:

“I also don’t think we differentiated necessarily between journalists or sources asserting the illegality anyway.” (Email, November 18, 2010)

This is also significant. The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war. The first issue was the obvious illegality of the war. An honest media system would not merely have reported the use, but would have consistently used the term to describe the war – exactly as they did in describing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Second, was the fact that Scott Ritter, the chief UN weapons inspector in 1998, asserted that Iraq had been “fundamentally disarmed” by December 1998 and could not since have been rearmed. Third, any small amount of retained biological and chemical weapons would long since have become harmless “sludge” by 2003. This was a key fact of longevity of available materials, based on verifiable data, but there is no mention of it in your study. Similarly, there is no mention of the key source making the point, Scott Ritter, who was not just another source.

You invited us to check your “WMD justification coding frame criteria” for “heavily anti-coalition” reports. These include:

“Reports that contain little in terms of the coalitions claims re WMD, with journalist openly challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability. Extensive air time given to anti-war commentators, experts claiming that Iraq could not possess serious WMD capability plus Iraqi authorities rebuttals of coalition claims. Reports may start to challenge the legitimacy of the war and the claimed legal justification.”

The mesh in this pseudo-scientific net intended to capture the truth was too wide, too loose – common sense slipped through the spaces. In reality, “heavily anti-coalition” media performance on WMD did not mean vaguely questioning whether there were WMD in Iraq. It meant examining very specific issues: the “fundamentally disarmed” and “sludge” claims, and Scott Ritter’s evidence for both. Given the US-UK government pretexts for war, these were the genuinely heavy oppositional arguments.

Some media were indeed involved in “challenging the claim that Iraq possesses a credible WMD capability”. But by ignoring the key issues – just as the media did – you allowed feeble media performance to pass as “heavily anti-coalition”. The media you single out for praise – Channel 4 News, the Guardian and the Independent – had nothing, or next to nothing, to say on these crucial matters (again, despite tireless attempts by activists and others to draw attention to them).

On the civilian death toll, you write:

“I completely agree that the number of deaths issue is a/the key issue in debating Iraq. The problem for the phase we look at is that, for the 3 week invasion phase, the lack of evidence available to journalists on this issue means that assessing their independence using this measure is unreasonable (as with the legality claim, only more so).”

It is true that the media system as we know it is unable or unwilling to access the evidence of mass killing. But that’s the point – our media system as it currently exists does not communicate the true extent of the carnage suffered by civilians under our guns. The suggestion that it is “unreasonable” to expect them to be able to do so is a red herring. The fact is that they can’t, don’t, or won’t. This is why it is false for you to assert that: “There were particular subject areas in which negotiated [balanced or neutral] and oppositional coverage dominated” including “civilian and military casualties”. (p.175)

Even “neutral” coverage would have given an accurate impression of the massive loss of life that took place during the invasion. But our media failed to communicate any real sense of that.

We note one further irony in your study. You do mention the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, but only in passing. You write, for example:

“three reasons are variously invoked in order to explain the elite-drive model [of media performance] and the supportive coverage associated with it: journalists’ reliance on official sources… patriotism… and ideology”. (p.35)

This is barely recognisable as Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. You do later comment:

“Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent (1988) is a provocative account that represents this position well. Its authors emphasise the significant overlapping interests between the US state and major US business conglomerates, including media corporations themselves. This set of common interests creates commercial imperatives which lead news organisations to avoid news stories that run contrary to these interests.” (p.49)

In fact Herman and Chomsky paint a much more pro-active picture of media bias. Anyway, this is pretty much all you have to say in explaining the propaganda model, which is marginalised in your analysis. It is interesting that you describe Manufacturing Consent as a “provocative account”. In your earlier, co-authored article with Eric Herring, ‘Too polemical or too critical? Chomsky on the study of the news media and US foreign policy,’ you wrote:

“Over a number of years we have experienced, via reviewer comments, editorial direction and personal correspondence, the difficulty of taking seriously Chomsky’s work in particular. We have even experienced (and refused to comply with) explicit requests to remove all references to his work from manuscripts: these have even been made by those who say that they agree with Chomsky but were concerned to protect us from the costs of being associated with him…

“The most common argument is that Chomsky has a polemical style, not in the sense that all scholarship is polemical (that is, aimed at implicit or explicit refutation of a particular position) but in a pejorative sense (that is, making an argument in a way which disregards the rules of scholarship). The irony is that this claim is itself polemical because evidence beyond the odd isolated quote is not provided.” (Review of International Studies, 2003, 29, 553-568)

You wrote in your conclusion:

“What is sauce for the journalistic goose is sauce for the academic gander… Just as journalists have mostly internalised the liberal myth of the objective media, so such academics have mostly internalised the liberal myth of objective academia. Herman and Chomsky’s view is not read, understood and then rejected: it is simply made incomprehensible or invisible…”

Ironically, much the same can be said of your latest study. It is interesting and does have merit, but we believe your “systematic and rigorous analysis” is in fact based on subjective assumptions that have skewed your results. We are sorry to be so critical (it’s never pleasant to be criticised) – we hope you will accept our comments as well-intentioned contributions to open, honest debate on these vital issues.

Best wishes

David Edwards and David Cromwell
Media Lens 


Update – Reply From Piers Robinson – December 16, 2010

 Hi David and David,

There are two substantive sets of issues that you raise about Pockets of Resistance (Manchester University Press, 2010) and me. The first pertains to specific aspects of the measures we used and which you claim have led to our over-measuring levels of media independence. The second set of more general issues concerns my position within academia, matters of objectivity, and my failure to engage in research that is fully engaged with critical/activist scholarship. I

Over-measurement of Press criticism

I presume that you are in full agreement with all of our findings which point to media deference to the government during the invasion phase, and that you have no issues with any of these measures. The issue comes with those areas of coverage that we argue deviated from official lines.

You identify three key areas in which our research design led to over-measurement of negotiated and oppositional media coverage:-

1) The issue of the legality of the war.

2) The issue of evidence on WMD and the importance of Scott Ritter as a source

3) The issue of the civilian casualty count.

In each case, your argument is, in essence, that unless journalists covered Scott Ritter claims, the illegality of the war and the post-invasion debate over the numbers of civilian dead, then coverage could not be described as either negotiated or oppositional. I shall deal with each in turn:-

1) On the first count, the question of whether journalists reinforced or challenged the legality of the war was coded for. As we said before, this was part of the WMD justification-coding frame and, as most reports on this reinforced government claims, it is safe to assume that there was not a significant challenge over the legality of the war, at least during the invasion phase. So we are not at variance with you on that matter. However, simply because journalists did not challenge the war on legality grounds does not logically preclude them from questioning it on other grounds. For example, a journalist who argues that a war is immoral, based upon a false premise, likely to kill many more people than it could ever save, is obviously opposing a pro-war position and this can be done without asserting that a war is illegal. The point here is that you are wrong to place ‘challenges to the legality’ as the only benchmark journalists had to reach in order to challenge the government.

2) On the issue of WMD, again we coded for arguments that reinforced government claims and those that questioned the presence of WMD. You argument is based on the idea that only by reporting Ritter and the claims he advanced about the state of Iraqi WMD, can a news report negotiate or oppose a government policy on that issue. It is perfectly possible for a journalists to discuss the failure of inspectors to find any WMD and question the possibility of there being any WMD in Iraq, producing a report that presents either detachment from the government argument or profound disagreement, without citing Scott Ritter. Regarding your assertion that out coding guidelines allow vague questioning to pass as heavily oppositional, this is incorrect. Reports were only code as oppositional if they presented a substantial (not vague challenge) to the WMD claims. You misinterpret our coding rules on this.

To put all of this another way, your benchmarks for negotiated and oppositional coverage are too restrictive, based upon a narrow focus on two sources which you wanted journalists to cover more (as you say yourselves, The point we are making is that there were a small number of key facts, issues and sources that had the potential to derail the government case for war, and in doing so you marginalize the range of reporting that might have challenged the government on other terms.

Off the issue of our study and regarding your argument about the overwhelming significance of Ritter and the ICJ, I would be amazed if it would ever be the case that a ‘small number of facts’ of the kind you describe would have been sufficient to prevent the war happening. For example, Scott’s claims about the unusability of any remaining WMD would have simply been responded to with argument (as in fact the UK did) that Saddam had an active WMD programme in place. Arguments about legality would have been easily derailed by arguments about the morality of toppling a dictator and/or the irrelevance of the specifics of international law when it comes to matters of national security. Your belief in a few ‘killer facts’ being able to these kinds of shifts in opinion/political reality is over-stated, and overly optimistic.

3) On casualties, again, we code for coverage of casualties and note that in this area journalists generated a lot of criticism. Your principle criticism is that we did not include the issue of total casualty count that has manifested itself in the debate between you, the IBC and the US and UK governments plus the various other studies that have counted the dead. This is a debate that has occurred well after the invasion phase (the period we analysed), and so it makes no sense to measure journalistic performance at a particular time against a debate that occurred at a later date! This simply does not make any sense. The similar problem arises as with 1) and 2) above: Your criteria for negotiated or oppositional casualty coverage demand that journalists need to have foreseen the casualty numbers that emerged after the invasion phase: an impossibly high bar for them reach.


Objectivity and Bias in Academia

You criticize us for laying claim to scientific objectivity and presenting research that pretends to offer an objective truth but which is flawed by its own assumptions. We never claim objectivity in terms of some outdated notion of there being an objective reality out there. What we do claim is that we employed methods and a research design that goes some way toward providing a portrait of coverage that reflects, with reasonable accuracy, the dynamics of media coverage during the invasion. As far as media analysis goes, the goal is to try and avoid selective use of evidence and to maximise the transparency of the research: codebooks, inter-coder reliability tests etc are all designed to reduce biases; not to generate ‘objective’ or ‘irrefutable’ evidence. Scholars and commentators who provide no such framework and follow no explicit procedure in terms of defining terms, criteria for assessing reports etc run the problem of researcher bias, selective use of evidence and so on. I am not aware of any other scholars who have gone to the lengths we did to ensure that our work is transparent and accountable. So, this is not about creating an impression of scientific objectivity, it is about producing rigorous, carefully researched and defendable research. Our approach has ensured that we have published our work in leading international journals.

You argue that we marginalize Herman and Chomsky and adopt a position that leads to our focusing on trivia: this seems to be the argument that we are distracted by trivial findings and we ignore the big picture on media performance. In essence, you argue that we have been distracted from a genuinely critical path. This is a highly selective and inaccurate reading of our analysis, for the following reasons.

On Herman and Chomsky, it is correct that we did not frame the study in terms of their propaganda model. We preferred to incorporate their insights along with the range of other critical scholarship within what we labeled the elite-driven model. This is not marginalizing Herman and Chomsky, it is making their analysis a central part of our framework, albeit in conjunction with other key critical accounts (pages 35-38); combining these accounts produces a robust model which links together the range of critical models and emphasizes their explanatory and descriptive similarity. In the conclusion, we repeatedly reference Herman and Chomsky as we discuss evidence for the elite-driven model.

On the issue of our engaging in an exploration of trivial findings; given that we spend a large part of the book setting out evidence for media deference to government and conclude that a) the majority of coverage and outlets reinforced the coalition position, b) that a humanitarian warfare narrative [entirely misplaced as we argue] took hold of journalists, c) that false government claims on WMD were largely accepted by media, d) that the anti-war movement was progressively marginalized, and that patriotism curtailed the extent to which the anti-war press was critical; its clear that we do do justice to the failings of UK media during the invasion phase (see pages 161-172 of conclusion). Also, compared to the analysis provided by many other major studies, we go further in documenting many of the key factors that lead to a failure in media independance during wartime.

At the same time, coverage of the war was not uniform. Understanding that there were important variations as well as establishing why that occurred is also part of developing the kind of knowledge that can lead to change. Even if CH4 and the Mirror were NOT doing enough, the fact that they were doing something different demands investigation in order to understand why, if only to explore ways of building upon that. We do this in the book.

The final issue that you raise, linking back to the Chomsky article I co-authored (Review of International Studies, 2003) is a little unclear. You raise the point about internalizing the myth of objective academia, so that arguments such as those of Herman and Chomsky become invisible and suggest that we are guilty of this. But we do not reject or ignore Herman and Chomsky; as we say above, they are built into to our framework. The major point in that article was that commitment to a myth of objectivity inhibits academics from offering a normative judgements as they go about their research. i.e. Herman and Chomsky analyse and describe, and then make sure that they condemn US foreign policy where appropriate. Other scholars might shy from passing such judgement. So, are we guilty of failing to pass judgement; do we shy away from this? Within the opening pages of the conclusion we state:-

If we consider the regulatory expectations regarding balance and impartiality to which it is subject (see Chapter 4), our aggregate-level finding of supportive coverage makes it impossible to sustain a claim that the majority of British television news succeeded in achieving balance once war was underway. (p 162 Pockets of Resistance)

We are also clearly being critically engaged in the following quote:-

Coupled with the overpowering desire of journalists and the public to feel good about themselves, the actions of ‘their’ soldiers and of their country, comfortable stories about humanitarianism become easily accepted master narratives. In Vietnam, the story was one of saving the Vietnamese people from communism; in Iraq, it was one of saving the Iraqi people from Saddam. Currently, one would presume that a master narrative of ‘saving the Afghan people from the Taliban’ might be one that informs news media representation of this ongoing conflict. (page 172 Pockets of Resistance)

So, we are not guilty of the timidity that we discuss in the Chomsky article, we do pass judgement on the news coverage we analyse. We also give carefully qualified praise where we think it is due.




Minor issues:

1) On Kosovo, you claim that we mistake this as a humanitarian intervention. We do not:-

In short, if the early 1990s witnessed a more influential news media that helped to persuade policy-makers to engage in humanitarian intervention (Bahador, 2007; Robinson, 2002), by the late 1990s the concept had developed into a tool that Western leaders employed in order to justify armed intervention in the internal affairs of another state (Chandler, 2005; Chomsky, 1999; Hammond, 2007a). This could be observed during the 1999 NATO air war against Serbia: although this was primarily an act of coercive diplomacy that had the unintended effect of exacerbating a humanitarian crisis, it was promoted and justified to Western publics, quite successfully, as a humanitarian war. (p. 26 Pockets of Resistance)

2) When you write:

As your response makes clear, while ostensibly presenting a neutral analysis, you have here adopted a classic mainstream position on the media. You are affirming that it is the role of the media to depend primarily on mainstream authority figures. So, given that Blair “got the Attorney Generalto sign off the war as legal” journalists had “little ammunition” to challenge the claim.

When I responded to that point I was not clear enough that I did not just mean that there were a lack of elite sources, but that there was a lack of debate in general that journalists could have exploite. I’d point out that this is why it is better to run by hastily written emails with the author before posting on the web! We are still in agreement with you, anyway, on the failure of media to question the legality side of things and I refer you to our earlier point on this matter at the start of this document.  


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