It has been a long, winding road from Southampton’s Giddy Bridge public house in 2001, where David Edwards first put to David Cromwell the possibility of starting some kind of media watch site. The idea seemed absolutely right, in fact blindingly obvious: why had we not thought of it before? Why had nobody else thought of it? Instantly agreeing to go ahead, we toasted our website with additional beers and a packet of cheese & onion – the name came later.
Within two months, our first media alert was sent to a handful of readers on July 9, 2001, and polite emails began trickling into the inboxes of quizzical, unsuspecting journalists.
As we somehow find ourselves now approaching ten years of work on Media Lens, we are interested to reflect on some of the more contentious issues covered in our first decade. One or two media alert ‘specials’ on the theme will follow later.
One of our steadily more time-consuming tasks over the years has involved responding to questions from readers. Many of these are from UK-based undergraduate and postgraduate students asking for contributions to theses. We also receive requests for comment from blogs, magazines and authors from all corners of the globe. These numerous, polite approaches contrast sharply with the impression given by the mainstream media that our work is worthless, if it exists at all. Indeed, it is eerie to find that the deeper the mainstream slips into financial crisis, the less we exist. Our crimes against professional media humanity are by now so heinous that Guardian editor Alan Rubsridger recently blocked us even from ‘following’ his Tweets on Twitter.
Below, we’ve selected some of the more interesting questions and answers from the last two or three years.
Question: Why did you start Media Lens?
Answer: The media presents itself as a neutral window on the world. We are to believe that the view we see through the window is ‘the world as it is’. It’s ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ because ‘Comment is free but facts are sacred’. What’s to challenge? When you take a closer look at the ‘window’, you realise it’s not a window on the world at all; it’s a kind of painting of a window on the world. And the ‘painting’ has been carefully produced using colours, textures and forms all selected by the media arm of a corporate system that has very clear interests and bias.
And the one issue the media will not seriously discuss is the idea that it is not a neutral window on the world. This silence protects every deception promoting war, destruction of the climate, and the general subordination of people and planet to profit. It has to be challenged.
Q: What would you say to someone who argued that Media Lens is just a form of push button activism, that it’s not practical enough to create real change?
A: The corporate media really is the point where propaganda meets public thought control. To throw a spanner in the works by challenging journalists and the public is, we think, a highly efficient form of dissent. It’s one thing to march in protest against a war, but you can make the waging of war less likely by challenging the deceptions that persuade the public, and journalists, to support war. The world is changed in people’s heads.
Of course there is merit in taking physical action but only insofar as it challenges illusions in people’s heads. Nothing could be more ‘practical’ and ‘active’ than a campaign of violence attacking state and corporate assets. But our view is that this in fact turns out to be supremely impractical because it empowers violence, hatred, and the illusions that go with them, and so works against progressive change. When you think of the stereotypical anarchist bomb throwers, their actions were actually far less practical than sitting reading a book or discussing serious issues.
Q: In your 10 years of existence, have you had any success in ‘correcting the distorted vision of the corporate media’? Can you give us some examples of success stories?
A: In fact we don’t say we’re correcting their distorted vision; we say we’re correcting for their distorted vision, like lenses in a pair of glasses. We’re tentatively offering what seems to us to be more or less accurate and reasonable, but we have no sense that what we’re arguing is absolutely true.
There are numerous examples of journalists changing their online articles, interview angles and so on in response to emails sent by us and many other media activists. The real success is that dozens, sometimes hundreds, even thousands, of people are now challenging journalists from a left perspective without any prompting from us. If we helped encourage that trend, that’s tremendous – it has always been a key goal.
Q: Journalists such as Nick Davies of the Guardian, author of Flat Earth News, decry the practice of ‘churnalism’, the publishing of amended press releases as news. However, you argue that the problems with the mainstream media go far deeper than this and that there are systemic issues with the way in which news is collected and disseminated. Would you mind discussing some of these issues with us?
A: Davies’s book, presented a superficial, holier than Swiss cheese analysis, as you would expect, which meant it was widely hailed as profound and strikingly honest (as a rule, genuinely radical media analysis is ignored). ‘Churnalism’, of course, is a problem – journalists are under pressure to write expanded versions of corporate and government press releases, and so on. But we’re more interested in the churn itself – who made it? What are their motives?
The answer is that the mainstream media churn is made up of profit-seeking corporations all owned by even larger corporations and/or very wealthy people. These elite interests benefit from the public being fed superficial pap that leaves them ignorant and confused. So churnalism is not just an accidental, neutral product of a neutral system, as Davies suggests; it is a required product of a system that has evolved to deceive and bewilder people. And the churn doesn’t dump neutral material, it consistently favours the world view of powerful interests. So, for example, corporate journalists don’t churn out our media alerts, or news from Democracy Now! or The Real News Network. Power-friendly press releases are churned and rechurned – honest material is simply ignored.
Q: Advertisers claim that they support good journalism because no advertiser gains from being associated with bad journalism with low credibility. Comment?
A: Yes, a car company, for example, likes ‘good’ journalism. But if that ‘good’ journalism exposes the car company’s role in fighting action on climate change, it will move its advertising to a kind of journalism that is ‘good’ but that doesn’t harm its interests. In an interview with activist Ralph Nader, David Barsamian asked:
‘Wouldn’t it be irrational for them [the media] to even discuss corporate power, since their underwriting and sponsors come from very large corporations?’
‘Very irrational… [There are] a few instances almost every year where there’s some sort of criticism of auto dealers, and the auto dealers just pull their ads openly from radio and TV stations.’ (Z Magazine, February 1995)
Q: What are the main causes of the media’s poor performance on Afghanistan?
A: Is it ‘poor performance’ when BAE Systems produces 500 Typhoon fighters rather than 500 ploughshares? The mainstream media are profit-seeking corporate entities that have evolved out of, and depend on, other corporate entities and their political allies. The system has evolved to maximise profits and to obscure the consequences for people and planet: in Edward Herman’s evocative phrase, ‘to normalise the unthinkable’. It is a grave error to imagine that the media time and again ‘fails’ to challenge militarism, ‘fails’ to reveal the true costs of war. It is achieving precisely what it has evolved and been designed to achieve. Strictly speaking, media performance on Afghanistan has been superb.
Q: Gilbert Achcar told AlterZoom that ‘now, after the experience of Iraq which demonstrated that the Bush Administration had lied, the media are much more critical and prudent than after 9/11’. Do you agree? What do you think of the media treatment of the confrontation between the USA and Iran? Is history repeating itself again?
A: Achcar is badly mistaken, in our view. What is so shocking is the extent to which media performance is rooted in the structures and needs of power, rather than in external realities. In 2001, the US political leadership decided to demonise Saddam Hussein, to present Iraq as a threat. In response, the media performed their structural role in boosting these claims. The ‘threat’ was then exposed as a charade, a giant hoax. In 2003, the same US leadership then decided to demonise Iran and present it as a threat to the West. The media again performed their structural role in boosting these claims as if nothing had happened in Iraq, and they continue to do so.
Q: In Guardians of Power you describe how the media glossed over the atrocities committed by the Clinton and the Reagan administrations by focusing on their lifestyle choices and family life. How dangerous do you think that the ‘Obamania’ style of coverage is for his administration being taken to account by the media?
A: Very dangerous. Obama has been used to rebirth the deeply discredited American political brand. In 2009, Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian:
‘Obama’s aim was to break through the suspicion and cynicism that have accreted over decades and show that America is under truly new management.’ (Freedland, ‘The US and Islam: The speech no other president could make,’ The Guardian, June 5, 2009)
It is mainstream journalism’s job to conflate rhetoric with reality. The argument, in effect, is that all institutional political and economic analysis identifying deeply entrenched systems of power and influence is irrelevant – all that matters is that one charismatic orator with a nice smile has reinvented American politics and made it newly virtuous. It is a transparent attempt at damage-limitation after the Bush years.
It is dangerous because it strengthens the public’s willingness to accept mass killing in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Libya on the assumption that America’s new leaders are benevolent, well-intentioned individuals making ‘tough choices’, and doing what simply has to be done. The people who run the system are well aware of this, which is why huge efforts are made to sell people like Clinton, Blair and Obama as ‘the good guys’. This was all discussed by Machiavelli 500 years ago.
Q: How would you rate the liberal media coverage of the recent uprisings taking place across the Middle-East? Are there any glaring holes in the narrative, and are we being informed about the extent of western support for these regimes?
A: The independent, Israel-based journalist, Jonathan Cook, formerly of the Guardian, notes how the United States ‘is caught mute and impassive as the henchmen of empire unleash US-made weapons against their peoples who are demanding western-style freedoms…’
The gaping hole in media reporting is to explain why the US has been supporting these henchmen with billions of dollars of military hardware. What is the US motive? What does this tell us about US priorities in the Middle East and elsewhere? What is more important: freedom, democracy, human rights, or control of natural resources and corporate profits? There have been occasional mentions of how the West has supplied arms to Mubarak and Qaddafi, but these deeper questions are ignored.
Q: In summer 2010, you had a funding application rejected by a big ‘progressive’ trust because some trustees were ‘not convinced by the strategy of targeting the liberal media.’ Many liberals would probably share that criticism. Can you explain why this focus on the so-called liberal media?
A: Human motives fall into three distinct categories: we can seek happiness by working for our own interests, for the interests of others, or for the interests of others in the understanding that this is also in our own best interests (rooted in the idea that a compassionate, less egotistical approach to life is more conducive to our own happiness). We believe progressive change is rooted in the latter two drives: working to help others out of altruism and enlightened self-interest.
Broadly, we think people guided by these positive motivations tend to look to the liberal press for honest opinion – they don’t look to a right-wing press more obviously functioning as propaganda organs for power and profit. We believe that these liberal readers – people motivated to make the world a less brutal place – are being offered a world view that persuades them to accept the status quo, to be complacent, to not push for radical change.
For example, if the right-wing, Tory media are saying it was right to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a lethal tyrant, and the liberal press are saying the invasion was ‘a mistake’, that means no-one is saying that the war was a war crime.
Q: Are there any media systems in the world that you think work well?
A: Compassion and honesty are found in individuals, not in systems. There are individuals who are sensitive to the suffering of others, to the importance of compassion for the welfare of themselves and others, and who, to a greater or lesser degree, subordinate self-interest (wealth, status) to rational analysis and truthful communication. Honest individuals reject the idea that they need to be trained to understand, and respond productively to, the suffering of others. They understand that the great enemy of dissent is the desire to participate comfortably as part of a system, herd, corporation, which inevitably demand conformity and compromise. They understand that the sense of comfort is illusory and actually a condition of great suffering. The self-centred mind is inherently stressed and dissatisfied. A life spent in the self-centred herd is not a happy one, it comes at great cost to the soul. Norman Mailer observed:
‘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)
Q: I often speak to people who are angry and disillusioned with politics, and they are usually dismissive of the idea that together we can create a better world. Can something like Media Lens counter this view? And more generally, how would you try to convince someone that there is room for optimism?
A: It’s normal for people who are angry to be negative and dismissive – the angry mind is inherently pessimistic and unrealistic. By contrast, eye surgeons who give of their time and energy to save impoverished people from blindness by performing cataract operations would be unable to make sense of the idea that we should be ‘dismissive of the idea that together we can create a better world’. To save even one person from blindness is making the world immeasurably better for that person. Each person is a world. To give that kind of help is wonderful for the afflicted individual, obviously, but also for the surgeon who is able to use his or her skills in such a positive way. All the evidence suggests that helping people out of compassion is a source of profound happiness. There is great delight and fulfilment in acting to help others, in acting to remove suffering.
Q: Compared with the US, where they have FAIR, ZNet and other similar projects, Media Lens is just about the only media monitoring group in the UK, and is quite small compared to its American counterparts. Why is that in your opinion?
A: Whereas US thought control works more by excluding dissident voices, UK thought control works more by incorporating them in small doses in a way that vaccinates the public mind against the idea that honest voices are excluded. So we’ve got Robert Fisk, George Monbiot, Seumas Milne and John Pilger. But these are fig leaves (as Pilger himself has acknowledged), small islands of radicalism swamped by innumerable ‘journalists of attachment’. Remember, almost all media output reinforces the corporate consumer monoculture: it is mostly entertainment and distraction. Most of the population has no idea who George Monbiot and Robert Fisk are. Liberal progressives know about them and wrongly think that their inclusion is impressive evidence that we have an open, inclusive media system. It isn’t. Very, very occasionally you’ll meet someone who has heard of Noam Chomsky – but even these people are usually amazed to hear that he writes about politics as well as linguistics.
Q: There are clearly some examples of quite harsh, even abusive, comments about you. Especially from journalists. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that journalists, or the media, respond negatively to your work? Clearly they don’t always respond in a negative manner; you have plenty of evidence of positive feedback from them as well. But again, this is a theme that has come up quite a bit in my research and indeed in published research as well. And how do you remain level-headed about feedback like that?
A: The abuse isn’t simply abuse. Recall that the internet is awash with a huge number of blogs and websites of various kinds. When Peter Beaumont devoted an article to smearing us in the Observer, that was a clear sign that we’d had an impact, that we were being effective. Otherwise, why would a senior mainstream journalist devote space in a major newspaper to attacking us? Why bother with two guys writing on the internet? Also, the abuse is applied with a very broad brush. After all, Chomsky described the trend in 1992, long before Media Lens existed:
‘Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can’t deal with the arguments, that’s plain – for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don’t know anything. Secondly, you wouldn’t be able to answer the arguments because they’re correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. So that’s one technique, “It’s just emotional, it’s irresponsible, it’s angry.”‘ (Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Chronicles of Dissent, AK Press, 1992, p.79)
So the abuse is a kind of reflexive response to a perceived threat that is clearly making some kind of difference. So when we see these things about us being ‘Stalinists’ and ‘willy wavers’ we enjoy them and feel encouraged. It would be far more depressing to be ignored – the fate of most web-based media projects.
Individual journalists get upset because we’re challenging their self-image, their egos. For example, mainstream media leftists invest heavily in an idea of themselves as fearless speakers of truth to power – their career, their whole sense of themselves, is rooted in that idea. When we point out the limits of what they are willing and able to say, it’s a painful blow to their egos – hence the negative reaction. They feel threatened on many levels: career, reputation, self-image, and so on. So that’s a factor. Also, before the internet, journalists just did not receive much feedback from readers. So negative feedback is often a shock to people. It’s something we’re all having to get used to in the age of the internet.
Q: Is it possible to meaningfully care about people half a world away in Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya/Palestine/Japan/Australia with the tenuous connection we have to them, mostly through the basically unaccountable actions of ‘our’ government? Why should I feel bad for them? I don’t even know those people! This is so ingrained that to even suggest we should feel their deaths as deeply as that of our best friend sounds a little ridiculous. We are hard-wired to have a drastic double standard for the people inside our Monkeysphere versus the 99.999% of the world’s population who are on the outside.
A: It does sound a little ridiculous. But what are the limits of compassion? If you listen to Western materialists then, yes, maybe our brains are hard-wired to feel compassion for a limited number of people. But if you listen to the people, both ancient and modern, who Erich Fromm called ‘the masters of human culture’ – Buddha, Bodhidharma, Lao Tse, Chuang Tzu, Atisha, Osho, Tolle – they argue that compassion is not a function of the brain, but a function of consciousness – an awareness that observes and lies behind thought. They argue that compassion emerges out of the felt experience (not the intellectual idea) that we are all manifestations of this same consciousness. So it’s not that you feel pity for someone else over there; it’s that you look at that person and see, in some ultimately paradoxical and mysterious way, yourself. You feel a fundamental identity. This is said to be the source of unconditional love and compassion, and is why Buddha said he felt exactly the same compassion and love for every sentient being. Every enlightened mystic has said the same.
Q: You discuss the Buddhist notion of ‘sin as mistake’, asking, ‘Do we punish the child for burning its finger in the flame?’ I take the point, but I’m wondering about the logical extension of there being no externally imposed punishments or consequences at all. Would Buddhists advocate no prisons even for serious criminals such as serial killers who keep getting their fingers burnt but don’t change their behaviour?
A: They would identify destructiveness and try to stop it, but without hate and without the urge to punish. A few years ago, a friend at work, an English teacher, asked one of us about his writing. Our friend commented, ‘Well of course everyone knows the media is biased to the left – it is rife with reds.’ Like most people, he had never heard of Chomsky, Pilger, Herman and so on. It was even more difficult to hear about them then, and everything he’d ever read had told him the same story about ‘left bias’. So it’s not that he maliciously created his own illusion – he wasn’t to blame for it. So the obvious thought arose: ‘How can I be angry at someone who has had no real choice but to believe what he believes?’
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to challenge these views, to offer what we think are more rational alternatives. It just means we have no basis for being angry with, or for punishing, people who say or do things we don’t like. So we would give our teacher friend a copy of Herman and Chomsky’s book Manufacturing Consent, but we wouldn’t hit him over the head with it! :o)