Erich Fromm understood that ‘selective inattention’ was at the heart of the problem. He devoted his life to exposing man’s capacity for ‘not observing what he does not want to observe; hence, that he may be sincere in denying a knowledge which he would have, if he wanted only to have it’. (Fromm, Beyond The Chains Of Illusion, Abacus, 1989, p.94)
It is not too much to say that the corporate media runs on ‘selective inattention’. This week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger responded in a question and answer session on the newspaper’s website. Writer and activist Darren Allen of the Gentle Apocalypse website took a deep breath and asked him:
‘Why can nobody who works at the Guardian seriously answer the criticisms of Media Lens, seriously respond to the challenge posed to corporate journalism by Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model or seriously discuss how the output of a newspaper owned by a corporate trust (i.e. that has many links with corporations), that is funded by corporate advertising revenue, that is staffed by Oxbridge graduates and that regularly sources its information from official sources (e.g. Simon Tisdall’s notorious May 2007 front page parroting Pentagon claims as news) will necessarily be skewed towards establishment (meaning corporate establishment) values and views – ignoring a massive range of structurally critical views of the left-liberal press, corporate hegemony and the systematic criminality of UK-US foreign policy (to name just three examples)?’
‘Darren, I’m just not sure where to go with all this. Suppose it’s all true and that corporate advertising revenue is a fatally corrupting influence on journalism. Should the Guardian therefore turn away all such advertising? The paper wouldn’t last very long. I don’t actually feel corrupted by advertising (see my response, citing Francis Williams, a good socialist, elsewhere). I do understand why people may feel deeply suspicious of “corporate journalism”, but I don’t personally find some of the critiques – especially when they descend into conspiratiorial accounts of what is supposed to go on at the Guardian – very helpful.’
Only ‘selective inattention’ can account for Rusbridger’s otherwise inexplicable focus on just advertising when media critics have tirelessly described a whole set of ‘fatally corrupting’, non-conspiratorial influences that compromise media performance: the profit motive, wealthy ownership, dependence on subsidised state-corporate news, vulnerability to state-corporate flak, and so on. And yes, the media’s 75% dependence on advertising is deeply problematic. As the Financial Times’ media editor blithely observed last week:
‘Behind their journalistic missions, most news organisations have always been commercial operations that sell audiences to advertisers.’ (Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, ‘News industry can survive in the digital age,’ Financial Times, March 21, 2012)
At other times, Guardian journalists, including the editor, have ignored all of the above factors bar one, conveniently focusing on the fact that ‘We’re owned by a trust; we haven’t got a proprietor. So we’re in a sort of unique position of being able to discuss this kind of stuff.’
Later in the Guardian Q&A, Rusbridger added:
‘I recommend a brilliant history of the British press, written in 1958 by Francis Williams, a former editor of the Daily Herald.
‘The book, Dangerous Estate, argues that it was advertising that set the British press free.
‘“The daily press would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise….Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence.”
‘There are clearly dangers in over dependence on advertising, but, broadly I think it’s been a beneficial factor in newspaper publishing over the centuries… and will continue to be.’
We asked the award-winning former Guardian and Observer journalist, Jonathan Cook, for his thoughts. As ever, he kindly took time out from his busy work and nappy-changing schedule to generate some light:
‘It is revealing that Rusbridger believes the advertising boom set the British press free. What actually happened was that some media owners became fabulously wealthy and the socialist/radical presses were both starved of advertising and out-spent by the emerging corporate media. There was, of course, a degree of trickle-down to editorial staff, and – as a bonus – it allowed a bit of lavish, though rare, investigative reporting. Journalists stopped being working class and practitioners of a trade and instead became middle-class professionals. To survive as a journalist, one had to become a signed-up capitalist.
‘What also happened was that an emerging powerful corporate media, with deep pockets for libel cases, was much better equipped to take on wayward individual members of the elites (corrupt politicians, pervert judges, sex-mad footballers, the royals etc) but much less ready to explain to readers the structural flaws of British society (class, the rise of the corporations, the military-industrial complex etc). Rusbridger wants us to cheer a minor gain (occasional savaging of the greedy) that came at the cost of a much more important benefit (dissident critiques that would have allowed us to put into a much wider context the behaviour of the occasional erring member of the establishment).
‘The Guardian excels at the quality end of exposes of individual waywardness (fat cats and corrupt police) rather than the gutter end (footballers and royals). But it does not shed much more light than the tabloids to help us understand what is really taking place in national and global politics, or mobilise us to take action.’ (Email to Media Lens, March 27, 2012)
This was splendidly concise and astute. But the basic theme is readily accessible in the standard text on British media history: Power Without Responsibility by James Curran and Jean Seaton. In other words, Rusbridger knows all this – of course he does.
Notice Rusbridger’s grudging recognition, ‘I do understand why people may feel deeply suspicious of “corporate journalism”,’ as though it were controversial or debatable to assert that media corporations are indeed corporations. In similar vein, the editor of the Independent, Chris Blackhurst, commented to the Leveson inquiry:
‘I can’t defend and won’t defend some of the things that journalists have done, but if we set up an inquiry right now into the ethics of the food industry, or the ethics of the transport industry, or the ethics of medicine, we’d be sitting forever and all sorts of horrors would be revealed.’
Could it be clearer that Blackhurst views the media as just another corporate enterprise selling Truth rather than fast food or cars? Of course we have problems with corruption, says Blackhurst, all industries have problems. Ruled out of this view of the world is the possibility that his business should be exposing the problem with business as such. For journalists like Blackhurst, the idea that there might be something deeply, inherently flawed in the notion that a corporate media system can be trusted to report on a world dominated by corporations makes no sense; certainly no business sense. Instead, other corporations are perceived merely as valued allies in the quest for profits.
Mainstream? Or Ethical Freak Show?
Which brings us to an interesting issue that arose out of a recent interview when we were asked how our perceptions of ‘the mainstream media’ had changed since we began in 2001.
We also sometimes use the term ‘mainstream’ media, but it’s a bit misleading. The dominant news media are structurally fanatical, money-grubbing, undemocratic hierarchies. They do notrepresent mainstream interests, if by that we mean the concerns and priorities of the general population.
For example, it cannot be considered ‘mainstream’ human thinking to downplay or reject credible evidence of imminent climate catastrophe. Consider that Reuters reported this week, ‘Global warming close to becoming irreversible – scientists’:
‘The world is close to reaching tipping points that will make it irreversibly hotter, making this decade critical in efforts to contain global warming, scientists warned on Monday.
‘Scientific estimates differ but the world’s temperature looks set to rise by six degrees Celsius by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to rise uncontrollably.’
Will Steffen, executive director of the Australian National University’s climate change institute, comments:
‘This is the critical decade. If we don’t get the curves turned around this decade we will cross those lines.’
The story received no significant media attention and vanished from sight – as one would expect, given that researchers have observeda ‘collapse of any significant coverage of climate change in the media’. Serious discussion of the corporate obstacles to action to avert climate chaos is even less likely to appear now than when we started in 2001; as is analysis of the disastrous impact of global capitalism on our cringing planet.
Likewise, it is not ‘mainstream’ human behaviour to promote one non-existent threat after another as part of a Permanent War to control fossil fuel resources that, if consumed, will exacerbate a genuine threat made invisible by ‘selective inattention’.
Iran, now in the crosshairs of US-Israeli fire-power, is hyped as the ‘next big thing’ for Western security. It seems that no matter how awful the crimes of the West, no matter how longstanding and endemic the pattern of global exploitation, corporate news media can be relied upon to echo the propaganda emanating from Washington and London.
On a sane planet, after the continuing nightmares inflicted on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, it should be nigh on impossible to get away with targeting any more countries for Western ‘intervention’. But the state’s blood-drenched record is always wiped clean, and journalists’ memories with it. The public is supposed to accept that state objectives are essentially benign, and to overlook horrors of the recent past in which ‘our’ media are deeply complicit.
Even though we have observed this phenomenon closely since Media Lens’s inception in 2001 – and, in fact, for many years before – we still find it truly shocking. Thankfully, so do many others.
One recent example in The Sunday Times sums up the casual, unthinking propaganda. We wrote to the paper’s editors on March 5, 2012:
‘Your article “Obama asks Israel to delay strike on Iran until after election” by Uzi Mahnaimi (Sunday Times, March 5, 2012) states that Iran has a “nuclear weapons programme”. This is inaccurate reporting and you may wish to consider issuing a correction.
‘Nowhere in President Obama’s interview in The Atlantic does he use the phrase ‘nuclear weapons programme’.
‘US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated recently: “Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.”
‘Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has pointed to the consensus among the intelligence and military agencies of the United States and Israel that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme.
‘When Huw Edwards recently announced on BBC News at Ten that Iran has a “nuclear weapons programme”, the BBC’s News at Ten editor later conceded that this was an error that should not have been broadcast. He added: “We will make sure this does not happen again in the future.”
‘Given past inaccurate reporting of Iraq’s supposed WMD, and the very high stakes now over the risk of another war in the Middle East, I hope that the Sunday Times will similarly admit its error and take more care in its reporting.
‘I look forward to your reply.
For over a week there was no response, other than an automated acknowledgement. After we sent a nudge by email, we finally received a reply on 16 March, almost two weeks after the article had been published. The reply came, not from The Sunday Times editor, but from the acting letters page editor:
‘Dear David Cromwell
‘Thank you for your letter. We have checked the Atlantic article concerned and would like to run a brief letter, as per below:
‘”Your article ‘Obama asks Israel to delay strike on Iran until after election’ by Uzi Mahnaimi (Sunday Times, 4 March 2012) states that Iran has a “nuclear weapons programme’. This is inaccurate.
‘”Nowhere in President Obama’s interview in The Atlantic, which your article refers to, does he use the phrase ‘nuclear weapons programme’.
‘”US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated recently: ‘Are they [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.’”
‘Acting Letters Editor’
We emailed back:
‘Dear Anna Bruning,
‘Thank you for your reply and your offer to print a letter which I decline for the following reasons:
‘The Sunday Times erroneously referred to Iran’s “nuclear weapons programme” as if its existence were an established fact. This is a serious matter and the editors of the paper should issue a prominent correction.
‘As I said in my original email, BBC News recently admitted that they were wrong to refer to Iran’s “nuclear weapons programme”.
‘Offering to print a letter is not a substitute for the Sunday Times editors stating clearly and prominently that they got this vitally important fact wrong. The paper should be fair and honest enough to do so.
‘I look forward to hearing from you promptly, please.
We then received a brief email later the same day:
‘The paper has decided to run a correction. It will appear on Sunday.’
This is what appeared on the letters page (p.26) under ‘Corrections and Clarifications’:
‘On March 4 we reported (“Obama asks Israel to delay strike on Iran until after election”, Foreign News) that the US president had told the Atlantic magazine he was prepared to destroy “Iran’s nuclear weapons programme” if sanctions failed. In fact, he had referred to “Iran’s nuclear programme” and said his purpose was to prevent it from having a nuclear weapon.’
It was a small but welcome victory for media activism. With your help, we can do much more.
It could be that a golden opportunity for honest dissent is passing. Media corporations are focused like never before on exploiting the internet as the main base for their expanding ‘business models’. They are busily recruiting dissidents to the cause – penetrating the US market with US leftists who they know will not cause embarrassment by discussing UK politics and media, about which they often know little and care less. The unwritten rules are understood – topics other than media analysis are agreed for discussion, no need to mention problems with the corporate media at all.
We are happy to admit that it may all be much too much to be countered. Corporations have immense power to generate attention and outreach. And the public has been desperately slow to appreciate the opportunity for honest media and real change offered by the likes of The Real News Network, Democracy Now! and ZNet. It seems such an easy, natural thing to pay for glossy corporate media, such an effort to support honest dissent. No surprise – we’ve all been trained to think this way for years and decades.
The great claim among sections of the left is that ‘We have to cooperate with the corporate media to get our message out – how else are we going to be heard?’ For decades, often well-intentioned progressives have committed themselves to ‘changing the system from within’. Alas, as ‘insiders’, it is more often the system that changes them from within. The simple response is: ‘Look around you!’ Because the argument for cooperation is a lot less convincing from the edge of a precipice.
Consider that in the time when high-profile environmentalists like George Monbiot have been writing regular columns in the Guardian and the Independent, the Green movement has been all but destroyed as a force in British politics. The collapse since the mid-1980s has been beyond anything anyone could have imagined or feared. In the same period, we have seen democratic choice in the UK reduced from an imperfect but real one between left and right to the lethal no-choice of Old Tories and New Labour, with the NHS the latest target for rollback.
As Jonathan Cook says so well, the liberal media want us ‘to cheer a minor gain’ at the cost of a much more important benefit: understanding ‘what is really taking place in national and global politics’, and mobilising to take action.
Cooperation with the corporate Moloch has been tried and has failed, utterly. Why not try something else? The only hope now is for people inside and outside the media to finally speak out with uncompromised courage and honesty. It is in all our interests! We invite you, please, to read this recent email from James in London and support us:
‘I’ve been a ravenous devourer of media lens alerts for a few years now, so I thought it was time to chip in with some financial support!
‘I’ve just set up a monthly payment of £10 through Pay Pal.
‘The latest alert [Constructing Consensus – The ‘Victims-And-Aggressor Meme’] convinced me. People who care about the world really need the elegant, subtle, compassionate and truthful deconstruction of corporate media propaganda that you guys provide.
‘My last straw with the corporate media was last week, when I read a fawning article about Nigel Lawson in the Evening Standard. It was written by David Sexton, I think, and basically portrayed him as a wise man of great wealth and taste. His views on greed and climate change were presented as completely un-controversial: “We are all naturally greedy, bankers just have more of a chance to do something about it” and “I realised no-one was presenting facts in the climate change debate – that all the evidence is quite shaky. It is a lonely battle – you do get subjected to a lot of attacks from people who play the man, not the ball”. I just could not believe it! Next time I am offered an Evening Standard I’m gonna say. “No thanks, we’re all stocked up on toilet paper this week”!
‘I get the proper information from yourselves, Democracy Now and Reader Supported News, all of whom I now donate to on a monthly basis. I think this could well be the media model for the future?!
‘Keep it up guys, you’re doing a brilliant job 🙂
‘James M’ (Email to Media Lens, March 23, 2012)