Jousting With Toothpicks – The Case For Challenging Corporate Journalism

By David Edwards


A critic responding to a recent alert, objected to our use of the term ‘corporate journalist’:

‘The problem is it has no clear meaning. Chomsky regularly writes for “corporate media”, as does Pilger, Klein, and Michael Moore. Pilger has had his documentaries aired by “corporate media”. Klein promotes her books through the “corporate media”. I could go on…’

Worse still: ‘Not only is this phrase intended as a passive aggressive pejorative, it is meant to dehumanise those it is aimed at, to group them, and then discredit en masse.’ (Dom, Media Lens message board, January 24, 2013)

In fact the meaning of ‘corporate journalist’ could hardly be clearer: it describes someone paid to write for a corporation.

Certainly anyone familiar with our work will not imagine we are using the term as a form of flattery. After all, the key principle of corporate law was established in the 19th century by England’s Lord Bowen:

‘The law does not say that there are to be no cakes and ale, but there are to be no cakes and ale except such as are required for the benefit of the company… charity has no business to sit at boards of directors qua charity.’ (Lord Bowen, cited, Joel Bakan, The Corporation, Constable, 2004, pp.38-39)

This quite literally outlawed authentic corporate compassion. More recently, the American Bar Association observed:

‘While allowing directors to give consideration to the interests of others, [the law] compels them to find some reasonable relationship to the long-term interests of shareholders when so doing.’ (p.39)

Put more bluntly, the rule that corporations exist solely to maximise returns to their shareholders is ‘the law of the land’, business journalist Marjorie Kelly comments, ‘universally accepted as a kind of divine, unchallengeable truth’. (p.39)

Canadian lawyer Joel Bakan asks us to imagine how we would regard an individual who refused to help the sick and dying unless it made solid financial sense. He argues that such a person would be deemed a psychopath. If readers find the description extreme, they might like to consider the barely believable response of the fossil fuel industry to the catastrophic threat of climate change.

Journalists working for the corporate media are choosing to work for just such an employer guided by the same cold-blooded priorities. So what should our reaction be?

Well how would we have responded to a journalist taking big salaries from Pravda in Stalinist Russia or from Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany during the 1930s? The question might seem outrageous, but is a global psychopathic corporate system more or less destructive than a national Stalinist or fascist system?

Part of the difficulty in considering the question rationally lies in the very nature of the problem being addressed. The corporate media are as skilled at promoting their non-existent virtues as they are at marginalising critics. They also have an astonishing ability to make even the most appalling state crimes (‘mistakes’) seem somehow trivial, unimportant, ‘not that bad’. So the very deceptiveness of the system makes the comparison with totalitarian media seem far more outrageous than it really is.

In fact the question is reasonable. If we look around us today – at the devastating Western wars of aggression, at the mass killings fuelled by corporate militarism, at the truly awesome, perhaps terminal, exploitation of people and planet – we are looking at a world being devastated by psychopathic greed. Former New York Times journalist, Chris Hedges, comments of ‘the liberal class’, the ‘quality’ corporate media included:

‘The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power… as [it] pollutes and poisons the ecosystem and propels us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs.’ (Hedges, Death Of The Liberal Class, Nation Books, 2011, p.12)

Journalists are participants in this system. But mere willingness to cooperate says nothing about the motives of the individuals involved. Some are indeed cynically serving greed and power. But others are sincere, attempting to improve and even reform the system from within. Although we don’t agree with their strategy, we accept that it is a reasonable position to take, one that may even offer the best hope of spreading progressive views to a mass audience (we are certainly open to the possibility that we are wrong).

Our real interest and effort has never been to stand in judgement but to highlight what even the best journalists are unable to say about the system that employs them. For example, corporate journalists can almost never answer questions of this kind honestly:

‘What impact does your newspaper’s dependence on advertising for 75 per cent of its revenues have on the contents of the paper?’

Noam Chomsky can answer the question honestly, as can Edward Herman. Their book, Manufacturing Consent, published 25 years ago this year, is the most rational analysis of structural media bias we have seen. Both authors are still alive, Chomsky is a ground-breaking linguist and one of the world’s most-read political analysts. And yet the book has been ignored by the great and the good of corporate journalism. It has been mentioned eight times in the last five years in all national UK newspapers, all of them mentions in passing (one or two sentences) with zero serious analysis of the contents. The words ‘Noam Chomsky’ and ‘propaganda model’ (the central theme of the book) have appeared in a total of two national UK press articles over the last 20 years.

In our experience, a corporate journalist is unlikely to respond to the question at all. He or she might make a vague gesture in the direction of truth from the safe confines of a book in the style of the BBC’s former political editor Andrew Marr:

‘But the biggest question is whether advertising limits and reshapes the news agenda. It does, of course. It’s hard to make the sums add up when you are kicking the people who write the cheques.’ (Marr, My Trade, Macmillan, 2004, p.112)

But, as in this case, there will be no attempt to explore the implications of what is an obviously crucial problem, no attempt to offer key examples from experience, to discuss alternatives, and absolutely no attempt to call the public to action.

Another question might be posed, perhaps to a journalist at the Independent:

‘What impact does the goal of profit-maximisation under its billionaire owner have on your newspaper’s capacity to report honestly?’

One really has to be wilfully blind, or perhaps not have worked for a corporation, to fail to understand that criticising the company, the product, the owner – suggesting that the product is harmful and that customers should look elsewhere – is incompatible with the corporate profit drive. It cannot be tolerated because, from the perspective of profit, it is self-destructive and absurd. It is like deciding to play a game of football in which one of the teams tries to score own goals. What would be the point? Why bother at all?

The problem goes much deeper, because the de facto ban on structural self-criticism extends beyond journalists discussing their own media company to the contradictions afflicting the ‘corporate free press’ generally. Whistle-blowers who speak out honestly become ‘radioactive’, unemployable and are not welcome anywhere.


Walking Through Media Walls

None of the above should be taken to imply that independent commentators like Chomsky and Herman are able to persuade senior press managers to publish honest material about their newspapers in those newspapers. Chomsky, for example, has never published a structural analysis of the Guardian in the Guardian. Comparative freedom does not empower dissidents to walk through media walls.

Our analysis should also not be taken to suggest that answers to these taboo questions never appear. The Guardian did offer some quite candid analysis on the problem of advertising in an age of climate change. But this was really an editorial sop to a high-profile journalist under pressure from media activists to demonstrate that he was as uncompromisingly honest as claimed. Point made, the fig leaf of concern has since been discarded, leaving Guardian advertising policy and practice unaffected.

Critics like to personalise our arguments, responding that this, for example, is a ‘nasty’ and ‘ungrateful’ response to the Guardian’s well-intentioned efforts. We do not at all intend it ‘nastily’. Also, we do not consider rare glimpses of honest commentary from the corporate media something to be received with gratitude. We perceive this, and very much more, as a human right.

Ironically, leftists are often our fiercest opponents. Corporate dissidents are viewed, sometimes with good reason, as heroic figures doing battle in the belly of the corporate beast. Leftists argue that they should be ‘supported’ to the utmost – by which they mean they should be spared the ordeal of receiving rational challenges. Our criticism is sometimes viewed as a kind of personal betrayal, as dangerously morale-sapping. Perhaps these (often quite fierce) political commentators will lose heart and give up! The argument – in response to a tiny dissident outfit on the margins of debate – shows real contempt for open discussion and free speech.

There is also a concern that corporate gatekeepers should not be provoked in a way that might cause them to eject left infiltrators. The corporate Moloch should be placated, persuaded to see reason, converted to a more benevolent path.

This last argument carried considerable weight for a very long time, not least with us. But a change has taken place in recent years that cannot be ignored and which demands that left and green activists take a long hard look at their assumptions. That change is climate change.

Despite a quarter of a century of growing, now undeniable, evidence of looming climate catastrophe, media coverage is a fraction of what it was when we, for example, began campaigning in the late 1980s. The last decade, in particular, has seen green movements more or less routed on climate change by corporate interests, with the media very much leading the assault. The argument that progressives should continue placating these media, supporting corporate leftists, and not declaring obvious truth, is more vulnerable now than it has ever been.

The lack of comment from corporate dissidents like Robert Fisk, Naomi Klein, Mark Weisbrot, Owen Jones and Glenn Greenwald gives the impression that structural media analysis is a take it or leave it issue: one might find it interesting and discuss it, or not, almost as a matter of taste. But in fact public information relating to everything these writers do find interesting – civil rights, war, climate change, economic injustice, mass consumerism – passes through structural media filters, which are undeniably a key issue for all of these discussions. The unspoken assumption that they are not is one of the propaganda system’s required illusions.


Trying To Move A Ten-Ton Truck With A Toothpick

Criticism of our analysis also overlooks our attempt to address a crucial imbalance built into the media system. Just as journalists have plenty to lose from criticising their own and other media, they stand to gain from hyping their virtues. Twitter is chock full of journalists praising their colleagues, editors, potential allies and future employers, with points also scored for lambasting recognised ‘bad guys’ like Chomsky, Julian Assange and Hugo Chavez. As Chomsky has noted, the political classes are ‘the masters of self-adulation’. It hardly needs us to point out that broadcast and print journalists are often feted as national treasures.

Our obvious point is that there is little or no opinion challenging the media’s presentation of itself as fundamentally benign, marred only by a few Murdochian gremlins. It is hard to imagine how anyone could think that our offering a tiny counter to this self-adulation is in some way ‘unkind’ or ‘unfair’. As Chomsky once wrote to us:

‘Am really impressed with what you are doing, though it’s like trying to move a ten-ton truck with a toothpick. They’re not going to allow themselves to be exposed.’ (Chomsky, email to Media Lens, September 14, 2005)

This refusal to be exposed facilitates criminality on an awesome scale.

In the face of the disaster that has overtaken Iraq in the ten years since the 2003 invasion, a number of journalists have quietly lamented their own performance. The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson writes in his book Live From Downing Street:

‘The build-up to the invasion of Iraq is the point in my career when I have most regretted not pushing harder and not asking more questions…’ (Robinson, Live from Downing Street, Transworld, 2012, p.332)

The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman has admitted of US-UK claims:

‘I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were.’

The fiercely pro-Iraq war (then) Independent columnist Johann Hari offered a mea culpa under the title: ‘I was wrong, terribly wrong – and the evidence should have been clear all along.’

But the fact is that even the most cynical, hard-right media propagandists complicit in this horrendous crime have not paid any kind of price – they continue, unaffected, with their lucrative, high-profile careers. This facilitation of the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians abroad is a function of the media’s power without responsibility.



In an attempt to break the spell and challenge the silence, we do deliberately use provocative language. We believe the media is far more toxic than most people imagine. From our perspective, the truth about the corporate media’s mass deception can only be communicated honestly by language that many media consumers will find outrageous. 

If nothing else, we are a rare voice. Most political commentators dream of a contracted, regular column in the Guardian or Independent, of becoming a TV ‘name’. We have watched as younger writers on the left – some of them enthusiastic contributors to our message board – have carefully tailored their words and tone to achieve corporate media inclusion. The moment inclusion becomes possible or actual, they stop posting on our site, stop mentioning our work, and join the shaking mainstream heads denouncing us as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘extreme’.

In 2001, we decided, almost for the fun of it, as a kind of experiment, that we would no longer abide by the media’s ‘gentleman’s agreement’ on what should and should not be written. Amazingly, thanks to the tremendous generosity of our readers, we are able to feed ourselves and write honestly. Unlike so many commentators, we really do have nothing to lose.

This does not make us saints, or even right. But it does challenge the claim that we – tragicomically charging the media’s ten-ton truck with a toothpick – are doing more harm than good.


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