Noam Chomsky once emailed 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)
These were kind words from Chomsky. But in fact, ‘they’ – corporate journalists – often do an excellent job of exposing themselves.
Consider that, last week, one of us happened to notice this on Twitter:
‘Under 27? Want to spend a year writing about politics for The Observer, @NewStatesman and @thetimes? Anthony Howard Award 2018 is now open: http://anthonyhowardaward.org.uk . It gave @LOS_Fisher @ashcowburn @patrickkmaguire @Dulcie_Lee and me our starts in Westminster. Apply!’
‘Forget it. Don’t write for the “mainstream”. Don’t write for money. Don’t write for prestige. Just “follow your bliss” by writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true, and give it away for free.’
The tweet quickly picked up 15 retweets and 40 likes. At first, nobody expressed strong feelings about it. But then, a clutch of corporate journalists and writers decided to scandalise what we had sent, generating a kind of ‘mainstream’ feeding frenzy. Emma Kennedy, actress, author of ten books, tweeted graciously:
‘This is total bollocks. If you want to be a writer know this: you have a value and you ALWAYS deserve to be paid. Go fuck yourself Media Lens.’
Stephen Buranyi, who writes longreads for the Guardian, mimed:
‘**does the jackoff motion so hard I glide across the floor like an unbalanced washing machine**’
Patrick Sawer, senior reporter at The Telegraph:
‘Tell that to anyone trying to stage a play, paint a canvas, put together a film, get a book published. What arrant nonsense to pretend, for the sake of “purity” that the market economy doesn’t exist.’
Kate Hind, Mail on Sunday Showbiz Editor, chipped in:
‘I think this lot are in on the wind up’
‘I’ve worked as a journo for more than 30 years and only those with wealthy partners can afford to potter about doing what they fancy. Most have to do the grunt work of covering courts, sports, disasters and getting their hands dirty.’
Everyone seemed to find their own meaning, and outrage, in the tweet. Editor Wendy Rosenfield:
‘This is literally the worst advice for writers. Write for yourself, on your own blog, or to promote your own work for free. Charge everyone else. It’s work. It has value and deserves compensation.’
Ian Craig, a politics reporter:
‘Abhorrent. I hope you apologise for this.’
Helen Black, a novelist, foresaw dark consequences:
‘Have you got any idea how unattainable a career in the media/arts feels to millions of working class people? A tweet like this only serves to feed class division.’
Before long, the outrage went global. From New York:
‘This is awful advice. Truly, truly awful.’
‘Snobismo moralista de pacotilla…’
We got the gist from the first two words.
Even Owen Jones of the Guardian, normally a stickler for ignoring us, replied:
‘The corporate media needs to be relentlessly critiqued. And that includes its dependence on unpaid/underpaid labour which is a) exploitative and b) turns journalism into a closed shop for the privileged. Which you helped justify.’
‘And yes, sure, there’ll be those using your stupid statement opportunistically because you more generally critique corporate media practices. That doesn’t mean you’re vindicated in giving pseudo radical cover to unpaid media labour.’
‘It’s not possible for us to have “helped justify” corporate media exploitation and privilege when the first line of our tweet read: “Forget it. Don’t write for the “mainstream”.’
‘There’s also a problem with corporate media requiring that young journalists refrain from criticising their colleagues, their company, their advertisers, their owners, “the industry”. But that’s not something you’re willing or able to talk about, is it?’
Jones resumed his policy of ignoring us.
The New Statesman published an entire article on our tweet, titled:
‘Telling journalists to “follow your bliss” by writing for free is as anti-socialist as you can get’
Abuse poured in liberally:
‘You sound like a privileged twat here. Just saying.’
‘Fucking new age wanky twaddle. Fuck off’
‘Go stuff your bliss up your arse’
‘Fuck you. Pay people.’
‘You sound retarded.’
And so on, with the above representing only a small sample…
‘The Call To Adventure’
By any standards, this was a fascinating response to a single tweet of just 279 characters. In his excellent response to the furore, former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook wrote that ‘the outpouring of indignation from these journalists at a little bit of advice from Media Lens must be unprecedented’.
So what did Joseph Campbell, a comparative mythologist, actually mean when he talked of ‘following your bliss’? In a series of discussions on ‘The Power of Myth’ with journalist Bill Moyers, Campbell explained:
‘The way to find out about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy – not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what I call “following your bliss”.’ (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ‘The Power of Myth’, Doubleday, 1988, p.155)
Having found out what really inspires us, the key is to not be distracted or tempted by lesser motivations – ‘lesser’, not because they are ‘bad’ or ‘evil’, but because they are not, in fact, despite what many people think, sources of real satisfaction:
‘You may have a success in life, but then just think of it – what kind of life was it? What good was it – you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do in all your life. I always tell my students, go where your body and soul want to go. When you have the feeling, then stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.’ (p.118)
Campbell was not dispensing self-help twaddle here. His comments were rooted in more than half a century spent studying myths, legends and folk tales from every corner of the globe. He was particularly interested in a remarkable, recurring ‘monomyth’ featuring a ‘hero’ – not a tedious, Marvel-style superhero, but simply someone sensitive to his or her extreme frustration with egotistical pursuits based around money, respect and fame.
This stubborn, otherwise very ordinary, soul responds to a ‘call to adventure’, stepping beyond the boundaries of everyday life to search for some deeper, more satisfying answer to life. In doing so, the hero inevitably takes a challenging journey away from the familiar and secure along a ‘road of trials’, which eventually delivers him or her to a ‘wasteland’. This is an abysmal moment of crisis that, if faced and endured, results in a tremendous ‘boon’; an experience that leaves the hero utterly transformed.
Campbell’s specific advice to writers answering this ‘call to adventure’ was to read everything by the authors they love. And to then read everything loved by this first set of authors, and so on. He suggested we keep journeying, investigating ever more deeply into whatever it is we find most enthralling and enlivening. Simultaneously, we should write whatever it is we find most interesting – just write and write, practice, experiment and enjoy.
In this way, he claimed, we can develop a depth of enthusiasm, knowledge and skill that may very well result in our work being noticed, appreciated and supported. But this positive reception should not be the motivation, not even a concern. Does it need saying that the hero of the ‘monomyth’ – Christ, Buddha, Bodhidharma, Saraha, Kabir, Lao-Tse – is not seeking fame and financial gain?
Campbell warned that a writer might need to follow this path for ten years before receiving any acknowledgement at all, much less payment. But this was not a problem because the delight of the adventure more than compensates for any financial loss. Campbell’s key point:
‘And if you stay in the centre and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.’
But, of course, questions remain; urgent issues that explain the bile expressed at our tweet:
1: How on earth are we to live?
Guardian columnist Dawn Foster garnered 524 ‘likes’ on Twitter with this comment:
‘Emailing my landlord, bank, and utilities company to explain I’m “following my bliss”.’
Someone else wrote: ‘How the fuck are we going to afford rent and bills and food by writing for bliss.’
2: Why on earth would a young writer give his or her work away for free? Why would payment not be an aspiration?
Writer Emma Kennedy again:
‘It is utterly disgusting that you are advocating for writers not to be paid. Go tell that to a plumber. You’re a disgrace.’
A freelance photographer agreed: ‘Dear “Work For Free” cheerleader: Just Fuck Off, there’s a poppet.’
To reiterate, Campbell argued that a creative writer must first build a foundation of enthusiasm, knowledge and skill. This can take years, and means following our interest wherever it leads.
What matters in these early years is that we love what we’re doing and keep doing it. What does not matter is whether we are achieving some external reward: getting attention, getting paid. These are completely secondary. In fact, they are not even secondary; they are a trap. Schopenhauer wrote:
‘Only he who writes entirely for the sake of what he has to say writes anything worth writing. It is as if there were a curse on money: every writer writes badly as soon as he starts writing for gain.’ (Schopenhauer, ‘Essays and Aphorisms’, Penguin Books, 1981, p.199)
The 11th century Buddhist master, Ksemendra, made a similar point:
‘The thoughts of wealth and glory that arise first are like poison ivy: they harm merely by a touch, enchanting and paralysing the mind.’ (Ksemendra, ‘Leaves of the Heaven Tree’, Dharma Publishing, 1997, p.421)
But how can a concern for payment be actually poisonous?
As young writers very consciously following our bliss in the 1990s, we also felt the temptation to stop reading and writing the material we found most interesting; to start thinking ‘maturely’ and ‘responsibly’ about ‘market demands’. As knowledge and ability increase with practice, the possibility and temptation arise to turn to issues, perhaps related, that pay. Taking this turn, we can quickly come to feel exactly as we do when stuck in standard corporate office work – we are now writing from the head rather than the heart, which is clearly felt as a dull, joyless, mechanical task.
But what is really alarming about straying from the ‘call to adventure’ in this way, is that we can end up spending a huge amount of time and energy on this paid work. Writing consumes a lot of mental energy – anyone who writes for three or four hours a day will not have much energy left for real writing. It is far better for young writers to avoid paid writing of this kind and support themselves through paid, non-writing work – part-time teaching, for example.
Rather than worrying about toxic money issues, young writers can write what they believe in and send it, completely free, completely uncompromised, to people they admire, friends, small magazines, and so on. In our case, we sent our work to people like Harold Pinter, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Howard Zinn and Edward Goldsmith; to magazines like Resurgence, The Ecologist, New Internationalist, Red Pepper and Z Magazine. Because they valued our work, they began helping us – in Pilger’s case, to a degree that was beyond anything we could have imagined and that continues to this day.
This is why our tweet suggested young writers should write and ‘give it away for free’. Doing so allows them to stay true to what they believe, and may well result in support that, crucially, is not conditional on corporate conformity and compromise.
Incidentally, Campbell followed his own path by disappearing into the hills to read for ten years at the height of the Great Depression. As he said:
‘I came back from Europe as a student in 1929, just three weeks before the Wall Street crash, so I didn’t have a job for five years. There just wasn’t a job. That was a great time for me. I didn’t feel poor, I just felt that I didn’t have any money.’
Bridges Burning Brightly – Media Lens
Consider the creation of Media Lens in July 2001. We both loathed trying to jump through tiny corporate media hoops to publish small articles and book reviews, and never considered charging for our media alerts and cogitations.
The goal was to enjoy ourselves, writing whatever we felt was important, interesting and true about corporate media without giving a hoot about upsetting newspaper editors, commissioning editors and the like – the people young writers are normally terrified of alienating. We felt it was vital to not give a hoot.
It never occurred to us that we might be able to make any money out of what we were doing. After all, which of the many corporations, great and small, that dominate the mass media would dream of publishing material undermining their credibility? We also didn’t imagine that readers would send donations to a tiny website run by two virtually unknown writers. Nevertheless, we set about burning our few, rickety media bridges.
Just eighteen months later, with donations flowing, Edwards was able to abandon his ten-year, Tefl teaching career to work full-time on Media Lens. Cromwell, who has a family and who was then working as a scientist, was eventually able to resign and work full-time from 2010. The public response has always been astonishing.
Last year, in lieu of the usual coffee-makers and cutlery, a couple wrote to their entire list of wedding guests asking them to send donations to Media Lens. As a birthday present for her husband, the wife of an avid reader in Switzerland sent us €1,000, asking only that we send him an email on the day. Ignoring our protests, another reader set up a standing order donating £2 a month, despite sometimes not having enough money to put food on the table. Another supporter paid for 100 copies of our book ‘Newspeak’ to be sent to senior journalists, editors and managers at the BBC (we only ever received two replies).
We have many humbling stories of this kind that we can hardly believe ourselves. The public has immense power to support honest writing, which is why we have imagined a collective of principled writers and journalists detaching themselves completely from corporate media, and placing themselves entirely at the mercy of the public.
Of course we have also made a small amount of money from our two Pluto Press books; from a tiny, short-lived monthly ‘box’ column in the New Statesman (2003-2005), and from a bi-monthly column in Gulf Today recycling media alerts (2004-2009). We are not at all against being paid; the point is that it has never been our motivation and does not determine what we write. And yes, we accept that this is not in any way a secure career path. In fact, donations have been falling for a while and we may have to return to part-time work in the next couple of years.
We are keenly aware that the reflexive response from our many critics, wobbling like washing machines across the floor, will be:
‘Well, you say you follow your bliss, but your writing is tedious, turgid, ineffectual crap. So why don’t you…?’
Which is why we responded to many tweeters with a comment that appeared on the front of our second Media Lens book, ‘Newspeak’ (Pluto Press, 2009), taken from the foreword by John Pilger:
‘Not since Orwell and Chomsky has perceived reality been so skilfully revealed in the cause of truth.’
The quality and impact of any writing is always a matter of personal opinion, of course. But we think responses of this kind from the people we respect most indicate that Media Lens has been a tremendous success, considering that we really are just two writers who really have given our media alerts and cogitations away for free, exactly as proposed in our tweet.
The Bigger Reality
But there is another crucial issue mentioned in the tweet, ‘Don’t write for the corporate media’, that was completely unaddressed by our Twitter critics. This concerns the utterly disastrous impact of young writers meekly conforming to the demands of the corporate system. For these media truly are an integral part of a ‘mainstream’ monster that is devastating the planet. As Jonathan Cook wrote:
‘It’s almost as if these critics are desperately trying to deflect their thoughts from the consequences of this bigger reality. Media Lens and I have committed a crime of honesty: about what kind of world we not only need to live in but must live in right now if we and our children are to survive impending climate breakdown and economic collapse.
‘The “realists”, it seems, would prefer that Media Lens and I tell young journalists that they should forget all that, keep their heads down and carry on like their predecessors in the media, who smoothed the path to the environmental and economic crises we now face.’
It is impossible to write in a genuinely unconstrained way about the crucial issues of our time from within corporate media. This becomes immediately clear when we glance at just a few of the major topics that ‘mainstream’ writers cannot discuss:
They cannot criticise their newspapers, magazines or other media companies: their media owners, parent companies, editors, colleagues, products and advertisers. They cannot discuss the toxic nature of the corporate media system as a whole. For example, they cannot point even to the absurdity of profit-seeking, billionaire-owned, advert-dependent, corporate journalism reporting ‘impartially’ on a world dominated by profit-seeking mega-corporations.
They cannot discuss the very reasonable claim advanced by the Canadian lawyer, Joel Bakan, that the corporate system – the most powerful economic and political force on the planet – is, in essence, a giant psychopath subordinating human and animal life to short-term profit. This cannot be debated even in the context of irrefutable evidence that vast corporate interests are, still now, fighting tooth and nail to obstruct action on climate change that is threatening global catastrophe.
Because the government is a major supplier of high-level sources and other subsidised news (from central government and various departments, like defence), writers cannot discuss the fact that party politics is essentially owned by corporate power. They cannot expose the role of the US as a de facto global Godfather deploying high-tech violence and terror to ensure Third World countries serve US corporate interests, with obstructive independent nationalists attacked and overthrown in the name of ‘human rights’ and ‘self-defence’.
Because the corporate press is about selling products and services to billions of consumers, it is loath to discuss the claim that an authentic, incomparable bliss is located within the human heart, and can be experienced by directing some attention away from external sources of ‘happiness’ to internal feelings in meditation. And yet this has been the assertion of every great spiritual master for thousands of years. Kabir, for example, said:
‘Don’t go outside your house to see flowers, my friend, don’t bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals.’
These ‘flowers’ are waiting for us when we follow our bliss. The flower with ‘a thousand petals’ found by ‘the hero with a thousand faces’ is Enlightenment, deemed a quaint, poetic notion by head-trapped journalism. It is a truth so completely at odds with the whole purpose of corporate power that, beyond a trivial, lifestyle concern with de-stressing ‘mindfulness’, it cannot be considered.
A spider’s web of ‘red lines’ awaits anyone who tries to write openly and honestly inside this system.
Finally, why did so many corporate journalists feel so compelled to vent their spleen at this one tiny tweet among thousands? A tweet from a website that has no conceivable ability to influence or harm their financial prospects in any way. Why did they bother?
The answer can only be that corporate journalists felt drawn to Campbell’s advice. He wrote of such people:
‘Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture”, the subject loses the power of affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved. His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless – even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building an empire of renown.’ (Campbell, ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces’, Fontana Press, 1949, p.59)
What journalist stuck in the confines of profit-maximisation and ‘market demands’ could fail to feel the attraction of ‘writing what you absolutely love to write to inspire and enlighten other people. Write what seems interesting, important and true’?
But what journalist lumbered with a mortgage, prestige, kids’ university debts – after decades spent clambering up a career ladder – can dare to think in terms of following their bliss? The idea seems hateful because it triggers a conflict that is immediate and obvious, and full of pain.
How, then, to safely dismiss the whole issue? By raging at the final advice: ‘give it away for free’. Impossible! Absurd! It sows class division! Thus can they reject all such ‘nonsense’ and trudge back to conformity.
The tell, the clue, lies in the very passion of the rejection – in the hundreds of angry tweets. After all, mere nonsense is ignored, or coolly dismissed. But when something stirs an inner conflict, the energy must out: ‘The lady doth protest too much.’ The gentleman, also.
To all our corporate critics languishing in the fetid bowels of the corporate media Moloch, we say:
Don’t go to your corporate offices to see flowers, my friend, don’t bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals.