In Flat Earth News Nick Davies has written a great book, one that every responsible literate person should read, and then read again. And Davies has certainly got people’s attention. I saw him talk at a media worker’s conference in December and the case he made was compelling, his book deepened this sense, and I found myself equally transfixed by a subsequent talk he gave. (If you get the chance go and see him talk—I hope some people unlike us have the wit to record him.)
For me, the most surprising attempt to turn Davies’s book into dog food was made by the Media Lens hounds, given their commitment to ‘correcting the distorted vision of the corporate media’.
Like Davies I confess to being a Guardian man. But I am a Media Lens man too, and like them was surprised that Davies ignored Herman and Chomsky’s 1988 Manufacturing Consent. I no longer listen to or watch any broadcast media or read any newspapers (and haven’t done so for years) but aggregate my news on the internet (including from guardian.co.uk). I agree with Media Lens that liberal newspapers like The Guardian can make the most obliging channels for propaganda, the paper distinguishing itself on the reporting of the nuclear ongoing standoff with Iran (see Precision Time for the Press for my own analysis of one instance where the paper abandoned reporting news and contented itself with printing propaganda; my communication to The Guardian reader’s editor remains unacknowledged despite a follow-up request). If it were down to the Fourth Estate there is little doubt that we would be embroiled in another catastrophic conflagration in the Middle East; that we aren’t is almost certainly down to the US Secretary of Defence.
For those that aren’t familiar with the theses advanced by their books, Herman, Chomsky, Edwards and Cromwell maintain that the Mass Media have always been set up to reinforce a philosophy that maintains the stability and integrity of the system they are a part of, stifling viewpoints that threaten it, and many people have written about this (such as, for example, E.P. Thompson). This is no top-down command and control system, nor one that has been designed, but has evolved naturally and operates unconsciously.
To people like Herman, Chomsky, Edwards, Cromwell and myself, those who adhere to radical philosophies that cut against mainstream philosophies, it is as plain as daylight that the system has self-correcting mechanisms, that act like anti-bodies, moving to neutralise any opinions that seriously challenge orthodox values, and their analysis shows how this mechanism works.
Davies’s book is an inside job, and it is complementary. It shows how the system is in an advanced state of decay, having rotted from within. Davies shows how the commercial imperative has led to the news industry to remorselessly cut back on the basic raw material of journalists: time, time to find and check stories. (By the way, Richard Douthwaite shows in his own radical, ignored book, The Growth Illusion, that this perpetual squeezing out of labour is a natural by-product of economic growth, causing serious problems for industries like journalism and teaching that can’t rely on the substitution of labour with fossil fuels for ‘efficiency savings’.) As Davies says trying to report news without time is like trying to make cars without metal. Of course the tens of thousands of journalists that have been sacked by the news corporations have been readily scooped up by the PR departments of the state and corporations to write the news for their ex-colleagues.When Davies and a group at Cardiff University analysed the UK national newspapers they found that this seemed to be true of about 88% of news stories, only 12% of the stories being researched or checked by the person identified on the byline. (Much of the news came from news agencies like AP and the Press Association, but these agencies only report what people say without any concern for the veracity of what is being said; the press agencies have also been sacking journalists, and they make excellent channels for PR.)
However, the Media Lens people aren’t happy, concluding in their Media Alert: Flat Earth News – The Inside View:
Flat Earth News invites us to focus on staffing levels, on a lack of journalistic time and resources. It invites us to tinker at the edges of a system which in fact is rotten to the core. Or rather it invites “insiders” to address these issues. But authentic reform of hierarchical, exploitative social systems – of which the corporate mass media is a classic example – has only ever been achieved by democratic pressure from outside.
Perhaps in years to come, Flat Earth News will be seen as part of the corporate media’s response to the growing clamour from internet-based “meddlesome outsiders”. With increasing effectiveness, these are demanding that anyone with compassion for suffering, anyone required to witness the appalling impact of corporate media bias, +is+, in fact, an “insider”.
The crux of the matter seems to be what counts as ‘truth’.
Davies’s analysis is so flawed, such a symptom of the problem he has failed to perceive, because he is able to ask in all seriousness:
“Why would a profession lose touch with its primary function? Why would truth-telling disintegrate into the mass production of ignorance?” (p.45)
Truth-telling has +never+ been the primary function of Davies’s profession. Even the idea of “professional journalism” is a fraud. As media analyst Robert McChesney notes it is no coincidence that the notion of professionalism appeared just as corporations achieved an unprecedented stranglehold at the beginning of the 20th century:
“Savvy publishers understood that they needed to have their journalism appear neutral and unbiased, notions entirely foreign to the journalism of the era of the Founding Fathers, or their businesses would be far less profitable.” (McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw – Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367)
Wealthy owners could thereby claim that editors and reporters were freed from external influence by trained, professional judgement. This allowed the corporate media monopoly to be presented as a “neutral” service to democracy. The claim, McChesney notes, was “entirely bogus”.
Now ‘truth’ without careful qualification or a well understood context is near enough a meaningless idea, and the Media Lens people should know this, as they (David Edwards and Matthew Bain) were quoting in a recent cogitation Non-Violence And The Self-Cherishing Mind) Tibetan Buddhist masters (Geshe Lhundub Sopa) and the eighth century Indian Buddhist master Shantideva (from the Bodhicaryavatara –The Way of the Bodhisattva). According to the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) view of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism nothing exists apart from its context (certainly not ‘truth’) and knowledge of this (i.e., wisdom) is crucial to achieving authentic compassion. (The Media Lens people may find the chapter on patience useful here, especially from stanza seventy six.)
It has been my experience that professional journalists are typically intensely concerned with truth; I know of few people so empirically orientated, and as the Media Lens people acknowledge Davies is well aware of the problems.
In one refreshing passage in the book, he dismisses the media’s groundless claim to objectivity:
“The great blockbuster myth of modern journalism is objectivity, the idea that a good newspaper or broadcaster simply collects and reproduces the objective truth. It is a classic Flat Earth tale, widely believed and devoid of reality. It has never happened and never will happen because it cannot happen. Reality exists objectively, but any attempt to record the truth about it always and everywhere necessarily involves selection…” (p.111)
Davies’s point is that the media has developed a structural weakness that makes it easy for people to systematically manipulate the media to suit a given agenda, and Davies shows that structural changes underway are making it easier and easier to do this. Davies has shown that this process has gotten to such a stage that these processes far from maintaining the stability of the system are actually destroying it. Davies’s book goes along way to explaining the cancer that is spreading through the body politic of the industrial world. And this is interesting.
A comparison with ethics and regulation in financial trading markets may be helpful. Nobody believes that these regulatory systems ensures saintly practices but they are necessary for the stability of the system as once the system becomes so corrupt that people can easily deceive to exploit it for personal financial gain it will quickly fall apart. Such a collapse of the system will almost certainly cause severe suffering for those with less, dependent as they are on it for food and housing on retirement.
An analogy with the old USSR may be helpful in seeing the relationship between critiques like Manufacturing Consent and Flat Earth News. Compared to Flat Earth News, Manufacturing Consent and Guardians of Power are philosophical and could be likened to Orwell’s criticism of soviet communism in Animal Farm. (The analogy is deliberately crude.) These books point to a structural weakness that, if it isn’t attended to, will catch up with the system eventually. However, Davies’s Flat Earth News is more like the critiques circulating in the enlightened circles of the Soviet communist party in the 1980s, telling them that their system was rotten, and leading to the doomed Perestroika/Glasnost effort to turn it around. The scale of the misery, the catastrophic impacts on life expectancy in Russia in the 1990s with the disorderly break up of the USSR should give pause for thought. The neoliberal vultures with their contemptuous attitude to the old ‘rotten’ system, triumphantly telling the Russians that the old system was no good and that they must adopt a crash program of market reforms have much to answer for, and this should act as a cautionary tale for anyone offering maximalist compassionate critiques of systems in advanced states of decay.
In the recent talk by Nick Davies it was commented on how we have a tremendous tendency to fixate on events but not on the context; we have an insatiable appetite for finding out about trivial details about attacks on our cities and embassies, our flags being burnt and so on, but little stamina to consider the patterns that may be driving these events, especially our potential contribution to them. It was also noted that there is a powerful tendency to get collectively caught up in narratives that gather momentum and become compelling and irresistible for news producers and consumers alike (e.g., the recent mania for brave Prince Harry by even sharp and insightful commentators).
We think of ourselves as the most rational civilised race that has ever existed in the history of humanity but the truth is probably the opposite (as many political analysts recognised for a long time—see, for example, It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy). That Davis’s own book should be such an instant hit while the more philosophical Manufacturing Consent and Guardians of Power should be (relatively speaking) passed over is a testament to this fact. Davies’s instinct for telling a great story, for providing a narrative that people would understand would lead him to ignore the philosophers and construct his own (brilliant) thesis in a language that people would In eschewing the more philosophical antecedents in his account he may be reflecting in his book some of the structural weaknesses in our habits of thought that are feeding the problems he is describing. understand.
It seems to me that the systematic structural problems Davies describes in Flat Earth News and the well known problems with Fox News (if you haven’t already done so, check out the hilarious 3.5 minute Fox Attacks: Iran, my all-time favourite video) have a common explanation in the consumer that not only tolerates but selects for this kind of thing. Especially with mass, cheap access to the internet it wouldn’t be difficult for consumers to take a more active role in aggregating reliable news that challenged the corporate news agenda—just spending some time each day reading Antiwar.com by itself would go along way to correcting for some of the most egregious distortions and provide a healthy daily reminder of how cooked our news is, even from the ‘liberal’ news media. Simon Jenkins’s recent Guardian article Bigotry and violence made Paisley and Adams the Taliban of Europe and the comment thread below it illustrate the point; right there in this single piece you can see a vivid illustration of the contrast between the passive reading—relatively speaking, spoon feeding—of the newspaper and the much more challenging and diverse analysis the online reader will get from the original article combined with the commentary. Despite these resources the overwhelming majority of people still want to be spoon fed their ‘news’. I think this is part of wider pattern of a systematic disdain for reality that has become endemic in our culture, a phase that most great civilisations go through, often with roots in their greatest triumphs.
The mass media and journalism emerged out of the eighteenth century with the acceleration of urbanisation and mass literacy. This was also the century in which we proclaimed ourselves enlightened, when we became infatuated with sentimentality, and where our philosophers encouraged us to base our judgement on sentimentality.
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, §2.3.3
It is also the century that gave rise to the writings of Defoe, Swift, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne and Burney, to be unified by Austen in what we now know as the modern novel. As I show in In Search of Sense and Sensibility Austen understood that we were confusing sentiment and judgement, and her cycle of novels (and the critical history of them) shows that she was exposing our sentimental follies to anyone who cared to pay attention.
Insider accounts like Flat Earth News are complementary to outsider critiques like Manufacturing Consent and Guardians of Power. Both kinds of critiques are needed. Both are needed for a rounded understanding of the modern news industry.