Friday, 10 March 2017 19:37

Distortion and groupthink

David Cromwell and David Edwards edit Media Lens, www.medialens.org. In a foundation essay on media culture, they explain how the British media distort reality and marginalise dissent. Media bias against the Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is likely to be prominent in the next few weeks, and we invite further contributions on this topic.

The media presents itself as a neutral window on the world. We are to believe that the view we see through that window supplies ‘all the news that’s fit to print’. But 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 distorted and limited painting of a window on the world. Moreover, the ‘painting’ has been produced using colours, textures and forms all selected by profit-seeking corporations or national broadcasters tied intimately to the state.

It is no wonder that so much media output looks the same, with an artificial shared consensus on vital issues – ‘austerity’, war on Iraq, war on Libya, war on Syria, the NHS and the economy, to name just a few. The reality is that the state and the corporate media have shared elite interests, goals and biases. Anything that seriously challenges the status quo is marginalised, buried or vilified.

Consider the impact of advertising which typically provides around 50 per cent of revenues for the commercial media. Journalists regularly claim that reporting and opinion are protected from the influence of advertising by a failsafe firewall. Editorial priorities and media performance are, they say, completely uncontaminated by the ads in which they are embedded. In the real world, every last aspect of a newspaper is shaped by and designed to attract advertising. Media analyst James Twitchell explains:

You name it: the appearance of ads throughout the pages, the “jump” or continuation of a story from page to page, the rise of sectionalisation (as with news, cartoons, sports, financial, living, real estate), common page size, halftone images, process engraving, the use of black-and-white photography, then colour, sweepstakes, and finally discounted subscriptions were all forced on publishers by advertisers hoping to find target audiences. 

- quoted in Sharon Beder, Global Spin, Green Books, 1997, p.181

Even Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor and former editor of the Independent, once admitted:

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

Media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton described the impact of advertising revenue on media culture at the beginning of the twentieth century:

Dependence on advertising encouraged the absorption or elimination of the early radical press and stunted its subsequent development before the First World War

 - Curran and Seaton, Power Without Responsibility: The Press and Broadcasting in Britain, Routledge, 1991, p.47

In fact, advertising completely changed the media landscape:

In short, one of four things happened to national radical papers that failed to meet the requirements of advertisers. They either closed down; accommodated to advertising pressure by moving up-market; stayed in a small audience ghetto with manageable losses; or accepted an alternative source of institutional patronage.

- Ibid, p.43

It is no coincidence that just as corporations achieved this unprecedented stranglehold, the notion of ‘professional journalism’ appeared. American media analyst, Robert McChesney, writes:

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.

- Robert McChesney, in Kristina Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose The Myth Of A Free Press, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.367

By promoting education in formal ‘schools of journalism’, which did not exist before 1900 in the United States, wealthy owners could claim that trained editors and reporters were granted autonomy to make editorial decisions based on their professional judgement, rather than on the needs of owners and advertisers. As a result, owners could present their media monopoly as a ‘neutral’ service to the community. The claim, McChesney writes, was ‘entirely bogus’.

Built-in to ‘neutral’ professional journalism were three major biases. First, ostensibly to ensure balanced selection of stories, professional journalists decided that the actions and opinions of official sources should form the basis of legitimate news. As a result, news came to be dominated by ‘mainstream’ political and business sources representing similar establishment interests.

Second, journalists agreed that a news ‘hook’ - a dramatic event, official announcement or publication of a report - was required to justify covering a story. This also strongly favoured establishment interests, which were far more able to generate the required ‘hook’ than marginalised dissident groups.

Finally, carrot-and-stick pressures from advertisers, business associations and leading political parties had the effect of herding corporate journalists away from some issues and towards others. Newspapers dependent on corporate advertisers are, after all, unlikely to focus too intensively on the destructive impact of these same corporations on public health, the Third World and environment.

McChesney notes how professional journalism ‘smuggles in values conducive to the commercial aims of the owners and advertisers, as well as the political aims of the owning class’. (Ibid, p.369)

All of these factors are included in the most complete analysis of media bias: the ‘propaganda model’, introduced by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, ‘Manufacturing Consent’. The propaganda model consists of five ‘news filters’ through which ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public’. They are:

i) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of the dominant mass-media firms;

ii) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;

iii) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business, and "experts" funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power;

iv) "flak" as a means of disciplining the media;

v) "anticommunism" (more recently, “anti-terrorism”) as a national religion and control mechanism.

All of these factors work to ensure that the ‘mainstream’ media actually promote the interests of a very narrow, 1% elite. Herman and Chomsky commented:

The “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.

But what about the BBC, the Guardian and Channel 4 News? Aren’t they different? Don’t they present accurate reporting and a wide range of views? Certainly, no serious media analyst looks to the right-wing press to defend and expand free speech; they are plainly propaganda organs for established greed. But many people do look to the so-called ‘left-leaning’ press. Until recently, many liberals, and much of the general public, viewed the BBC and, to a lesser extent, the Guardian as national treasures. However, two recent major events have severely challenged this complacent assumption. In Scotland, in particular, there is now considerable scepticism, to say the least, at endless proclamations that BBC News is an ‘impartial’ public-interest service. The broadcaster’s biased coverage of the independence referendum campaign in 2014 blew apart that illusion once and for all.

And throughout the UK, people have witnessed the spectacular ‘mainstream’ media bias targeting Jeremy Corbyn. Given the huge mandate that Corbyn received to become leader of the Labour Party in two elections, the constant attacks on him have highlighted how systemically opposed the media is to policies favoured by much of the public. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell commented recently:

Jeremy Corbyn is trying to transform our society so that it is radically more equal, radically more fair, radically more democratic. The whole media establishment [is] owned by people whose power is entrenched. They are trying to destroy a socialist who is trying to transfer power from the establishment to the people. That is their job to do. The oligarchs are protecting their power base.

- https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/mar/03/labour-caught-in-struggle-to-survive-media-attacks-says-john-mcdonnell

But what of the so-called ‘left-leaning’ press? McDonnell added:

The Guardian became part of the New Labour establishment and, as a result of that, you feel dispossessed because your people are no longer in power…

Other issues also reveal the lie of the ‘liberal’ media: coverage of the NHS; Israel’s monstrous crimes against the Palestinians; and the West’s endless wars – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. We have covered these issues, and many others, in hundreds of media alerts and several books going back over 15 years. See, for example, our free online archive at http://www.medialens.org/index.php/alerts/alert-archive.html

In a talk almost twenty years ago, the American political writer and media critic Michael Parenti explained powerfully how journalism works in practice, including the liberal media:

'Oddly enough, if you talk to most reporters, most of the reporters I know who are giving me stories about censorship, about top-down control and all, are ex-reporters. They're often people - I began noticing, "Well I used to work for Associated Press...", or "Well, I used to work for CBS..." – "Well I used to..." The ones who are still in there absolutely vehemently deny that there's any such thing like this. They get very indignant. They say: "Are you telling me that I'm not my own man? I'll have you know that in 17 years with this paper I always say what I like." And I say to them: "You say what you like, because they like what you say."

'And, you know, the minute you move too far - and you have no sensation of a restraint on your freedom. I mean, you don't know you're wearing a leash if you sit by the peg all day. It's only if you then begin to wander to a prohibited perimeter that you feel the tug, you see. So you're free because your ideological perspective is congruent with that of your boss. So you have no sensation of being at odds with your boss.

- Michael Parenti - Inventing Reality, YouTube, talk on 17 October 1993)

As Chomsky has pointed out, the tiny handful of relatively honest journalists working in the ‘mainstream’ – Owen Jones, George Monbiot and Robert Fisk, for example – play a vital role in supporting the illusion that corporate media offer a wide ‘spectrum’ of available views. In truth, they are tiny oases in a desert of news and commentary promoting elite interests. Glenn Greenwald, who reported whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations for the Guardian, soon left the paper. Indeed, he has been quite critical of them since he left; for example, pointing out in Twitter exchanges involving Guardian journalists:

Mocking you [Media Lens] as conspiracists is how UK journalists demonstrate their in-group coolness to one another: adolescent herd behavior
- https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131030399909889

and:

I've never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists.
- https://twitter.com/ggreenwald/status/636131347019497473

The Guardian likes to portrays itself as a compassionate forum for journalism willing to hold power to account, and it makes great play of its journalistic freedom under the auspices of Scott Trust Limited (replacing the Scott Trust in 2008). The paper, therefore, might not at first sight appear to be a corporate institution.

But the paper is owned by the Guardian Media Group which is run by a high-powered Board comprising elite, well-connected people from the worlds of banking, insurance, advertising, multinational consumer goods companies, telecommunications, information technology giants, venture investment firms, media, marketing services, the World Economic Forum, and other sectors of big business, finance and industry. This is not a Board staffed by radically nonconformist environmental, human rights and peace campaigners, trade unionists, NHS campaigners, housing collectives; nor anyone else who might threaten the status quo.

Consider the fate of Nafeez Ahmed, a respected analyst and writer on energy, the environment and foreign policy. In 2014, the Guardian dropped his popular, highly-regarded online column after he overstepped the mark when he examined credible claims that Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza last summer was motivated, in part, by greed for gas resources. He observed:

'If this is the state of The Guardian, undoubtedly one of the better newspapers, then clearly we have a serious problem with the media. Ultimately, mainstream media remains under the undue influence of powerful special interests, whether financial, corporate or ideological.

Read 1160 times Last modified on Tuesday, 25 April 2017 13:54
David Cromwell and David Edwards

David Cromwell and David Edwards are co-editors of Media Lens, medialens.org.