Conspiracy-free Conformity

Bob Rogers brogers at
Wed Sep 25 11:40:56 MDT 2002

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ZNet Commentary
Conspiracy-free Conformity September 25, 2002
By Dave Edwards

Chemistry teachers have long delighted students by showing how near-perfect
symmetrical structures can be produced by pouring a large number of small
balls into a square box, whereupon a perfect pyramid is inevitably
produced. The balls either land in a pyramid-building position, bounce into
such a position, or bounce out of the structure. The resulting pyramid -
like crystalline structures found in the natural world - looks for all the
world like it has been carefully designed; in fact it is merely a
consequence of the random flow of small round objects over a square framework.

We believe that the flow of journalists in and out of the framing structure
of the mainstream corporate media accounts, in a roughly analogous way, for
the remarkably uniform patterns found in mainstream reporting. As we have
shown in earlier Media Alerts, the corporate media is structured in a way
that protects and furthers the interests of state-corporate power in the
absence of any conspiracy, or even overt interference. The uniformity of
reporting simply follows from the interaction of human nature with the
framing structures of state-corporate capitalism - journalists with the
correct views, priorities and goals 'fall into place' in the media pyramid,
while others bounce (or are bounced) out.

This does not mean that there is no dissent in the mainstream; on the
contrary the system strongly requires the +appearance+ of openness. In an
ostensibly democratic society, a propaganda system must incorporate
occasional instances of dissent. Like vaccines, these small doses of truth
inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of media
freedom. The honest dissident pieces which occasionally surface in the
mainstream are quite as important to the successful functioning of the
propaganda system as the vast mass of power-friendly journalism. Dissidents
(a tiny number of them) also have their place in the pyramid - the end
result, however, is an overall performance that tends to mould public
opinion to support the goals of state-corporate power. Consider, for
example, the remarkable conformity of mainstream criticism of dissident

In the Guardian, columnist Roy Hattersley recently reviewed John Pilger's
latest book, The New Rulers of The World. Hattersley wrote:

"But, although his descriptions are vividly coloured, his judgments are
predictably black-and-white. The notion that those he exposes and denounces
might have any merit has never entered his head." (Hattersley, 'In the
right, but irritating - Roy Hattersley on John Pilger's judgmental
journalism', the Guardian, July 20, 2002)

Nothing odd in this, we might think. But now consider the only other review
of Pilger's book to have appeared in the national mainstream since
publication on May 20. In the New Statesman, Stephen Howe writes of Pilger:

"There is very little light and shade in his world-view. No situation is
morally ambiguous, no history is complex and contested. There are only
heroes (the title of one of his previous books) and villains." (Howe, 'A
bitter pill', The New Statesman, June 24, 2002)

Joe Joseph of the Times takes a similar view of Pilger's output:

"The world, according to Pilger, is pretty much black and white: his
journalistic retina doesn't recognise shades of grey." (Joseph, 'Views of
Iraq from the moral high ground', The Times, March 7, 2000)

Channel 4 newsreader, Jon Snow, sheds further light:

"Some argue the ends justify his means, others that the world is a more
subtle place than he [Pilger] allows". (Snow, 'Still angry after all these
years,' February 25, 2001)

Of course it is possible that these views merely reflect the rational
consensus - this could be a conformity based, not on framing conditions,
but on common sense. Turning elsewhere, however, we discover a review of
one of Chomsky's recent books by Steve Crawshaw. The title of Crawshaw's
piece is strangely familiar:

"Furious ideas with no room for nuance". (Crawshaw, the Independent,
February 21, 2001)

Crawshaw perceives an odd contradiction in Chomsky's work:

"Chomsky knows so much, but seems impervious to any idea of nuance."

Like Pilger, then, Chomsky suffers from a "black and white" view of the
world. Lambasting his criticism of the NATO bombing of Serbia, and echoing
Hattersley and Howe, Crawshaw expands:

"Misguided isn't enough [for Chomsky]; the policy must be plain evil."

Writing in the Guardian, Martin Woollacott observed of Chomsky:

"Those who direct American policy... are allowed no regrets, no morals, no
feelings, and when they change their policies they appear to do so for
entirely Machiavellian reasons... [Chomsky] seems to deny the complexity of
human affairs by setting up too rigid an antithesis between an inherently
amoral elite and an inherently moral mass." (Woollacott, 'Deliver us from
evil', The Guardian, January 14, 1989)

Pilger again shares the same disability, as Hattersley notes:

"Pilger can never end his criticisms and condemnation at the point when
most people would think it reasonable to stop."

Implicit (and often explicit) in these reviews is the suggestion that both
Pilger and Chomsky are victims of the blinkering effects of anger: Chomsky
with his "Furious ideas"; Pilger, "still angry after all these years", with
arguments that are "longer on anger than on analysis". (Howe)

Another of our prominent dissidents, Harold Pinter, is afflicted by these
same curses. Writing in the Observer, Jay Rayner quotes Timothy Garton Ash:

"He [Pinter] has this terribly imaginative vision of the world and
everything has to fit it." (Rayner, 'Pinter of discontent', The Observer,
May 16, 1999)

Again anger is to blame: "Late Pinter is all about sound and fury", Rayner

Time and again, with remarkable consistency, 'liberal' journalists follow
the same line - dissident writers have much merit, but their work is
fatally marred by their blinkered, angry, black-and-white view of the world.

Why do journalists continuously reproduce this pattern? Again, it could
simply be that they are right. But anyone who has read Pilger and Chomsky
is surely struck above all by the calm and powerful rationality of their
analyses - vitriol is certainly added, but often humorously, or for effect
(as a way of waking us up from our mainstream slumber) - there is never any
sense that their basic rationality is distorted by anger.

What dissidents like Pilger and Chomsky have to say is so completely
contrary to what most people believe, and to what many people would +like+
most people to believe, that they would be instantly dismissed as lunatics
by public and critics alike but for the fact that they present extremely
powerful arguments. Dissidents, of course, know this only too well, which
is why their standards of reporting are generally far higher than the crude
productions of the hacks who, as one media insider told us, "really just
bash it out". Mainstream journalists promoting the interests of the
powerful and privileged have nothing to fear - they know they can get away
with journalistic murder.

The real explanation for the apparent contradiction in mainstream reviews
is found in the fact that writers like John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Ed
Herman, Gore Vidal et al are telling the truth, but they are telling truth
that conflicts with the "necessary illusions" of society, media society
included. The problem for the "journalists of attachment" is that
dissidents write with undeniable rationality, their arguments are backed up
by, and indeed often based on, a vast array of highly credible sources. For
this reason their work simply cannot be dismissed as nonsense.

Thus Hattersley writes: "The brilliance of John Pilger's reporting is, or
ought to be, beyond dispute." Thus Crawshaw writes of how "Chomsky knows so
much". Thus Woollacott writes of Chomsky's "rare combination of moral
vision and intellectual rigour".

There is also the fact of Chomsky and Pilger's popularity with the public -
the public the media is supposed to serve. Chomsky is the world's best-read
writer on international politics. His book 9-11 has sold well over 100,000
copies, despite the endless smears and neglect of his work. Pilger's latest
book has been on three best-seller lists - the Guardian's own included -
despite having been reviewed, and smeared, just twice in the national
media. Journalists have to recognise these achievements if they are to
retain credibility.

But the structural demands of the mainstream are such that it is sheer
folly for reviewers to be seen to fully endorse those who powerfully expose
the deceptions on which the mainstream itself depends. Thus in an
apparently stunning self-contradiction, Hattersley talks of Pilger's
brilliance but then writes, "Reading The New Rulers [sic] makes it easy to
understand why so many people say: 'If Pilger's for it, I am against it.'"
This, Hattersley explains, is because Pilger is "right but irritating".

It's worth examining just what is being argued here. Leaving aside the
question of just which opinion polls Hattersley is referring to when he
talks of "so many people" rejecting Pilger's work (he actually, of course,
means the political and media elites he mixes with) consider that Pilger is
all but unique in the UK mainstream for the depth and breadth of his
criticism of ruthless power. Pilger has, for example, tirelessly reported
Western responsibility for genocide in Iraq, while the Guardian, the
Observer, the Independent, the BBC and ITN, have all but turned a blind eye.

Given that Pilger has been one of a tiny number of journalists willing to
communicate credible accusations of our responsibility for genocide, what
sane individual would respond to his efforts with the observation that he
is "right but irritating"? If on September 10, a lone individual had burst
into FBI offices presenting highly credible evidence for an impending
terrorist attack against thousands of civilians in the World Trade Centre,
what would we have made of someone who responded that he was "right but

We would assume that they were completely alienated from the reality of
human suffering and the idea that we might be responsible for doing
something about it. But Pilger has long performed a comparable role in
warning of infinitely greater horrors that are being perpetrated +now+, in
our names, in Iraq, and all around the world.

To keep their place in the pyramid, mainstream journalists have to cast
doubt on the 'irrational' and 'extreme' views of those who are notable
precisely for their rationality and objectivity. They have to admit there
is merit in dissident work, but they also have to provide a bolt-hole for
editors and other journalists who treat dissident work with contempt. 'Yes,
Chomsky has merit, but it's over the top - we can't keep publishing that
kind of distorted view.' 'Yes, Pilger is brilliant, but it's so irritating
- we can only stomach so much.'

Despite his enormous popularity with the public, Pilger has appeared just
four times in the Guardian since 1999, once in the Observer, and not once
in the Independent. Recently, to the shame of the 'serious' broadsheets,
Pilger has begun reaching an enthusiastic audience through a tabloid, the
Daily Mirror.

Chomsky is all but ignored by the Guardian/Observer, with four articles
published by them since September 1998 (with just one of these published
since October 1999). He has appeared once in the Independent since January
1999, and is ignored by BBC TV, ITV and Channel 4. Figures like these make
a mockery of the idea that we have a free press. Other major writers like
Edward Herman and Howard Zinn appear to be completely unknown to the
British mainstream.

Let's be clear that the likes of Chomsky and Pilger are brilliant because
they are supremely skilled at marshalling and presenting evidence supplied
by highly credible sources. Open-minded readers find that this evidence
demolishes the illusions propagated by state-corporate power - the
personalities and emotions of dissidents are side issues beside this
fundamental achievement. The perennial abusive caveats are a lie, a
rationalisation, a necessary smear imposed, ultimately, by the framing
conditions of the corporate media functioning within state-corporate
capitalist society.

David Edwards is co-editor of Media Lens. Sign up for free Media Alerts at

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