Lesser-evilism

James Daly james.irldaly at ntlworld.com
Fri Jul 18 05:05:42 MDT 2003


David Quarter  writes
******************
Your friend suggests that it's the reporters, and not the handpicked
editors, which guide the flow of information coming from the press.

This perspective is unfortunately the predominant view of the media
role presented in most journalism schools.
****************************
 ... and even believed by journalists???!  -- JD
MEDIA LENS: Correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media
July 8, 2003
MEDIA ALERT UPDATE: DEBUNKING BUNCOMBE
The Independent's Washington Correspondent Responds
On June 25 and June 27 we published a two-part Media Alert: 'Biting
The Hand That Feeds - Parts 1 and 2 (see Media Alerts,
www.medialens.org <http://www.medialens.org>)

In response to Part 1, we received the following reply from Andrew
Buncombe, the Independent's Washington correspondent, on June 25. This
is a particularly gracious and thoughtful reply from the media, and we
are grateful for it.

"dear david and david, i've been thoroughly enjoying your regular
alerts for the last six months and find them to be thought-provoking
and original, even if i disagree with much of what you write. i felt,
however, that the current alert - June 25, biting the hand that feeds
? was one of the most off the mark yet.

i don't want to pick over everything you said, but your general thrust
seemed to be that because newspapers are not independent of the need
for advertising then all of us who work for them are forced to toe the
line in some vast conspiracy. You wrote: "The British mass media,
including the Independent, can completely fail to inform the public on
even the most important matters and yet Robert Fisk can write 'I don?t
work for Colin Powell, I work for a British newspaper called The
Independent; if you read it, you?ll find that we are'."

i'm sure there are few journalists who work in britain who think the
situation in regard to media and bias is even close to ideal, but
surely you cannot argue that because newspaper and broadcasters fail
to support the stance that your website would have us do, that we are
all being forced to manipulate what we write. perhaps you have to
accept that people disagree with you on ocassions - something as
simple as that.

you say, for instance, "We know, for example, that the media has
almost completely suppressed the fact that one million Iraqi civilians
died as a result of US-UK sanctions. Of all the many millions of words
written and spoken on the politics and history of Iraq over the last
year, almost nothing has been said about the responsibility of our
government for genocidal killing. It is a staggering achievement of
deception, self-deception, and of ?brainwashing under freedom?. We
could not possibly describe as honest, independent, courageous and
free any media entity that has participated in this cover up. And yet
the reality is that no UK media entity has made even a fraction of the
effort merited in exposing either the truth or the cover up of the
truth."

where have you been for the last year? i quickly dug this example out
by my colleague robert fisk, who wrote in a piece on september 25
2002: "Tony Blair's "dossier" on Iraq is a shocking document. Reading
it can only fill a decent human being with shame and outrage. Its
pages are final proof ? if the contents are true ? that a massive
crime against humanity has been committed in Iraq. For if the details
of Saddam's building of weapons of mass destruction are correct ? and
I will come to the "ifs" and "buts" and "coulds" later ? it means that
our massive, obstructive, brutal policy of UN sanctions has totally
failed. In other words, half a million Iraqi children were killed by
us ? for nothing."

i also found one of my own pieces - oh soaring ego - from three days
earlier which cited US scientists who questioned vice president dick
cheney's claims over the discovery of aluminium tubes and their
proving that iraq was seeking to develop nuclear weapons. it said:
"One of the key pieces of "evidence" in the Bush administration's case
for military action against Saddam Hussein is being questioned by a
number of leading US scientists. It is also alleged that the
administration is silencing dissent among its own analysts who have
raised questions."

you can quoute chomsky as much as you like but for him to claim that
anyome who works for the mainstream media are "ideological fanatics
who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human
significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion" is as
close to gibberish as it gets.

i also don't get your bewilderment at the refusual of journalists to
criticise their own media organisations. you quote john pilger as the
apparent warrior of truth on this matter, but let's remember that
pilger is a high-profile, independent journalist paid for his
comments. he is not - any longer - on the staff of any paper doing a
normal day to day job as a hack. here in washington, i see it as my
job to report on american politics, bush, iraq, the so-called war on
terror, etc. where exactly should i be sounding off about the
independent? [for the record, i think the paper is far from perfect
but i can't remember one ocassion in the last five years - including
the two months i spent unembedded during the war in iraq where i was
asked to skew, bury, or supress anything.]

any way, keep up the good work.

regards,

andrew buncombe washington correspondent the independent" (To Media
Lens Editors, June 25, 2003)


Our response (July 8) follows:

Dear Andrew

Many thanks for writing and for the kind words, they’re much
appreciated – we are always pleased to receive thoughtful responses
from journalists. You made a number of interesting points which we’d
like to address.

You say that our “general thrust seemed to be that because newspapers
are not independent of the need for advertising then all of us who
work for them are forced to toe the line in some vast conspiracy”.

In fact, we’ve been very clear in flatly rejecting all conspiracy
theories. We point, instead, to the inevitably distorting effects of
market forces operating on, and through, media corporations seeking
maximised profits. We’re guessing that you have not read Herman and
Chomsky’s classic work, Manufacturing Consent – The Political Economy
of the Mass Media. In it, they refer to five filters: 1) size,
ownership, and profit orientation of the mass media, 2) advertising,
3) the sourcing of mass media news, 4) corporate and political flak,
and 5) anticommunism/anti-terrorism as a control mechanism. The
influence of advertisers is only one element of this propaganda
system.

You write:

“surely you cannot argue that because newspaper and broadcasters fail
to support the stance that your website would have us do, that we are
all being forced to manipulate what we write. perhaps you have to
accept that people disagree with you on ocassions - something as
simple as that.”

You’re right, we cannot, and do not, propose such an absurd argument.
Again, we reject all such conspiracy theories – if journalists were
forced to write against their will as part of some dark plot, the
conspiracy would quickly be exposed. The idea is simply mad. We also
reject the idea that mainstream journalists are generally guilty of
self-censorship and conscious lying. The point is that journalists are
selected on the basis that they share elite perspectives, that they
dismiss competing arguments as “gibberish”.

This does not mean that there is no dissent in the mainstream –
articles by Robert Fisk, for example - the system strongly requires
the +appearance+ of openness. Like vaccines, these small doses of
truth inoculate the public against awareness of the rigid limits of
media freedom. Dissidents (a tiny number of them) also have their
place in the system - the end result, however, is an overall
performance that tends to shape public opinion to suit the goals of
state-corporate power.

We wonder if you have seen the revealing televised encounter between
your former editor at The Independent, Andrew Marr (now the BBC's
chief political editor) and Noam Chomsky, broadcast on BBC2 in
February 1996. Marr commented to Chomsky:

"What I don't get is that all of this suggests... people like me are
self-censoring."

Chomsky disagreed:

"I don't say you're self-censoring. I'm sure you believe everything
you're saying. But what I'm saying is, if you believed something
different you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting."

You write: “i can't remember one ocassion in the last five years -
including the two months i spent unembedded during the war in iraq
where i was asked to skew, bury, or supress anything.”

Channel 4 presenter, Jon Snow, said much the same in an interview with
us:

“Well where are these pressure coming from – identify them for me? I
can tell you if somebody rings me up from Pepsi-Cola – and I must say
I don’t think I’ve ever been rung by any corporation, would that I
was! – I’d give them short shrift!” (Interview with David Edwards,
January 9, 2001, www.medialens.org <http://www.medialens.org>)

Snow was passionate in rejecting the argument:

“Oh this is bollocks! Total bollocks!... I just don’t travel with
+any+ of this crap!”

US press critic, George Seldes said it well as far back as the 1930s:

“The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is
that of the writer who says, ‘I have never been given orders; I am
free to do as I like’. We scent the air of the office. We realise that
certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted.” (US press critic,
George Seldes, quoted Extra! November/December 1995)

Nicholas Johnson, former US Federal Communications Commissioner gives
a small example of how journalists do what they are required to do
without being given orders:

"A reporter who first comes up with an investigative story idea,
writes it up and submits it to the editor and is told the story is not
going to run. He wonders why, but the next time, he is cautious enough
to check with the editor first. He is told by the editor that it would
be better not to write that story. The third time he thinks of an
investigative story idea but doesn't bother the editor with it because
he knows it's silly. The fourth time he doesn't think of the idea
anymore." (Quoted FAIR, Extra! November/December 1995)

Or as Orwell famously wrote:

“Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really
well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no
whip.” (Quoted, Jeff Cohen and Norman Soloman, Media Beat, September
13, 1995)

We recently quoted American journalist Gary Webb, formerly of the San
Jose Mercury News who, previously, was of exactly your opinion:

"In seventeen years of doing this, nothing bad had happened to me. I
was never fired or threatened with dismissal if I kept looking under
rocks... So how could I possibly agree with people like Noam Chomsky
and Ben Bagdikian, who were claiming the system didn't work, that it
was steered by powerful special interests and corporations, and
existed to protect the power elite? Hell, the system worked just fine,
as I could tell. It +encouraged+ enterprise. It +rewarded+
muckracking." (Webb, 'The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On', in Kristina
Borjesson, ed., Into The Buzzsaw - Leading Journalists Expose the Myth
of a Free Press, Prometheus, 2002, pp.296-7)

Then something went wrong:

"And then I wrote some stories that made me realise how sadly
misplaced my bliss had been. The reason I'd enjoyed such smooth
sailing for so long hadn't been, as I'd assumed, because I was careful
and diligent and good at my job. It turned out to have nothing to do
with it. The truth was that, in all those years, I hadn't written
anything important enough to suppress."

You say of Chomsky:

“you can quoute chomsky as much as you like but for him to claim that
anyome who works for the mainstream media are ‘ideological fanatics
who have long ago lost the capacity to think on any issue of human
significance, and entirely in the grip of the state religion’ is as
close to gibberish as it gets.”

You have made our point for us. We would argue that it is all but a
condition of mainstream media employment that such comments should
seem like gibberish. But we would suggest, for example, that Britain
and the US have a long and bloody history of overthrowing foreign
governments, of opposing democracy; of selecting, installing, arming
and supporting violent dictators in an effort to protect Third World
resources from Third World nationalists for Western corporate profit.

Mark Curtis, a respected historian on British foreign affairs, and
author of Web of Deceit, has written:

"Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world's
suffering and horrors and this contribution arises from the basic
economic and priorities that governments pursue at home and abroad.
These fundamental policy stances are the result of planning broadly
determined by the domestic structures of society which define
'national interests'." (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books,
1995, p.4)

Curtis adds that this reality “is effectively unmentionable in
respectable circles”, (Ibid, p.36) – which, in case you hadn’t
guessed, includes the ‘liberal press’.

Such a perspective - supported by careful analysis of previously
classified government documents – is excluded by the standard
framework of mainstream news reporting and analysis. The near-blanket
suppression of “gibberish” of this kind is indeed rooted in a kind of
“ideological fanaticism”.

With regards to Iraq, we've been following the Independent's
performance closely for several years. The Robert Fisk quote that you
"quickly dug... out" from September 2002, namely that "a massive crime
against humanity has been committed in Iraq - half a million Iraqi
children were killed by us for nothing" was a rarity in The
Independent. Previously, The Independent's Patrick Cockburn had gone
as far as to say that "UN sanctions have killed far more ordinary
Iraqis than Saddam Hussein" and that "[t]he result of this prolonged
economic siege of the Iraqi people has been devastating." ('If Saddam
doesn't get you the UN sanctions will', Patrick Cockburn, The
Independent, 20 January, 2001). But here was Fisk going further and
making an explicit link between "us" (actually the governments in
Washington and London) and the deaths of half a million Iraqi
children – a rarity in your paper.

We note that former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday -
who set up the oil-for-food programme in Iraq and who described
sanctions as "genocidal" - has been mentioned just seven times in over
five years in your paper, according to the Independent website. Three
of those mentions were in news stories (the other four were in two
articles by John Pilger, one by anti-sanctions campaigner Milan Rai
and one by columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown): a vanishingly small rate
for such an important figure.

Independent editorials and news reports have invariably whitewashed
the major responsibility of the US and UK for maintaining the horrific
sanctions regime, and instead have written in terms of "a propaganda
war" that Saddam was in danger of winning. Consider, for example, this
Independent editorial:

"We repeat, mantra-like, that we have no quarrel with the Iraqi
people - only with their leader. But we are losing the propaganda war;
not only many Arabs, but many in the West believe that we are
responsible for the undoubted suffering of ordinary Iraqis." ('Let Us
Declare Victory Over Saddam, End Sanctions And Start Afresh In The
Region', The Independent, 27 February, 2001).

Or take a typical news report from 2001:

"America and Britain maintain a hardline policy on Iraq sanctions.
There is deep frustration in London and Washington over the Iraqi
leader's success in depicting UN sanctions as the main cause of Iraqi
suffering." (Anne Penketh, 'British and US aircraft bomb Iraqis', The
Independent, 17 February, 2001)

After the invasion of Iraq earlier this year, the Independent
published a major 5400-word analysis - which, incidentally, included
your name in the extensive byline of contributors - on the
humanitarian crisis in Iraq. There was not a +single+ mention that the
US-UK had been primarily responsible for the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi
children, and more than a million Iraqi civilians in total, in 12
years of sanctions. (‘The Iraq Conflict: Special Analysis - Iraq Has
Fallen. Saddam Is Deposed. But, After 27 Days Of War, Little Else Is
Resolved', The Independent, April 16, 2003). To omit our government's
responsibility for such a massive crime against humanity is
astonishing, though entirely standard in the mainstream media. But, as
Denis Halliday makes clear, the crime is a real one:

"I've been using the word 'genocide', because this is a deliberate
policy to destroy the people of Iraq. I'm afraid I have no other view
at this late stage." (Interview with David Edwards, May 2000,
www.medialens.org <http://www.medialens.org>)

Finally, you wrote:

"i also don't get your bewilderment at the refusual of journalists to
criticise their own media organisations. you quote john pilger as the
apparent warrior of truth on this matter, but let's remember that
pilger is a high-profile, independent journalist paid for his
comments. he is not - any longer - on the staff of any paper doing a
normal day to day job as a hack."

Again you have made our point for us – you are exactly right and you
clearly recognise the pressures that do face non-independent
journalists who are “on the staff of any paper doing a normal day to
day job as a hack”. This is exactly the kind of problem we are drawing
attention to – it has nothing to do with a conspiracy.

We are not bewildered at all. As we’ve repeatedly mentioned in our
Media Alerts, the silence of even radical journalists makes sense,
given the structural and psychological constraints in the media. In
the Alert to which you responded, we wrote of these journalists:

“And while these individuals might choose to keep silent on the
corruption of the media employing them - often for very understandable
reasons - no one else is obliged to accept their personal decision and
also remain silent.”

Our intention is not to blame individual journalists, but to indicate
that in our ostensibly free society, even the most respected and
honest journalists do +not+ feel free to criticise the ‘liberal press’
. This is a very real infringement of free speech, one that should be
exposed and challenged, not meekly accepted.

You say that you “see it as my job to report on american politics,
bush, iraq, the so-called war on terror, etc. where exactly should i
be sounding off about the independent?”

Is that how you see your job, or is that how your job is defined for
you by your editors? What would happen if you attempted to broaden the
context of your discussion to include criticism of the Independent?
What would happen, for example, if you mentioned that the US “war on
terror” was being powerfully facilitated by a servile US press,
supported by a UK government empowered by a servile UK press – citing
the Independent as obviously the most important example from your
point of view? Would your editors think you had gone nuts? And yet it
is hardly an irrelevant or crazy point – the UK media has played a key
role in keeping a vital ally onside. We’re thinking of articles of
this kind by the Independent’s Steve Richards last week:

“I was opposed to the war against Iraq and continue to believe that
Tony Blair made a series of misjudgements that have damaged his
credibility in Britain and parts of Europe. I also regard some of the
BBC's journalists as the best in the business, while a few of its
managers almost explode with agonised integrity...

“Yet I find myself more or less entirely in agreement with Alastair
Campbell in his onslaught against the BBC. I would go further and
argue that Campbell's broader analysis highlights a serious flaw in
the corporation's journalism.” (Richards, ‘A Serious Flaw At The Heart
Of The Corporation’, The Independent on Sunday, June 29, 2003)

Richards continues: “The BBC is emphatically not biased in favour of
political parties or in its approach to specific issues.”

Blair’s audacious lies have become “misjudgements”. The BBC’s
spectacular failure to challenge these lies – helping to make war
possible – has become journalism that is “the best in the business”
run by managers who “almost explode with agonised integrity”. Campbell
is somehow justified in his tyrannical assault on free speech in a
classic flak assault clearly designed to distract attention from the
truth and to cow the media.

It’s interesting that you refer to the limits imposed by your job in a
context where we are discussing literal life and death decisions
affecting millions of people. Why did you not focus, instead, on your
moral responsibility? The idea that, as professionals, corporate
employees should be defined primarily by their job title, is part of
the ideological fanaticism that grips the mainstream media. In his
book Disciplined Minds - A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And
The Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, American writer
Jeff Schmidt, formerly an editor at Physics Today magazine for 19
years, observes:

“Professionalism – in particular the notion that experts should
confine themselves to their ‘legitimate professional concerns’ and not
‘politicize’ their work – helps keep individual professionals in line
by encouraging them to view their narrow technical orientation as a
virtue, a sign of objectivity rather than of subordination.” (Schmidt,
Disciplined Minds – A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals And The
Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield
Publishers, 2000, p.16, <http://disciplinedminds.com>)

Specialisation insures that journalists remain focused on specific
issues so that broader truths can be ignored as being ‘beyond my remit
’. Historian Howard Zinn comments:

“To work on a real problem (like how to eliminate poverty in a nation
producing eight hundred billion dollars’ worth of wealth each year)
one would have to follow that problem across many disciplinary lines
without qualm, dealing with historical materials, economic theories,
political obstacles. Specialisation ensures that one cannot follow a
problem through from start to finish. It ensures the functioning in
the academy [and media] of the system’s dictum: divide and rule.”
(Zinn, The Politics of History, University of Illinois Press, second
edition, 1990, p.11)

Andrew, we are sure you are doing your job to the best of your ability
with real integrity. Unfortunately, the system within which you are
working has seen to it that your job – ‘objective’, ‘neutral’
reporting on a specific range of issues - is defined and limited in a
way that protects powerful interests. If you were to breach those
limits in any serious way, you would soon not be sitting where you’re
sitting.

Best wishes,

David Cromwell and David Edwards Media Lens


SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and
respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly
urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive
tone.


Write to Andrew Buncombe, Washington correspondent of The Independent

Email: a.buncombe at independent.co.uk
<mailto:a.buncombe at independent.co.uk>

Copy to The Independent's foreign editor, Leonard Doyle, and The
Independent's editor, Simon Kelner:

Email: l.doyle at independent.co.uk <mailto:l.doyle at independent.co.uk>

Email: s.kelner at independent.co.uk <mailto:s.kelner at independent.co.uk>

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