[Marxism] Media hiding bad news

Dbachmozart at aol.com Dbachmozart at aol.com
Thu Dec 16 18:56:53 MST 2004


 
Balance in the Service of Falsehood  
By David Edwards and David Cromwell  
The Guardian U.K.  
Wednesday 15 December 2004  
The media's failure to challenge official deception over  Iraq was the 
product of a journalism with built-in bias.
The British and U.S. governments stand accused of  lying their way to war on 
Iraq, both at home and abroad. But while a series of  what were widely 
regarded as nobbled inquiries have at least gone through the  motions of holding them 
to account, there has been no attempt to hold the media  to account for its 
role in making war possible. To his credit, George Monbiot  argued on these 
pages earlier this year that "the falsehoods reproduced by the  media before the 
invasion of Iraq were massive and consequential: it is hard to  see how 
Britain could have gone to war if the press had done its job." But an  examination 
of this failure, and its roots in a mass media with a long history  of 
protecting and promoting the powerful, is conspicuous by its absence.  
And yet it is only by exploring these issues that we  can answer the question 
of how it is possible that a free press could fail to  challenge even the 
most transparent govern ment deceptions in the run-up to the  attack. The crucial 
arguments of the vindicated former chief Unscom weapons  inspector, Scott 
Ritter, for example, were largely ignored. In his 2002 book,  Ritter - who was at 
the heart of the inspections process for seven years -  argued that the Iraqi 
regime had cooperated with his team in dismantling  "90-95%" of its WMD by 
December 1998, leaving the country "fundamentally  disarmed". Subsequent 
rearmament would have been impossible, Ritter insisted,  and any retained chemical or 
biological material would long since have become  "harmless sludge". But 
evidence of the success of the 1991-98 inspections -  which fundamentally 
undermined government claims that war was required to  enforce disarmament - was given 
the scantest coverage, even in the liberal  press.  
Of 12,447 Guardian and Observer articles mentioning  Iraq in 2003 on the 
Guardian Unlimited website, Ritter was mentioned in only 17,  mostly in passing. 
Denis Halliday, who set up the U.N.'s oil-for-food program in  Iraq, and who 
blamed the U.S. and British governments for the huge death toll of  Iraqi 
civilians under sanctions, was mentioned in two articles. His successor,  Hans von 
Sponeck, who also resigned in protest at sanctions, received five  mentions. 
The Independent mentioned Ritter only eight times in 5,648 articles on  Iraq in 
2003. Ritter's disarmament claim received fewer than a dozen brief  mentions 
in the Guardian the year before.  
The failure of the liberal media, including the  Guardian and Independent, is 
vital to this debate because, while they are  consistently more open than 
their conservative counterparts, they set the  boundaries of permissible dissent. 
In the case of Iraq, those boundaries helped  create a disaster. Thus, while 
whistleblowers were effectively ignored, one  prominent in-house Guardian 
commentator declared in January 2003 that it was "a  given" that Saddam was hiding 
WMD. Despite the fact that while in 1999 and 2000  the Guardian and the 
Independent both reported that Unscom inspections had been  infiltrated by the CIA, 
this almost never featured in the saturation 2002-2003  coverage of resumed 
inspections and Iraqi attitudes to them. In January 1999, a  Guardian article 
described how U.S. officials "acknowledged that American spies  participated in 
the work of United Nations weapons inspectors". In March 2002,  the same 
reporter wrote that "Iraq has stoked war fever" by "rejecting a return  of U.N. 
weapons inspectors to Iraq and calling them 'western spies' for extra  measure". 
 
We would argue that the media's failure on Iraq was  not really a failure at 
all, but rather a classic product of "balanced"  professional journalism. The 
modern conception of objective reporting is little  more than a century old. 
There was little concern that newspapers were partisan  so long as the public 
was free to choose from a wide range of opinions.  Newspapers dependent on 
advertisers for 75% of their revenues, such as the  Guardian and Independent, 
would have been regarded as independent by few  radicals and progressives in, say, 
the 1940s. Balance was instead provided by a  thriving working class-based 
press. Early last century, however, the  industrialization of the press, and the 
associated high cost of newspaper  production, meant that wealthy private 
industrialists backed by advertisers  achieved dominance in the mass media. 
Unable to compete on price and outreach,  the previously flourishing radical press 
was brushed to the margins.  
And just as corporations achieved this unprecedented  stranglehold, the 
notion of professional journalism appeared. The U.S. media  analyst Robert 
McChesney argues: "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." By promoting schools of  journalism, media 
owners could claim that trained editors and reporters were  granted autonomy 
to make decisions based on professional judgment, rather than  on the needs of 
proprietors and advertisers. As a result, owners could present  their media 
monopoly as a service to the community. In Britain, similar  developments 
resulted in "a progressive transfer of [media] power from the  working class to 
wealthy businessmen", in the words of media historians James  Curran and Jean 
Seaton, while dependence on advertising "encouraged the  absorption or 
elimination of the early radical press".  
Built in to the new concept of neutral, professional  journalism were two 
major biases. First, the actions and opinions of official  sources were 
understood to form the basis of legitimate news. As a result, news  came to be 
dominated by mainstream political and business sources representing  establishment 
interests. As the ITV News political editor, Nick Robinson,  commented in 
relation to the Iraq war controversy: "It was my job to report what  those in power 
were doing or thinking... That is all someone in my sort of job  can do." 
Second, carrot-and-stick pressures from advertisers, business interests  and 
political parties had the effect of steering journalists in the corporate  media 
away from some issues and towards others. It is inherently implausible  that 
newspapers or broadcasters which are dependent on corporate advertisers for  
revenue will focus too hard on the destructive impact of these same businesses,  
whether on public health, the developing world or the environment. The result is 
 that what is regarded as neutral journalism today consistently promotes the  
views and interests of the powerful.  
Many journalists reject the idea that a corporate  free press is a 
contradiction in terms. Yet if even the government's most  obviously fraudulent pre-war 
propaganda claims were not seriously challenged,  the implications are hardly 
academic for the next likely targets of U.S. and  British military force, be 
they in Iran, Syria or North Korea.  
 
____________________________________
David Edwards and David Cromwell are the editors of  _Media Lens._ 
(http://www.medialens.org/)  



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