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Response to Media Hell blog on our Flat Earth News alert

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David Edwards
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Post Post subject: Response to Media Hell blog on our Flat Earth News alert Reply with quote

A response to our Flat Earth News media alert has posted on the Media Hell website. Some replies from us below (*)...

Medialens attack Nick Davies
by Robert Shone

* We haven’t attacked Nick Davies or his book. We’ve offered an analysis explaining where we agree and disagree. We repeatedly praised the book and in fact described it as “well worth reading”.

Medialens have published a long, harsh critique1 of Nick Davies's book, Flat Earth News. At first glance, the Medialens article (available at appears substantial, but under close scrutiny it becomes apparent that it contains little more than a series of misrepresentations and equivocations.
First, a clear example. Medialens write:
'Davies’s focus on the relative innocence of corporate profit-making leads him to even greater extremes...'
Since it's obvious that Medialens don't see corporate profit-making as "relatively innocent", we must assume they're imputing this view to Davies. So, is it Nick Davies's thesis that profit-making is "innocent"? Does he "focus" on its innocent effects?

* This is the first of Shone’s several failures to understand what we wrote. We didn’t argue that Davies presents profit-making as innocent, but as “relatively innocent“ - a different point. So ‘relative’ to what? In essence, Davies argues that the media are just focused on making money; they’re not interested in propaganda and ideological manipulation. Our point is that corporate elites, media elites included, have always sought to organise society in their own interests and have always used the corporate media as a propaganda weapon. We cited many examples from historian Elizabeth Fones-Wolf, media historians James Curran and Jean Seaton, to make the point. This is why we wrote:

“In other words, the result of hundreds of years of political struggle for corporate control against popular interference has resulted in a situation where it is simply understood that certain facts, ideas, values and aspirations are acceptable while others are not. Wealthy individual owners and parent corporations have selected senior managers and editors who understand this, and who select journalists - company men like Davies - who perceive the architecture of the media as ideologically neutral rather than the product of political struggle.”

Anyone who has read Flat Earth News would laugh at this suggestion.
However, this is more than a comical misreading by Medialens - it's part of an attempt to portray Davies as a "company man" with "nothing serious to offer", whose analysis is "flawed", "naïve", "old" and "very superficial".2

* This is a distortion and in fact a complete reversal of what we wrote. Far from arguing that Davies has “nothing serious to offer”, we opened Part 2 of our media alert with these words:

“To be clear, there +is+ much of merit in Flat Earth News - the book is well worth reading. Davies describes, for example, how all was not well in the Observer newsroom in the autumn of 2002...”

We cited a long example from the book. Shone quoted us from this passage:

“As an answer to the question of ‘What is to be done?’ Davies has nothing serious to offer: an ‘imaginary world’ in which a parallel news organisation would monitor global press honesty; Annual Flat Earth News awards; and an initiative to ‘force media owners to provide decent levels of staffing; resurrect the network of front-line reporters which once covered the country and indeed the globe...’. (p.393)

Our “nothing serious to offer” comment referred specifically to Davies’s material on proposed solutions, not to the book as a whole. Shone has completely changed the meaning of the quote he used.

The main rhetorical weapon used by Medialens is equivocation. For example, they quote Davies's claim that the "primary purpose" of media corporations "is not propaganda", but is "to make money". They then remark:
'This last comment is breathtaking. Anyone who knows anything about the political history of the last century in Britain and the United States knows that the primary purpose of much propaganda is precisely "to make money".'
With this - and in spite of themselves - Medialens reinforce Davies's view that making money is "primary".

* Yes, the primary purpose is to make money. But Davies argues that media corporations are focused on profit-making and +not+ on propagandising. Our point is that corporations are heavily involved in propaganda +because+ it’s vital for organising society to serve the profit-driven interests of a narrow elite. The corporate media continuously propagandise on behalf of these interests, which they share. A lot of this propaganda is achieved through the internalisation of required values - it's just understood that certain voices and values are acceptable while others are not.

Elsewhere, a Medialens editor writes: "Who can not find the source of infinite misery in the insatiable, psychopathic greed of corporate profit-seeking?"3 So, while Medialens find Davies's comment "breathtaking", it's perhaps their own equivocation which takes their breath away.

It's difficult to spot equivocation on tricky concepts such as "propaganda". In a narrow sense, "propaganda" is consciously directed, but in a broader sense it permeates a worldview (eg of consumerism).

By equivocating - ie treating different meanings as equivalent - it's possible to make an ignorant (or disingenuous) case against Davies, or against anyone.
Medialens claim that Flat Earth News invites us to "tinker at the edges of a system which in fact is rotten to the core". We're to believe that Davies, as a "company man", is unwilling to expose that rotten core. Here, in fact, is how Davies describes the media:
'An industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood has become so vulnerable to manipulation that it is now involved in the mass production of falsehood, distortion and propaganda.'4

* Once again Shone uses our reference to Davies’s proposed solutions to exaggerate and distort our criticism of the book as a whole. As we made very clear, Davies does expose rotten aspects of the system. We wrote:

“He is willing to expose failings in the media system - including the rotten apples at the Observer....”

But Davies +does+ propose that we tinker at the edge of the system. For example, when he proposes an initiative to “force media owners to provide decent levels of staffing; resurrect the network of front-line reporters which once covered the country and indeed the globe...”. (p.393)

This can hardly be considered a proposal for the radical reform of the media. We criticised Davies for asserting that his indeed as an “industry whose primary task is to filter out falsehood” - our point is that this is not, and never has been, the “primary purpose” of the corporate media.

Medialens continue their equivocations by invoking (repeatedly) the notion of "ideological neutrality". For example, they write:
' men like Davies - who perceive the architecture of the media as ideologically neutral rather than the product of political struggle.'
"Ideologically neutral" is another tricky concept. Would Davies really claim that the media is "neutral" in the sense meant by Medialens? (You'll see, below, that he would not). In fact, it's difficult to see how anything in human culture could be considered "ideologically neutral" in the sense implied by Medialens.

* Davies +does+ repeatedly assume the neutrality of professional journalists, for example when he writes:

“it is possible that as much as 20% of Fleet Street’s work is still being produced entirely by independent journalists”. (p.95)

The question we asked is: how is a corporate employee in any sense “independent”? Former Guardian/Observer journalist Jonathan Cook commented on this point in his response to our alert. He wrote:

“Another superb alert. Davies has a fairly typical mindset for a
liberal broadsheet journalist, which is why, as you say, his book has
been well-received generally. The idea that newspapers are simply
vehicles for ‘making money’ but that this has no effect on the design
of the vehicle is widely held, even if it is clearly nonsense. The
mood can be summed up in short as: ‘The owners just want to make
money, and as long as we are doing well financially we are left
alone.’ How you lift these blinkers, I don't know. For many years
when I was an ‘insider‘, working for a decade on staff at the
Observer and Guardian (as well as a short freelance stint at the
Telegraph), I guess I believed it too, despite all the evidence to
the contrary. It is now so patently ridiculous to me I can't quite
believe that I did. But then you probably need to step outside the
‘insider’ world for some time, as I have done, to get any real
perspective. Once you do, of course you have no influence on the
‘insider’ world or its thinking. This ensures Davies and his ilk
become a self-serving elite of journalists who can defend their good
intentions (even while criticising their far from perfect
performance) without fear of contradiction from ‘outside’.”

Medialens use a similar rhetorical trick with the concept of "truth". They quote Nick Davies asking why "truth-telling [would] disintegrate into the mass production of ignorance". Then they comment:
'Truth-telling has +never+ been the primary function of Davies’s profession.'
"Truth-telling" has a simple meaning in the context of checking facts. If you check facts before you relay them, then you are keeping to the "truth", within the limits of this context. Medialens conflate this with "neutrality".
Their confusion is revealed when they write the following:
'By contrast, Davies endlessly reiterates his faith in the essential neutrality of his profession:
“If the primary purpose of journalism is to tell the truth, then it follows that the primary function of journalists must be to check and to reject whatever is not true.” (p.51)'
In order to recognise the equivocation here, one must distinguish between the "truth" of checked facts and the "truth" (if any) implied by so-called "neutrality" or "objectivity". It's possible to truthfully relay facts while remaining far from neutral on an issue (scientists do it all the time). Faith in the ability of journalists to check facts doesn't equate to faith "in the essential neutrality" of journalism.

* But Davies is not just arguing for "Truth-telling" in the sense of “checking facts”. For example, he writes:

“Why would a profession lose touch with its primary function? Why would truth-telling disintegrate into the mass production of ignorance?” (p.45)

Davies is here referring, not merely to a failure to check facts - he is talking about truth in the deeper sense in contrast to mass-produced ignorance.

In fact, Medialens contradict themselves in striking fashion over this, since at the start of their article they quote Davies emphatically pointing out that "objective" truth does not exist in the media:
'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.' [Flat Earth News, p111]
Another term which invites equivocation in media contexts is "conspiracy". Medialens object to Davies's characterisation of a certain view as "conspiracy theory". They quote Davies:
'So, for example, there is a popular theory that mass-media coverage is orchestrated or at least fundamentally restricted in order to win the favour of corporate advertisers.'
Medialens then remark:
'[This] is a straw man of Davies's invention. Moreover, we cannot think of a single serious media analyst who would subscribe to it.'
This is a bizarre comment, given Medialens's own writings on the issue. For example, in another recent article, they write that "newspapers have to be so careful not to alienate their big advertisers and related political allies".5 In Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky write that advertisers want to avoid media content with "serious complexities and disturbing controversies that interfere with the "buying mood"."

* The confusion is Shone’s. We are not arguing that mass media performance is +not+ influenced by the need to please corporate advertisers, but that a) this pressure is insufficient in itself to account for media performance and b) this pressure is not applied as the result of a conspiracy. Our point is that advertiser influence is only one of a number of powerful factors influencing media performance.

One could argue about the differences between TV and newspaper advertising (Herman and Chomsky were discussing TV advertising, above), but nothing that Medialens write comes close to supporting their "straw man" accusation. Their follow-up comment is a non sequitur:
'What rational person, after all, would accept that media performance - which must include consistent media support for the US-UK governments' lies on Iraq, Kosovo, Iran and so on - is explained by a conspiracy to satisfy advertisers?'
Of course, no "rational person" has claimed that a "conspiracy to satisfy advertisers" explains all media coverage.

* In fact that’s exactly what Davies suggests is being argued by the conspiracy theorists he fails to name when he writes:

“So, for example, there is a popular theory that mass-media coverage is orchestrated or at least fundamentally restricted in order to win the favour of corporate advertisers. To an outsider’s eye, this is very tempting: these advertisers have money, the media outlets need the money, so they must be vulnerable to some kind of pressure from the advertisers to describe the world in a way which suits their interests. It’s a fine theory, particularly favoured by left-wing radicals, but its truth is very limited”. (p.14)

Not only does he assert that this +is+ a credible explanation (according to the unnamed theorists), but he claims it’s “a fine theory”.

This bizarre characterisation doesn't follow at all from their quoting of Davies. Who is supplying the straw men here?
Davies uses the word "orchestrated" (see quote, above), which tends to frame the advertisers' influence as grandly conspiratorial, and perhaps this is what Medialens object to. But if that is the case, it's puzzling that Medialens don't also object to the following passage, which they quote approvingly from Elizabeth Fones-Wolf (and which contains a claim of "orchestrated" campaigns):
'Manufacturers orchestrated multimillion dollar public relations campaigns that relied on newspapers, magazines, radio, and later television, to re-educate the public in the principles and benefits of the American economic system...'

* Again, the confusion is Shone’s. Fones-Wolf was describing elite attempts to shape society in their own interests in the US between 1945-60. Elites +do+ consciously organise society in their interests, but this does not explain the day-to-day performance of journalists in protecting these same interests. So it’s not that journalists like Davies are colluding with business or government to filter news damaging to powerful interests. That does happen in the media but it’s comparatively rare. As we’ve pointed out many times, most journalists are sincere, well-intentioned people - we cited Gary Webb as an example. Once political and economic frameworks have been set up in the right way the outcomes are pretty much guaranteed to benefit elite interests - no conspiracy is required.

Medialens's two-part article is riddled with equivocations and misrepresentations. The examples not already described may seem trivial at first glance, but the cumulative effect is distorting and destructive. For example, Medialens write:
'This naïve idea that the corporate media merely “recycle ignorance” goes to the heart of Davies’s analysis.'
In fact, Davies doesn't argue that the media "merely" recycle ignorance. This is Medialens's reductionist gloss.

* Shone has simply not understood what we wrote. We criticised Davies for suggesting that the media “recycle ignorance”, ie that this is an inaccurate description of what they do. In fact they recycle a particular +kind+ of ignorance; the kind that benefits elite centres of power - a big difference. This was the point Chomsky made in his response to Davies’s Guardian article:

“It's not a matter of a ‘tendency to recycle ignorance,’ transparently. If that were so, we'd expect reliance on the state to be randomly interspersed among cases of reliance on its enemies and independent sources. I don't think anyone with a gray cell functioning would claim that. And if they did, it would be very quickly refuted.”

Like Chomsky, we were suggesting that Davies was wrong to suggest that the media merely recycle ignorance. We were rejecting this aspect of his criticism of the media, not suggesting it was the only criticism Davies made. Shone has misunderstood our use of the word “merely”.

It could hardly be clearer from reading Flat Earth News that there's far more to it than that. At this point you'd be forgiven for thinking that Medialens haven't read the book.

* In reality, Shone has produced a series of ‘criticisms’ based in part on his misuse of quotes, but mostly on his failure to understand what we’ve written.

Nick Davies argues that "in all sorts of complex, fascinating and deeply embarrassing ways, the logic of journalism has been overwhelmed by the logic of commercialism".6 He writes about "falsehood as profound as the idea that the Earth is flat, widely accepted as true to the point where it can feel like heresy to challenge it".4

* That reinforces exactly the point we’re making. Davies is naïve to argue that “the logic of journalism has been overwhelmed”. In fact the logic of professional corporate journalism has been +fulfilled+ - it is serving its intended purpose, which is to act as a propaganda system for established power.

DE and DC

2. All these derogatory terms are in the main Medialens piece (link - see 1.), except the last, which is from the following: "But if you take a look at Davies's key focus - "churnalism" - you can see that it really is a very superficial analysis, which is a big reason why the book has been widely discussed in the mainstream." (David Edwards, Medialens message board, 6/3/08 )
Mon Mar 10, 2008 4:55 pm
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