Journalists: are they hypocritical cowards?

3 Mar

With my interlocutor’s express permission, I’m replicating his exchanges with me below the line of my February reads post. It concerns the extent to which media corruption is systemic, and that to which it is driven by the rottenness of the journalists who give us this day our daily news.

I do not absolve those men and women of their role in woefully misinforming us. (More, I think, through lies of omission than commission, though both feature.) Some are proven liars, others cynics and yet others – the most obvious, hence least harmful – steeped in reaction. Moreover, the context for the exchanges set out below is the puerile behaviour, the snarling responses, of journalists incensed that Media Lens has the temerity to challenge them on so flimsy a pretext as that said journalists, being pivotal to the manufacture of mass opinion – most grievously our hideously misinformed ‘consent’ to acts of war – should be held to account.

What a feeble excuse for such “sophomoric” (Gavin Esler) lèse-majesté …

Nevertheless, and sarcasm aside, my view is that media rottenness does not in the last analysis derive from being staffed top to bottom by rotten people. Specifically, I locate the rottenness in two things. One is a political economy – business model if you like – elegantly summarised by Noam Chomsky:

These are large corporations selling privileged audiences to other large corporations. Now the question is, what pictures of the world would a rational person expect from this?

The other is ideology, the ways we make sense of the world. This is a vast subject, its surface barely scratched in my introduction to the Media Lens piece, which spoke of:

… the intricate networks of meaning some call The Matrix. Others prefer an older but much misunderstood term, ideology. We all of us do our bit, as workers in education and entertainment say, or simply as ordinary folk trying to get by, to perpetuate and renew those networks of meaning. And here’s the thing: since the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of its ruling class, few of us speak of ideology or a ‘matrix’. We speak instead of common sense.

Through ideology we make sense of the world. Its agency is within us all …

In a footnote I attempted to draw the two things, media business model and ideology, together:

The political economy of our media, specifically a 200 year reliance on advertising – two steps removed in the case of state broadcasters 1 – makes it [corrupt]. That this model is now under threat – hence the moves to rein in social media 2 – complicates but does not yet sidestep that stark truth. Since media practitioners are human beings, as steeped in dominant ideology as the rest of us, such systemic bias merges seamlessly, and in dialectical interplay, with wider biases. Slavoj Žižek said it is easier for us to envisage the end of the world than the end of capitalism. For his part Chomsky replied thus to interviewer Andrew Marr’s protest that he does not self censor at the BBC:  “I don’t say you are self censoring. I’m sure you believe all you say. But what I’m saying is that if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting in that chair.”

My analysis has the advantage of explaining how it is possible for journalists personally known to me to be sincere and decent coves who genuinely believe (albeit with a self serving capacity shared to greater or lesser degree by all of us) that what they do is for the common good. It also stands up more robustly to Occam’s Razor than does the ‘rotten people’ thesis.

It has its downside though. The danger is of moral hazard: that we wind up denying individual agency in positing a perfectly sealed system, self perpetuating, in which resistance is futile. A Hegelian union of the two perspectives – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is surely in order. And although Marx’s context was far broader, one of his best known observations applies here:

Men make their own history. But they do so under conditions not of their choosing.

In this spirit – rather than one of “I’m right and he’s wrong” – I reproduce that BTL dialogue with my good if virtual friend, the one and only Jams O’Donnell.

*

Jams

You (and Chomsky) are too kind to journalists. It is obvious, to anyone who wants to see, which countries are illegaly invading others, or fomenting plots to overthrow legally constituted governments, etc.

To ignore such antics requires two things: an under-developed sense of morality, and (as I think you may have mentioned recently) a clear insight into the fact that if they develop a sense of morality, their pay check will cease to arrive.

So basically, most mainstream journalists are hypocritical cowards. Most of the rest, if they don’t fit into that category, are either very stupid patriots or very thoroughly indoctrinated dupes. The remaining few are people like Cook and Escobar who provide proof that you can be a journalist and still earn an honest living.

Me

Hi Jams. I don’t deem Chomsky too kind to journalists. He shows us – powerfully, necessarily and with his remarkable gift for simplicity – that we need not assume corporate media staffed top to bottom with rogues and liars. Which is just as well because those of my acquaintance are neither. Analyses which start and end with so comic-book an assumption are doomed to be trite and easily dismissed.

You come closer, I think, with your allusion to cowardice. Even here I’d be a tad kinder, but fundamentally can’t argue with you. All I’d do is add that in all probability most of us are in that sense ‘cowardly’ – and that before we make free with that epithet we do well to ask ourselves: when were we tested? When did we do the right thing when the costs were high? If we have convincing answers to such questions, well, maybe we can then make so bold. But that’s a big if in most cases, though I always try to make room for the exceptions, and maybe that’s you.

I think the parenthesised allusion in your second para is to one of my most cited quotes. Upton Sinclair, no? “It’s hard to get a man to see a truth his salary depends on him not seeing.”

To which we might add, it’s harder still when that man has a family to feed. Yes, folk like Caitlin, Jonathan, Pepe, the two Davids at Media Lens and a good few more are shining beacons. But theirs is a precarious and unscalable model. They rely on the generosity of such as you and me to keep afloat. Nothing new there. Karl himself depended greatly on his beloved Fred – which is to say, on inherited wealth!

Truth is, I see no way round the challenge of going further than moral denunciation, necessary as that often is, to engage with the human condition in its vast and endless complexity; to engage, in fact, with ideology. Too much of the Left has ignored this, or referred to it in simplistic terms.

Jams

Well, I have to disagree with you, Phil. For example, you in this blog, and anyone replying to you, are implicitly exposing themselves to scrutiny by – who knows who? MI5, MI6 GCHQ, the police? OK, that’s as far as it goes just now, but there’s lots of historical stuff – activist blacklisting, fitting up of innocent Irishmen etc. which show that the state will stamp on you if they think (or need you to be) a danger.

Assume that the ERG lunatics get a true believer into the PM’s position – suppose that in 10 years time the UK economy really goes down the tubes due to Brexit and global warming. Suppose there are water shortages, food shortages, flooding, homelessness. Do you think that such a government might just overlook your contribution to the general unrest? I don’t think you (and possibly us) will be in the same position as e.g. Jonathan Freedland.

Me

Well I thank you Jams, and not for the first time, for the compliment. We who scribble as I do need those from time to time. But I too make hard headed calculations. I turn 70 next year – inshallah – and am as financially independent as is possible for a lifetime labour-seller in a profit led world. One who ducked and weaved far too much to have any vast pension pot. (And yes, I do keep a wary eye on moves to lift the triple lock!)

My two daughters are capable women in their mid to late thirties and doing well. My pension, supplemented by a few grand in rent from my house in Sheffield (not all of which I in turn hand over to my own landlord in Nottingham) is modest but suffices. My needs and even my desires are few and there is literally nothing I long to do, but cannot for lack of money.

For these reasons it’s relatively easy to write as I do. Not everyone is as well placed. As for what might happen in ten years time, I share your foreboding but here too make a personal risk assessment. The truth is, by the time things get really bad in the West, I’m unlikely to be still around! 3

Other and more subjective factors also apply. I’m a bit of a contrarian, I guess. That does not make me a better or worse person, simply not your average bloke in that regard if no other. I also feel enormously privileged – though at times it can seem a bitter chalice – to be applying my skills as writer and thinker to things that matter. I see friends and peers filling in their twilight days on the golf course, or collecting stamps, and – my twice a week visitations by nihilism notwithstanding – feel blessed beyond measure. It really is something to have focus and purpose and meaning!

(Recognising the pay-offs for us, in our world views as much as our actions, is not only the key to self awareness. It also has direct bearing on what we are discussing here. At some level we are all of us self-serving in our thinking. This, again, is implicit in that splendidly pithy Upton Sinclair quote. To repeat, while there are out and out liars – take Luke Harding’s claims on the Assange-Manafort meetings – I say most journalists are subjectively honest: the point made by Chomsky to Marr applies. Is their thinking self-serving? Of course! More so than that of the average human being? I doubt it.)

All these things have to be factored in before we assume everyone can do as I do. Then we see that the model of lone wolves like Caitlin, Jonathan, the two Davids et al – yes, and me too – doesn’t scale up. People like us are needed, I say, but not as sticks to beat the less enlightened, the more indoctrinated or simply the less favourably placed. I’m not by nature modest but I do find wisdom in Kipling’s words:

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
Yet make allowance for their doubting too …

Finally, I want to be kind to the little people trying to get by, and to minimise conflict by choosing not only my battles but by distinguishing implacable foe from potential ally. I strive for these things not because I’m a saint. Not even because I’m a Libran! (George McI, with whom you have crossed swords, once proffered this diagnosis, forgetting that Mrs Thatcher was also one – not, I hasten to add, that we Librans believe in astrology!)

I try, not always with total success, to avoid calling the vast majority of my fellows fools, cowards and varlets. That’s bad salesmanship. (And we do well to keep in mind that, under an insane system, we are all of us a little insane ourselves.) Those on the Left, and they are many, who vilify everyone not sharing their take on how things are leave me wondering as to their motives. Do they really seek change? Or do they simply like to breathe the air on what it pleases them to call the moral high ground?

Apologies for going on a bit. I may come back, shape up my thoughts, and present them in a post above the line.

In solidarity, Phil.

PS – another “finally” … I do believe – and this too may flow from that famously Libran trait of constantly weighing in the balance – that more aggressive voices are also needed. The world is a stage, said Elvis, and all of us have our parts to play. Or as my dear old gran would say, “it takes all sorts to make a revolution”.

Jams

Mmmmm. I have a much more jaundiced view of humanity than you. I recognise that there are quite a lot of anonymous people doing good quietly in their own back yard, or actively in the world (of health mostly). However I believe that they are vastly outnumbered by the majority who are either ignoring the ills of society and thus enabling them, or a large minority who are actively doing (to put it mildly) wrong.

I used to have arguments about this sort of stuff with a friend. My position was that e.g. Jesus said you should give your possessions to the poor, follow him by doing good deeds, etc. etc. However, you find very few self-described Christians doing many of these things. Fair enough – giving all your stuff to the poor is not really a prescription for a viable society, (and it just transfers the problem of excessive wealth onto the previously poor [ 🙂 ]) but then they mustn’t call themselves ‘Christians’.

My point is that this sort of lumpen social glossing-over of reality is what allows one to ignore our collective responsibility for the ills of society, and it is widespread. My friends reply was that I was being too literal minded and that that society needed this sort of grease to allow it to function. However, I remain a purist (or possibly a fanatic) about this sort of hypocrisy, and I think it needs continual exposure.

But I have to add that I am no social worker myself. I aspire to be a Buddhist, but at best it’s still just an aspiration really. I do my best to stay aware, but I have all the usual human faults (including, I see from the above, intolerance and self-satisfaction – ho-hum – its an endless fight to do better).

PS I’m a year ahead of you, so it all probably matters even less to me.

Me

These are genuine differences of temperament and world view, on which there’s much to be said for and on either side. I’m not really an optimist – or if I am, it’s of Sartre’s “stern” kind – but on utilitarian grounds I see little mileage in damning most of humanity. Moreover, I see the work on media done by Chomsky as vitally important (even if he doesn’t always keep faith with his own analyses). Likewise that done by such as Gramsci on ideology.

Would you mind my posting these exchanges above the line, where they’ll get a wider airing?

* * *

  1. In speaking of state broadcasters as “two steps removed” from the market discipline of advertising dependency, I mean they rely on revenues set by politicians themselves fearful of negative press coverage: a fear most visible in the grotesque spectacle of would be prime ministers paying court to men like Murdoch and Rothermere.
  2. On moves to rein in social media, a word to the well intended dupes who cheered at Twitter’s banning of Donald Trump. Has it occurred to you that tyranny may come by stealth, starting with the low hanging fruit? First they came for the unlovable …
  3. The reference here, clear to Jams and me both, is the irony of contrarians in the West. Our rulers are secure enough to allow – even boast of their tolerance of – critics like me and those others named here. The more successful we get, the more dangerous our situation.

16 Replies to “Journalists: are they hypocritical cowards?

  1. Thing for me is this.
    I subscribe to the Marxist view that the ideology of a society is that of the class in power.
    This ideology is probably not in the interests of the exploited.
    Lenin, Gramsci, Marcuse and probably others all elaborated on this theme, as you know.
    They analysed how the ideology of the powerful is made to permeate society, using newspapers, the wider media, schools, etc.
    Lenin’s suggestion was to create a newspaper of the exploited.
    We don’t have that here right now, sadly.
    And I for one don’t know how to bring this about.
    So, much as I want to dislike journalists, they are just doing what they do.
    It’s what we might expect.
    They don’t feel a drive to do anything different.
    What is to be done?

    • I bend the stick differently from Jams on degree of culpability in individual journalists.

      That said, a strong case can be made for saying an Owen Jones or George Monbiot does more harm than an out and out shill like Jonathan Freedland or Nick Cohen. (See in this regard Jonathan Cook’s breakdown of the roles played by these and other Guardian writers in covering as wide a base as possible for the liberal educated market. If pushed for time go to the section, Mopped up by the Guardian.)

      I see this as an important line of enquiry, and am by no means fixed in my own position – reading back my comments I’m struck by their bet-hedging. But the bigger truth is agreed by Jams, me and I’m sure you too. Regardless of how far we attribute the rot to systemic factors, how far to cads and bounders, we are as one on the fact of our media being indeed rotten. This alone renders our ‘democracy’ – which by any sane reckoning presupposes an informed electorate – largely a chimera.

      • Don’t know whether this helps or hinders, illuminates or obscures, the necessary debate here?

        On this matter and related ones I’m still maintaining a position I came to in what seems to be from the here and now not just another time but another place?

        Arriving at Catterick Garrison for basic training with the Signal Corps as a prelude to months of further trade training, after three days assesment at Sutton Coldfield, the first message drilled into us, repeatedly, was that just because the training was half that of a regular infantryman made no difference.

        Whether you were a Cook, a Mechanic, Clerk or Radio Operator you were a soldier first, and a tradesman second.

        This really didn’t register to any depth until about the second or third week when we had a classroom lecture on rules. Just as structures have hierarchy’, processes, even processes of armed conflict, have rules. Though the evidence in his context that we are piss poor at adhering to these specific rules is deeply depressing and represents a not dissimilar situation to that of this thread.

        It’s worth taking into account that only just over a quarter of a century had elapsed since Nuremberg and the principles upon which it was prosecuted. Notwithstanding the very real existence of ‘victors justice’, along with events such as Kenya, Malaysia and Aden in that time period, it was obvious that at least our Troop Officer, who hailed from Northern Ireland, had a firm belief in the Geneva Convention principles and putting them not practical effect.

        The message drilled into us at the conclusion of the lecture utilised the same framework as drilled into us detailed above. It was equally simple and straightforward. To paraphrase; ‘it doesn’t matter what hat you are wearing, whether you’re a General, a Sergeant, or a private; a Squaddie or Civilian. You’re a human being first and anything else second.’

        The context was clear enough. Just as laid out at Nurmburg, blindly following any order, instructions, or course of action which undermines the standard of your greater responsibility and duty towards others (what Russell Crowe in the film ‘Master and Commander’ described as a ‘duty of fellowship’) represents an individual failure on a number of levels.

        Whilst it is not reasonable to claim that it’s an easy option to navigate through the wider systemic pressures which test such standards. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to argue that the very least of the assessment criteria to be employed in this, and similar, would revolve around the question of the honesty of the choice made by those, whether Jones or Monbiot, Esler or Freedland, who deliberately opt (whether they can admit it to themselves or not) for being propaganda pimps for a power elite wh, in reality, have no clothes.

        Such choices accrue certain benefits above simply getting by and are thus consciously made not the once but on a daily and hourly basis simply by continuing with that choice. Acrylics which is not without consequence to others.

        It might appear harsh, however, I’ve never had any time for what I’d regard as the Nuremburg Defence – which isn’t just about obeying orders, the means, but about benefiting from serving power resulting in negative consequences for others.

        No one is threatening the lives of those such as Jones (one of biggest peddlers of Identity Politics), Marr, Cohen etc to act as the oldest profession. It’s a comfortable lifestyle choice. Consequently, in the absence of a compelling argument which has not so far been offered up to me for going on half a century, the benefit of the doubt gets the thumbs down.

        • It might appear harsh, however, I’ve never had any time for what I’d regard as the Nuremburg Defence – which isn’t just about obeying orders, the means, but about benefiting from serving power resulting in negative consequences for others.

          True. The parallel is problematic though. I’m sure most who cheered for the Iraq invasion genuinely thought it the right thing to do. That doesn’t absolve them, least of all those who should have been far more critical of the ‘evidence’ for WMDs, and far more critical of how the invasion was conducted too. Still less does it excuse those who, having learned nothing, went on to suspend critical judgment in Libya then Syria. How many times can those journalists plead ignorance?

          So, yes, I’m beginning to feel my own antipathy harden. Not that naming the guilty is incompatible with the systemic and ideology based approaches sketched out above. After all, immense intellectual capital has gone into how the Holocaust was enabled. None of it, Irving and the usual suspects aside, is by way of absolving the perps – big fish or small.

          The Nuremberg parallel can be extended. As you imply, this was victors’ justice. A common fallacy IME is that Goering, Jodl, Keitel, Himmler, Ribbentrop and others were handed death sentences for involvement in the Holocaust. In fact their indictments were for “waging aggressive war”. A solid case can be made that the role of “our” media in cheering on aggressive war across the middle east, and murderous sanctions going far wider, makes individual journalists a party to the same crime. Nor do I mean just the unabashedly gung-ho hawks, including those at the Guardian and other liberal media. The Jones’s and Monbiots bear heavy responsibility too, as I argued in a post a few years ago on ‘universalism’. In it I quote Jonathan Cook:

          Monbiot has repeatedly denied he wants a military attack on Syria. But if he weakly accepts whatever narratives are crafted by those who do – and refuses to subject them to meaningful scrutiny – he is decisively helping to promote such an attack.

          • “I’m sure most who cheered for the Iraq invasion genuinely thought it the right thing to do.”

            Well there I can (almost) prove you wrong in your assessment. Absolutely everyone I know, and, I think from memory, possibly even a few mainstream journalists (maybe) were completely clear that the WMD was a blatant and easily disproved lie – if you wanted to disprove it, that is. My cousin was a member of that government, and he voted for the war – I just could not believe it – he is a person with a degree, (as I suppose a lot of them are) but tellingly is also a journalist and now an ex politician.

            So anyone who really thought this was the right thing to do did not think so because of the ‘evidence’ – they thought so because they either desired the result no matter what the justification, or wanted to keep on the good side of people who wanted the result. Which brings me back to my original contention, contrary to Rousseau, that the majority of humanity fall into the lumpen/actively (small ,m’ – or sometimes large ‘M’) malicious category.

            Additional (although anecdotal) evidence:

            I was brought up in a small village, and I live in one now. The degree of minor feuds, malicious gossip and etc. in such places would cause a saint to blanch.

            • PS I think you omitted my last post in the series above, where I quoted Lenin – “What is to be done” and I answered “Buggered if I know”

                • No, thats all I recall of – and probably that’s too much.

                  PS – for anyone confused by the ‘ex Jams’ – Phil has been having trouble with my posts being routinely flagged up for moderation so we/I were trying different names and e-mail addresses. Nothing makes any difference!

            • So anyone who really thought this was the right thing to do did not think so because of the ‘evidence’ …

              Agreed.

              … they thought so because they either desired the result no matter what the justification, or wanted to keep on the good side of people who wanted the result.

              Not agreed. Logically, you have not exhausted the options. Many of those I engaged with over this issue and those which followed (such as the Libya lies, Khan Sheikhoun and Douma) seemed genuinely unable to tell the difference between “we have evidence” and, well, evidence! That makes them naive in every way, including epistemologically. In the case of foreign correspondents and news anchormen it also makes them lamentable journalists. It does not, however, disprove my guess that people, including journalists, truly believed it right to attack Iraq.

              • I don’t agree that it makes them naive – they would have to be terminally stupid, to the degree where Nanny would still have to tie their shoelaces. Such a degree of nativity is not feasible, unless you add a willingness to be deceived.

    • Yes. There is a perfectly good Marxist analysis of society in which people are moulded by economic and class politics which in turn forces them into distorted relationships with nature and among and between classes. I agree with much of that.

      Where I would differ with orthodox Marxism is to posit that there are also psychological and maybe even psychical factors involved in relationships between both individuals and groups.

      It’s a little hobby horse of mine that one of the problems with science and within sociology, is that proponents of any one discipline predominantly tend to see it (i.e their own discipline) as the only meaningful way to analyse a problem. Instead we should be using all possible ways to work out what is happening – psychology, sociology, anthropology etc. Unfortunately this is anathema to most scientists, who seem to want to prove their own rightness over everyone else – especially their closest colleagues.

      I used to believe that scientists were above any sorts of personal strife and striving, but a perusal of the history of science soon disabused me. – I really was absolutely shocked to find out what went on in the labs!

      Which again reinforces my pessimistic view of humanity 🙁

    • These look interesting, bevin. I’ll send to my kindle for leisurely read. Is Oliver related to Terry?

    • Have now read both. Good stuff too, though I find his writing style a tad convoluted – especially on the Owen Jones piece. But both repaid the effort, so thanks.

    • These two articles are further grist to the pessimistic mill I am grinding out! They show a) the ingrained human tendency of many to hypocrisy, toadying to power and cowardly convergence with the ‘Overton Window’ even from someone (Owen Jones) who had the wasted advantage of being brought up in a much more left-wing environment than I ever was. And b) the total and absolute continuing and continuous bankruptcy of the so-called ‘Labour’ Party and of those who misguidedly join it and hope for any real progress through it. This latter item was a message I first heard in the SWP, and I have to say that in this case they were absolutely correct.

      I have to say too that I really admire Corbyn. He tried his best to act in a truly honest and constructive way. He probably needed to be tougher in his actions against the right wing and more pro-active in taking on the ‘anti-semitism’ lobby, but he had the guts to put his career on the line and to take on the weight of the whole capitalist establishment plus the Israeli government. Amazing that he got even as far as he did – and he is still in the ring! One of the few who disprove my pessimism.

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