I speak often, here and here for instance, of media distortion as (a) operating more by lies of omission – safer, and over the long haul more effective than lies of commission in powering overarching narratives like West good, Russia baad 1 – and (b) rooted in the political economy of media which, as Noam Chomsky noted, are “large corporations selling privileged audiences to other corporations [so] what pictures of the world would a rational person expect from this?”
Journalists who know what’s good for them please editors. 2 Editors who know what’s good for them please proprietors. Proprietors not only crave honours and seats at the high table. They cannot afford to offend advertisers and/or, in The Guardian’s case, wealthy sponsors like Bill Gates and George Soros.
This isn’t to say lies of commission never happen. Take the lie, which neither Luke Harding nor Katherine Viner have evidenced or retracted, that Julian met Trump fixer and subsequent convict Paul Manafort in London’s Ecuador Embassy. The impossibility of any such meeting going undetected in the world’s most monitored building deterred neither Mr Harding nor his Editor in Chief from a lie that killed two birds with one stone. First, it advanced the ‘Russiagate’ smear on Trump, a lie now debunked for those paying attention – yes, even the Wall Street Journal – but for liberals swayed less by the tedious convolutions of facts, more by the simple narratives of trusted media, the mud stuck. Second, it served the ongoing vilification of Julian, in which The Guardian played a leading – arguably the leading – role.
Nor is to say there aren’t other powerful mechanisms, additional to ad-dependency and career focus, which on matters crucial to power make media pictures of the world so treacherous. Few matters are more crucial to power than waging war – whether direct and declared, or by proxy and undeclared – on states seen as threatening its interests. But oligarchs can hardly come right out and say, “China and Russia impede our licence to loot the globe unchecked so Must Be Stopped even at risk of nuclear war”. Rather, they use ‘perception management’ to present any given war as caused by an evil enemy, and ‘our’ involvement as just and honourable. To this end the briefings of journalists by often unnamed ‘sources’ – dedicated PR units in military and intelligence agencies 3 which learned the lessons of Vietnam and whose narrative control is now more sophisticated and all-encompassing – are not to be underestimated.
Over to Caitlin Johnstone, who today writes about access journalism at its most pernicious:
New York Times editors changed a recent headline from “As Ukraine’s Fight Falters, It Gets Even Harder to Talk About Negotiations” to “As Ukraine’s Fight Grinds On, Talk of Negotiations Becomes Nearly Taboo”, apparently for no other reason than because “grinds on” advances the information interests of the US empire better than “falters”.
A lot of propaganda emphasis goes into crafting headlines, because the vast majority of people read only the headline of a news story and not the body of the text. If your interests are in propaganda and narrative control rather than news reporting, headlines are where your focus lies.
Modern western national security journalism is mostly just writing what a government official tells you to write and then calling it a “scoop” which you got from a nameless “source” in the government.
One of the many, many problems with this system of news reporting is that it gives the government a tremendous amount of leverage over mass media outlets, because if The New York Times or CNN don’t write what a government agency or official wants them to write, they can lose access to that “source” and all the “scoops” that come with it. If The New York Times started doing actual journalism and closely scrutinizing the US intelligence cartel for example, the CIA could just decide that NYT is now off limits and all the insider “scoops” go to different outlets instead. The New York Times would then immediately lose prominence while someone else gains it, and they’d lose all the clicks and subscriptions they were getting from being a consistent source of breaking news on that front.
Which is why that never happens. A symbiotic relationship has been created in which news outlets benefit from powerful sources and powerful sources benefit from uncritical news reporting. The news outlets report what they’re told to report in order to keep their steady supply of “scoops”, and in exchange they get all the money and prestige that goes with it. The government gets uncritical regurgitation of talking points which serve the information interests of the western empire in that moment.
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- Or the slightly more sophisticated but equally lazy and cowardly West baad, Russia woorse …
- On the ‘career focus of journalists’, let me cite the case of Marina Hyde, highly rated by many. Not by me. A style I find smug and convoluted I can overlook – there are worse sins than being a clever clogs. But her trashing of the world’s bravest journalist? That I cannot forgive. Not because of its crude tone but because, aiding the desertion of Julian by the liberal intelligentsia, it effectively sided with the war criminals:
But this too is beside the point I’m making here. Marina Hyde not so long ago claimed that no one at the Guardian tells her what to write. It fell to Media Lens, pace Michael Parenti, to call out such gushing nonsense:
(A similar point was made to Andrew Marr, then at the BBC, in a TV interview with Noam Chomsky. When Marr protested that he does not self censor, Chomsky replied: “I don’t say you do. I’m sure you believe all you say. My point is that if you believed something different, you would not be sitting in that chair.” )
- State and arms-sector funded ‘think tanks’, falsely depicted as impartial, also play a key role in shaping media reportage but are less able to control journalists in the carrot and stick way Caitlin speaks of.