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This article can be found in Issue 2 (p32) of Vhcle Magazine.
2010: Media
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 Jamie Dance Thunder

There are some things you just don’t read in the media.  One of these things, somewhat ironically, is a critique of what you read in the media.

Sure, there are criticisms of how particular stories are handled, and the occasional vow to cover an issue more, but there’s no systematic look at what is and isn’t reported, how things are reported, and why they’re reported in that way.

At first glance this seems justified – newspapers, after all, are products, and what company would conduct a thorough, public examination of how good what it’s selling really is?

But the media has a unique role in this world of corporations and bottom lines. Unlike Nike, Disney, or Wal-Mart, it’s vital to our understanding what happens around us, to us, and in our name. If something is in the media, it has Happened – that’s why newspapers have to be so careful to report things accurately. If something is not in the media, it’s a non-event for people.

In the UK, a recent tribunal ruling that for-mer editor of the News of the World (the biggest-selling Sunday paper, owned by Rupert Murdoch) began what became a systematic pattern of bullying of a reporter, eventually leading to an £800,000 payout. The editor, Andy Coulson, is now the opposition Conservative Party’s Director of Communications.

Certainly an interesting story, especially with an election to be held this year. But it made it only to a single broadsheet in the UK and a couple of trade journals. And that’s just one example.

You might say it’s understandable; why would journalists threaten their possible future employment prospects by slagging off another publication? But again, consider the hold the media has over our knowledge. If the media has such control over what we know, then surely how it operates should be a major part of its reporting?

There have, in fact, been attempts to outline exactly how the media works. Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News, for example, documented the reliance of (mainly British) media on PR, the failure to check sources, and the constraints that impact upon journalists. Possibly because Nick Davies is a renowned investigative journalist for The Guardian (a UK broadsheet newspaper), this analysis received a fair bit of coverage.

But another, older theory proposed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman receives almost none. Suggesting that the very structure of the media supports the existing power in society, its basic logic is this: newspapers are owned by corporations, are funded by corporate advertising, rely on government and other ‘official’ sources for much of their news, want to avoid criticism from powerful lobby groups (including the government), and have a particular view of the world to promote.

All of these factors – or filters – then subconsciously feed into a journalist’s writing, leading to a version of the news that at best has double standards. At its most benign, it can affect how individuals are identified – it’s impossible to imagine Bill Clinton being prefaced by ‘controversial former President’, but similar introductions are regularly given to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. At its worst it leads to distortion of the historical record, like the regular news reports claiming weapons inspectors were ‘thrown out’ of Iraq in 1998 when in fact they were pulled out to avoid the impending bombing, or narrowing the parameters of debate (for example, posing the question of whether the war in Afghanistan was ‘justified’ or a ‘miscalculation’ – ignoring the view that it was ‘illegal’).

Somewhat unfortunately, Herman and Chomsky called their analysis the propaganda model. But it doesn’t claim to be a conspiracy – there’s no suggestion that journalists deliberately and consciously change their writing, but rather that they are decent, well-meaning people who have internalised the filters. They also give examples of individual articles and reporters who have managed to reject the constraints.

In recent years, two men called David (Cromwell and Edwards) have tried to apply the theory to British media coverage of the build-up, execution, and aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have co-authored two books on the topic. Yet a search for ‘propaganda model’ in the online archives of national broadsheets in the UK yields just two results. One is a passing mention of the analysis in a 2001 profile piece on Chomsky in The Guardian. The other, with an irony that the theory’s proponents would surely appreciate, is from an article that states “Chinese media is only just emerging from the propaganda model”.

Some of the errors, such as perhaps the differences in labelling individuals, could be down to bad practice by individual journalists. And Cromwell and Edwards’ latest book, Newspeak in the 21st Century, includes welcome instances of media organisations (particularly the BBC) correcting articles after such problems were pointed out.

But these sorts of examples are not one-offs. They’re regular and occur throughout the media, from the tackiest tabloid to the most pompous broadsheet, as Cromwell and Edwards document. The real question is not whether these examples exist, but why.

I certainly don’t agree with all aspects of the propaganda model, particularly the focus on ownership and advertising. But there is a really, really important debate to be had here. Do the brief examples given above indicate nothing more than stretched, perhaps lazy journalists who don’t have the time to check so go for the uncontentious phrase?

Or is it more insidious? Is it because journalists understand (at some level) things will be easier for them if they use the version that will get the least flak from their editors, from advertisers, from official sources? The government knows, as the media accurately reported at the time, why weapons inspectors left Iraq in 1998, but it won’t attack a newspaper for saying they were forced out. Contradict an official line, on the other hand, and you’ll be denounced.

With seemingly little left to lose as sales and advertising drop, maybe it’s time for the media to look themselves in the mirror and evaluate just what it is they’re guardians of. It’s not a conspiracy – but is it a cock-up? At the very least journalists should be aware of these analyses of their profession, but their responses to Edwards and Cromwell have loudly decried any ‘conspiracy theory’. This rather suggests that they’re not very aware of the actual critique.

Until they start making themselves explicitly accountable in their own pages to the public they say they serve, then the issue of media performance will remain that most invisible of things: a non-event.