How an activist fathered a media critic

Author David Cromwell. Photo: Stuart Cromwell
Friday, August 3, 2012

Why Are We The Good Guys?
David Cromwell
Zero Books
Out September 28, 2012
www.zero-books.net

As a child, David Cromwell got an invaluable insight into the way the corporate media skews the news.

Scattered around his family's Scottish home were "mainstream" newspapers like the Daily Record and Glasgow Herald. But among them was also the non-corporate Daily Worker, later to become the Morning Star, which his father not only bought, but sold.

"Dad had plenty of left-wing and Communist pamphlets, magazines and books around the house," he writes in his new book, Why Are We The Good Guys? "I could see from quite early on in my life that there were different takes on the way the press would report, or not report, and analyse ‘the news’."

Cromwell went on to co-found award-winning watchdog website Media Lens, which has challenged journalists for more than a decade by issuing "alerts" that criticise the way the press report, or do not report, and analyse "the news".

He has written several books, both alone and with his Media Lens co-editor, David Edwards. But Why Are We The Good Guys? is made all the more appealing by the fact that Cromwell, 50, has made it far more personal in describing his childhood and career. Did he feel that his past books had been a little too dry to reach a wider audience?

"Reaching a wider audience isn’t really a motivating factor for my writing," he tells Green Left Weekly. "It doesn’t and can’t work like that. I write what I like and if other people get to hear about it by word of mouth, for instance, and like it, that’s fine.

"It’s hard for me to be objective, of course, but if you’re talking about the two Media Lens books, I don’t think they were dry at all. They’re packed with sharp observations, gob-smacking exchanges with journalists and even discussions of psychology and philosophy that you will rarely find in books about ‘current affairs’ or journalism.

"This book has more personal aspects to it because I’ve long wanted to write about some aspects of my upbringing and experiences that have shaped the critical approach I take to understanding news, politics and the state of the world."

The book recounts how Cromwell was studying for a PhD in astrophysics and "trying to understand what was going on inside solar flares" when his then-girlfriend suggested he apply for a job with a big oil company.

"Shell were aiming to recruit not just geologists and geophysicists for oil and gas exploration, but physicists too."

As unlikely as it may sound, the Communist sympathiser's son ended up working for Shell for five years. Yet it was perhaps his training and work as a scientist that made him more likely to question the status quo.

After all, one of Cromwell's heroes, the intellectual and media critic Noam Chomsky, says that - contrary to the humanities - in the sciences, "the goal is to learn how to do creative work, and to challenge everything".

Cromwell disagrees. "The best scientists do indeed think creatively, and perhaps ‘challenge everything’, but only in their own, usually narrow, field," he says.

"Being brilliant at pushing forward our understanding of the fundamental forces of the universe or human evolution or how cancer develops doesn’t seem to lead to stronger challenges to the status quo. If anything, it can leave less time and effort for that."

Challenging the status quo certainly requires time and effort. Media Lens's monitoring of the media is exhaustive and, most likely, exhausting. In his book, Cromwell quotes the eighth-century Indian sage Shantideva, saying: "This is no time to sleep, you fool!" Does he get any sleep?

"I certainly can’t claim to live up to Shantideva’s code of conduct," jokes Cromwell. "I’ve got a pretty normal family life with a partner and two children. I have several files on my computer to collect quotes, thoughts, ideas for alerts, and so on."

However, just monitoring the hyperactive Media Lens message board must take up considerable time. Media Lens's followers are a predictably sceptical bunch and don't hold back in criticising Media Lens.

Yet Media Lens has been called a "cult" by at least one corporate journalist for the way its followers collectively email journalists when encouraged to by its alerts.

Cromwell refers in his book to Danny Wallace's Join Me: The True Story of a Man Who Started a Cult by Accident. Does he feel he has accidentally started a cult in Media Lens?

"What an intriguing question," he says. "No, I don’t think the point is fair. In fact, on quite extreme occasions, it’s been deployed as an ignorant smear against us and our readers. There have been many variations, all suggesting that the people who support what we do are a homogeneous mass of uncritical worshippers.

"Have these journalists ever even read our media alerts or books, and visited our message board and seen the feisty debates going on? Or seen the emails we get, even from people who say they like what we do?

"If anything, it’s the herd mentality of corporate journalists – the almost uniformly hostile treatment of Julian Assange is classic – that exhibits cult-like behaviour."

The feisty debates on Media Lens's message board include accusations of hypocrisy. Cromwell and Edwards have been blocked from following some journalists on Twitter, yet Media Lens has banned message boarders such as former New York Times journalist Daniel Simpson and blogger Dissident93. That blogger, also known as Robert Shone, wrote a ZNet article criticising Media Lens that he claims it still hasn't responded to.

Cromwell says Media Lens responded to Shone on numerous occasions long ago, but the responses have since dropped off the bottom of the message board. Asked why Media Lens hasn’t responded to Shone’s ZNet article, he says: "We learned a long time ago that constantly responding to unreasonable critics just feeds their obsession and inner turmoil. It’s why we stopped." Asked if he feels he has ever lost an argument, Cromwell says: "No."

However, even Media Lens's most relentless critics, such as Simpson, admit to still using it as a "cuttings service" to keep up with events. Media Lens's service is free, yet just as with Cromwell's father, it still offers an invaluable insight into the way the corporate media skews the news.

"Every member of the public and every journalist with an ounce of scepticism about authority should read [t]his outstanding book," says multi-award-winning journalist John Pilger about Why Are We The Good Guys? Green Left has bought a signed copy to give away. Email your name and address to CriticalFilms@gmail.com before the next issue of Green Left comes out. Winner picked at random.

A snippet of media analysis from Media Lens's YouTube channel. Andrew Marr reports on Iraq for the BBC, 2003.

Comments

e are the good guys but with the capitalism demonstrating the Communists / Socialists because we will not sell out to ruling class and the fact that climate change denial who are in back pockets of Clive Palmer and Gina Rinehart the mining magnates who have no interest phasing out coal and the fact that we want to nationalise the mining industry to derail their gravy train. With the corporation are rely running the show that why they fear us the most because they lose control of power they hold over us with Blue Scope still and REO Tito & BHP Bilpin and Extract we live in Plutocracy Sam Bullock

Great piece Mat,

I look forward to David's "We are the Good Guys" becoming available late September.

What a pity that guys like Pilger and Cromwell and yourself are not the mainstream norm. What a wonderful world that would be.

I have long believed that every Australian needs to read and watch everything available that John Pilger ( @WarYouDontSee httpss://johnpilger.com ) has produced as the best sunlight and antiseptic against the mind numbing trash journalism dished out by Australian corporate journalists in "the most restrictive media in the western world."

Good luck with Green Left TV. I am sure you will make a big success of it. The timing could not be either more necessary, or more appropriate.

Best wishes
James Johnson

( aka @JamesJohnsonCHR https://twitter.com/jamesjohnsonchr )

Australian Journalist, Whistleblower and Political Dissident
Independent Federal Candidate for Lalor
Constitutional Human Rights Advocate
Solicitor and Barrister of the High Court of Australia
(Celebrating 20 Years of Legal Practice 1990 - 2010)

It's a real shame that David Cromwell uses terms such as "obsession" and "inner turmoil" to dimiss his critics. This subtle - and seemingly polite - hint of mental illness is similar to the smear techniques long employed by the right (as Noam Chomsky & others have noted).

The Medialens editors did the same thing to Stephen Soldz (a former supporter, psychoanalyst and activist). After they had a disagreement with him they wrote that his mind had undergone "erosion" by propaganda: http://i47.tinypic.com/332xwns.jpg

In these cases, it's about Medialens finding ways to dismiss their critics +without+ addressing their arguments. The critical ZNet piece mentioned in the article is a good case in point. It's full of well-researched detail, it presents a strong, serious case against Medialens's claims about IBC. A lot of knowledgable people have read it, but nobody to date has been able to refute any of its substantial points. For Cromwell to dismiss it in the way he does (with character slurs rather than argument) is very poor.

Greg

Incidentally, Mat, the "full, unedited Q&A, on Media Lens's site" seems to be missing the bit where Cromwell is questioned about the ZNet article he didn't respond to. (ie the Shone/Simpson part of your piece).

Greg

Hi Greg

Regarding your comment:

*****
the "full, unedited Q&A, on Media Lens's site" seems to be missing the bit where Cromwell is questioned about the ZNet article he didn't respond to. (ie the Shone/Simpson part of your piece).
*****

Just to be clear: The full, unedited Q&A appears to be complete. The part of the interview where David Cromwell is questioned about the ZNet article was from a separate email correspondence with him.

Thanks for reading the article and for your comments.

All the best,
Mat