The making of "the news"

August 30, 2008

Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion & Propaganda in the Global Media

By Nick Davies

Chatto & Windus, 2008

408 pages, $54.95 (hb)

Just another day at the news factory — short-staffed on the production line, re-packaging press releases to meet the next deadline.

This is the life of the "churnalist", writes Nick Davies in Flat Earth News, his report on the dismal state of modern journalism.

In the trade for thirty years, Davies conducts an insider's forensic dissection of the falsehood, distortion and propaganda that passes for news today.

The "commercial logic" of the cost-cutting corporate news merchants, argues Davies, has turned journalists into time-poor, de-skilled word operatives.

Barely 10% of news stories are generated from research and investigation by journalists themselves — the rest of their pressured time, they recycle (verbatim or with thin paraphrase) press releases, becoming passive processors of unchecked and politically or commercially self-interested public relations material, producing unreliable and frequently false "Flat Earth news".

One of the main conveyor belts of PR are the "wire agencies" (a virtual monopoly of Associated Press and Reuters), which feed in raw material whose sole virtue is the accuracy of its quotations, not its truth; reporting truly what is said, not the truth of what is said — "If the Prime Minister says there are chemical weapons in Iraq, that is what the good news agency will report".

Internet news websites in particular (upon which 60% of US adults rely) are PR sponges for wire-agency product, their hunger for "breaking news" contributing heavily to the "daily mass production of ignorance".

Davies identifies a suite of rules embedded in "churnalism" that have evolved to meet the logistics of mass production and commodification of news, and that act as "a kind of quality control system which instantly rejects any raw material which does not meet the factory's requirement".

So, the "churnalist" must avoid stories that are expensive, time-consuming and troublesome to government or powerful interests, choosing instead those that are low cost, low risk and deadline-friendly. They select "safe" facts — those asserted by official authorities (US military, prime minister's office, puppet government) and rejecting those denied by said authorities.

Deference to the powerful includes bending before Zionist lobby groups, which orchestrate floods of vicious emails and letters to journalists who report Palestinian casualties or mention Israel's ethnic cleansing of 1948.

The BBC, for example, "regularly gives more space and time to Israeli voices than to Palestinian and focuses more frequently on Israeli victims than on Palestinians".

The "safe facts" are corralled by safe moral and political values, the undeclared assumptions and prejudices favouring the world view of the powerful. Davies cites Neil Sheehan, the New York Times Vietnam War journalist, who reflected on the safety of the "common sense" of "consensus" — if a journalist had ever questioned "the justice and good sense of US intervention in those years, they would have been fired as 'subversive'".

If non-official voices ever get a hearing, they are neutered by the "churnalism" rule of "balance", a stone-chiselled commandment particularly rife in the state media.

If an orthodox and utterly bogus consensus (Iraq's alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction [WMD], for example) was ever challenged, it was immediately chaperoned by official counter-claims. "Balance", however, is a one-way street — official assertions of WMD never warranted a mandatory view from the other side.

"Balance", says Davies, is the "coward's compromise" aimed at quick copy with which no one in a position of authority will argue.

Rounding out the rules of the ignorance factory are "giving the punters what they want" (the deluge of trivia and celebrity pseudo-"news") and brain-death by a thousand sound-bites (important and often complex issues glibly minced into small chunks of cliche and slogan to feed an ever shorter attention span — the ADHD of the modern media).

The rules of "churnalism" reflect the conservative political status quo, says Davies. The sins of omission (what is not covered) are powerfully news-distorting, providing only marginal and superficial coverage of the "unworthy" victims of global poverty and inequality in developed nations, the white-collar crimes of multinational corporations, etc.

The sins of commission (what is covered, through retailing questionable or false facts) render the news safe to powerful interests.

All journalists select what to cover and how, and their choices, governed by the unwritten rules of "churnalism", are overwhelmingly safe and wrapped in the self-delusional protective bubble of "objectivity", the "myth that a journalist simply collects and reproduces the objective truth".

What journalists in fact promote, says Davies, is not objectivity but at best neutrality (no evaluation or critique of contending views) or, more commonly, the conservative hegemony of ruling ideas.

Corporate ownership of the media (in its right-wing or liberal guise), and its state media auxiliary, will not permit news that undermines their political framework (corporate rule of society).

One flaw with Davies' approach is that it can portray the overworked journalist as a noble political agnostic beset by not only right wing flat-earthers but also the green-left.

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, says Davies, are guilty of a PR scam, "cranking up the anxiety" about the danger of global warming and the risks of nuclear energy, stifling what Davies says is a "fascinating dispute" about the safety of nuclear energy.

Well, no — there is no substantive debate, rather a PR offensive by the nuclear industry opportunistically cashing in on the ominous reality of global warming.

Despite this stumble, Davies' diagnosis of the political culture metastasising under the "corporate media system" — a world where "market and commercial values overwhelm notions of democracy and civic culture, a world where depoliticisation runs rampant, and a world where the wealthy few face fewer and fewer threats of political challenge" — has the hands-on authority of a journalist who has had enough of the corruption of "the news" by those rich enough to own the "free" press.

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