Media muckrakers celebrate 10 years

Issue 

When the multi-award-winning journalist John Pilger needed researchers for his latest film,  The War You Don’t See, he turned to David Edwards and David Cromwell. The pair run media-analysing website Media Lens, which turned 10 years old on July 9.

Here, they answer some of the “more interesting” questions posed by their readers, plus a couple from Green Left Weekly’s  Mat  Ward.

Why did you start Media Lens?

The media presents itself as a neutral window on the world. We are to believe that the view we see through the window is “the world as it is”.

It's “All the news that's fit to print” because “Comment is free but facts are sacred”.

What's to challenge?

When you take a closer look at the “window”, you realise it's not a window on the world at all; it's a kind of painting of a window on the world.

And the “painting” has been carefully produced using colours, textures and forms all selected by the media arm of a corporate system that has very clear interests and bias.

And the one issue the media will not seriously discuss is the idea that it is not a neutral window on the world.

This silence protects every deception promoting war, destruction of the climate, and the general subordination of people and planet to profit. It has to be challenged. 

In your 10 years of existence, have you had any success in “correcting the distorted vision of the corporate media”? Can you give us some examples of success stories?

In fact, we don't say we're correcting their distorted vision; we say we're correcting for their distorted vision, like lenses in a pair of glasses…

There are numerous examples of journalists changing their online articles, interview angles and so on in response to emails sent by us and many other media activists.

The real success is that dozens, sometimes hundreds, even thousands, of people are now challenging journalists from a left perspective without any prompting from us.

If we helped encourage that trend, that's tremendous — it has always been a key goal.

Journalists such as Nick Davies of the  Guardian and author of  Flat Earth News, decry the practice of “churnalism”, the publishing of amended press releases as news. However, you argue that the problems with the mainstream media go far deeper than this and that there are systemic issues with the way in which news is collected and disseminated. Could you discuss some of these issues?

Davies' book presented a superficial, holier than Swiss cheese analysis, as you would expect, which meant it was widely hailed as profound and strikingly honest (as a rule, genuinely radical media analysis is ignored).

“Churnalism”, of course, is a problem — journalists are under pressure to write expanded versions of corporate and government press releases, and so on. But we're more interested in the churn itself — who made it? What are their motives?

What are the main causes of the media's poor performance on Afghanistan?

Is it “poor performance” when BAE Systems produces 500 Typhoon fighters rather than 500 ploughshares? The mainstream media are profit-seeking corporate entities that have evolved out of, and depend on, other corporate entities and their political allies.

The system has evolved to maximise profits and to obscure the consequences for people and planet: in Edward Herman's evocative phrase, “to normalise the unthinkable”.

It is a grave error to imagine that the media time and again “fails” to challenge militarism, “fails” to reveal the true costs of war. It is achieving precisely what it has evolved and been designed to achieve.

Strictly speaking, media performance on Afghanistan has been superb. 

How would you rate the liberal media coverage of the recent uprisings taking place across the Middle-East? Are there any glaring holes in the narrative, and are we being informed about the extent of Western support for these regimes?

The gaping hole in media reporting is to explain why the US has been supporting these henchmen with billions of dollars of military hardware.

What is the US motive? What does this tell us about US priorities in the Middle East and elsewhere? What is more important: freedom, democracy, human rights, or control of natural resources and corporate profits?

There have been occasional mentions of how the West has supplied arms to Mubarak and Qaddafi, but these deeper questions are ignored.

In summer 2010, you had a funding application rejected by a big “progressive” trust because some trustees were “not convinced by the strategy of targeting the liberal media”. Many liberals would probably share that criticism. Can you explain why this focus on the so-called liberal media?

Broadly, we think people guided by these positive motivations tend to look to the liberal press for honest opinion — they don't look to a right-wing press more obviously functioning as propaganda organs for power and profit.

We believe that these liberal readers — people motivated to make the world a less brutal place — are being offered a world view that persuades them to accept the status quo, to be complacent, to not push for radical change.

For example, if the right-wing, Tory media are saying it was right to invade Iraq because Saddam Hussein was a lethal tyrant, and the liberal press are saying the invasion was “a mistake”, that means no one is saying that the war was a war crime.

There are examples of quite harsh, even abusive, comments about you — especially from journalists. Why do you think that is? And how do you remain level-headed about feedback like that?

The abuse is a kind of reflexive response to a perceived threat that is clearly making some kind of difference. So when we see these things about us being “Stalinists” and “willy-wavers” we enjoy them and feel encouraged.

It would be far more depressing to be ignored — the fate of most web-based media projects.

Individual journalists get upset because we're challenging their self-image, their egos. For example, mainstream media leftists invest heavily in an idea of themselves as fearless speakers of truth to power — their career, their whole sense of themselves, is rooted in that idea.

When we point out the limits of what they are willing and able to say, it's a painful blow to their egos — hence the negative reaction. 

Australia has a TV program called  Media Watch  that highlights such shocking media abuses as misspelt captions and headlines. I think you've mentioned that people have wanted to set up international branches of Media Lens. Have you had any such offers from Australia?

Yes, a couple of different people contacted us a few years ago for advice on  setting up something similar to Media Lens. We put them in contact. As far as we  know, it never got off the ground.

What’s surprising is the disconnect between  the tiny number of people willing to do this kind of work and the huge number of  people who want to read it and who are willing to support it.

You concentrate a lot on advertising. Have you thought of doing a media alert on the directorships of the people who sit on the boards of media companies?

That's a very good point. Yes, we have written about the directorships and wider industry, financial and other establishment links of those who run or oversee  the BBC, the Guardian and The Independent. The people who  have graced the Guardian Media Group Board and/or the Scott Trust (which owns  the paper) are linked to the corporate media, the Labour Party, Cadbury Schweppes, Tesco,  KPMG Corporate Finance, the chemicals company Hickson International Plc, Fenner  Plc, the investment management company Rathbone Brothers Plc, global investment  company Lehman Brothers, global financial services firm Morgan Stanley and the  Bank of England.

As for the BBC, its stated commitment to fairness, impartiality and balance is supposed to be ensured by a panel of establishment worthies known as “the BBC Trust”. It is stuffed with people with strong links to the main political parties, banks, industry, commerce, property and corporate news media.

We are supposed to believe that media organisations that are embedded in these establishment and corporate networks are *not* compromised in their ability or motivation to provide honest, challenging coverage of a world dominated by these same powerful interests.

[To sign up Media Lens’s free media alerts, visit www.medialens.org .]

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