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"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky
' Flat Earth News'
There are different ways of criticising the media. One method has just been demonstrated by Nick Davies, Guardian journalist, in his recent book Flat Earth News, which has received a mostly favourable reception in the industry that he excoriates.
There are three broad approaches to media criticism: conspiracy theory, internal debate and institutional critique.
The conspiracy theory accuses certain powerful individuals of acting outside their institutional roles for some nefarious purpose. Thus it would be a conspiracy theory if someone were to accuse the newspaper industry of producing propaganda because of the coordinating role of well-placed freemasons, or to suggest that the television industry systematically discriminates against people of colour because the boards of the relevant companies are controlled covertly by the BNP.
However, it is not a conspiracy theory to accuse car manufacturers of seeking to increase their profits and market share. That is just the institutional function of the corporation - to seek profits and market share. It is the purpose of the company to do so, and the institutional role of the board of directors is explicitly to meet this challenge. The “internal debate” criticism is the opposite of the conspiracy theory. The charge is not that people involved are acting malevolently outside their institutional role, but that they are performing their institutional role (as generally perceived) poorly.
The self-image of mainstream journalists is one of being hostile to power, a counterbalance to dominant elites. Nick Davies represents one variant of the “internal debate”.
His charge is that the modern mass media, particularly print media, are getting worse at the basics of journalism, checking facts independently, verifying the information that is funnelled to them by the PR industry. The costcutting pressures of the modern press, and the expansion of demands (24 hour rolling news, the web) mean that fewer journalists are asked to do more, reducing them from active news gatherers to passive processors of press releases. (Davies backs up his assertions with solid research from Cardiff University.) Journalism has given way to “churnalism”, in his view.
All this is important , no doubt, and worth debating and acting on. But it fades into insignificance against the picture of media self-censorship and propaganda production described in Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's “Propaganda Model” of the Western mass media. Chomsky and Herman construct an institutional critique, demonstrating pervasive and persistent patterns of misrepresentation and bias in favour of the rich and the powerful, in favour of the state and corporate interests.
Chomsky and Herman do not criticise the journalist for spending less time on verification. They criticise the industry as a whole for restricting the range of opinion permitted in the mass media, for outright suppression of unwelcome facts, and - more significantly - for effective self-censorship through emphasis, tone, placement and frequency of repetition.
For example, Peace News's Polina Aksamentova has been tracking the effective suppression of the estimate by the ORB polling agency (used by the BBC, the British Council and other establishment bodies) that over one million Iraqis have died violent deaths as a result of the invasion of Iraq.
The estimate has had a handful of mentions in the press. It has not been “censored” by the government or proprietor, it has been reported in a way that signalled the irrelevance of the story.
Such problems have nothing to do with “churnalism” - they are much more important and harder to correct. Nick Davies's critique, by ignoring the major problems, actually reinforces the propaganda system, by signalling that media criticism can go this far, and no further. This is a service to power.