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Review of Newspeak in the 21rst Century

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Posted 01 January 2010 - 05:59 PM

Medialens is a UK based website founded by David Edwards and David Cromwell that critiques media that progressives are inclined to respect such as the Guardian, the Independent and the BBC. Since 2001, it has compiled enough evidence to convince all but the most blinkered that the so called liberal media is incapable of producing honest reporting and analysis in anything but small and ineffectual quantities. If this were the only value of Medialens' work then it may seem rational to ask why it keeps doing it. However, it is not enough to know that the "liberal media" is biased in favor the powerful. The propaganda we are exposed to is relentless, and those who wish to effectively counter it must also be relentless in researching and disseminating facts and ideas that are suppressed. Newspeak in the Twenty First Century - the second book by Edwards and Cromwell - brilliantly counters elite propaganda on a wide range of topics: Climate Change, Venezuela, Iraq and Iran, Israel and Palestine. Have you focussed so much on Climate Change that you feel vulnerable to corporate media spin on Venezuela - or vice versa? This book will quickly arm you with the facts and arguments you seek. It also touches on the question of creating alternatives to the corporate media, and that is what I will focus on below.

In Newspeak, Edwards and Cromwell wrote:

"Why on earth do we, the public, continue looking to corporate media like the Guardian and the Independent for honest analysis and credible solutions? If we can wake up to the irrationality of our own trust and expectations - if we can become dis-illusioned - we can do something different. We can build our own media, our own sources of information, communication and analysis. This, perhaps more than ever before, is entirely possible. As a result, ideas and action can emerge that are uncompromised by the profit motive."[1]

Some important questions are raised:

Is generating "dis-illusionment" a productive aim?

To merely dispel illusions about destructive institutions can lead to apathy and inaction that pose no threat to the institutions. However, Medialens encourages and facilitates (through its message board) public interaction with the media, and, just as importantly, reader interaction among themselves. Newspeak does not just show what the liberal media cannot do; it reveals that we are capable of doing much better.

For years, Medialens subscribers have been filling the inboxes of journalists, editors and pundits with polite and rational challenges about their work. With rare exceptions (which are duly noted in Newspeak), replies to those emails have ranged from abusive to appallingly dumb. Any notion that high level (and extremely well paid) media workers are particularly well informed or logical will be dispelled by reading Newspeak.

To cite only one example from Newspeak, Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news, was asked to justify the BBC's habit of reporting as a fact the US/UK government claim that the invasion of Iraq was carried out to spread democracy. She replied by providing "no less than 2,700 words of quotes filling six pages from George Bush and Tony Blair to prove her point." [2]

In other words, if US and UK government officials say something then it must be true.

Newspeak does much more than provide a collection of jaw dropping replies like these from journalists and editors - though that would be revealing enough. In what may be its most devastating chapter - "Real Men go To Tehran: Targeting Iran"- it shows that even after the corporate media was supposedly "bamboozled" into parroting outrageous lies that led to the war in Iraq (and even pledged , in the case of the New York Times, not to be fooled again), it has learned nothing and is reporting US claims about the "threat" posed by Iran as if the Iraq war never happened. Helen Boaden cannot learn that government officials lie, but, evidently, neither can her entire profession. Non professionals, on the other hand, have much less incentive to suppress logic and compassion in the service of power. This is a tremendous advantage and it is highlighted in Newspeak and, on a daily basis, on the Medialens website.

Is excessive trust in the "liberal" media a serious obstacle to creating one that is independent of the profit motive?

Would progressives get much more serious about sustaining independent media (like Znet or the Real News Network) if they were not appeased by corporate outlets that regularly publish writers like George Monbiot, Robert Fisk among a (literal) handful of others? Ideally, this would be answered through research that defines and estimates the size of the "progressive community" and determines - through polls - how much money it gives to the corporate media and why.

Newspeak does not tell us if this research has been done. The authors assume that trust in the liberal media is a major factor stifling the development of radical alternatives. In their first book, Guardians of Power, they noted that alternative media appear to be more developed in the US than in the UK where the corporate press has been more willing to publish Left dissidents. [3] The fact that Znet, the Real News Network, FAIR and Counterpunch are all based in North America lends some support to this assumption, but are there other factors to consider? How many alternative media outlets can progressives realistically be expected to fund or even read? Are we pooling our resources and combining our efforts effectively enough, and if not, why not? I haven't paid for any corporate media output in years (far later than I care to admit), but I still don't fund, or even browse, countless worthy alternative media websites. [4]

That said, there is no doubt that Newspeak has identified a legitimate concern. When as savvy a media critic as Danny Schechter (who, in fairness, is focussed on the US media) can write glowingly of the BBC then clearly there is a problem. [5] As Edwards and Cromwell advise, we should resist the temptation to "use another country's media as a club with which to beat the media of one's own country" without looking very closely at it. I would add that this is especially important since the Internet has enabled readers easily bypass their own country's media. There is also the danger of being softened up by ravings of the far right media to the point where the lethal mendacity of more centrist outlets (i.e. the "liberal" media) is obscured.

Is liberating the media of the "profit motive" enough?

No doubt, if the media is owned by corporations (legally obliged to maximize profits) and if its most influential customers are advertisers - other corporations - then its capacity for truth telling is disastrously constrained. Government owned media like the BBC will not be any better because politicians are typically members of the elite and beholden to them for electoral success. Moreover; the people appointed to run government media are unrepresentative of the general public and even less accountable to it than politicians. Nevertheless, there is potential in government owned media that should not be ignored as I discuss below.

Edwards and Cromwell observed in Newspeak that the question of "what is your alternative?" has been posed by corporate media editors as a conversation stopper. There are no quick and easy ways to create a large scale non-corporate media in a world dominated by corporate interests - just as there is no quick and easy way to erode corporate power. Those who pose the question of alternatives as a diversion are clever to do so. But it remains a valid question even when asked by people who are not interested in an answer.

In Guardians of Power, Edwards and Cromwell wrote a little more about alternatives. They called for a media that was

1) not for profit
2) independent of advertisers and wealthy donors

However, a media that is not also internally democratic will still be susceptible to elite bias because of what Michael Albert calls the "coordinator class"- workers like journalists, teachers and engineers who, though without great wealth to rationalize, have considerable incentive to support illegitimate authority. Mark Evans, in his review of Newspeak, elaborated on these concerns and on possible solutions. [6]

Edwards and Cromwell are aware of these concerns. They have written on their website

"It is ironic that when politicians hail the urgent need to defend our democratic traditions, their words are generally communicated by giant media corporations, which are essentially totalitarian structures of power."

In Guardians of Power, they expressed hope that Internet bloggers and readers will erode the power of the corporate media and cited evidence that this is beginning to take place. No need to worry much about undemocratic structures of power if there is not much structure at all among countless Internet users. But should we pin our hopes on numerous barely funded and almost atomized websites effectively challenging the corporate media?

Why not look to Government?

Based on the number of Guardian readers, the review of Newspeak that Stephen Poole wrote has probably been read by more people than any other. The review was only 228 words long. To Poole's credit (and the Guardian's), he mentioned in passing (what else could he do in two paragraphs?) the "Guardian's own Chomskygate affair of 2005" as an example of valid criticism made in Newspeak.[7]

Poole criticized Edwards and Cromwell for writing of a "psychopathic corporate media on which they nonetheless rely for factual reference". Actually, many of the sources cited in Newspeak do not come from the corporate media at all, but from sources the media has largely ignored. Among many others, these sources include the Lancet studies on the death toll of the Iraq war, a 2003 Cardiff University report on media bias in the weeks prior to the Iraq war, scholarly sources on the history of Israel, and independent journalists like Dahr Jamail.

However, Poole did touch on a valid point. News gathering, like any research, requires resources as does reaching the massive audiences reached by corporate outlets. So, yes, even people working tirelessly to expose corporate media bias remain somewhat dependent on its journalism.

Government owned media like the BBC are not part of the solution as presently constituted. Newspeak does an exemplary job of revealing that, but I found it striking that it did not discuss reforms. Why not suggest that members of the BBC Trust be elected rather than appointed? Why not suggest that they be randomly selected from among the general public as are juries? Why not look at ways to abolish the BBC's internal hierarchy? As with any reform, they can and will be limited by concentrated power, but they also create expectations and outcomes that undermine that power. Reforms will be difficult to win, but much more so if no one demands them - or worse, scoffs at them by throwing out scare words like "state monopoly" and "bureaucracy". By such logic we should all yawn at the prospect of the BBC (and government owned media in other countries) being taken over entirely by corporate power.

It does not seem wise to remain silent about reforming a media outlet with vast resources that the public already believes should be directly accountable to it. Of course democratizing the media requires democratizing other areas of society at the same time. There are no easy answers, but I feel Newspeak, as great a book as it is for many reasons, should have grappled much more with some tough questions.

NOTES

[1] Newspeak in the 21rst Century p. 81

[2] Ibid p. 31

[3] Guardians of Power; The Myth of the Liberal Media; p. 191

[4] For more discussion along these lines see Tony Christini's essay "Assembling the Future";http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/21697

[5] Znet: Schechter; Behind Blair and the Beeb; http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/10108
See also pg 35 of Newspeak

[6] Znet: Mark Evans; http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/22783

[7] For Poole's review of Newspeak in the Guardian see http://www.medialens.org/bookshop/review_the_guardian.php

"Chomskygate" refers to an article that Emma Brockes wrote about Chomsky that was so dishonest the Guardian apologized for it after being bombarded by reader complaints. See pages 223-233 of Newspeak for details.

Poole wrote that the following quote from Newspeak is an example of the authors being "childishly apocalyptic":

"...the BBC is part of a system of thought control complicit in the deaths of millions of people abroad, in severe political oppression at home, and in the possible termination of human life on this planet".

Newspeak offers considerable evidence that this statement as anything but childish. Predictably enough, the evidence is simply waved away.

Poole also wrote that Edwards and Cromwell "affect to know what is going on 'unconsciously' in journalists' minds".

In fact, the authors of Newspeak assume that most journalists are not liars; that they keep their jobs, and rise through the corporate hierarchy, by internalizing the proper values and assumptions. What does Helen Boaden think when she claims, in all seriousness, that if the US government says something it must be true? What does it say about Pool's thinking and priorities when he dismisses as "childish" a realistic assessment of polities that disproportionately kill and threaten the world's impoverished majority? Psychic powers are not required to answer these questions.
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