by David Edwards and Media Lens
May 8, 2003
"In the long run men hit only what they aim at. Therefore, they had better aim high."
In the first two parts of this 3-part series, we showed how systemic media bias constitutes one of many "dangerous ideas" excluded from the media as a result of "collusion between the press and the powerful". We suggested that watered down versions of dissent are used to give the impression of open and honest debate on media bias where in fact there is almost none.
The destruction of freedom of speech in the media is not just another issue. The mass media is not simply a window on the world; it is the means by which information relating to problems and solutions is communicated to the public for consideration. If these means are biased to ignore problems that conflict with the needs of established interests, then society will be unable to solve or even recognise such problems.
Global society may, for example, thrust its collective hand into the flame of climate change and, thanks to the systemic bias of the corporate mass media and corporate politics, leave it there. Last year the US National Academy of Sciences, America's most august scientific body, warned of a global climate holocaust, perhaps within the next ten years. Barely a flicker of concern registered across the media - the story was mentioned in passing and forgotten. Vast fortunes can be built on the back of responses to Iraqi and Korean missile 'threats', but not in response to global warming - the media knows which problems to emphasise.
The same impassivity in the face of catastrophe has of course long been a feature of the media response to Western abuses of humanity in the Third World. Jeremy Vine recently suggested on the BBC's Politics Show that the Anglo-American failure to discover any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq would be "toe-curlingly embarrassing for the politicians" (The Politics Show, BBC1, May 4, 2003). To have launched an illegal invasion, conquest, occupation and devastation of a defenceless Third World country, killing thousands, on a completely false pretext would be merely "embarrassing", according to the BBC. The Politics Show may be broadcast from a bright, high-tech studio - with Vine looking relaxed in dress-down smart-casual - but this is exactly what Bertram Gross had in mind when he talked of "friendly fascism".
Given the reality of systemic media bias, the ban on discussing the problem, and the role of this bias in facilitating vast crimes and catastrophes in the world, to what extent should honest journalists be willing to participate in this system? Would we have participated in the Nazi press? Would we have been willing to write for the Soviet state newspaper, Pravda? Should we be willing to participate in a system that has, for example, buried the truth of genocidal Western sanctions responsible for the deaths of one million Iraqi civilians?
With his usual honesty, Tolstoy discussed the bad consequences of good people participating in bad systems - here, government, but his comments apply equally to the modern mass media:
"It is harmful because enlightened, good, and honest people by entering the ranks of the government give it a moral authority which, but for them, it would not possess. If the government were made up entirely of that coarse element - the violators, self-seekers, and flatterers - who form its core, it could not continue to exist. The fact that honest and enlightened people are found who participate in the affairs of the government gives government whatever it possesses of moral prestige." (Tolstoy, Writings On Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, New Society, 1987, p.192)
While it might be reasonable for honest journalists to enter the ranks of the media, it is surely not reasonable for them to do so without drawing attention to the lethal corruption of the system employing them. As Tolstoy goes on to write, the danger is that such journalists "only say what they are allowed to say, and - by that very silence about what is most important - convey to the public distorted views which just suit the government", or the media system.
We have often admired the work of, for example, George Monbiot, Robert Fisk and Greg Palast (Fisk, in particular, has been an inspiration throughout the Iraq crisis), but their failure to subject the media - including the media entities hosting their work - to sustained systemic criticism is deeply damaging, we believe, for the reasons identified by Tolstoy. The problem is that the public identify these writers as being 'about as good as it gets' - if even they are silent on systemic media corruption, how much of a problem can it be?
Assuming that it is vital to challenge the mainstream media system, and assuming that this system will not itself host such a critique, what options are open to people determined to make such a challenge?
Every Citizen A Reporter - OhmyNews Shows The Way
It seems to us that there is growing evidence to show that dissidents may be in a position, perhaps for the first time, to mount a serious challenge to the stranglehold of state-corporate power on the public mind.
From the early days of the nineteenth century, business and government have been resolutely determined to stamp out the free expression of ideas. The first resort were the seditious libel and blasphemy laws, which essentially outlawed all challenges to the status quo. When these failed to have the desired effect, elites turned to newspaper stamp duty and taxes on paper and advertisements to price radical journals out of the market. Between 1789 and 1815, stamp duty was increased by 266 per cent, helping to ensure, as Lord Castlereagh put it, that "persons exercising the power of the press" would be "men of some respectability and property" (Quoted, James Curran and Jean Seaton, Power Without Responsibility - The Press And Broadcasting in Britain, p.13). The point being that these more "respectable" owners of the press "would conduct them in a more respectable manner than was likely to be the result of pauper management", as Cresset Pelham observed at the time. (Ibid)
This state-orchestrated financial war on the radical working class press was reinforced by the natural refusal of advertisers to support radicalism. In 1817, for example, Cobbett's popular Political Register received a total of three advertisements, although its advertising rates were less than one-hundredth of that of "respectable" rival periodicals.
Liberal hyperbole notwithstanding, the question for those who govern us has always been, not how to liberate the press, but how to contain it. The Lord Chancellor put it succinctly in 1834:
"The only question to answer, and the only problem to solve, is how they [the people] shall read in the best manner; how they shall be instructed politically, and have political habits formed the most safe for the constitution of the country." (Ibid, p.25)
With the industrialisation of the press, and the associated rise in the cost of setting up and distributing national newspapers, economic pressures ensured that the radical press was quickly pushed to the margins. Ben Bagdikian notes that when the first edition of his book, The Media Monopoly, was published in 1983, 50 giant firms dominated almost every mass medium - in 1990, this number had shrunk to just 23.
Nevertheless, today, the internet appears to have raised the possibility that mass media might at last be owned by people other than "men of some respectability and property".
In a recent article in The New York Times, Howard French reports of South Korea:
"For years, people will be debating what made this country go from conservative to liberal, from gerontocracy to youth culture and from staunchly pro-American to a deeply ambivalent ally - all seemingly overnight... But for many observers, the most important agent of change has been the Internet." (French, 'Online Newspaper Shakes Up Korean Politics', The New York Times, March 6, 2003)
South Korea is "wired" - it has fast broadband connections in fully 70 percent of all households. "The internet is so important here," a Western diplomat in Seoul says. "This is the most online country in the world. The younger generation get all their information from the web. Some don't even bother with TVs. They just download the programmes." (Jonathan Watts, 'World's first internet president logs on: Web already shaping policy of new South Korean leader', The Guardian, February 24, 2003)
As elections approached in South Korea last year, more and more people began to get their information and political analysis from internet news services instead of from the country's overwhelmingly conservative newspapers. The most influential internet service, OhmyNews, registered 20 million page views per day around election time last December. In March, the service still averaged around 14 million visits daily, in a country of 40 million people. OhmyNews was started three years ago by Oh Yeon Ho, 38, who says:
"My goal was to say farewell to 20th-century Korean journalism, with the concept that every citizen is a reporter... The professional news culture has eroded our journalism, and I have always wanted to revitalize it. Since I had no money, I decided to use the Internet, which has made this guerrilla strategy possible."
French explains the strategy:
"Although the staff has grown to 41, from the beginning the electronic newspaper's unusual concept has been to rely mostly on contributions from ordinary readers all over the country, who send dispatches about everything from local happenings and personal musings to national politics."
Something comparable happened spontaneously to Media Lens on a much smaller scale during the Iraq crisis - thousands of readers began posting and reading the best and most current reporting on the crisis, together with their views and local experiences, on the Media Lens message board. As a result, readers have often been able to access accurate versions of a story before it appears in the mainstream media, so effectively neutralising much mainstream propaganda. When they see a story reported by the media, it is now reflexive for many readers to check what they have read and seen on the internet - which often reveals key details and perspectives omitted by the mainstream. For example, the famous toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad on April 9 appeared to us, from watching BBC and ITN news, to have been cheered by enormous crowds - we quickly learned that this was not the case from our own message board.
Relying almost solely on ordinary readers in this way, OhmyNews helped generate a huge national movement that resulted in the election of Roh Moo Hyun, a reformist lawyer, last December. Before OhmyNews got involved, the new president had been a relative unknown. After his election, he granted OhmyNews the first interview he gave to any Korean news organization. "Netizens won," Oh says of the election. "Traditional media lost." (Mark L. Clifford and Moon Ihlwan, 'Korea: The Politics of Peril', Business Week, February 24, 2003)
This is a remarkable story of tremendous importance to anyone interested in challenging the state-corporate control of what we know and think about the world. The enormous success of OhmyNews, together with our own humble experience, suggests that internet media relying "mostly on contributions from ordinary readers all over the country" represent a truly potent democratising force.
It seems clear to us that we should all - media consumers and progressive journalists alike - be committing as much of our resources and energy as possible to these kinds of projects. As readers, we casually hand over our money to the corporate establishment, taking it for granted that honest, alternative media should be freely available on the web and presumably need no funding. As journalists, we happily plot our career paths through the least awful newspapers and magazines, reaping the rewards, while averting our eyes from the problems outlined by Tolstoy.
We need to start turning away from corporate mainstream media and towards democratic citizens' media en masse. Howard Zinn gives an idea of what is required:
"Change will come through tumultuous movements around the country, movements that are so strong that whatever party is holding power has to respond. The future will be determined by whether citizens organise and mobilise and create a commotion." (Zinn, Quoted New Statesman, November 1, 1996)
We received the report on OhmyNews from Edward Herman who followed up his mention of the story with this email commenting on how it had been received:
"In a recent ZNet Commentary I mentioned the South Korean Internet success story, OhmyNews, and got little or no feedback from the readers of that article. This puzzles me, as the left in this country is overwhelmed by the power of the mainstream media, and OhmyNews is a startling illustration of the possibilities of the Internet for developing an alternative news source. It is true that South Korea is different, and has, among other differences, 70% of computer-e-mail users on broadband and with a very Internet-oriented culture. But the culture of this country is not stable, broadband is growing in importance, and I can't see any good reason why the SK experience doesn't offer a model that we should be thinking about with great interest and even excitement." (Herman to Media Lens, April 20, 2003)
We totally agree with Ed Herman. For too long, honest journalists have worried too much about being marginalised by the mainstream media - now is the time for readers and journalists to think seriously themselves about marginalising the mainstream as many people in South Korea have done. We need to do everything we can to create genuine alternatives with the power to challenge the corrupt control of the public mind.
Media Lens began in July 2001 with three people working in our spare time without resources. After less than two years of activity we have recently been invited to give interviews by CNN International, BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio Five Live, the New Statesman and others. We currently have 12 subscribers within the BBC receiving our Media Alerts, 12 within the UK government, 5 within the US government, 3 within the Telegraph Group, 2 within the Guardian, and we seem to be familiar to many in the BBC and elsewhere in the media (the BBC's Newsnight editor, George Entwistle, recently suggested as much to us). We were recently invited to dinner (on him) by the Guardian's Political Correspondent, and we regularly receive supportive emails from dissident journalists working inside the Guardian, Observer and Independent.
The point is that this impact, however small, has been achieved with almost zero resources in a media environment dominated by multi-billion pound corporate giants - the implications for what could be achieved with even minimal resources are blindingly obvious to us.
Our hope is to expand Media Lens to provide an alternative to the corporate media. Our webmaster is developing an Active News services - a glorified Media Lens message board whereby netizens (who, as Oh says, are all reporters now) can post their analyses and background sources, and exchange ideas, musings and thoughts on news stories and on the performance of mainstream media.
We also have longer-term plans (dependent on levels of funding) for the development of a Daily Antidote supplying 'instant' email responses to the mainstream media's distortion of emerging stories. Our recent Media Alert: 'Killings At Falluja - The BBC Tells One Side Of The Story' (April 29, 2003 - see Media Alert Archive, www.medialens.org) was a trial run of the kind of short, rapid response we have in mind.
The media, frankly, is not our primary concern. Our concern is to work towards a society in which rational and compassionate ideas are not subject to wholesale suppression simply because they interfere with the fundamentalist 'pragmatism' of maximised profits. We believe that nothing could be more naïve than this version of 'pragmatism'. We believe that human happiness and well-being are naturally rooted in concern for others, and that unrestrained egotism and greed are as devastating to us as individuals as they are to the world around us.
It is all very well to talk of 'netizens' and alternative media, but what is really needed is a truly democratic media rooted in generosity rather than greed, humility rather than self-aggrandising egotism, compassion rather than selfishness, honesty rather than compromised 'lesser of two evil' careerism. As has been said: "What use is a revolution if our hearts stay the same?"
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org